Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Life in Champagne

One of the problems with the Internet is that it is nearly impossible to find what you're looking for unless it concerns the modern consumer culture (and who owns what or sells what or withholds what). I include in that a number of sites selling ephemera and memorabilia of the past. When the net first got going, it was a great collection of people's  well - collections. Memories. Images related or just liked. This all has to do with trying to locate a good picture of the interior of the B. Altman's store on 5th Ave in NYC. Let me explain.

B. Altman's store covered the entire block of 5th Ave to Madison,
and from 34th to 35th street. Most of the 5th Ave side now houses the
City University of New York's Graduate Center. 
As New Year's Eve approached, I found myself (naturally enough) thinking about Champagne. When I was a lad I don't think you could have a picture of New Year's Eve that didn't have a glass of champagne in it.

'Course, those were the days of Lawrence Welk, tiny bubbles in the wine and all that. I was thinking that so few people seemed to be buying champagne the last couple of years. It was part of the sparkle of life.

Whenever I think of champagne, I think of one of those colorful 'characters' that used to populate New York City. People like Moondog who was blind and would sit on a balustrade on the 53rd Street side of the CBS building selling his poetry and music.

He insisted that he was a viking, and wore an appropriate viking all leather outfit - even in the swelter of summer. Or there was Marsha the skinny black transvestite who treated everyone and everything she saw as the audience for her own show.

The person I want to mention was a singer named Larry Chelsi. He was something of a bon-vivant and a raconteur. An opera singer and Broadway performer, he told me once that he quit his stage career when the mob muscled in on his record contract.

I remember Chelsi telling me about his audition for Cole Porter for "Out of This World". The show featured a couple of Greek gods trying to spend quality time with a beautiful human female.Chelsi had been told to wear something toga-ish - at the request of Mr. Porter, to see how his legs and knees would look in a toga or tunic.

After finding himself at Porter's city digs, Chelsi performed his audition while running around the piano trying to discourage Mr. Porter's more amorous intentions. There's only one problem though - by 1949-1950 when the show opened, Porter had already been long confined to a wheelchair. Porter, by the by, used to tell people that it was while he was waiting for the doctors after a horse rolled on his legs (breaking them into pieces, leaving him in extreme pain) that he composed "At Long Last Love".

Once, while visiting him in his apartment in Turtle Bay, Chelsi went to unbury some piece of memorabilia from his bedroom and told me if I wanted anything, to help myself. As I could have used a drink of water, I went over to the kitchen fridge and opened it. It was stuffed - every shelf, nook and cranny containing bottles of champagne piled one upon another. He did have style.

The last time I saw Chelsi, it was on the great wooden escalators at B. Altman's. As I was heading to the main floor I saw Chelsi on the up escalator. He'd been out of town performing in some show, saw me - and yoo hooed while shaking his arm and hand at me. That particular arm and hand was wearing layers upon layers of the largest  charm bracelet I'd ever seen. Even at that distance, I could make out charms shaped like champagne bottles. Considering the carriage trade conservative nature of Altman's, I would have been mortified if I could have stopped laughing.

I did a few google searches for him on New Year's Day, and found that he passed in October '09. I was prompted to the search by an Australian friend's note. (It's always tomorrow over there.) Dave mentioned that his New Year's Eve had "probably too much champagne". In mind's eye memory, I saw Chelsi looking horrified, and with booming voice say, "There is No Such Thing as too much champagne."

Oh, about the ad in my New Year's Day post - I am thinking of getting in contact with the writer. I'd love to give it a go.

1 comment:

Austan said...

Until 4 years ago, I had a last shopping bag from Altman's. It was a dinosaur of the old fashioned department stores, huge and solid, wood everywhere. The smooth ka-chunk of the escalators as you descended and that overview of the main floor- good memories.

Nobody I know has refrigerators full of champagne anymore. The last time I saw one was in the 70s. Gives me ideas....