Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Old New York: Catherine Russell's Devoted to Her Life of 'Crime'

Catherine Russell and Richard Shoberg star in the Old New York production of Perfect Crime
By Mitch Broder

“Perfect Crime” has been running for 25 years, which might seem like a trivial feat if, say, the same person had been starring in it for 25 years.

Which she has.

Tough break. But a play’s a play. It could run forever and not get crabby. A person’s a person, and most persons can’t play another person 10,000 times. So it’s no surprise that the “Perfect Crime” star holds the Guinness record for Most Performances of a Theatre Actor in the Same Role.

Which she broke four years ago.

Catherine Russell created Margaret Thorne Brent in 1987 and has kept her alive since then in every scheduled performance but four. She missed three to go to her brother’s wedding and one to go to her sister’s wedding. She was supposed to miss two but her understudy got sick and Catherine was the understudy for the understudy.

Catherine Russel answers the phone in the Old New York production of Perfect Crime
The photos of Catherine are courtesy of John Capo
 Public Relations. At the top, she's with Richard Shoberg.
Tonight she appeared in performance number 10,281 (though, for her, only performance number 10,277). If she were to repeat all of her performances in a row, she would be onstage for about two and a half years, and she would probably do it without a lunch break.

There are eight performances a week, so, naturally, Catherine sees the job as part-time. She also teaches English at Baruch College, teaches acting at NYU, gives acting lessons at the theater, and manages the theater. In her time off, she appears in other plays and in movies. And every Sunday she goes to church.

The schedule may sound unnatural, but Catherine makes it sound the opposite: She wants to act, teach, and manage, so she acts, teaches, and manages. “I like what I do,” she told me. “I say to my students … ‘I’m happy being here with you.’ That’s why I think I don’t get sick. People are prone to getting sick when they’re unhappy.”

I accepted an invitation to see ‘Perfect Crime’ on its anniversary, even though it meant that I couldn’t get my money back if Catherine didn’t show. I had never seen it. Maybe it’s because it has moved eight times and I couldn’t keep up, which, as it turned out, I also couldn’t do when I saw it.

“Perfect Crime,” by Warren Manzi, is a murder mystery, which portrays a murder, or not, at its start, which is when I fell behind. I admit this not because I’m honest but because I’m not alone. The theater has printed a flier with answers to 17 plot questions, which was obviously put together for people besides me. Or not.

On the set of the Old New York theater performance of Perfect Crime
But I didn’t care. The plot can be a challenging diversion, but Catherine is the show. She owns the stage. And she looks really good in black. I found myself so fixed on her performance that, by the end of the play, I didn’t even have any questions, let alone any answers.

This was notable because Margaret Brent is not someone I’d need to meet. She is a therapist who could benefit from anger management therapy. She is in your face all the time and does many unpleasant things, and yet you like her. It’s just like being with a real person.

Still, that person is never quite as fascinating as Catherine Russell. After a nice chat I still couldn’t figure out how she’s played that part so long. She said that she never approaches her  performance as if it’s just a job. Yet she can dash from the box office to the stage at show time as if it’s just a job.

The view outside the theater of the Old New York show Perfect Crime
But I did believe that, at least in her case, both are true. Catherine Russell is a person who does what has to be done.

When the play needed a home to stay alive, she not only built one but got Snapple to sponsor it, creating the Snapple Theater Center. When the center needed another tenant, she got “The Fantasticks,” creating a single stop for the world’s longest-running musical and New York’s longest-running play.

“I’m lucky,” she said. “I’m blessed. When you’re lucky and blessed, you show up.” And that was what she had to do one day when I cluelessly called close to curtain.

Yet even then she was polite. She took the call to tell me herself.

“I’m gonna go shoot somebody now,” she said sweetly. “I’ll be thinking of you.”

Actress and World Record Holder Cahterine Russell stars in the Old New York production of Perfect Crime since 1987

Catch Catherine in “Perfect Crime” at the Snapple Theater Center, 1627 Broadway, at 50th Street, in New York City.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Signing Off: For Memorial Day, Dreams That Are Now Memories

The Chocolate Library was a New York dining destination that just never took off
By Mitch Broder

Maybe New Yorkers just weren't ready for the concept of borrowing chocolate.

Or maybe they were, and they just couldn't trust themselves enough to bring it back.

Either way, though it may have seemed like a concept that was overdue, The Chocolate Library didn't get enough people coming in to check things out.

On this somewhat appropriate occasion, we remember The Chocolate Library and certain other city establishments that you may never forget. We don't judge them. Very much. All we do is to gently suggest that their closings may have had something to do with their names.

Whether or not compelled by its name, The Chocolate Library really handed out chocolates. They were free samples, of course, but they were very satisfying. The chocolates for sale were displayed on walls of sort of library-like shelves. It was all a little bit confusing. It was easiest just to eat the free sample.

But it's never good to lose a chocolate source, so we mourn the Library's passing.

As for the places below, well, our mourning level varies.

While those dining in New York can still find Macaroni Macaroni's macaroni at a few pizzerias, they will no longer find it at the Macaroni Macaroni store.

Macaroni Macaroni's macaroni is still at a couple of pizzerias, but Macaroni Macaroni itself may have been too much of a good thing. Especially with its sign complex that managed to communicate "macaroni" not just two, but six and one-third times.

N.Y. Fresh Bites just wasn't meant to be around as an Old New York establishment.

"N.Y. Fresh Bites" sounded like something that you might get from a New York rat...

Dining in New York will no longer include Go For A Bite, Belgian Waffles fans are out of luck.

... and "Go For a Bite" didn't sound like waffles. Besides, everyone was going for a rub.

Another place for dining in New York shuttered it's doors, say goodbye to Octavia's Porch

"Octavia's Porch" suggested a place that would be too cold in the winter...

Happy as the snowman mural might have you made you, 99 Below was not long for New York City

... and "99 Below" suggested a place that would be too cold even in the summer.

Yet another New York City pizza place that couldn't be monsterous enough.

Monster Pizzas might have had at least a somewhat acceptable name...

Maybe it was the actual Monsters on the pizza that doomed this spot for dining in New York

... if it hadn't tried to convince you that its slices were actual monsters.

SoHo Living was too pricey for most Old New Yorkers

There simply aren't enough people left who can afford Soho Living...

Good Sense was another New in New York establishment that just couldn't make it.

... and there simply aren't enough people left who know that they need good sense.

Vintage New York thanks them all for the memories.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

New in New York: Sour Tastes Sweet at Treat Petite

Treat Petite is a new place for Dining in New York

By Mitch Broder

You walk along the boardwalk, then you step up to the counter, then you order some milk with bacteria and yeast.

That’s how you know it’s summer.

The corner location for this New in New York treat makes it a great stop for anyone seaking a Treat Petite.border=
At least that’s one way, in the West Village, where you can approximate that experience at a new café by the enigmatic name of Treat Petite. Your treat is frozen kefir, which is just like frozen yogurt except that you can find frozen yogurt in a lot more places than you can find frozen kefir.

And actually, it’s not just like frozen yogurt, which is why Rovshan Danilov and Arthur Simonyan saw their entrepreneurial future in it. Kefir is tangy, which is to say piquant, which is to say sour, but in a good way. Freeze it and turn it into key lime pie, and you can startle even Mister Softee.

Kefir is popular in places like Arthur and Rovshan’s homelands of, respectively, Russia and Azerbaijan. It is indeed made by fermenting milk with bacteria and yeast, in kefir grains. It’s supposed to be good for digestion. And like most things, it’s made more acceptable to the American palate by the addition of fruity flavors, chocolatey bits, and mini marshmallows.

The Classic dish that will purse your lips at it's tartness is a signature at Treat Petite.
Arthur began handing me samples before I even stepped up to the counter, which you do on a floor that is indeed reminiscent of a boardwalk. He first gave me the Classic, which showcased the tanginess, or the piquancy, or the sourness, of kefir. It made me want more, which was something I didn’t need to worry about.

He gave me the pomegranate, which blended kefir tang with pomegranate tang. He gave me the caramelized pineapple and the strawberry-banana, which tasted like pineapples and strawberry-bananas. Then he gave me the Key Lime Pie — kefir with key-lime custard and graham-cracker dust — which proved that there’s a sound reason for this place to exist.

The Key Lime Pie is one of the Kefir Concoctions, which are combinations that further reveal the star ingredient’s versatility. It is an explosion of flavors, and exploding flavors are getting hard to come by. It induces you not only to keep spooning it but also to want to spoon the others.

Step up onto the Boardwalk and place your order from the Treat Petite menuThe others include the PB&J, made of peanut-butter kefir and grape jelly, the Walnuts & Syrup, made of kefir and walnuts in maple syrup, and the Balsamic Strawbs & Cream, made of kefir, balsamic strawbs, and whipped cream. They’re “strawbs” because the menu blackboard’s too small.

I didn’t try any toppings besides the Key Lime graham dust, but there are a couple of dozen to add to your flavor explosion. Along with the conventional nuts, Gummy Bears, and Oreo crumbs, there are mango, kiwi, lychee, Cap’n Crunch, halvah, and Japanese rice cake.

The café has other delicacies, including crepes and waffles, but it is resolutely built on frozen kefir. That’s why the owners are wisely at work perfecting a chocolate frozen kefir. It’s tricky to balance chocolatey and tangy, Arthur explained: “We’re trying to find the best middle between those two.”

People of all ages love these New in New York treats at Treat Petite.
Miss Piper Miller with the S'mores Crepe.

Try a little something at Treat Petite, 61 Grove Street, at Seventh Avenue South, in New York City.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Vintage New York Presents: Meet Your Mama in Manhattan

Dining in New York could always use a little more of Mom's Cooking
By Mitch Broder

If you need to be reminded to remember your mom on Sunday, for shame. But walk around the city and you'll be reminded.

Having just established that Manhattan has its fair share of Joints, I thought this the time to establish that it has its fair share of Moms. That includes, of course, Mamas as well as at least one Mamma, though apparently no Mothers, despite what you would think.

Most are in the form of restaurants, which poses a dilemma if you honor the life rule "Never eat at a place called Mom's." But this is New York. Here you break rules. Here you eat where you want. Though I'd still honor the companion rule "Never play cards with a man called Doc."

Here's a sampling of Manhattan Moms and Mamas, including the Mamma. It's not quite all of them.  But I know that the ones I left out will forgive me.

Everybody thinks their mom's cooking is Mama's Famous, but this New York restaurant truly is famous.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner! Burgers, pizza, gyro! Free delivery! Grade A! Now that's Mama! Of course, it may not be your Mama. But if it's not, there's always Mama's Famous Ristorante, on the Upper West Side. Mama's Famous Specials include two hot dogs and a soda for $4.75. And needless to say, her kitchen's open all day.

As for Mom's Cooking, at the top, it's across Eighth Street in the Village from Pop's of Brooklyn, so you can see Pop without springing for more fare. Mom serves soups, salads, sandwiches, and stews, while Pop makes hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, Buffalo chicken, and cheesesteaks. Just like at home.

Mama Sbarro's vs. Sbarro is there a difference when dining in New York

According to the signage, Mama Sbarro's in Times Square is also a just plain Sbarro, which led me to ponder the distinction between a Sbarro and a Mama Sbarro's. Evidently, a Mama Sbarro's has more Italian dishes, though when I called the company and asked what the difference was, the woman I spoke to said: "Nothing."

Mamma Mia draws Mama fans from all over the world to see this New in New York show.

The rare triple-M Mamma is represented by the rare quadruple-M Broadway musical "Mamma Mia!" This Mamma's been running twelve years and has been loved by millions. ABBA, of course, is an acronym for the pop group's members, but it also means father, which means that, once again, Mom and Pop are together.

Wow Mama even makes empanadas at the aptly titled New York restaurant Empanada Mama

As a rhyme purist, I believe that this restaurant needs to be either Empanama Mama or Empanada Mada. But clearly my beliefs don't matter, because the place, in Hell's Kitchen, gets packed. Along with the eponymous pastries, it serves Mama's Meals, which include Palomilla a la Plancha and Chuleta Empanizada. Let's see Mama rhyme those.

Don't Tell Mama will have listening to someone tickle the ivories while dining at this New York restaurant.

As the sign suggests, Don't Tell Mama began as a piano bar. It has since added a restaurant. It's on Restaurant Row, and is not to be confused with La MaMa, the downtown theater center, or MoMA, the uptown art museum, not to mention Mama's Food Shop on East Third Street.

Looking for Chinese dining in New York?  Look no further than Charlie Mom

One of the managers of Charlie Mom told me that in China, Charlie Mom means "thousand-mile horse." Fortunately, this Charlie Mom is in the West Village, where Mom still means Mom, more or less.

Hunting for American Chinese food will lead you to Charley Mom on the Upper East Side of New York City

I assume that in China, Charley Mom means the same as Charlie Mom. Either way, Charley Mom is on the Upper East Side. Both Moms serve good old-fashioned American Chinese food, but unlike you and your mom, they are not related.

Japanese dining in New York can be found in many place, but a touch of Mom can be found at Momoya.

At Momoya, they told me that Momo means "peach" and not "Mom-o." Then again, there's a good chance your mom-o is a peach. If so, you could take her here for Japanese food. It's on the Upper West Side. And like a good mom, it serves warm chocolate cake.

And for the Pops in the crowd, don't forget to chow down on a cheesesteak at Pop's of Brooklyn

On Mother's Day remember Mom, but don't forget Pop.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Strangely New York: City's Best Pitch at World's Smallest Store

Don't blink or you'll miss the World's Smallest Store that is found in New York City.
By Mitch Broder

Parks asked me to tell you that he wept when he got respect from a bro, so I’m telling you.

He got respect from a bro. And then he wept.

People in the suburbs of New York City have closests bigger then this store.
“It’s the first time I’ve been validated and accepted by bros,” he sobbed, his face in his hand. “The guy was strong enough to be a cop, and he liked me. I never got picked for sports. I never got picked for kickball.”

It was all too much. He collapsed to the floor. But he kept talking into his mike.

This was just one moment of drama from a life lived on the edge, or at least on the stoop, at 131 Christopher Street. It’s the stoop that leads to an indentation called World’s Smallest Store, but more engagingly, it’s the stoop that’s the stage to World’s Unlikeliest Storekeeper.

He gives his first name as Parks are Zoos for Trees. He gave his last name to me as Zimmerman, but later retracted that. He speaks into a microphone hooked up to a little guitar amp. He speaks into it even when he’s talking to himself, which is not infrequently.

But more frequently he talks to you, or to whomever is passing by, because in the end there’s more in him of performer than proprietor. “Hey, how am I?” he’ll call out. Or: “Hey, Ryan Gosling will be giving twerk lessons at 6 p.m.” Lately he’s had a thing about Ryan Gosling.

A photo of the inside of the World's Smallest Store which is New in New York
A board on the sidewalk advertises “World’s Smallest Store + Free Advice.” The Free Advice part is where the bro came in. He was a young man trying to determine the next step in his life. Among his options were joining the NYPD and joining the National Guard.

Like any good counselor, Parks actually does more clarifying than advising. Still, the future officer came to him and listened carefully. So Parks lapsed into the bro show — but was it all show? The more you know him, the more you believe that he really could have been weeping.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” he told me in confidence. “I was raised by wolves. Then I was raised by llamas. Then I was found by scientists.” A guy walked by, and Parks interrupted himself to predict the guy’s future. “You know what?” he called out. “At some point tonight, you’re gonna be hungry.”

A group of people passed. Parks watched them and helpfully instructed: “Keep yourself hydrated. It’s very important.” A young woman walked by with a guitar case slung over her shoulder. “Let me just tell you,” he assured her, “you’re one of my favorite guitar players.”

He observes it all from the stoop, at which he also has a popcorn machine and a “naturally shed” deer antler to entertain dogs. That’s critical if the dogs are accompanied by people, because he’s lucky if just a person can get in and out of the store.

A line of two people make the World's Smallest Store look packed
Customers fill the store.
He says it comprises a total of 50 square feet, which makes it a sure contender for the city’s smallest store, if not the world’s. It has sea-green walls festooned with gold stars and mirror art and a bear. It took me seven steps to walk its length. If you count the merchandise, it has no width.

You might miss this New in New York storefront, but you won't be able to miss Parks, the stores owner.
The bro.
The merchandise is mostly T-shirts and hoodies that Parks silk-screens with messages like “I Support the War on War” and “Legalize Gay Divorce.” “They’re special types of fibers,” he revealed, “that if you try to light them on fire, they’ll actually burn up. They’re all flammable.”

He must have been getting to trust me, because he followed that secret with another. He furtively glanced up toward the shop and then spoke in earnest: “Even though the place is tiny, I have a huge — you can’t see it from here, it’s in the back — I have a huge human-resource department.”

It was hard to leave Parks are Zoos for Trees. Especially after I asked him what had occupied his store before he did and he replied: “a water park.”

“If any investors want to come in,” he added, “and turn it into an organic cotton-candy shop or a herpes-free kissing booth, I’m open to either.”

You can't turn down something for free and a trip to the World's Smallest Store will offer up some free advice.

Commune with Parks are Zoos for Trees at World’s Smallest Store, 131 Christopher Street, between Greenwich and Hudson streets, in New York City.