Crossroads of 1950s New York

The “power” nightclub, bar and eatery where New Yorkers met in the 1950s was called Toots Shor’s. The most famous of all his establishments, he had three, was located at 51 W. 51st Street. As I write this, I can’t help but think that although Junius Kellogg’s uniform number while he played at Manhattan College was “48,” the number “51” came to be associated with him in so many ways. It was in 1951, January 16th to be precise, when Junius helped to uncover the biggest scandal in the history collegiate sports, if not sports.
Toots Shor (Bernard Shor) was a sophisticated businessman in terms of his background and education. He was a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and before his first attempt at innkeeping, he was in the apparel business (underwear and such) and had an idea of what it took to get people to buy. I think he took that knowledge of business and converted it to helping people buy an atmosphere of a successful “watering hole.” Toots Shor was also the product of the so-called School of Hard Knocks. His mother was struck and killed by a car as she was simply minding her business, sitting on the stoop of their apartment building. He was barely a teenager at that time. About five years later, his father committed suicide. Shor had no choice but to rely on himself.

As an aside, while I wouldn’t want to wish the tragedy around his parents on any child, parents of today are sometimes so protective that they won’t let their children fail at all. As a result, they are unable to cope with real-life situations. In Toots Shor, life gave him the sensitivity and coping skills to want to create family, connection and compassion.

The Famous Bar

What made Toots Shor’s such an outstanding meeting point was Toots Shor himself, of course, the central location and treating his guests like celebrities. He attracted the biggest names in show business to his place (Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra) as well as athletes, financiers, business people, artists and writers, politicians and tourists. It was a place to be seen. To be honest, Toots Shor’s was a white male bastion. Occasionally an African American athlete might pass through, but it was largely like almost every other establishment of its type downtown.

It is doubtful that Toots Shor ever met Junius Kellogg, though as a result of Toots Shor’s he influenced several other athletes. Sports writer Milton Gross (who I’ve mentioned several times in my blogs) was, like Shor, Jewish with parents who had Eastern European roots. One afternoon around 1957 Gross had turned in an article on Junius for the NY Post and he decided to meet several pals at Toots Shor’s for a drink or two. Gross was met by several other folks including financier Cecil Wolfson. Gross mentioned his work with Junius, who was by then in a wheelchair, and wondered aloud if some type of fund couldn’t be established to help ex-athletes who had run into hard times. The idea spread like wildfire at their table and throughout the smoke-filled bar. From that meeting, a loosely defined organization called “100 Friends” was established. Several athletes and people in sports were helped as a result of the relationship between Junius and Milt Gross.

Toots Shor’s was an interesting slice of New York Life, probably to never be duplicated again. Still, it would be nice to take a time machine back to 1957 and listen to the conversations around the busy bar.

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