In college, Appellate Judge Tom Becker minored in raconteur.
His town. His saloon.
For a time in the '40s, '50s, and early '60s, Toots Shor was New York. He was big—physically big, plus big hearted, big mouthed, with a big appetite. His self-named restaurant was the place to go in New York City. One night, he invited Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Jack Dempsey, and Babe Ruth—separately and at the last minute—to come and eat with him. They all showed up, not knowing the others were there, and the crowd at the restaurant spontaneously leapt to its feet and applauded. It's a New York story, and Toots, a nifty and charming doc, is full of such New York Stories.
Toots was produced and directed by Shor's granddaughter, Kristi Jacobson, and is a loving—though by no means treacly—tribute to a man who helped define an era.
It was all newspapers then—TV and radio weren't as significant. Toots loved newspapermen, and newspapermen loved Toots, especially sports writers. He also loved athletes and numbered among his regulars Joe DiMaggio, Frank Gifford, and Whitey Ford. Gifford and Ford are interviewed here, along with a host of others who made their names in NYC, including Pete Hamill, Joe Garagiola, Bill Gallo, Sidney Zion, Mike Wallace, and Walter Cronkite.
Toots' real heyday was the 1950s. The saloon keeper was making it big at about the same time television came into its own, and Toots was featured on a number of TV shows, with excerpts here from This Is Your Life, Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow, and What's My Line?.
Jacobson makes great use of her archival footage, weaving it in, out, and around the contemporary interviews. Many of the anecdotes—and some of the most comical—involve Toots' longtime friend Jackie Gleason, who also appears in a lot of archival footage.
We hear funny and fascinating stories of a New York City that is no longer, a far away time that is recent enough that the tales are being told by those who lived—survived—it. It's a fairy tale New York, one enjoyed by a rarefied few, but the one that comes to mind when we think of the city as "the most exciting in the world."
There in the middle, holding court, was Toots Shor, this great bear of a man who liked nothing better than a good time and chose saloon keeper as his life's work because that's where the good times were. He surrounded himself with the famous and colorful, and everyone went to Toots' place—actors and writers, athletes and fans, presidents and judges and gangsters. It was a different world then; even the bad guys had class.
What also has class is this terrific documentary. Jacobson outdid herself acquiring and putting together the archival footage and interviews with her grandfather's compatriots. What's clear from these interviews is that more than 30 years after his death, Toots Shor is still well loved, and he, his restaurant, and the era it represented, are deeply missed.
Wisely, Jacobson just lets her subjects tell their stories. Naturally, these guys, most of them writers, are born storytellers, and it's a privilege to listen to them. These are stories they love telling about a time they loved living, and you know that they were regaling each other with these same stories as they were happening 50 and 60 years ago.
Here and there, they'll throw in the stray sheepish nod to respectability, like acknowledging that drinking day after day for hours straight, sometimes at work, would likely peg someone as an alcoholic—then going right back to telling stories of guys who drank day after day for hours straight, sometimes at work.
The stories—and their tellers—grow more somber toward the end of the film, as we hear about the end of Toots Shor's saloon, and, effectively, of an era. The once raucous tales are tinged with melancholy, and everyone's thought is the same—there will never be a time like that again, and the world is a little sadder for that.
The archival footage is of variable quality, but overall, Toots looks and sounds pretty good. We get some nice extras, including a commentary with Jacobson, her mother (and Toots' daughter), Kerry, and Danielle DiGiacomo, head of acquisition for Indiepix. We also get some additional and extended interviews and an interactive map of New York City that highlights significant times and places in Toots Shor's life.
Toots is a neat shot of pop culture; eloquent, elegant, and a lot of fun. Pour yourself a bourbon—top shelf—and sit back and enjoy.
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