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Hats On!

In his new book, theater journalist Robert Simonson makes the point that, On Broadway, Men Still Wear Hats. logo
Robert Simonson admits that his eyes were peeled for the "impractical and quixotic" as he canvassed Manhattan for figures to profile in On Broadway, Men Still Wear Hats (Smith and Kraus, 203 pp., $17.95). Simonson, who edits Playbill On-Line and pens that website's "Theatre Week in Review," isn't merely a sympathetic observer of the thespian universe; he lives in that realm as fish swim in water. In addition to writing about theater, he writes for the theater. His plays have been produced by well-known companies including Soho Rep and Theatre Three. Simonson's new book contains 18 diverting accounts of men and women who serve functions -- many of them highly idiosyncratic functions -- in and around the New York theater.

Though the book is subtitled "Unusual Lives Led on the Edges of Broadway," some of Simonson's subjects are further removed from the Main Stem than that phrase suggests. The two actors profiled, for instance, are a married couple who perform with a small company on the Bowery. The book covers librarians, archivists, a photographer, a restaurateur, journalists, and an agent.

"Many of the people profiled in...this book know each other," writes Simonson in his preface, "and I knew most of them before I asked my first official question." As though playing a theater district version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the author reels off the names of several of his subjects, indicating points at which their daily lives intersect: "Journalists Michael Riedel and Harry Haun and photographer Aubrey Reuben all frequent Angus McIndoe's restaurant, situated next to the St. James Theatre, where star dresser Kenneth Brown reports to work each day. Haun says hello to prop sleuth George Fenmore at every opening night. Internet reviewer Martin Denton's play anthologies and archivist Louis Botto's book At This Theatre are carried by and were given readings at Rozanne Seelen's Drama Book Shop, where used Playbill peddler Richard Stoddard often leaves his business cards. The designers that patronize Arnold [sic] Hatters are also habitués of B & J Fabrics; the owners of the two stores go fishing together."

As if determined to dispel any suspicion that the book is an arm's length enterprise, Simonson appears with chapeau at a jaunty angle in a photo on the back cover (see below). This photo, like the ones that appear at the head of each chapter, are by Sarah Schmerler, who happens to be married to Simonson. As the author remarks in his preface, a "cozy claustrophobia is a job hazard for anyone working in the small world that is New York theater," which he characterizes as "the most troubled industry in the world's most contentious city." To understand that industry, he turns his literary gaze to a diverse range of off-stage functionaries. The title On Broadway, Men Still Wear Hats is a reference to Simonson's opening chapter, which describes Arnold and Mark Rubin, proprietors of Arnold Hatters, Inc. A fixture on Eighth Avenue since 1960, this is one of only two men's hat shops remaining in Manhattan. In recent years, with few American males wearing headgear other than baseball caps and wintertime fuzzies, theatrical costume designers -- along with some Runyonesque denizens of Times Square -- have kept the Rubins afloat.

On a figurative level, the book's title points to the antediluvian customs that characterize the part of show business that Variety calls "legit." In Company, Elaine Stritch, singing about the "ladies who lunch," declaimed, "Does anyone still wear a hat?" On Simonson's beat, the answer is, "Sure they do." Some of Simonson's hat people -- such as Riedel, the pot-stirring New York Post columnist, and McIndoe, the Scot whose eponymous restaurant is a latter day hybrid of the Stork Club and Downey's -- are known to everyone in the business, and to outsiders as well. Others, like Norma Molitch Deull, whose trucking firm has cornered the market on transporting road-show scenery and equipment, are more obscure. Some are flush and well-connected, like John Breglio, the dealmaker whose tony law firm, Paul, Weiss, Wharton, Rifkin & Garrison, represents Stephen Sondheim, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Cole Porter Estate. Others, like Kenneth Brown, a dresser who has served all the Max Bialystocks and Bialystock understudies in the Broadway production of The Producers, make a modest living but do so willingly to be part of the backstage world.

Robert Simonson
The sketches in On Broadway, Men Still Wear Hats render a portrait of the New York theater in what may be an eschatological era. While mergers, acquisitions, and the proliferation of mega-businesses have remapped the entertainment landscape, the theater largely remains a universe of independent contractors and mom-and-pop shops. The day of its absorption by corporate America may be at hand but, for the moment, time -- that notorious thief -- has affected the way things are done in the theater less profoundly than in any other sector of show business.

Simonson's métier is conveying the atmosphere in which his subjects operate. In limpid prose, he conjures the places he has visited, giving the reader a vivid impression of the external world of the book's characters. Dresser Kenneth Brown's domain, backstage at the St. James Theatre, is "intensely crowded," with "mountainous amounts of scenery," "no elbow room," and garments "[h]anging on hooks, nails, and screws, in stairwells and on the backs of set walls." B&J Fabrics, where costume designers shop and browse for inspiration, "looks a bit drab when you first enter, as fabric stores tend to. But the closer you get to the actual material, the more dazzling the view becomes," with "silk brocades and striped richly colored, so ornately patterned that one immediately pictures them on the high-born the works of Congreve and Wilde."

Smith and Kraus, Simonson's publisher, is promoting its author as a journalist who "follows in the footsteps of Damon Runyon, Joseph Mitchell, and A.J. Liebling." That's typical bosh from a publisher's flack attempting to shoehorn the writer into familiar categories that just may strike a note with shoppers. As a writer, Simonson is his own man. He's not a sentimentalist like Runyon, nor does he have Liebling's bent for self-dramatization and rhetorical dandyism. His focus is less on character than on the significance of particular lines of work and how they relate to the larger hothouse world of the stage.

Simonson the journalist never lets his presence intrude on the scene he's observing; he would be invisible but for his passion about theater, which shines forth from every page. He's the Pied Piper of the Rialto, luring his reader into out-of-the-way places of show biz and leaving no doubt why these environs -- however shabby and down-at-heel -- are alluring, magical, and terribly important.

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