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September 13, 2007

Toasting Toots

Reeler Interview: Director Jacobson on reviving NYC nightlife giant -- and her grandfather -- for new doc

Pull up a chair: Toots Shor at his New York saloon (Photo: Associated Press)

When filmmaker Kristi Jacobson set out to make Toots, a documentary about her grandfather Toots Shor, she did more than chronicle the legendary New York saloonkeeper's life. Through anecdotes, archival footage and interviews with the likes of Pete Hamill, Walter Cronkite, Frank Gifford and other local fixtures, Jacobson tells the story of a city in its golden age: a New York where the guy next to you at the bar could easily have been Joe DiMaggio or Frank Sinatra. At least that was the case at 51 W. 51st St., where Shor established his eponymous New York club.

Shor arrived in New York in 1930 after a rough upbringing in Philadelphia, which saw his mother killed by a car while sitting outside her home and his father's suicide five years later. Armed with character defining gregariousness, he first took a job as a speakeasy bouncer and eventually created one of the greatest nightlife scenes in New York history.

The Reeler spoke with Jacobson about what drew her to Shor's story and if a place like Toots Shor's could exist today. Toots opens Friday at the Quad Cinema.

THE REELER: One of the things I loved about your documentary was that it's equally about New York -- a love letter to the city in a specific place and time -- as it is about Toots Shor. Was that something you had originally planned on doing or something you discovered during the filmmaking process?

KRISTI JACOBSON: Discovering that was a huge breakthrough in the making of the film. When I set out to make it I didn't know that much about Toots, so of course I thought the film was all about him and was working on it for many years with that. Of course, I thought New York would provide the context, but it wasn't until after editing -- sort of halfway through the editing process when I hooked up with this amazing editor named Lewis Erskine. We were at the rough-cut stage, so we were sharing it with people, and everybody felt like something was missing, and I knew something was missing. There were a lot of people encouraging me to put myself in the film, which I didn't want to do.

R: I loved those moments when the commentators would begin a story saying, "Your grandfather..." I thought it added a real personal touch.

KJ: Right, but I didn't want to have voice-over and I didn't want to go on camera. Finally, I screened it one time, and we realized the missing element was developing New York as a complete character. The balance between Toots and New York was what we really needed to work on, because the film is as much about New York during that very special time in history as it is about Toots. So, it was definitely not the plan, but it became pivotal and it became really important because I think it's a really important part of New York's history, and I think a good way to tell it -- experientially.

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R: What were some of the reactions you got when you asked people like Mike Wallace and Gay Talese to be commentators in your film?

KJ: Making a film like this was filled with challenges, but the one easiest and most fun part of the film was reaching out to the people I interviewed and then the actual interviews. I remember I sent a fax to Walter Cronkite's office saying, "I'm Kristi Jacobson, I'm Toots Shor's granddaughter..." And I wasn't a "filmmaker" then; I was hoping to become one. I said: "I would love to talk to you. I would love to interview you for this film." Then the next day I got home and on my answering machine was a message from Walter Cronkite -- not his assistant, but Walter Cronkite -- apologizing for taking so long getting back to me, and saying, "You tell me what you need, and I would be happy to do it."

R: That's amazing.

KJ: And once I met these amazing legends of journalism and sports there was an instant connection, obviously because I'm Toots's granddaughter. I think it helped a lot when I was interviewing them, because they were telling me, Toots's granddaughter, as much they were telling me, the filmmaker, about him.

R: What was it that drew you to Toots's story in the first place?

KJ: It was sort of a chain of events. I was working on a film about the Teamsters Union and I was spending a lot of time with these tough truckers in Philly, Chicago and New York. Occasionally I would mention who my grandfather was and these guys, who were really tough, would kind of melt. They didn't even know him personally, but just from knowing who he was -- that he was this tough guy from Philly. And they talked about him in this sweet way. So that was sort of the original thing. I got the book that was written about him and I just started digging. Then ultimately, the thing that really kicked it in was that I was working at ABC with a producer who was a big sports fan and lifelong New Yorker. She freaked out when she heard Toots Shor was my grandfather. Her reaction was just, "You have to make a film." And the more I started asking questions -- the more materials I uncovered -- the more I realized I had to make the film. The onus was on me; if I wanted this story to be told I had to do it myself.

R: You've dealt a lot with social issues in your previous films. You mentioned your film about the Teamsters Union. In light of those other films, how do you see this documentary fit with them, if you do?

Toots director Kristi Jacobson (Photo: Catalyst Films)

KJ: It's interesting, because I struggled with it a while. The thing that drew me to documentary filmmaking was the sort of social justice aspect of it, but also the storytelling. I think at the beginning, I was like: "But wait, does this film need to be made? Aren't there people out there that need to get out of prison?" But ultimately, just as I was saying before, I thought that if I didn't make this film his story would be lost. And it's sort of the quintessential American story; there are lessons you can take away from it. And I think I learned that there's nothing wrong with bringing a good story to the screen and having people have a good time. People don't necessarily have to leave the theater and stop using light bulbs, you know? That's a very big part of what I do, and I'm proud of that kind of work, but, I think, the way this fits into my body of work is that it opens my world up a little bit more. And, also, I haven't really focused on cinema verite. It was a whole new challenge to make a historical film but try not to use narration and try to stick to the same style of filmmaking. So I guess it just broadened my range, I hope.

R: And at the same time I see a little bit of a connection, because in the film you talk about how he was the only Jew growing up in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood.

KJ: I think it's sort of the idea of that loyalty -- the way loyalty was the most important thing to him, which is sort of a lost value in today's world. And also what he overcame in terms of his Jewish heritage: the way he opened up his restaurant to anyone, any race, any color and ethnicity. He crossed those barriers when other people weren't doing it. It's not your typical story of those kinds of issues, but it does make you think.

R: Do you think he deliberately went out to create this egalitarian community?

KJ: Yes, I think he did. I think his experience as a child really affected him, both in terms of being the only Jewish kid and dealing with discrimination and also losing his parents in the way that he did. I think he just wanted to make sure there weren't other people that felt completely ostracized the way he was.

R: How do you think it would go over if Toots tried to open the same type of place in New York today?

KJ: I'm not sure his formula -- if he had one -- would translate in today's world for a couple reasons. One, because of that line that exists between us and celebrities is so deeply drawn that that sort of mixing it up seems to not happen anymore. And I also think because of his approach: He first earned his reputation by insulting people when he was a bouncer at speakeasies. And the rich and famous, I guess, really enjoyed that this guy just gave it to them. I don't know if today's restaurateur could get away with that.



Comments (4)

Great article - her passion for her grandfather, New York, and the film are all undeniable. Can't wait to see this movie.

Tremendously entertaining, thoroughly fascinating movie. I can't recommend it highly enough, or wait to get my own copy!

Where do you buy this film? My husband has been looking all over for it. Thanks for any information.

where can i purchase this movie thank you tony

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