I always regretted that I was born too late for New York City in the twenties and thirties, because once the war started, it started to degenerate. Places started to close, the city slowly started getting sucked up into problems of huge welfare payments and narcotics problems, the crime problem mushroomed, television induced people indoors, and the city didn’t have the vitality it had when there were so many Broadway shows going and so many nightclubs that you could go to.
When I was a nightclub comic, I played the Blue Angel. There were a number of those – the Bon Soir in the Village, and Upstairs at the Downstairs, Basin Street East for a while, and the Copa, of course. You’d play these places, and your last show would be at about 12:30, and so you’d find yourself on the street at 1:30 in the morning, and there were always places to go. I went out much more when I was young. First off, because the kind of music that I liked best, there were still guys alive playing it. I could go see the Wilbur De Paris Band on 52nd Street, I saw Sidney Bechet, I saw Louis Armstrong many times, or Jack Teagarden, and George Lewis’s band from New Orleans, the Birdland musicians, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, who I also loved. But a lot of those guys have died, and what happened with music is as it happened with painting: It became more and more abstract. It became more interesting and challenging for the musicians but less accessible to the public. So they started to lose their audience.
I like to show people the city through my eyes, which are not realistic – they’re highly romanticized. New York has always been a great object of romantic fantasy for me. When I was a child, I lived in Brooklyn, and we were a half-hour away by train. In the early forties, my father would bring me from Brooklyn into Manhattan for a Sunday or something like that.
You’d ride the subway for a half-hour from Brooklyn, then walk up into Times Square and look in every direction, and there would be lit marquees from movie houses. I mean, where I grew up – and it was an abundant-movie neighborhood in Brooklyn, you know – there were a certain number of cinemas, but when you came up at 42nd Street and looked east and west on 42nd Street, and up Broadway, I never saw anything like it in my life. It was just one movie house after another, all lit up, a number of them with stage shows, and the streets were jammed with soldiers and sailors, ’cause it was during the war. And it was just what a choreographer would choose to exaggerate if he was choreographing a ballet about New York. There would be the guys with the apparently stringless dancing dolls that they were selling, and sailors picking up girls at, you know, papaya stands. It was just amazing to look at it. I did Manhattan Murder Mystery many years later. You still open the picture with helicopter shots of New York City.
Paris is the only city, I think, that can compete with New York. Paris is a more beautiful city, but it’s not more exciting. I still fantasize that a million interesting stories are occurring in those apartments on Fifth Avenue and in those redbrick houses on Bank Street and on Central Park West. You know, it’s still so vibrant that I’ve never felt any diminution of intensity for the city. It’s always Manhattan, this little, compact island, where everything is going on. The cosmetics have changed. You know, it’s a computer world now, and terminology changes, and styles of psychotherapy changed to a degree, and the protocols of relationships go in and out. But the fundamentals have not changed.
Interviewed by James Kaplan