Friday, February 21, 2020

Toots Review

If Toots Shor hadn´t been born in South Philly in 1903, he would surely have been invented in Hollywood by the 1930s. One look at Toots´ rubbery face with its overworked smile lines and bulbous nose that had no doubt been broken at least a half dozen times, and you know that this is a man who is used to being at the center of the party.

In fact, Toot Shor was at the center of one of the biggest parties of all: New York City in the 1940s and 50s. Toots moved to New York after his parents died and put in time as a bouncer (where he probably got that funny-looking schnozz) before founding his own restaurant called, appropriately enough, Toots Shor´s. The saloon quickly became the place to be, in large because Toots was there. A brief list of celebrities who called Toots Shor´s a home away from home will knock your socks off: Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Jackie Gleason, Frank Gifford, Chief Justice Earl Warren. Even Babe Ruth and Muhammed Ali were known to drop in from time to time.

Toots was an inveterate needler and could get away with it because, well because he was Toots. He could pick up a phone and say "Hey, dago, get over here" and have Frank Sinatra show up a half hour later. Toots loved everyone, but he had a special passion for sports. Both athletes and sportswriters spent hours hanging out together in a day when, as Maury Allen observes, they both made about the same amount of money. Toots made them all feel like his closest friends and would talk sports into the wee hours of the night, and then beyond.

Toots´ granddaughter Kristi Jacobson directs this affectionate portrait of a man who embodied his times, and tragically failed to adjust to new ones. When sports began to turn into an even bigger business than before and old-fashioned gangsters gave way to decidedly un-romantic drug dealers, Toots´ world collapsed as did his restaurant. Toots was many things to many people, but one thing he was not was a businessman. He always referred to himself as a "saloon keeper" and saloon keepers apparently don´t keep good books. Hounded by the IRS, he was forced to shutter the iconic night club as well as the next one he tried to open. He never stopped trying but his old friends had dispersed to other watering holes. The times had changed and Toots hadn´t.

Jacobson´s soft-sell portrait doesn´t ask any tough questions. Considering Toots´ profligate spending and his easy friendship with several New York mobsters, it´s hard to believe there wasn´t a dark side behind his permanently beaming face. Whatever the case, his friends remember him fondly, and they all line up to tell their favorite Toots stories. Reminiscences come mainly from sportswriters and other journalists like Maury Allen, Walter Cronkite and Gay Talese as well as some athletes. Chief among the latter is Frank Gifford, who considered Toots a very close friend, and can´t hide his tears when he talks about Toots´ decline and death in 1977. Toots had bolstered Gifford´s spirits after his brutal injury at the hands of the Eagles´ superstar Chuck "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik, an injury many thought he would never recover from.