{June 30, 2012}   I Dig Doogie

It’s not like I’ve never met a celebrity before. My boys and I won tickets to see “Sesame Street Live” a few years ago, and we had the chance to meet and have our picture taken with our pal Grover. Who’s a bigger star than a 6-1/2-foot furry, blue Muppet? So I shouldn’t have been as star-struck as I was on my first night in New York City.

After seeing (and loving) the Broadway show “One Man, Two Guvnors,” my friend Ellen’s daughter, Liz, took us to a “hidden” bar.  We walked up the steps of an unmarked brownstone on Restaurant Row, opened the door and parted velvet curtains to enter Bar Centrale. Reservations are a must for this secret “speakeasy” known for serving classic cocktails, such as side cars and old fashioneds. It caters to the before- and after-theater crowd and also is a hang-out for celebrities.

Ellen, Liz, her boyfriend, Michael, and I were seated at a table near the door. Liz immediately recognized Neil Patrick Harris at the bar. You may know him as three-time host of the Tony Awards or Barney on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” but he will always be “Doogie Howser, M.D.” to me.

From our seats, Ellen and I could not catch a glimpse of him, so Liz generously offered to switch places. New Yorkers see famous people all the time and remain cool and unimpressed. I could be like that. Or at least try. So I declined Liz’s offer.

A bit later, Michael returned from the restroom and reported that John Stamos (Jesse on “Full House”) was at a table in the back. Did I need to use the restroom?

Why, yes. Yes, I did. Where is it? “Go toward the bar, turn right and the bathroom is on the left.”

I headed to the bar, turned right and took the first door on the left, which led down a set of stairs. A door at the bottom must lead to the restroom. Nope. It was an entrance to a room that was occupied by a private party. Oops! Another door led outside. With nowhere else to go, I climbed back up the steps and returned to our table, embarrassed. (“Awkward!” as my 5-year-old would say.)

When I explained my gaffe, Michael sweetly insisted on walking me to the restroom. Another gentleman was waiting in line near the small W.C. sign, so Michael and I chatted while I tried not to look obvious as I scoped out John Stamos two tables away. (FTR: Yes, he’s very easy on the eyes.) Later, Michael said Renee Zellweger was among the people in his group. Huh? There were other people at his table?

On my way back to our table, I channeled my inner New Yorker and completely avoided looking in Neil Patrick Harris’ direction. Our group sipped our drinks, enjoyed our appetizers and shared good conversation.

On his way out, Neil Patrick Harris had to pass our table to get to the door. As he walked past, I told my inner New Yorker to take a hike, I looked up, and I flashed him my huge Midwestern smile. He smiled back and said, “Hi.” Always quick with a witty response, I replied, “Hi.”

When “Doogie” was safely outside, I coolly turned to my friends and reverted to my middle school self. “Oh my gosh! Did you see that? Neil Patrick Harris said ‘hi’ to me! I said ‘hi’ back!”

Afterward, I wondered why Neil had even greeted me. (We had a moment; I think I can call him by his first name now.)  In a bar where famous people are accustomed to being treated like an everyday Joe, was he disarmed by my brazen recognition of his celebrity?

Did he think for a moment I was the wife/cousin/friend of a producer/star/stagehand for a TV/Broadway/movie production? (Much like this exchange in Spaceballs: Dark Helmet: “I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.” Lone Starr: “What’s that make us?” Dark Helmet: “Absolutely nothing!”)

Or did he fear I was an overly enthusiastic fan like this woman and hope to placate me with a mere greeting?

Probably none of those. Most likely he’s simply a down-to-earth, sociable guy who knows how to return a smile. As a friendly Midwesterner, I can dig that.

That was my brief brush with a star. What about you? I’d love to hear about your celebrity connections.

To read more about my first trip to New York City, click here. And you can learn about my 47 and fearless project here.


{June 26, 2012}   Love at First Sight

Looking out the airplane window as the New York City skyline appeared through the clouds, I was smitten. Seeing the famous skyscrapers, the bridges, the rivers, the sheer size of this city of 8 million was awe-inspiring. It reminded me of how I felt on my first trip to Paris when I was in college. I wanted to experience all the city had to offer—art, entertainment, food, architecture, culture, history and more.

Compared to Paris, which has a history that goes back more than 2,000 years, New York is a youngster, less than 400 years old. Yet it has an energy I find immensely appealing. I love the bustle, the crowds, even the traffic. There’s always something around the next corner to see or do. Even though I didn’t buy one of the ubiquitous T-shirts proclaiming my sentiments, my visit to the Big Apple earlier this month confirmed it:  I  ♥ NY.

I traveled there with my dear friend Ellen, and we managed to pack a whole lot of fun, food and frolic into four short days. Ellen had planned to celebrate her birthday with her daughter, Liz, who lives there. Being shy like I am, I hinted that I’d like to join her since I’d never been to New York before. And when that didn’t work, I flat-out asked her if I could tag along. Not only did Ellen graciously say “yes,” but Liz planned an awesome itinerary for us.

Our first day in town was a whirlwind. Ellen had purchased tickets for the NBC Studio Tour at Rockefeller Center for us ahead of time. It included a tour of the sets where “The Dr. Oz Show” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” are taped. The set for “Saturday Night Live” was being reworked during its hiatus to be used for Summer Olympics coverage, so we could not walk through it. I had hoped to see my idol, Tina Fey, while there. No luck. But the page who was leading our tour group was happy to dish about Alec Baldwin, her co-star on “30 Rock.”

After the tour, Liz had made reservations for her mom’s birthday dinner at the classy Glasshouse Tavern. We had a wonderful table looking out on the street, and our entrees were delish! Ever thoughtful, Liz had requested a birthday candle in Ellen’s warm chocolate cake. Even though we were full, we managed to polish off our desserts before heading to “a really big show.”

Liz is the stage manager for the Broadway show “One Man, Two Guvnors” at the Music Box Theater and had arranged great seats for us. The British comedy was nominated for 7 Tony Awards. James Corden, a master at improv, interacts with the audience and makes each performance feel fresh (though he’s been performing it since April.)  He kept us in stitches with his quick retorts and witty asides.  Less than a week after our visit, Corden won the Tony for best actor in a leading role in a play. And Liz mentioned that at a recent show, Corden got Donald Trump on stage to help move a heavy trunk. When Trump couldn’t budge it (because Corden was standing on it,) Corden said, “That was so rubbish, Donald. You’re fired!”  The crowd went wild.

While Corden gets the lion’s share of attention, there are outstanding performances by his equally funny fellow actors (too many talented men and women to mention), great music by The Craze, and a brief but hilarious appearance by Liz, who also is an understudy. (Did I mention Liz is über-talented like her mom? A singer and actress, she performed nationally with the “Hair Broadway Tour.” Prior to that, she made her New York debut with her award-winning performance of Prossy in “A Minister’s Wife” at Lincoln Center.  She originated this role for the show’s premiere at Writer’s Theatre in Chicago and took home the Jeff Award for Best Supporting Actress. She’s amazing!)

We had heard that Jane Fonda was expected at the show the same night we were there. She was ill and didn’t attend. But Ellen and I were determined to spot someone famous. When we didn’t, we played the celebrity game—something we often play when we go out. The rules are simple: find someone with a remote resemblance to a well-known person/movie character and whisper the name. (For example, any dark-haired male under 20 with round eyeglasses is Harry Potter.)

So the distinguished gentleman walking up the aisle was former U.S. Senator Bill Proxmire (yes, we know he is no longer with us.) The smiling grandmotherly type to our right was Angela Lansbury. (Well, at least she’s performing on Broadway, so it could’ve been her!) And the kinda scruffy guy two rows ahead of us with long hair secured in a ponytail was the singer Meatloaf, of course.

At intermission, we learned “Meatloaf” really was a celebrity, just not the one we had imagined. It was Mario Batali, Food Network chef, cookbook author and restaurant owner. Heck…meatloaf…Italian chef…we were close!

Liz had made reservations for us at a speak-easy called “Bar Centrale.” There, we spotted a few celebrities, and I had a personal moment with a star (wow!), which I will write about later.

At this point, Ellen and I had been on-the-go for more than 20 hours, so we ended our first night with a ride home in a cycle rickshaw (pedicab.) Our driver was a charmer and apparently flustered by our beauty (ha!), because he underestimated the rate before our ride and asked for more money when he dropped us off.  As the French say, “C’est la vie.”

As you can tell, it’s my nature to share every experience in painstaking detail, but I’ll try to give just the highlights of our remaining three days in town (no guarantees):

· Ellen and I put on more than a few miles exploring beautiful Central Park. I hadn’t realized how extensive it is (843 acres) or that it has so many attractions, including the Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, Belvedere Castle, the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond. It fondly reminded me of the public parks and gardens in Paris, such as Jardin du Luxembourg, Bois de Vincennes and Jardin des Tuileries. Magnifique!

· We spent a few hours at the Museum of Modern Art.  We made a point of viewing famous works by Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and others. But it was MoMA’s special exhibit by photographer Cindy Sherman that still haunts me. Her show is not for the faint of heart. It has been described as interesting, disturbing, bizarre and thought-provoking. And I have to agree. The exhibit ended June 11, but the link on MoMA’s website was still working when this was posted. If you click here to learn more, be forewarned that some of the images are graphic.

· We enjoyed a delicious Italian feast at La Mela in Little Italy, with Liz and her charming boyfriend, Michael, who recommended the restaurant. While our food was being prepared, Ellen danced with our waiter to music by a strolling guitar player. The courses were served family-style, and the four of us dove right in. We indulged in fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, a platter of antipasti (roasted asparagus, red peppers with olives, stuffed mushrooms and fried mozzarella) and three types of pasta—gnocchi, tortellini and rigatoni. We were so full, we decided to skip the main courses and go straight to dessert, which included cannoli, tiramisu, tartufo (ice cream balls) and zabaglione with strawberries and bananas. Pure heaven!

· After our fabulous Italian feast, we headed to the Empire State Building, currently the third tallest completed skyscraper in the United States and the 15th tallest in the world. At the top, we admired views of the city lights under a full moon. Amazing!

· When your son’s name is Dylan, you have no choice but to visit Dylan’s Candy Bar on the Upper East Side. Owned by Dylan Lauren, daughter of designer Ralph Lauren, the store carries more than 5,000 kinds of candy. I had special requests from Dylan and Jamie for Angry Birds candy and bacon and s’mores flavored chocolate bars.  Yum!

· After I left the store with more treats than two boys could ever eat, we headed to Quatorze Bis, a superb French bistro nearby. Michael, the restaurant’s manager, joined us for a relaxing dinner. One of the perks of dining with the manager is that his recommendations are spot-on. I ordered the brook trout sauteed with almonds because when Michael suggested it, he mentioned the fish was served with the head intact. I knew that would impress my boys. It definitely looked impressive and tasted even better. Enjoyed with a glass of French chardonnay, I could’ve been at a bistro on the Left Bank of Paris. Fabulous food, fabulous company….you can’t get much better than that!

· On the one rainy day during our visit, Liz had fortuitously scheduled the three of us for a “Sex & the City” bus tour. We saw many of the places Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha frequented during the HBO series and movies. We sipped cosmos at Onieal’s bar in Soho—the bar that Aidan and Steve opened named Scout in the series—and did some window shopping on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. (Hello, Jimmy Choo!)

· We walked through Chinatown, marveling at the fresh markets while seeking a dragon souvenir for Dylan. Like markets in Paris, some shop keepers don’t want tourists handling the merchandise. In one in particular, the owner yelled at every tourist who picked up a T-shirt to check the size. When a person in our party (who shall remain nameless) suggested the owner post a “do not touch” sign, she was kicked out. The owner suggested she open her own shop where she could do things however she wanted! Ahh, just part of New York’s charm!

· Knowing the Statue of Liberty is closed until the end of the year as it undergoes a year-long renovation, we took a round-trip on the Staten Island Ferry, so we could snap photos of Ellis Island and Lady Liberty.

· We strolled through nearby Battery Park, which features many memorials and sculptures. Among them are: “The Immigrants” sculpture, which celebrates the city’s diversity and the struggle of immigrants; the East Coast Memorial, whose massive eagle looks out on eight walls inscribed with the names of American servicemen who died in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II; and the New York Korean War Veterans Memorial, a striking granite monument with a cut-out of “the Universal Soldier” which honors military personnel who served in the Korean Conflict.

· Battery Park also is the temporary home of the 25-foot bronze sculpture “The Sphere.” It once stood in the plaza between the World Trade Towers. It survived the 9/11 attacks with only dents and holes and is considered “an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.” With an eternal flame burning in front of it, it is a memorial to all those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center attacks. Leaving the park, we walked to Ground Zero, where we could see progress on the construction of 1 World Trade Center. When its shimmering glass curtain walls and towering antennae are complete, the building will “soar a symbolic 1,776 feet skyward to become America’s tallest building.”

· We also admired jewelry at Tiffany’s (where special lights must be installed because the diamonds seem extra sparkly), strolled through Times Square,  gobbled up delicious slices of pizza, happened upon the presidential motorcade (President Obama was in town for a fund-raiser) and took photos of the fire station where the movie “Ghostbusters” was filmed.

Whew! I think that’s most of it!

If I missed any “must-see” items on your Big Apple list, let me know! I intend to visit again, and I’d love your suggestions for places to visit, sights to see and restaurants I must try!

Want to know more about my 47 and fearless project? Check out my first post.

et cetera