‘He Missed Nothing’: Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera and Others on Joe Allen

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For more than 50 years, until his death on Sunday at 87, Joe Allen was Broadway’s perfect foil. A reserved man amid all the bright lights and look-at-me brashness of Manhattan’s Theater District, he created three landmark restaurants — the original Joe Allen, the more elegant Orso and the intimate Bar Centrale — where stage stars and up-and-comers alike could mingle and unwind.

When he opened Joe Allen in 1965 on the block of West 46th Street that came to be known as Restaurant Row, theater people quickly adopted it for its comfortable feel. And as several said by phone and email this week, they didn’t hold it against him that posters from failed Broadway shows wound up on his fabled flop wall.

Institutions now, though currently closed by the pandemic, the restaurants are expected to return, though, as is true of Broadway itself, there is no certain date.

In the meantime, some regulars reminisced about Allen and the places he made. These are edited excerpts.

Actor

I was fond of Joe, but I didn’t know him very well. In the beginning he was someone slightly mysterious to me, rarely seen, like Garbo. Every once in a while I’d spot him at the end of the bar, sipping a glass of red wine, and I’d just wave and smile because I was too intimidated to talk to him. He seemed to have a look in his eyes that said, “This better be important.”

It wasn’t until Bar Centrale opened and I would go there after a show and if I was by myself I would sometimes sit at the bar near him and we would chat and have a few together. He was very charming, very low-key and amusingly deadpan in his delivery. I realized he was probably just as shy as I was, but he was certainly someone who had seen it all. Hell, he even dated Elaine Stritch. There should be some kind of Congressional Medal for that. But he dated Chita Rivera as well, so I guess that was his reward.

Actor

People saw him in his restaurants and he seemed cold, I guess, some people would think. Well, I knew him when Alice used to follow him around. Alice was his dog. It was just so sweet. My daughter said today, “Now he’s with Alice.” Just thinking about it makes me tear up.

Joe and I went out together during “Chicago.” It was before he was married. He was just the warmest, the most reliable, the sweetest person who wrote the most beautiful love letters a girl could ever want. I saved them.

There are just some people that you never, ever think are not going to be around. Joe was one of those people.

Actor

I first met him when I was in, I think it was “Promises, Promises.” Yeah, ’69. He was very protective. Especially of a young woman coming in alone, which a lot of people did. I went there alone all the time. And this is before the women’s movement. It was a safe place.

Original cast member, “A Chorus Line”

I grew up in Brooklyn — my mother kept me out of school every Wednesday to see a matinee. One show was “Applause” [which included a scene at the restaurant], so I had an awareness of Joe Allen’s, the whole essence of it, long before I started going there.

In 1976, I applied for a house account. When you did, you were given a piece of paper with a form: Name, Company, Position. For Company I put “A Chorus Line.” For Position, fifth from the left. He got a big kick out of that. It was a big deal! I can’t tell you the number of people who were refused. At 22, I was like, “I have arrived!”

I had the good fortune to go from hit to hit for a while. Then I was in a show called “Got Tu Go Disco.” It was a nightmare. It was such an honor to give Joe that poster to put on the wall.

But I thought he turned something that was so sad and hurtful into a way of looking at the nature of this business — that these are the things that happen. It is almost a rite of passage, in a way.

But I’m not sure if that isn’t why I liked Orso better.

Actor

He was one of my favorite people ever in the theater. He knew everybody from the beginning to the end, the scenic design to the understudies.

He used to have a jukebox in there with all the shows that were on Broadway that year and the year before and the year after. And everybody went there, from every show. You’d see everybody you loved.

He was very sharp. He missed nothing. He just was a great lover of the theater, and had a kind of air about him of watching over everything and not saying a word. Except when everybody left, and he’d had a few. Then he would tell you plenty of stuff.

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