Meeting the Munchkins at Tavern’s Swan Song
By Steve Lewis
Somewhere over the rainbow, way up in the high 60s, is this very special place called Tavern on the Green. The 70th anniversary party for the most wonderful, most watched and most classic film of all time was held there last Friday in an event to benefit Elizabeth Glazer’s pediatric AIDS foundation. I hung out with good friend Jenny Oz Leroy, Tavern’s “current” owner and host of the gala. My nightclub career has allowed me to meet legends such as Pelé, Wilt Chamberlain, Stevie Wonder, a Beatle, a few Stones, Madonna, Sting, Bono, some Zeppelins, Prince, and some Sex Pistols. But maybe my biggest thrill came at this event. Here were Jerry Maren, Margaret Pellegrinni, Reinhardt Raabe, Ruth Duccini and Karl Stover — little people who starred as Munchkins in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
They sang their famous songs and told amazing anecdotes as I deja vu’d. There were ruby slippers everywhere—artwork, poppies, a yellow brick road, a witch’s broom, a Scarecrow, a dozen Dorothys, a Lion and a Tin Man. Lorna Luft, Liza Minnelli’s sister and the daughter of Dorothy, was on hand as well. Judy Garland’s kid broke precedent and sang a medley of songs from the flick. Jenny Oz Leroy’s speech gave me goosebumps as she gave us a little bit of her history and that of her famous family and The Wizard of Oz. I learned how her dad, the legend Warner Leroy, got Toto after the movie but gave him back as he was a “nasty little dog,” and that the tornado was a sock. The city has yanked the magic carpet from under Jenny’s feet and given the joint over to Boathouse operator Dean Poll. This was an unclassy move by a Parks Department that will, I believe, ultimately regret it. Somewhere in the back of her mind as she stood on stage brandishing that family smile and Oz-like optimism, Jenny must have been hoping that a few clicks on the heels of those ruby slippers accompanied by a bunch of “there’s no place like homes” would make it all go back to the way it was.
Her dad and my idol in this biz, Warner Leroy, turned Tavern on the Green from nothing to something. He spent $10 million in 1973 dollars on a renovation and gave us an Emerald City. It opened in 1976 in a tornado of publicity and success. Until those Vegas joints opened, Tavern was the perennial highest-grossing joint in the USA. Jenny will take the name with her, and the new joint will be just another place. Tavern was made of steel and concrete and glass for sure. It was decorated with fine chandeliers and moldings and furniture, but its soul came from dreams, and soon—January 1—those dreams will move on. It won’t be the same without the magic, and you can’t buy or outbid for that stuff.
Jenny’s history is yet to be written. On October 6, she will turn 31. When her great-grandfather, the legendary filmmaker and studio boss Harry Warner was 31, he and his brothers (flush with a $1,500 profit from their film Dante’s Inferno) formed Warner Studios, which of course became Warner Bros. Her grandfather Mervyn Leroy is credited with discovering Clark Gable and Lana Turner and a bunch more. At 31, his breakout film was Little Caesar, propelling himself and his star, Edward G. Robinson, into celebrity. At 31, Jenny’s dad Warner opened his breakout restaurant nightspot Maxwell’s Plum. Her sister Carolyn has Plum as a middle name. Maxwell’s was the home of Manhattan’s fastest set; it was Joe Namath and Warren Beatty and every model in town long before there were promoters to wrangle them. From his New York Times obituary:
‘’Nobody can out-showbiz Warner in a restaurant, and probably nobody would want to, but in defining the edges so authoritatively, everybody took notice,’’ said Danny Meyer, a New York restaurateur. ‘’He forced the rest of us to reckon with how people are going to feel in terms of the drama of our atmosphere. You cannot open a major New York restaurant today and not be aware that showbiz will play a role.’’
Warner Leroy did lots of other cool stuff, like the Russian Tea Room and founding Great Adventure. When Lorna Luft was about to sing, she explained that she never sang the songs from The Wizard of Oz. She was “never comfortable” with her “legacy.” Being Judy Garland’s daughter does I guess have its pressures, and her medley was nice, or pleasant, and for a worthy cause, but it did lack the magic, the intangibles that her mother brought to the crowd. Jenny Leroy is not uncomfortable with her legacy, and she owns that name. Tavern on the Green without a Leroy is the Yankees without Jeter. Already the unions are starting to complain about what they hear regarding plans to reduce their loot . This union has a serious track record with successful, long strikes at the Rainbow Room, the Plaza, and at Tavern. This is going to be war.
As I looked up at the Empire State Building, turned ruby red for the celebration, I thought of King Kong and how the imaginary ape created the legend of a building which will always be the grandest in the world, even if some are built with more stories. The story of the Empire State Building being built in the midst of the great depression, of romance and film, make it a must-see for every tourist long after it wasn’t the biggest. The stories that count are the ones told by fathers to sons and in books and flicks. The charisma of the place hits you like a ton of ape whenever you see it. Tavern without the crystal, furnishings, and dreams will be just another place, and why would any tourist even bother?
I heard they’re putting public restrooms outside, so the new dining guests won’t have to mingle with the joggers and dog walkers and other park users anymore. The Leroy family welcomed them inside; they were a part of the city’s fabric, and they understood the concept of hospitality a bit more than Mr. Poll ever will. He just doesn’t have it in his genes. Just like Lorna Luft, the new restaurant where Tavern (the King Kong of all joints) lived will be pleasant and nice. But just as Lorna Luft is no Judy Garland, Dean Poll ain’t a Leroy. Jenny Oz Leroy is turning 31, a magical age for her clan. She was thrust into control at 22 when her dad passed. Now she has a lot of experience, an infectious charisma, and she owns the Tavern on the Green name, but that of course is a horse of a different color. I’d spend some time and try to figure out her next move, if I only had a brain. I probably wont return to Tavern again, and the new place probably will not interest me. It just won’t be the same without Oz.