EARTHLY REMAINS – THE LAST RECORD STANDING AT COLONY RECORDS: My 100th post.
A story of eerie coincidence. Colony records was an iconic sheet music and record store on Broadway which sadly closed after 64 years a few weeks ago. Repeat patrons included Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Eartha Kitt and Michael Jackson, who in his later years took to scheduling after-hours appointments to drop by.
In my Sept. 28 blog “The Music Man’s Last Verse” I told the story of meeting Richard Turk the owner as I was trying to photograph the moving out and demolition of the store. We shared our memories of the store and (it turns out) our mutual love for singer and actress Eartha Kitt. “I was obsessed with her song C’est Si Bon, and of course fantasized about her as the Cat Woman on the Batman TV show.” Richard fondly recounted. His fantasy came true when one night, “Eartha Kitt came in, the store simply exploded!!! An absolute dynamite personality!”
I myself became obsessed with her when I saw her sing “I Want to be Evil” on the Ed Sullivan show in the early 1960’s. In the era of blonde Doris Day virgins, here was this black woman that wanted to be evil, I thought it was divine! I sought out all her records and amassed quite a collection with the help of Colony Records. In 1978 my dream came true when I met her March 1, 1978 at the Mark Hellinger theater when she starred in all the all black version of ‘Kismet’, a new show called “Timbuktu”. She made her entrance on top of a pyramid of black muscle men, one of them being a former Mr. Universe. She slithered down the pyramid and strode to the front of the stage, curled her bare toes over the edge, rose her arms and purred “I’m here!” It usually took many minutes for the wild enthusiastic applause to die down. I was in heaven. I crashed the opening party and was invited into her dressing room and she herself then invited me to Sardi’s opening party and we became friends after that, dancing nights away at Studio 54 and then exchanging letters while she toured with the show.
Fast forward to Wednesday, September 26, 2012 and Richard and his son were shooting some video memories in the Colony, everything was cleaned out and they were in the basement when his son showed Richard one solitary record left on a shelf. “This is 100% the truth…” Richard said, “This LP was the only item left in the empty Colony”
RCA 1953 Viktor 10″ LPM 3062 “RCA Viktor Presents Eartha Kitt” containing both songs “C’est Si Bon” and “I Want to be Evil”. As Richard put it, “Erie shit…stranger than fiction eh!!”
The Earthly remains of Colony Records…Richard has kept the record for his private collection.
COLONY RECORDS CLOSES
On July 10th, 2005 after Howard Johnson’s Restaurant closing auction had been held, their doors shut forever. It was a knife in my heart. Finding it unbearable to part with the retro Times Square treasure I just lingered outside, photographing the restaurant as much as I could so as to preserve every piece of it and not wanting to let go. As I held my camera up the window the manager of the Howard Johnson’s came out and asked me if I wanted to take one final look inside. I walked through the empty orange and green room of memories and we sat down in the back booth. He told me of his memories of the beloved restaurant and his personal story of how he at the time had no future job offers and sensed it was the end of an era for Times Square.
Seven years later on September 18th, 2012, Colony Records located in the art deco Brill Building, closed its doors for the final time. No closing sales or auction, just a final proud last day. I stopped by on Monday, September 24th to photograph the shell of what once was. Deja vu. I found myself inching closer to the doors and photographed the workers packing up the final vestiges of the store while the demolition crew had begun tearing down the past. My eye caught a man inside, obviously not part of the demo crew taking pictures on his cell phone for himself. From the distance I thought it was perhaps a foreman, a future owner or perhaps the Brill building owner. As I got closer to peek inside for myself, I recognized the man to be Richard Turk, the owner of Colony.
I asked if he didn’t mind me taking some last pictures of the place, he was surprisingly kind enough to let me come inside. My memories of first discovering Colony began to flood out and began to choke up. Richard asked if he could record my story for a video log they are making of people’s warm and colorful memories, I was so honored to be a part of history. We began to talk. I told him of Patti Lupone’s comment that Times Square is becoming a third rate shopping mall, that my personal ‘beginning of the end’ was the demise of Howard Johnson’s. That’s when Richard’s eyes lit up and began to open up. “That was the beginning of it! American Eagle Outfitters (which replaced HOJO) don’t care about the retail space below, they care about the giant neon advertising sings above.” He feels Mayor Bloomberg’s mall-ification of Times Square was a death sentence to those establishments above 47th Street. “There were no plans to include us up here on West 49th Street and above, we are merely side roads leading to the Square. We were never included.”
“I also can’t stop technology. If a singer wants sheet music for a song, they don’t have to buy the whole song book anymore. They can pull it up on the internet and it will even appear in their own key.” But the smell, the tactile holding of an lp, songbook, CD or sheet music is to many irreplaceable. In it’s heyday music’s royalty would come to shop from Michael Jackson, to Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. “I can tell you when Eartha Kitt came in, the store simply exploded!!! An absolute dynamite personality, I was obsessed with her song C’est Si Bon.” (For me it was “I Want To Be Evil”, which happened to be the first lp I bought at Colony.) Colony would still get the rush of the theater crowd before and after the shows, but other than those ties, it was dramatically slowing down. There was no forcing of them out by the landlord, it was solely his and his business partner Michael Grossbardt’s decision to go out with their heads held high and above water. The Brill building management team even went so far as to mount a camera atop of the newsstand on the corner to record the foot traffic coming in and out of the store. No matter how good traffic Richard said was, they argued back with their video proof. It was time to close.
Richard reminded me that Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant, ‘the meeting place of the world’ used to be next door. At one time, the eleven story building housed song writer’s offices that had a clientele that would boggle the mind of music historians. Richard pointed to the closed store adjacent to Colony. “It has been their plan all along to turn the bottom three floors into a chain store retail space.” I immediately asked about the landmark status of the building. His surprising answer was that only the main entrance of the Brill Building and the upper floors are land marked, the bottom three floors are not! The retro brass doors with the musical clef handles were custom made by Colony in 1974 and Richard is taking them with him. If you look at the new plastic wrap that has encased the ground floor, there is a horrific rendering of plans for the 3-story clothing store “Generation”. Just what we need, another place to buy a t-shirt in Times Square – not a CD, DVD, sheet music or book, but a bra and a t-shirt.
The dust was getting heavy and we exited the store just as the mailman stopped by. “I guess will have to admit we’re going to have a change of address” Richard said as he took his mail for the last time. I looked up at the iconic blue neon letters and asked quietly, “What happens to those?”. Richard said one of the signs had been a continuous piece of neon and it just crumbled as they tried to take it down, but he remaining blue letters above the doors are individual and can be saved. “As for the Colony signs“ he answered, “if I had my wish they would go into either the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or the NY Songwriters Hall. It’s still up for discussion…it’s just my desire not a fact yet.” I shook his hand and thanked him for this private moment and left as I kept having visions of Howard Johnson’s repeat in my head. I had to return. “Richard! I can’t let this moment go without taking your picture!”. We fumbled for a spot and Richard wanted to proudly stand by his custom doors one last time, I caught the moment. He said one last thing to me, “I stood outside the door as you found me today for 2 reasons. One, the dust and noise were getting overwhelming, but most important, I couldn’t look at my Colony in the condition it is in, I guess it’s the feeling one gets when your home is destroyed by some disaster. I stood there for 3 hours, and chatted with dozens of people, like yourself, who recanted some incredible experiences at the Colony. I left feeling truly humbled and blessed.” He smiled and fumbled for his business card, “I guess I can’t give you a Colony card anymore, I’ll just have to give you this one.” It reads: Richard Turk – music man.
“TIMES SQUARE HAS BECOME A THIRD RATE SHOPPING MALL”: This is Broadway actress and living legend Patti Lupone’s reaction to being asked what she thinks of today’s “new” Times Square. The photo seems appropriate since today it was announced by co-owner Richard Turk, to everyone’s shock and dismay, that COLONY RECORDS in the Brill Building, 1619 Broadway (at W. 49th St.) is closing after 64 years. “Give me the porno theatres back!”, Patti exclaimed during a February 6. 2011 interview at the 92nd Street ‘Y’.
There is not one place left where you can buy a DVD, CD, book, sheet music or any form of entertainment anymore – but you can buy a bra in Times Square! A bra. Many small theatres (The Helen Hayes, The Morosco, the Bijou) were torn down to make room for mega hotels, rather than building over and or around the theatres. Bette Midler on opening night of her 1975 hit show “Clams on the Half Shell”, took one look at the new bland Minskof theatre and said to the audience “This place has all the charm of a Ramada Inn!”.
People spend millions of dollars to replicate vintage diners – yet we tore down Howard Johnson’s in 2005 (a knife in my NY heart) to make room for an American Eagle store. Virgin records closed in 2009 with it’s towering DJ booth. If you liked your Broadway performer’s singing in the show you just saw, you could spend all night hunting for recordings by them and other related shows while listening to the DJ as he spun the latest songs. Perversely and ironically Planet Hollywood just shut down this year too in Times Square. The chain is having financial difficulty, but to close the one in the east coast epicenter of entertainment?? (Where are the bus loads of out of towners to eat?) And now, unbelievably, Colony Records is closing in approximately six weeks- where are the performers to buy their sheet music and do their research? ‘On line’ is the almost ‘Fahrenheit 451’-like answer.
“What’s a Barnes & Noble?” ask vapid teens as they walk dazed under the huge neon signs advertising names of stores they can shop in just as well at home. “But it’s the Times Square American Eagle, Sephora, Forever 21, Gap and Footlocker!” they insist. Times Square has lost it’s soul. Shows are being dumbed down for the out of town audiences (in order to make a profit), so we have The Exorcist coming to Broadway this fall (starring Brooke Shields???) after the musical version of the movie Ghost failed and closed. I sink my head in my hands as Patti does, “Times Square has become a third rate shopping mall.”