If there’s a perennial A-list actress in New York, writes, it must be The Plaza Hotel, which has endured through the years as everything from bit player to star
SHE’S KNOWN TO many as the Grand Dame of New York, but even with more than 100 years behind her, the old broad still sees a ton of action – of the “lights, camera” variety. Unveiled in 1907, The Plaza Hotel has long held a soft spot among New Yorkers, and maybe even more so in the hearts of Hollywood types, who have used and abused the property to the brink of overexposure.
But instead of suffering from being in the eye of the camera, The Plaza has only flourished, growing into a star of big-screen proportions and a must-stop for tourist ogling, even as it retains its eminence as a historic memento for Manhattan’s elite.
The Plaza’s most steadfast tenant is Eloise, a six-year-old children’s book character dreamed up by author Kay Thompson. She’s a girl who ostensibly lives in the penthouse suite and causes all sorts of trouble in between jaunts through the hotel’s storied corridors and tea at Palm Court, the high-ceilinged coffee shop and the perfect place to indulge in three-layer tea trays and people-watching, while basking in the stained-glass-filtered sunlight.
As of mid last year, she began sharing her bedroom with paying tenants, when The Plaza launched an Eloise suite designed by Betsey Johnson. The designer’s own eccentric persona and aesthetic influenced the design of the room, which is bathed in pop pink with zebra-print carpeting and plenty of ditsy florals, as well as motifs representing Eloise and her four-legged friends – her dog, Weenie, and turtle, Skipperdee.
If the room sounds a little loud for your typical Plaza resident, it probably is, but that doesn’t stop it from being popular, and not just with the kids. Purportedly, Denise Richards was staying there with her two daughters while ex-husband Charlie Sheen was busted for trashing hotel property during a much-reported alcohol and drug-fuelled rage. That’s certainly more mischief than Eloise herself ever got into.
Normally, the hotel is equipped for all kinds of trouble, as evidenced by the glass-encased secret service/bodyguard holding room in the Royal Terrace suite. Security was no match, however, for the fan-girl crowd, a well-meaning but rabid swarm of pre-teen youngsters that thronged the hotel during the premiere of a small-budget film called Remember Me, which happened to feature Twilight-vampire-turned-mega-movie-star Robert Pattinson.
Message boards and blogs foretold of the mayhem that would occur, which included camping out for a sight of the heartthrob arriving at the Paris Theatre next door for the premiere, and for the post-screening reception at The Plaza’s grand ballroom (switched from the Oak Room due to capacity issues).
Luckily, there had been practice with the situation during the movie’s filming – also at The Plaza – which brought an initial drove of fans clamouring for a celebrity sighting. Crowd issues were resolved thanks to proper mob-management techniques, as well as the surprise distribution of advance screening tickets that delivered fans to another part of town so the stars could leave the venue in peace.
In the days before blogs and instant Internet-enabled stalking capabilities, The Plaza was still a draw for the rich and famous. The hotel’s first role was in Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947, starring Gregory Peck as an investigative journalist posing as a Jewish man to expose New York’s anti-Semitism. Over a decade later, it featured more prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. The film’s star, Cary Grant, was actually a permanent resident of the hotel at the time, and in the film played a man who suffers from mistaken identity when he is kidnapped in place of the person staying in room 796 (a fictional room number).
Arguably, these were not the best ways to portray the iconic hotel – “Come get kidnapped at The Plaza!” is hardly a great tagline – but 1967’s Barefoot in the Park helped rectify that.
The odd-couple rom-com opens at The Plaza, where stuffy Paul (Robert Redford) and free spirit Corie (Jane Fonda) pull in to the driveway by horse-drawn carriage to check in for their honeymoon. “If the honeymoon doesn’t work out, let’s not get divorced, let’s kill each other,” pouts Fonda. Replies Redford: “Let’s have a maid do it! I hear the service here is wonderful…” They don’t leave their room again till check-out.
In another Redford venture, The Plaza stars in the closing act. The story of Hubbell Gardiner and Katie Morosky in The Way We Were is a classic tale of love lost, reaching its poignant climax as the duo happen upon each other years after their divorce. As they look at each other wistfully and remember the promise they saw in each other’s youth, despite differences, the hotel looms in the background as if proof of constancy. Times change, but the way we were will never.
The hotel is also a constant point in Plaza Suite, in which a suite 719 acts as backdrop for three comedic stories/acts.
The late 1970s and early ’80s marked a crowded time in the hotel’s schedule, with at least one movie filmed there each year over a six-year period, including Arthur (which will be remade next year with Russell Brand in Dudley Moore’s title role, though there’s no word yet on whether the location will be reprised), The Rose and Annie.
Although the exterior of the building is most conspicuous on celluloid, interior locations are no less worthy settings. The Oak Room was refurbished to its former glory during the hotel’s US$450 million, three-year renovation that ended in 2008, which included cleaning the walls of smoky residue, a relic left from days before health concerns pervaded the country. But you can still go back to those murky days by watching Scent of a Woman, in which Al Pacino’s character takes Chris O’Donnell’s on a trip to the Big Apple, and shares over dinner at the Oak Room his plan to blow his own brains out.
Less astonishing revelations come from the waiters at the establishment, who are more than happy to share anecdotes about the Tinseltown guests who come to dine in style. Purportedly, the castle relief on one wall was Walt Disney’s inspiration for his eponymous company’s unforgettable fairy-tale castle, the one that sits in every Disneyland around the world. At least one chatty server isn’t afraid to admit that he brought his DVD of Twister to present to Bill Paxton for an autograph at the end of dinner (he declined to do the same when waiting on Denzel Washington).
The grand ballroom has also seen its shareof action. Renowned not only for being the place to get hitched – Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones are among the celebrity couples to have hosted nuptials there – it’s also known for being impossible to book.
Back in the day, it was the site of Truman Capote’s famed Black and White masked ball. So it’s no surprise than when it came to making a movie about two best-friend brides fighting over the right to get married in the same ballroom on the same day, there was no better choice. Bride Wars, a comedy starring Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway, was largely panned by critics, but it certainly did
The Plaza proud – the waitlist for the grand ballroom is as long as ever.
Another silver-screen nuptial took place at The Plaza some years ago – Sex and the City’s Mr Big and Natasha celebrated their engagement there in the season-two ending of the HBO television series. And in a case of art imitating, well, art, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw bids her sometime paramour farewell with the same words that Katie Morosky uses, standing in front of the same hotel: “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell.” Mr Big peers at her with a confused expression as she walks into the distance.
The show was famed for its ability to create a character out of New York City, a fifth lead role equal in importance to any of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha or Charlotte. But hasn’t The Plaza been doing that for years? As a symbol of safety and home-away-from-home for Macauley Culkin in Home Alone 2; as a metaphor for quintessential New York luxury in Crocodile Dundee; as a place of excess and hedonism in Almost Famous, where Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane overdoses in a hotel bathroom…
Or maybe it’s put best in the kitschy, camp music video Mariah Carey filmed for her hit single Obsessed last year, singing as she walks up The Plaza’s red-carpeted front steps: “Why you so obsessed with me?”
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