END OF AN ERA ON WEST 46th STREET

Joe Allen was a unique and indelible part of the Broadway theatre community by way of the restaurants he owned and the people he served for more than fifty years, many of whom were devoted to the oasis his watering holes provided. This tribute is direct from the chapter in my book Up in the Cheap Seats about a 1972 musical called 
Dude, 
and titled “The Bomb.” 
This had to do with the coincidence that Joe
 Allen could 
easily have 
pulled off the moniker 
of “the Dude
” (he was very cool) and 
his establishment is, in modern 
parlance, “the 
bomb.”

The self
-
named Joe Allen restaurant has held the same spot on West 46th Street in 
the theatre district for more than fifty years. A chief reason for this, besides doing a good 
business, is that Mr. Allen 
need 
never 
fear eviction: he owns 
the property and 
is 
his own 
landlord.


It is also his home
—
he lives 
right above his long
-
successful establishment.

Allen bought the brownstone that houses his restaurant in 1965 (from Fred Trump, 
as it happened) at a time when the street between 8th and 9th Avenues was 
“red-lined. ”


When Allen mentioned that term to me in an interview I conducted with him in 2014 
I had to ask what it meant. He explained that the street was so undesirable that no bank 
would loan money towards the purchase of any property there. It was cons
idered 
worthless.


With help from some friends as investors, Allen was able to buy two of the 
buildings
—
one for $75,000 and the other for $80,000
—
before adding a third a short 
time later. 
This trio of townhouses now 
has a 
market 
value
 roughly in the neighbo
rhood
 of
 at least
 $20,000,000
 (a 
very nice neighborhood
).


The street, 
designated as
 “Restaurant Row” in 1973 by the City of New York, offers 
more than thirty eateries
—
three of which (Joe Allen, Orso
 and Bar Centrale) are 
Allen’s.

And it all began with one m
an and a vision.


Allen’s init
ial goal was to attract working
-
class members of the theatre community, 
as opposed to its sta
rs, 
and create a safe 
haven that was 
cheap and 
comfortable
. This meant 
young (and sometimes not so young) struggling actors, chorus people, stagehands and 
everyone else 
“trying to scr
atch out a pleasant simple tune 
without breaking their 
necks
.
” It wasn’t easy.
 As Allen tells it: 
“
Nobody 
had any money. In an effo
rt to seduce 
chorus people, I said, ‘Go ahead and sign for it.’
 Everybody paid
—
they could be slow, but they all paid, because they had to be able to come in here to see their friends.”


This proved
 a smart template
. 
Eventually Allen would 
cater to the biggest stars on 
Broadway, 
mindful of 
keeping things low
-
key enough to 
also
 make a humble
,
 starving 
artist feel welcome.
 To this day, prior to a matinee or evening show, tourists enjoy its juicy burgers or its 
famous banana cream pie. Later, after 10:00 p.m.
, 
when the theatre district sidewalks fill 
with folks getting out o
f shows, Joe’s is home to 
more than the tourists
. It 
is
 a 
communal
 place to unwind after a performance until the food and drink stop being served and the 
waiters gently urge customers to go 
to their real homes.
 Whenever I 
came 
to New York 
during the thirty years I lived in Los Angeles, I would visit Joe Allen and always find a 
familiar face there (besides Mr. Allen’s).


Upon entering the restaurant, 
one of the 
first
 things 
likely to be noticed
 are the 
walls of 
framed 
posters, 
or window cards, as they are referred 
to in the trade
. These
 provide a “who’s who” and “what’s what” of the worst flops ever produced on 
Broadway.


They also reflect an insider’s sense of 
humor that makes the place feel like 
somewhere it would be wise not to 
take yours
elf too seriously. Have a drink, relax and 
enjoy the fact you may be in a hit (for now) because tomorrow the poster of your latest 
failure could be on the “Wall of Shame” for a
ll the world to see
.
 It began, Allen has said, as a joke.

The interior of Joe Allen and its famed "Wall of Shame."

After Kelly, a notorious 1965 failure of a musical that had the distinction of closing on its opening night, someone gave him the poster to hang up, sort of as a gag. Who would think of putting up a bomb to remind people of how failure is more common than success in the theatre business? Well, Joe would. And it wasn't long before someone gave him the poster for the musical version of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, which unlike Kelly, didn't even make it to its opening night. In spite of being headlined by two of the brightest young stars on television back in 1966—Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain—its volatile producer, David Merrick, took out an ad in the New York Times to announce he was shutting down the production while still in previews, “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”

No, not a smash at all, regardless of what it says.

After those two posters went up, Allen would hear from a producer who would plead to him. As he tells it: “Please don’t put up any of my flop posters” and I’d say OK... then, three months later I’d hear, ‘Could you put the poster up?’ They suddenly realized that the poster is all that will be remembered.”


I wrote all that five years ago. Today, we're living in a world where Joe Allen, Orso and Bar Centrale are all closed due to the pandemic. And as for the "Wall of Shame," I feel even more 
pride than ever over my having had the fortune/misfortune of seeing a good number of the more 
than three
 dozen 
posters 
that adorn the walls of Joe Allen
.
 I think it has to do with how we all have to work through and survive disaster, which is as important a lesson of Covid that there can be. Failure is as much a part of life as success, whether you're on the stage or in the audience, and Joe understood that on some instinctual level.

And with partial lock downs still here a month shy of a year, there's nothing I want to do more than return to West 46th Street after seeing a show and have a drink and see friends. And on that first night when Broadway does eventually reopen, there is no doubt I will see a show and make it to Joe Allen afterwards for the tasty meatloaf, as well as a martini poured into that tiny vial the way the boss expressly dictated. And my first toast will be to Joe himself.

The streets will be filled with people again and the restaurant with patrons, fingers crossed.

But let's leave the final word to Joe, who after a lifetime spent in the restaurant business, summed it all up once by saying: “Life is a cruel joke. But less cruel and more of a joke when you’re in a good bar.”

A younger Joe Allen (and yeah, he was a devoted dog owner, only to make you like him more).

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

Having seen my first Broadway show at ten years old I made it my business to make the theatre my business. Everything I do stems from my love for how plays and musicals are created and accomplished and celebrating all that goes into the making of this highly specialized art around the world—from local community theatre to the heights of Broadway.