Friday, February 19, 2016

The Lights of Fourteenth Street

Those who follow my blog know that I love acting as my own dramaturge on every show I do.  I am a research enthusiast and love discovering source materials and real-life people and places that have inspired writers whose works I undertake. So of course, when I landed the part of Rudolph Reisenweber, majordomo of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant in "Hello, Dolly!," I dug around and have discovered the actual New York restaurant that inspired the elegant eatery that is the centerpiece of the show.

Vintage postcard showing Lüchow's dining room
Lüchow's, a popular German restaurant and biergarten, was a fixture on Irving Place for a century.  The Union Square area was, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a vibrant cultural center, with concert halls including Steinway Hall and the Academy of Music, as well as theaters and music halls.  From its earliest days, musicians flocked to Lüchow's for its hearty, authentic German cuisine and for the Würzburger and Pilsner beers for which founder August Lüchow was the exclusive agent.  Live music was always part of the Lüchow's experience, as was elaborate decor, including stained glass skylights, Tiffany windows, mahogany paneling... a fitting inspiration for the lush interior of the Harmonia Gardens.

Famous visitors regularly held court at Lüchow's, enjoying sauerbraten and Wiener schnitzel, among them iconic actress Lillian Russell; Diamond Jim Brady, who eventually had an entire private dining room created in his honor; composer Victor Herbert and his associates founded ASCAP, the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers, at a corner table; in later years, musical greats like Oscar Hammerstein were regulars at the eatery, and Gus Kahn wrote the song "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" over bratwurst and cabbage.  Even Teddy Roosevelt raised a stein of beer or two amidst the fashionable New Yorkers at Lüchow's.

Lüchow's facade in the 1930s
The waiters at Lüchow's may not have done fouetté turns and Russian splits like those at the Harmonia Gardens, but they were famous for their efficiency, expert knowledge of the menu, and their wonderful recommendations to those patrons not familiar with German delicacies.  The brisk service, hearty and delicious food, authentic beer flowing from the taps, genteel surroundings and sentimental Viennese music all created an atmosphere of gemütlichkeit--cozy, jolly good cheer.  Lüchow's remained in operation until 1982 (there is an NYU dorm now on the site where it stood), but its place in the life of legendary New York history remains.  Even some of the rib-sticking, delicious dishes can be recreated via recipes that have survived the decades.  Click here for instructions on how to make Lüchow's famous sauerbraten!

What does all this do to inform the world of "Hello, Dolly!" and my character of Rudolph?  Well, a lot!  Rudolph brings to the world of the Harmonia Gardens the only flourish of authentic German style and color; he is, in a way, an embodiment of homage to Lüchow's.  Also, learning about 14th Street and the lively scene of music, good food and entertainment that it once was gives me a sense of the world that surrounds the Harmonia Gardens, and just how special it might be for patrons to spend an evening within its walls--and how devoted its staff would be to favorite guests like Dolly Levi.  Knowing that Lüchow's waitstaff was famous for efficiency and expertise helps me and the other waiters in our imaginary restaurant summon up an air of pride and finesse that certainly will make our performances sparkle with energy and period charm.  For more about Lüchow's, I recommend this wonderful blog post, which gives more of its colorful history and fun info.  Gut Essen!  

No comments:

Post a Comment