Members of the Manhattan Sideways team stood in awe when we entered the New York City Center and realized that the extraordinary exterior matched the majestic interior. One of the most beautiful facades on the side streets is here on 55th, but behind its doors is a restored treasure trove. Hawley Abelow and Stanford Makishi, two passionate personnel from the marketing and programming departments, greeted us as we arrived and proceeded to give us a behind-the-scenes tour of what they termed to be “The family business of performing arts centers of New York. ” Stanford called it the “most ‘un-corporate’ large venue” he has witnessed, and he and Hawley both have the credentials to make that judgment, having worked at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Both went on to say that even though they have to book acts with a certain amount of popularity in order to be financially viable, they are mainly concerned with what they put on the stage, rather than the profits. City Center also displays a refreshing lack of competitive spirit: “Other philanthropic programs are our colleagues, not competitors, ” Stanford explained, while detailing his amicable dealings with some of the big theaters in the city. We started out walking on the center stage itself, where we could stare out at the breathtaking view of the tiers of seating. Each level was an intricately carved masterpiece, reminiscent of a Russian cathedral. Stanford said that dancers, actors and musicians love performing at City Center because the theater is built so that every seat feels close to the stage. He told us that their left wing is legendary, as there is a wall only a few feet from the edge of the stage. Apparently every ballerina knows not to make extravagant leaps off the left side unless they have someone waiting to prevent them from smashing into the wall. Stanford is qualified to speak about the performer’s experience, since he was a dancer for many years, and City Center was the first New York location at which he danced. On our particular visit, the stage was getting set up for that evening's performance by Bjork. Though Hawley is not a dancer, her career has similarly come full circle: when we explored the downstairs theater spaces, used by the Women’s Project and Manhattan Theater Company, she relayed that she started in the Production department at Manhattan Theater Company. Though not as grand as the main performance space, the downstairs theaters are more versatile. Stage 2 appears to be a “black box” theater, in which producers have more freedom with how they decide to set up the audience seating and set. Stage 1, on the day we saw it, was completely bare. This is not to say it was empty: cords and lights and ladders filled the stage, showing us a surgical biopsy of the theater. “This is as raw as it gets, ” Hawley commented. We also had the privilege to peek into one of the City Center’s dance studios, where we observed men and women twisting like tilted windmills. Stanford and Hawley told us that the spaces, which are rented out to different companies, are heavily sought after because they are much larger than many studios in New York. Broadway casts covet them, but they often go to not-for-profit groups. “Broadway is not our priority, ” Hawley stated. There was a "throne" at the back of the room, which was originally built as an auditorium for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, an appendant body to the Freemasons. Stanford told us that they used to hold their secret meetings in the spaces that are now studios, and the man presiding would sit on the throne. It was when Stanford and Hawley began speaking about “Fall for Dance, ” an event that aims to bring the “highest quality dance to the largest possible audience, ” that they became especially animated. As Holly declared, “You can’t come to this show and not fall in love with dance. ” The performances take place in the early fall, and apparently people line up in the middle of the night to be first to purchase tickets when they go on sale the following morning. Our tour continued to the lobby, which reminded us of a receiving hall in a palace. The design is neo-Moorish with murals depicting desert scenes. Hawley remarked that the colorful, intricate designs had been painted over in white during the 1970s due to a misguided sense of aestheticism, but in the recent renovations, they hired specialists who uncovered the original design. At the same time, screens were installed that display rainbow rivulets. Stanford informed us that the video was specially curated by the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton. Another dazzling piece of art was a mural that stretched across an entire wall of the Patron’s Lobby. It was created by a Cuban artist, and had been borrowed to complement his country's dance troupe’s performance. “We try to make performances meaningful for the audiences, ” Sanford commented. Every element of the theater is in place to enhance what is on the stage.
"Practice! " has been the immediate, entertaining response when asked how to get to Carnegie Hall - at least for its would-be performers. For the rest of us, the formal entrance to the concert hall is either on Seventh Avenue or 57th Street. Carnegie Hall has been a premier concert destination since 1891. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962, the building is a stunning ode to Italian Renaissance architecture and boasts excellent acoustics. A New York City icon, the hall continues to attract classically trained and modern musicians from the world over, including the Beatles who performed two shows during their first trip to the United States.
The Sideways team's walk through the Essex House was an historical rumination on the character of the Art Deco designs that recall the hotel's founding years in the 1930s. The chandeliers, the marble and even the elevator doors were splendid and recalled a time when the hotel played host to prominent members of society.
Opening in 1948, the Paris initially show-cased French cinema on its single screen. Today, the theater continues to include foreign films as a core element. The theater seats 586 people, and features a balcony, which is a rarity in modern cinemas. With no ads preceding the start of a film, the Paris Theatre opens up the curtain and offers a more classy and classic movie watching experience.
St. George moved to West 54th Street during the Great Depression, after splitting from the main line of the Greek Orthodox Church. The building St. George inhabits has an even longer history. When the congregation moved in, it had already been in use for the better part of a half-century, first as an offshoot of the Narragansett Club, a Democratic organization connected with Machine-controlled Tammany Hall. Later, in the early twentieth century, it housed the Irish-dominated New Amsterdam Council of the Knights of Columbus, as well as a cycling club. When the church moved in, it found itself cohabiting with the Epirus Hellenic Center, an organization dedicated to the promotion of Greek art and culture. Today, No. 307 comfortably houses St. George alone. Its outwardly modest exterior is slender, dwarfed on either side by much taller buildings, with the only decoration being a stained glass window depicting the church's patron saint. This belies the ornate decor of the chapel inside. Iconography is prominent, both on the walls and at the altar. We were warmly greeted by the head pastor, Father Jim Kordaris who arrived at St. George in 2004, at a time when its aging congregants were struggling to put Hell's Kitchen's bad years behind them and come up with funds for repairs for the increasingly decrepit interior. At this point in time, they were able to do little more than "hold on" and keep the place from closing. Father Jim was pleased to tell us that although it took almost five years to make any headway, the church is now moving in a positive direction, with new members and exciting plans for the future. It quickly became apparent to us that this shift was in large part due to his leadership and presence. Father Jim, however, stressed the collective nature of the church's recent revival and growth, insisting that it was "beyond any one person. " His faith in St. George's vibrant community foretells great things for the church in the years to come.
Beautifully decorated for the holiday season, Bistro Vendome was still abuzz with chatter when the Manhattan Sideways team stopped by at the tail end of lunch hour to meet with the delightful owner, Virginie Petiteau. Although she and her husband Pascal, who is the executive chef, hail from Brittany, France, they met in New York, where they both worked at Jubilee, a French restaurant on First Avenue. After fifteen years there, Virginie said they felt ready to open their own place. She told us that it was great to already have a base of customers in the area that knew and supported them when they opened Bistro Vendome in 2010. And she was pleased to tell us that they have maintained a loyal clientele ever since. As Virginie put it: "Some people who come here saw me when I was pregnant, and now my daughter is fourteen. "Pascal started working at high-end French restaurants in France at an early age. After coming to New York, he decided to focus on more casual French food. In 2014, he was inducted as Master Chef in Mątres Cuisiniers de France, a prestigious organization aiming "to preserve and spread the French culinary arts, encourage training in cuisine, and assist professional development. " An unusual occurrence continued to happen as we resumed our walking on 58th, as so many other businesses told us that they eat at Bistro Vendome on a regular basis because the food was as traditionally French as one could hope for in Manhattan.
Trendy, immense, packed at any hour and serving intriguing Pan-Asian food, Tao has been a sensation on 58th since opening its doors in 2000. Stepping inside, one cannot help but immediately feel transported to a different world. The interior design is exceptionally meticulous with beautiful calligraphy scrolls adorning the high ceilings, and a sixteen foot massive Buddha sculpture taking center stage down below. Despite the frenetic atmosphere, I have found Tao to be a fun restaurant to dine with friends and to enjoy an excellent meal.