Sardi's sits on 44th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue just as it's done for 90 years. This classic restaurant anchors Shubert Alley (between 44th and 45th) and welcomes you to the Great White Way as it faces the storied Schubert Theater. In fact, the Sardi's Building (which is not really owned by Sardi's) houses the offices of the Shubert Organization.
In 1927, recalling the movie star caricatures that decorated the walls of Joe Zelli’s, a Parisian restaurant and jazz club, Vincent Sardi (Sardi's founder) decided to recreate that effect in his establishment. He hired a Russian refugee named Alex Gard born Alexis Kremkoff in Kazan, Russia) to draw Broadway celebrities. Sardi and Gard drew up a contract that stated Gard would make the caricatures in exchange for one meal per day at the restaurant. The first official caricature by Gard was of Ted Healy, the vaudevillian of Three Stooges fame.
When Sardi’s son, Vincent Sardi, Jr. took over restaurant operations in 1947, he offered to change the terms of Gard's agreement. Gard refused and continued to draw the caricatures in exchange for meals until his death.
After Gard, John Mackey took over drawing for the restaurant but was soon replaced by Don Bevan. Bevan did the drawings until 1974 when he retired, and was replaced by Brooklyn-born Richard Baratz, a banknote and certificate engraver by profession. Baratz, who lives in Pennsylvania, continues to the present day as the Sardi's caricaturist. It's ectimated that there are more than 1,300 celebrity caricatures on display.
But here are a few facts about the restaurant and the caricatures that you may not have known:
- Originally, the drawings were not very flattering as they were extreme exaggerations of facial types. Many of the actors depicted were not happy with their depictions. So, over time, the drawing have been softened to be more flattering to the (often vain) celebrities that are enshrined on Sardi's walls.
- Some of the famous are shown more than once. Since Sardi's has three floors (the main first floor, a second floor bar with tables for dining overlooking 44th St. and Shubert Alley and a fourth floor event space) there are duplicate drawings displayed to fill up all the wall space. But you have to be very perceptive to find the duplicates as they are obviously not placed near one another.
- The drawings that you see on the walls are not the originals. The originals are kept in a safe place. The caricatures displayed are very fine copies that are really exact replicas.
- Some drawings have been removed as the display is periodically freshened since new luminaries are added to the gallery while old stars are retired. In 1979, Vincent Sardi, Jr. donated a collection of 227 caricatures from the restaurant to the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
- Not all of the caricatures are autographed. The autographing (by those depicted) started in later years when Sardi's launched dedication ceremonies as each new celebrity portrait was hung.
- Sardi's is the birthplace of the Tony Award; after Antoinette Perry's death in 1946, her partner, theatrical producer and director, Brock Pemberton, was eating lunch at Sardi's when he came up with the idea of a theater award to be given in Perry's honor. For many years Sardi’s was the location where Tony Award nominations were announced. Vincent Sardi, Sr. received a special Tony Award in 1947, the first year of the awards, for "providing a transient home and comfort station for theatre folk at Sardi's for 20 years." In 2004, Vincent Sardi, Jr. received a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre.
- Sardi's is also the venue for the presentation of the Outer Critics Circle Awards, as well as many other Broadway events, press conferences, and celebrations.
- The third floor of Sardi's houses the restaurant's executive offices.
- When Catherine Zeta Jones' portrait was unveiled in a celebratory event at Sardi's, her husband Michael Douglas was a deliberate no show. Douglas' reasoning? This was her moment and he wanted to do nothing to take the spotlight from his wife. Zeta Jones won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music.
- Being caricatured at Sardi's is not merely a matter of starring in a Broadway show or being a famous person. That alone will not get you on the wall. You have to be a friend of the restaurant. In other words, you have to show up. You have to dine there.