The American Dream, On Rye

The American Dream, On Rye

Remembering the Stage Deli, and the cultural power of a stuffed pastrami sandwich.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

For the price of a sandwich, you got a little piece — call it a shtickel — of fame.

How else to explain the exceedingly long run of the Stage Deli, the iconic New York eatery that closed at the end of last month after overstuffing its sandwiches, and its customers, for three-quarters of a century? That the storied Stage finally closed up shop is perhaps less remarkable than the fact that it survived for so long, far outlasting the cultural milieu from which it so sparklingly sprang.

For even more than Lindy’s, Reuben’s, the Gaiety, or even its longtime rival, the Carnegie, the Stage was an extension of Broadway. From its perch on Seventh Avenue at 54th Street, the Stage, epitomized glitz and glamour. From its high-powered clientele, to the caricatures of stars on its menus and pictures of luminaries on its walls, to its skyscraper sandwiches, the Stage promised a kind of surrogate or vicarious stardom to all who entered. Customers soaked up this celebrity aura like slabs of brisket absorbing buckets of brine along the way to becoming corned beef or pastrami. Little wonder that the Stage’s unofficial slogan was “where celebrities go to look at people.”

For a people for whom deprivation, starvation and marginalization had sliced deep furrows in their collective unconscious, a pile of succulent pickled or smoked meat served with great fanfare between two spongy slices of rye represented satiety and affluence; it symbolized nothing less than the American Dream. Even more than it was for the stars, the Stage was an exalted platform for its customers, who were predominantly middle-class Jews out for an evening at the theater, to exhibit their own pride and pleasure at having made it in America. In trumpeting their own success, they made the Stage into what

David Sax, author of “Save the Deli,” told me was the “biggest, loudest, grandest, brashest Jewish deli of them all.”
In its shopworn splendor, the rumpled grande dame of the kosher-style eateries carried on the lasting legacy of its founder, a short, portly Jewish immigrant named Max Asnas, whose voice sounded a bit like Louis Armstrong’s overlaid with a thick Yiddish accent. Asnas, who had immigrated to the United States from Russia (with a stop in Cuba), opened the Stage in 1937 after having been a part owner in the Gaiety. Asnas waddled around his delicatessen greeting high-class customers like Mickey Mantle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers and Elmer Rice, many of whose caricatures adorned the cover of the Stage’s menu.

Indeed, Asnas seemed to have missed his calling to be on the stage himself. Realizing that the success of the restaurant depended in no small part on his own notoriety, Asnas cultivated the image of a wise guy who knew the answer to everything, was generous to a fault, and who always had the perfect riposte to his perpetually kvetching Jewish customers. Sports writer Murray Robinson noted in 1951 that Asnas “moves serenely through a maze of comical woes which would unhorse a lesser spirit. Max has troubles with customers, partners, comedians, mustard pots, waiters, chefs, panhandlers, countermen, horse players and grammar. He beats them all down without drawing a deep breath.”

Comedians like Fred Allen, Milton Berle, Jack E. Leonard, Myron Cohen, Morey Amsterdam, Lou Gostel and Joey Bishop made the Stage their nightly hangout, as one hears on the delightful “Corned Beef Confucius,” a live 1960s recording made of Asnas trying to one-up the famous entertainers. They called him the “comic’s comic.” To wit: when Allen complained that the food at the Stage gave him heartburn, Asnas didn’t miss a beat. “So what do you expect in a delicatessen — sunburn?” Gostel once recalled that an unemployed comic would come in every night in makeup and a tuxedo, pretending that he had a just done a gig that evening.

Even after Asnas sold the Stage just two months before his death in 1968, the restaurant continued to play an outsized role in the life of the theater district. While the tradition of naming sandwiches after stars seems to have begun only after Asnas passed away, the list grew so extensive over the years that the new owners, Steve Auerbach and Paul Zolenge, would, like show business gods, decide from year to year who got dropped and who got added to the menu. In 1989, the Stage even sponsored a contest for ordinary citizens to compete to have a sandwich named after them; it drew contestants from across the country. But the entertainers themselves no longer came in; many of them had gone west, promiscuously trading the Stage for the screen.

Representing an intermediate stage in the Jewish process of acculturation to American society, the legendary eatery could also no longer depend on regular Jewish patronage once Jews gravitated to more upscale, more varied, more multi-ethnic, and healthier eating. Nor could the restaurant succeed outside the city; Stage Delis that opened in half a dozen other cities met with mixed success.

Even the influx of foreign and domestic tourists, many of whom flocked to the Stage, could sustain the deli for just so long in an era of rising Broadway theater tickets, meat price inflation, and a real estate market around Times Square in which only the branches of large chain stores and banks — or theme restaurants — can survive. The very conspicuous consumption that was the Stage’s hallmark was eventually to do it in.

Then again, the shuttering of the Stage underlined how hard it is for all delis to survive nowadays; it was pungently ironic that Sarge’s Deli was nearly destroyed by fire just three days before the Stage closed, and that one of the most iconic delis in Chicago, Ashkenaz, also just shut down to be replaced — get ready to cringe — by a seafood place called Da Lobsta.

As pastrami becomes as ubiquitous as the bagel, and as the showbiz connection to the deli fades, Jewish food is assimilating to the point that delis may no longer offer a taste of anything that tickles the taste buds — or the funny bone — in the shining way that it once did.

Auerbach told me that the loss of the Stage “tore a gaping hole in the fabric of the city.” He called the restaurant a “link to a part of New York history and to Jewish heritage.” But he held out the tantalizing idea that, like the 2nd Avenue Deli that closed only to reopen in Midtown (and then expand to the Upper East Side), the Stage may not have made its last bow.

“Who knows, the curtain may rise again at the Stage some day,” he mused. “People couldn’t go without our chicken soup for too long.”

For me, I’m still sitting shiva for the Stage — with a deli platter from the Carnegie.

Ted Merwin, who covers theater for the paper, teaches at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). His book, “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the New York Jewish Deli,” is forthcoming from NYU Press.

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