New York City, 1964 (Part II)

By Lawrence R. Samuel


As Part 1 of this essay discussed, it is the 50th anniversary of 1964, and many of us are looking back at what was a seminal year in the United States, especially for New York. In many ways, the city would be unrecognizable today, as a scan of Hart’s Guide reveals. There were plenty of entertainment options to choose from in 1964 New York, many of them no longer around. The Palladium and Roseland, around the corner from each other, offered plenty of room for the most popular dances of the day -– the cha-cha-cha, the mambo, and the rumba. A few nightclubs whose popularity peaked a generation earlier -– Delmonico’s, El Morocco, and the Stork Club –- were still around, although the magic was clearly gone. New York was an even later night-town in those days; it was not unusual for middle-aged folks to stay out until two or three a.m. Dinner and a floorshow was a staple of classy entertainment. Eddie Fisher, Harry Belafonte, and Phyllis Diller were regular headliners at the Royal Box at the Americana Hotel, while Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, Lena Horne, or Jerry Lewis might perform at the Copacabana on any given night. Sammy Davis, Jr. and Liberace frequently held court at the Latin Quarter, and one had a decent chance of seeing Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, or Ethel Merman gathered around Jilly’s piano bar just for fun.

For something just as amusing as Phyllis Diller or Jerry Lewis, the New York Mets were playing their first season in Shea Stadium. The “Amazin’” Mets’ mishaps in the field instantly became comedic fodder, although the team would go to win the World Series in just five years. The Knicks and Rangers played at the short-lived Madison Square Garden, but it was the arena’s boxing matches that really drew the crowds. Boxing was extremely popular in the mid-sixties; a night at the “fights” was a staple sports experience, as was watching bouts on television on weekend evenings. The National Tennis Tournament, which would be renamed the U.S. Open in 1968, was held not in Flushing Meadows but on the grass courts of Forest Hills. (Roy Emerson beat fellow Aussie Fred Stolle for the men’s singles title that year.) The tournament would move to (the public tennis courts) in Flushing Meadows in 1978.

Like that of entertainment, the culinary landscape of New York City in 1964 would today be quite unfamiliar. Fast food franchises had yet to spread like kudzu, but there were a few restaurant chains that offered quick, affordable meals. Shrafft’s had more than twenty locations and there were twenty-six Horn & Hardart Automats, each place beloved by New Yorkers and visitors for their decent food at a decent price. With some thirty locations, Chock Full O’Nuts was the Starbucks of its day, serving up cups of joe for ten cents and doughnuts for a dime as well (no tipping please). Hot dogs and orange concoctions could be had at Nedicks and Orange Julius, the forerunners to today’s Gray’s Papaya or Papaya King. Prexy’s (‘The Hamburger with the College Education”) was particularly popular, as were “red sauce” Italian restaurants like Mamma Leone’s (reportedly the biggest and busiest restaurant in the world). A very nice dinner could be had in the city for $5 and, for $10, a full meal at fine restaurants like the Oak Room or Sardi’s. There were many more German restaurants and Jewish delicatessens than today, and French food was au courant. One of them, Lutece, was widely considered the best restaurant in the world. A more simple pleasure was an egg cream (which contained neither egg nor cream) or ice cream soda (which contained both) at Flick or Hicks, each of these establishments from the they-don’t-make-them-like-that-anymore school.

For something stronger, there was the Biltmore Men’s Bar in the Hotel Biltmore, just the spot for the hard-drinking “Mad Men” from Madison Avenue. Men in gray flannel suits also gravitated towards The Playboy Club and its herd of buxom women in bunny outfits. Two-fisted drinkers were also partial to the Club Car at the Hotel Roosevelt; the bar was designed like a train car was just the place for a quick bump before getting on the train to Westchester or Connecticut (especially because the place had no seats). Toots Shor was the place to gawk at famous athletes drinking and smoking like there was no tomorrow. New Yorkers were positively Polynesian-happy in the mid-1960s. Trader Vics (in the bowels of the Plaza Hotel), Hawaii Kai, Luau 400, and the Hawaiian Room at the Hotel Lexington were all places to get some mighty strong drinks with paper umbrellas. Beer was usually fifty cents a glass these days ($3.75 in today’s dollars), making it no wonder that drinking in all its forms was a favorite pastime. Bars like McSorley’s, P.J. Clarke’s, and Pete’s Tavern were ancient even then, and the battle over which tavern was the oldest in New York was just as intense.

Shopping too was a different animal in this era before the likes of national chain stores such as Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. Abercrombie & Fitch was not a clothier for teens staffed by hunky young men and hot blondes but, rather, the world’s best sporting goods store in the country. (Before the store sold jeans, tees, and hoodies, it specialized in things like tents, canoes, fishing tackle, and guns.) Department stores like Wanamaker’s, B. Altman’s, Gimbels, Abraham & Straus, Arnold Constable, Korvette’s, Stern’s, Bonwit Teller, and Alexander’s littered the city before the age of specialty stores (and mergers and acquisitions) kicked in. Men flocked in droves to buy suits at Bond Clothing Stores, which was in 1964 the nation’s biggest clothier. Barney’s, located on Seventh Avenue between West 16th and West 17th Streets, was a discount retailer back then, selling suits for about $60. (Amazingly, Barney’s offered free delivery within fifty miles of the store as well as free parking.) For larger folks, there was Sig Klein’s Fat Men’s Shop in the East Village and the House of Stouts at Union Square; the names alone makes it clear that political correctness had yet to be invented in 1964. Bookstores could be found nearly everywhere, with a number of publishers including Doubleday, Harcourt, Brace & World, Scribner, and Brentano’s having their own retail stores. (Many department stores also sold books.) High fidelity stores were a common sight, as were record stores like Sam Goody, King Karol (the biggest record store in the world), and Colony Records (where you could listen to a disk before you bought it!). Candy stores too were ubiquitous, making it a wonder that New Yorkers of the mid-sixties did not all shop at Sig Klein’s Fat Men’s Shop or the House of Stouts.

Has anything not changed substantially in New York in the last fifty years? Lots. Chinatown and Little Italy were, respectively, Chinese and Italian, each neighborhood a potpourri of sights, sounds, and smells, although in some respects they would be virtually unrecognizable today. Coney Island was there, of course, with getting a hotdog at Nathan’s a summer ritual just like today. Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and Town Hall were very much around, although the New York City Ballet and New York City Opera were located at New York City Center on West 55th Street. (The Principal Dance Company now performs in the same theater.) Broadway was still Broadway, with many theaters in the West 40s packing them in during what was a very good time for both musicals and drama. Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, Riverside Park, and, of course, Central Park in Manhattan were escapes from the urban madness in 1964, even if the city was then somewhat less mad. (Gramercy Park was then, as today, private.) Animals lived happily at the Bronx Zoo and Central Park Zoo, and both the United Nations and Statue of Liberty stood as monuments to international understanding. The Empire State and Chrysler Buildings were iconic structures just as they are now, and the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (lions and all) has hardly changed a bit. Grand Central Station was on the endangered species list but would be saved from the wrecking ball, something we can all be thankful for.

This is the second in a two-part series.

Lawrence R. Samuel is the founder of Culture Planning LLC, a Miami-based resource offering cultural insights to Fortune 500 companies and their ad agencies. He is the author of many books of 20th century American cultural history, includingThe End of the Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair (Syracuse University Press, 2007) and Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). His new book is New York City 1964: A Cultural History (McFarland, 2014), from which this essay adapted.