'Mayor of Broadway' retires to the great theatre in the sky

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When you are next in New York, book a table at Sardi's on West 44th Street and bask in the atmosphere of a restaurant that for decades was a point of pilgrimage for all lovers of the boards of Broadway. The food may only be so-so, but the ghosts of America's theatrical past will be vying for floor space with your waiter.

The myriad caricature drawings of dancers, directors, agents and actors who once barged through it doors still hang on the walls, and a sense of faded glory persists.

Missing, however - for now and for ever - will be the boss himself. Vincent Sardi Junior died on Thursday, aged 91, in a Vermont hospital of complications from a urinary tract infection.

New York is mourning not merely a restaurateur, but a man whose connections to its theatre district were so deep that for years he carried the unofficial title of the Mayor of Broadway. Fanciful though it may be, it is a position that no person is likely to hold again.

It was Mr Sardi who toiled every day to arrange the seating, not just to keep theatre's sworn enemies from getting too close, but more importantly to make sure actors desperate for work ended up near an agent, producer or director who could give them a break.

Mr Sardi would make a point of seeing every show when it opened, and insisting that each of his chief waiters did so too. It was important that they recognised everyone who came in the door, even if they were down on their luck.

The place, as The New York Times recalled yesterday, was once described by Richard Maney, a one-time all-important press agent on Broadway, as a "club, mess hall, lounge, post office, saloon and marketplace of the people of the theatre".

It was Mr Sardi's father, Vincent Sardi Senior, who opened the original restaurant, in a basement also on 44th Street, back in 1921. He called it the Little Restaurant, but its customers took to calling it by his own name.

When the building it occupied was razed in 1927, Vincent Snr moved it to its current location. His son took over in 1947.

While the famous were not neglected, Mr Sardi's concern for struggling actors was famous. "You've got to be awfully careful with actors out of work," he once said. "They're very sensitive about their fading prestige, and I know darn well they scrimp to come in here, on the chance they'll be considered for a part.

"Boosting an actor's ego with a table in a good location is simply my way of giving him a pat on the back."

One table near the front was always on hold for Mr and Mrs Ira Katzenberg. They were not actors, and in fact had no direct role in the industry at all. However, by the start of the 1950s, they had attended every Broadway opening over 30 years, a commitment Mr Sardi respected.

The nostalgia spurred by Mr Sardi's death is just that, however. Its heyday is long since gone, with most tables occupied nowadays not by actors, but tourists from Britain and the Midwest. Few remember that Mr Sardi sold the place in 1985, even though it foundered without him and he resumed ownership in 1991.

However, as his health declined, he visited less and less often, handing daily control to a partner, Max Klimavicius, who continues to manage it today.

"This is a loss to the restaurant and the Broadway community," said Mr Klimavicius, who knew Mr Sardi for more than three decades. "He was a true gentleman, a one of a kind."