As The New York Times put it in 1977: “In a very unique manner, Toots Shor for several decades was the mirror of a special excitement and quality that set New York apart from all other cities. He was a magnet around which flowed many of the special streams of New York’s greatness”.
In short, Toots Shor was a New York icon.
The documentary movie “Toots” is a provocative, loving and unmistakably authentic portrait of the legendary Manhattan saloonkeeper – the quintessential story of a self-made, unapologetic American man and a fascinating look at the evolution of New York City from Prohibition to its post-WWII heyday, through the city’s – and the man’s – devastating decline in the 1970s. Narrated by “Toots” himself, with audio from an oral history recorded 2 years before his death, and directed by his granddaughter, who gracefully captures Toots’ unique charm as well as his gruff sense of humor, “Toots” taps the heart-felt emotions of Toots’ friends, family and journalists as they take you on a journey to a lost time and place. Artfully weaving beautifully shot original interviews and “Toots'” oral history with a cache of spectacular archival photos and footage that span 40 years, “Toots” brings to life this mythic figure, revealing as much about the city and era Shor embodied as it does about the man by exploring the social, cultural and political forces that shaped both his dramatic rise and fall. Born poor in South Philadelphia, the only Jewish kid in a predominantly Irish-Italian neighborhood, Toots Shor learned at a young age how to fend for himself. He arrived in New York in 1930, a gambler and street fighter determined to make his mark. He quickly found work as a bouncer for mob-run speakeasies and gained a reputation for his charm and fearlessness. His claims to fame were flattening revenue agents and standing up to mobsters, and he quickly became fast friends with the sports and show business personalities (as well as some of the mobsters) who would be his close friends for the rest of his life. As Gay Talese reminds us, E.B. White once wrote, “no one should come to New York unless he is willing to be lucky,” and “Toots” understood this all too well. After a run of bad bets (Toots had a penchant for gambling that once cost him $100,000 on the Billy Conn-Joe Louis fight in 1947), Toots wound up broke in 1936. “I was walking the streets, but I had a dream, to build a place of my own,” Toots recalls. And soon his luck changed. In 1940, backed by some savvy businessmen who saw his star rising, he opened his namesake restaurant at 51 West 51st Street. From the moment he poured the first drink, Toots Shor’s was the home-away-from-home for scores of America’s most illustrious athletes, writers, entertainers, politicians and gangsters. For the next thirty years, “Toots Shor was one of the figures who made New York the Big Apple. He was the city’s, perhaps the world’s, best known self-styled saloonkeeper,” recalls CS newsman Walter Cronkite. And, as Pete Hamill recalls, “Toots’ was a part of the imagination of people who had never walked in there. They knew it existed the way they knew the Statue of Liberty existed.” “Toots” firmly believed that “a saloonkeeper is the most important person in a community,” and he built not just a saloon, but a community unlike any other. At Toots’, “drinking hard” was usually required, and loyalty, friendship, or “palship” as “Toots” called it, was paramount. His saloon cut across class lines, since for Toots, “class” was judged by how loyal, decent and honest a person was, and because of his own humble background, he respected above all those who, like he, came from nothing. He revered athletes and sportswriters above all, and the feeling was mutual; Toots’ was the ultimate club house. On any given night, on one side of the crowded dining room of TOOTS SHOR’s could be Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, on the other side, the notorious mob boss Frank Costello. The most coveted tables were reserved for Toots’ closest friends – Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Frank Gifford, Jackie Gleason. These giants of American culture and sports found in Toots a unique sense of comfort, somewhere between his trademark bear hug and relentless insults. This was a time when the athlete’s paycheck matched that of the sportswriter, which matched that of the laborer, and Toots brought them all together over a drink. Unlike today’s world of velvet ropes and VIP rooms, regular folks were welcome at Shor’s, where rich and poor, famous and unknown would rub elbows at the bar. “Toots” reached great heights – he knocked back cocktails with five presidents, golfed with royalty, and made millions. In the end he would lose it all. By the late ‘60s, New Yorkers were moving to the suburbs, TV was replacing urban nightlife and the civil rights and feminist movements were changing the focus of the nation. TOOTS SHOR’s hadn’t bothered to adjust to the social and cultural changes. And Toots, never a good businessman and generous to a fault, ran into trouble with the IRS. His old mob pals no longer in power as the drug trade ousted the old bootlegging and gambling kings of the 40s and 50s, Toots had no choice but to sit back and watch as the IRS shut his restaurant down in 1971, after more than 30 years at the top. In 1977 he died, broke.
“Toots” emerges, intact and unique, in this portrait by his granddaughter, Kristi Jacobson. Directed with grace and skill that reveal a keen understanding of the art of storytelling, the film is deeply moving and at times, refreshingly fun, featuring delightfully candid, lively and intimate interviews with legends of journalism and sport, among them Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Frank Gifford, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Nick Pileggi, David Brown, Peter Duchin, Maury Allen, Dave Anderson, Bill Gallo, Joe Garagiola, Sidney Zion, Gay Talese, and Gianni Russo.