March 20, 2015

Saturday Afternoon Fever

It's been almost two weeks since I posted my last blog entry, a doom and gloom affair about the Wizards' postseason chances. Since that post, the Wizards are 5-0 and things look a lot rosier. Hopefully this post won't screw up that mojo. Not superstitious. Just saying.

I've been traveling for the primary purpose of watching professional basketball games for a little over eight years now. The first trip I ever took was a planned day trip to Minneapolis to see the Wizards beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in January 2007. Unfortunately for me, the weather in D.C. made it an overnight trip and the Wizards made it a loss rather than a win. But if that unplanned day off that Monday taught me anything, it was that there was value in staying at least an extra day wherever I traveled to see something unique about the place I had visited rather than just watching hoops and drinking beer in a local bar after the game.

So given the lesson of Minnesota in '07, I couldn't visit New York or Brooklyn on NBA All-Star Weekend last month without doing something that I couldn't do anywhere else. I've been to New York City a bunch of times in the last decade or so but I haven't spent a whole lot of time across the East River in Brooklyn. My first thoughts here were to either walk across the Brooklyn Bridge or go to the Brooklyn Brewery. But I'd done both of those before and the temperatures in New York over the Valentine's Day weekend this year never cracked freezing, so the last thing I wanted to do was walk over a bridge. So instead I did something different and totally Brooklyn. I'm thinking late 1970s. I'm thinking disco.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Saturday Night Fever. The movie tells the story of Tony Manero (played by John Travolta), a kid living and working in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. During the day, Tony works at a hardware store selling paint and whatever else his customers come in for. At night, though, Tony practices his dance moves at a local dance studio. Tony manages to get time at the studio for free because he sends women to the studio so they can work on their moves, but also so the owner of the studio can work on his moves, if you know what I mean.

The highlight of Tony's week comes every Friday and Saturday night when he and his friends head over to 2001 Oddyssey, a nightclub where Tony can do what he does best out on the dance floor. This all sounds so pedestrian and dated, right? What I love about the movie is that Tony is a guy who knows he wants to do something more with his life and can't seem to figure out how to get it done. He knows he loves dancing and is good at it but can't see a way to parlay that into a way to improve his life. So in the meantime, he works at a low paying job, does the same thing week after week and lives with his parents and the crushing weight of their disapproval over what he's doing with his life.

Enter Stephanie, Tony's unwitting way out. Stephanie's a fellow Brooklynite who has managed to escape Bay Ridge by working in a Manhattan office and shacking up with an older guy who works with her. While she comes off as confident and sophisticated (well, late 1970s sophisticated anyway), she has no more idea about where her life is headed than Tony. While she's made the first step, she's equally lost and confused as to what to do next. The movie is their story of making the next move in each of their lives. The film ends with no definitive conclusion to their life journey which I love. Life rarely has a neatly packaged happy ending.

Saturday Night Fever was filmed in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst and a lot of the sites used to shoot the film are still there today. So Saturday afternoon before All-Star Saturday Night at Barclays Center, I hopped on the R from midtown Manhattan and toured the remaining notable locations from the movie. The 2001 nightclub is unfortunately long gone, but there's some good stuff to see nonetheless. Here goes.

Saturday Night Fever...
Saturday afternoon fever.
Pearson Bay Ridge Home Center, 7305 5th Avenue
Yep, that's right, almost four decades on, the hardware store where Tony Manero earned his paycheck and where Mr. Fusco uttered those famous words "no, Tony, you can't fuck the future, the future fucks you!" is still a hardware store. I'm sure it's under different management than it was when the movie was filmed but I love that it's still selling paint and paint brushes, just like John Travolta's character all those years ago.

Walking through Bay Ridge today is like taking a trip back in time. The streetscape in the neighborhood seems to be decades removed from today. There are no big box stores or chain establishments. 80 percent of the businesses you pass walking from the Subway station to Pearson's today are locally owned and operated, just like they have been since they started selling anything in Brooklyn.

The store today looks a little different than it did when Mr. Fusco and Tony Manero closed up the store at 6 pm towards the beginning of the movie.  The main entrance is in the same general location within the storefront but there's a whole lot less glass and window space than there was in 1977, probably to decrease heat loss and increase security. It almost makes me miss the good old days when we could blissfully waste cheap fossil fuels. Not really but I did love the amount of window space in the original store.

Saturday Night Fever...
Saturday afternoon fever.
"The Manero House," 221 79th Street
The house where Tony lived with his parents, sister and grandmother in Saturday Night Fever is located a few blocks from the Pearson Bay Ridge Home Center, and it's also still standing. The first time he enters the house in the movie, Tony finds himself on the wrong end of a tongue lashing from his mother and out of work father about being late for a dinner which isn't ready anyway. The ensuing dinner conversation makes it plainly obvious to the audience that Tony is falling far short of his brother, Frank, Jr., who has entered the clergy.

If you didn't look closely, you might miss the house. It looks nothing like the house in the movie. The fake stone siding is gone and the whole house has been remade as some sort of English Tudor fantasy. The fenestration on the front of the house has been re-worked and the entrance now features a mini-dormer on a pair of added columns to divert the rain that I'm sure the current residents appreciate in a heavy storm. But the steps up to the front door are instantly recognizable and the bay window on the right side of the house is intact, complete with the exact same leaded or faux-leaded glass.

I imagine the interior layout is pretty much the same, with the stair on the right side of the house and the living room and dining room on the left with the kitchen in back of the dining room. Once you get upstairs, I bet the bedrooms are still in the same spot, but I'm doubting the Farrah Fawcett poster is still on the room that was Tony's in the movie.

Saturday Night Fever...
Saturday afternoon fever.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connects Brooklyn to Staten Island and at the time of its construction in 1964 was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Today, it ranks 11th but still first in the United States. On the Brooklyn side of the water, the bridge terminates right in Bay Ridge about a couple of miles from where the Maneros lived. As far as suspension bridges in New York go, it's definitely a distant third to the Brooklyn Bridge and George Washington Bridge but it's longer than those two so there you have it.

The scene in the movie where Tony and Stephanie sit on a bench at the foot of the bridge  is pictured above. Tony tells her all about what the bridge means to him and that dialog shows the audience that Tony is connected to his neighborhood and knows something more than working at a hardware store and dancing. Later on in the film the bridge plays a more ominous role when Tony's friend Bobby C takes an unintended dive into the East River, too distraught about how the Catholic church might view him getting his girlfriend, Pauline, pregnant to understand how to go on.

The bridge today look exactly the same as it did when the movie was filmed, although I'm sure if I got close enough, I would see a whole lot more rust on the steel than it had when it was built. My intent in walking down 4th Avenue was to get to the same bench that Stephanie and Tony sat on during their talk in the movie. But honestly, after about a mile of walking, the significantly below freezing temperatures got to me and I had to settle for taking a picture through the leafless trees from much further away. What can I say, I'm getting soft in my old age.

Saturday Night Fever...
Saturday afternoon fever.
Lenny's Pizza, 1969 86th Street
The last stop on my afternoon tour was a late lunch at Lenny's Pizza, the same exact pizza store that Tony Manero grabbed a couple of slices and strolled down 86th Street eating them sandwich style at the beginning of the movie. If there was a place that I was looking forward to more than anywhere else on this tour, it was Lenny's. Not just because Travolta's character ate at the same place under the same ownership, but any place that's been in business serving pizza in a pizza famous place like Brooklyn has to be good, right?

Lenny's is located right next to the 20th Avenue stop on the D line, which runs on an elevated track right down the center of 86th Street. When you walk in to the restaurant, there's a counter on the left displaying some amazing looking pizzas, strombolis and garlic knots that all New York pizzerias seem to offer. The margherita pizza looked amazing with gorgeous red sauce and a thin coating of what looked like delicious mozzarella cheese. I ordered two slices just like Tony Manero and sat down and waited for a couple of pieces of pizza heaven to come out of the oven, piping hot and delicious.

If I've ever been more disappointed in a pizza lunch, I can't remember the time. The sauce at Lenny's had some awesome flavor but that was pretty much all I could taste. The cheese added nothing and the crust had the consistency of stiff cardboard. It was honestly a little uncomfortable to eat. Maybe it was the time of day or the fact that it was so cold outside, but based on my visit, I can't believe this place has been in business so long. I should have taken two to go for the ultimate SNF experience, although I'm sure it wouldn't have improved the taste. Maybe I need to come back in the summer or something.

Lenny's was my last authentic Saturday Night Fever stop but there was one more thing I had to do before splitting New York and heading for home. I've eaten my fair share of fast food in my day and I'm still a total sucker for Taco Bell but I'd never ever stopped by a White Castle. In the movie, Tony and his friends Double J, Bobby C and Joey take Stephanie out to White Castle in Brooklyn. That store is long gone but there are still White Castles in New York, including one between our hotel and Madison Square Garden. How could I resist this opportunity to complete my Saturday Night Fever experience! Far out!

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