May 25, 2010

USA: For 77 Years, a Regular at Sardi’s

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NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / Life & Style / May 25, 2010

By Manny Fernandez

Eating lunch at Sardi’s last Tuesday, William Herz did not have to order coffee. It was brought to him, right when he wanted it (in the middle of his meal, not after) by a waiter who served it in a white mug that no one else but Mr. Herz drinks from.

William Herz, 93, with Agron Metis, a waiter at Sardi’s, where Mr. Herz first ate as a teenager. He later performed in the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast.  Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Mr. Herz is the only patron of one of the best-known restaurants in the world who gets his own cup: He is 93 years old, and he prefers using a mug with an easy-to-hold handle. After lunch on Tuesday, the mug was washed and returned to its usual place, on the shelf of a cabinet in the coat room, because the management and staff at Sardi’s know Mr. Herz will be back.

He always comes back.

For about 77 of his 93 years, Mr. Herz has eaten at Sardi’s. The theater district restaurant opened at its current location, at 234 West 44th Street, in March 1927. Mr. Herz said he remembered first going there about six years later, in 1933, an out-of-town teenager in awe of Broadway.

When he was a drama student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, then called the Carnegie Institute of Technology, he went to Sardi’s. When he started working at the Mercury Theater with Orson Welles after graduating from college in 1937, he went to Sardi’s. When he performed on Mr. Welles’s panic-spreading radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” in 1938, he went to Sardi’s.

“I go to other restaurants, but I don’t feel at home at other restaurants,” said Mr. Herz, who turns 94 in August and typically eats at Sardi’s about twice a week. “It’s comfortable. I’ve had parties there. My mother and father’s 50th wedding anniversary was upstairs. My father’s 95th birthday party was upstairs. I’ve grown accustomed to its space.”

In a city that is forever changing, some people — stubbornly, blessedly — never do: they eat and drink at the same place at the same tables on the same days for a very long time, and to merely call them regulars seems an insult.

Mr. Herz used to go to opening-night Broadway shows with Sardi’s longtime hatcheck girl, Renee Carroll, and found his apartment on Central Park South in the 1950s after she told him that a unit was available in her building. He usually goes to lunch once a week with the waiter who served him on Tuesday, Jeremy Wagner, 35. They go to a diner on West 57th Street on Fridays, a routine they started about three years ago because Mr. Wagner’s shift changed and they never saw each other.

“Just like two friends,” Mr. Wagner said. “We just happen to be, you know, 60 years apart.”

Mr. Herz has been going to Sardi’s longer than any employee has been working there, and he is one of the few patrons old enough to remember Vincent Sardi Sr., the restaurant’s founder, who retired in 1947 and died in 1969 at age 83.

In recent years, he has had lunch at Sardi’s on Tuesdays, usually sitting at table No. 4, a corner table in the main dining room, the autographed caricatures of Antonio Banderas and Liza Minnelli above his head. On occasion, the restaurant has made the mistake of sitting another party at the table before Mr. Herz has arrived, an error that has been corrected when those at table No. 4 have been asked, ever so politely, to move to another table.

“He’s a treasure,” said Sean Sardi Ricketts, 37, a co-owner of the restaurant, the great-grandson of Vincent Sardi Sr. and the grandson of Vincent Sardi Jr., who took over the restaurant when his father retired and helped make it a Broadway institution. “He’s not even a customer on Tuesdays. He’s like part of the family.”

William Herz, left, at Sardi’s last Tuesday for lunch with members of the Dutch Treat Club, a 105-year-old organization of writers, artists and performers that he once belonged to.  Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Sardi’s has long been at the center of Broadway life — the idea for the Tony Awards was born there over lunch, according to Vincent Sr.’s 1953 book — and Mr. Herz said it was only natural for it to become the center of his life as well. And there is another reason he has been returning to Sardi’s for roughly 77 years.

Shortly before a play he had produced closed after just a week at the Lyceum Theater in 1940, Mr. Herz was eating at Sardi’s when Vincent Sr. asked him to join him for dessert and coffee. “And he said to me, ‘I know your show is closing,’ ” Mr. Herz recalled. “He said, ‘I just want you to keep coming to Sardi’s, and don’t worry about the bill.’ So I burst into tears, and that’s why I’ve been a customer of Sardi’s for so long. I was touched and moved by it, and I thought it was damn nice of him.”

These days, Mr. Herz picks up his own bill.

Hundreds of theater, film and television personalities have had their caricatures up on the walls of Sardi’s, but Mr. Herz is not one of them. Like most New Yorkers who regularly dine in what is perhaps the restaurant capital of the world, he is not as famous as the place where he eats lunch. He was an extra, occasional actor, stage manager, casting director and producer on Broadway through the 1930s and 1940s, and then worked for years at a ticket agency next door, naturally, to Sardi’s.

\He is an unpretentious sort who takes the bus to and from Sardi’s and who eats only half of his roasted chicken, because he likes to take the rest home to feed to his dog, Diego. As he sits with his friends at table No. 4, the tourists sitting nearby admiring the caricatures have no idea that the old, frail man in the corner could tell them a story or two about some of the stars on the walls. He does not boast about his career and the theatrical history he took part in — he is the last living cast member of Mr. Welles’s “War of the Worlds” adaptation — but, if asked, he will dish.

There was the time when Mr. Herz was serving in the military during World War II and helped organize a show in Miami for thousands of servicemen featuring Rita Hayworth. “She arrived at Servicemen’s Pier and took off her mink coat — it was a chilly night — and she had a gingham dress on,” he said. “I looked at her and I said: ‘You’re a pinup. Why are you in a gingham dress?’ A housewife would wear a gingham dress in the kitchen. I took her back to the Roney Plaza. She got into an evening gown. She didn’t speak to me the rest of the evening.”

Mr. Herz was born in Detroit in 1916. His father was a corset salesman. “That’s how he met my mother,” Mr. Herz said. “My mother was born in Cleveland, and he was in Cleveland selling corsets.” His voice has a deep, stage-worthy gravitas — the way Mr. Welles’s voice did — and though he walks slowly and uses a hearing aid in his right ear, his memory is as sharp as his wit.

Recently, Mr. Herz went to see the play “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” with friends. “At the intermission, I said, ‘Goodbye,’ ” Mr. Herz said. “I think that when you get to be a certain age, you don’t have the patience to sit through some of this stuff.”

Mr. Herz is known as something of a curmudgeon — “the king of kvetching,” a friend said of him recently — and one of his favorite subjects upon which to kvetch, it turns out, is the restaurant he has been coming to for nearly eight decades. He said Sardi’s served a crabmeat sandwich that he loved, and then it disappeared from the menu. And he wonders aloud about the attentiveness of some of the wait staff. “One of the hardest things in the world is to get a check at Sardi’s,” he said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Herz ordered a crabmeat sandwich (they brought it back). He was sitting not at his usual table but at the back of the restaurant, because he was eating with a group of friends, several members of a 105-year-old organization of writers, artists and performers that he once belonged to, the Dutch Treat Club.

Mr. Herz chatted with Sumner Jules Glimcher, 85, a documentary filmmaker and professor emeritus at New York University.

They talked about the war. Mr. Glimcher was shot in the Battle of the Bulge. “I fought the battle of Miami Beach,” Mr. Herz replied. They talked about the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Mr. Glimcher said he was 14 when he heard it, and it scared him to bits. “I had done Orson’s part in the dress rehearsal,” Mr. Herz told him. “And after I did it, I thought to myself, ‘Nobody’s going to believe this in a million years.’ Boy, was I wrong.”

As people left and the lunch was ending, Mr. Wagner, the waiter, returned to the table. He was going on break. He shook the hand of Mr. Herz. At Sardi’s, goodbyes are unnecessary for Mr. Herz. “See you Friday,” Mr. Wagner told him.  [rc]

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company