Professional actor and singer Max von Essen has lived in Hell’s Kitchen since 2005 — “I’m probably happiest when I’m in a Broadway show and get to walk to work,” he says. This is Max’s West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
Okay, let’s see. I was born in Ozone Park, Queens, but grew up mostly on Long Island in Rockville Centre. Once I was old enough, I’d take myself into Manhattan any chance I could get, especially Hell’s Kitchen because it was the most fun and had all the theater. After college, I was on the Upper East Side for a bit and then Astoria, before I landed in Hell’s Kitchen in 2005. I’ve been here ever since!!
What was your first job? What do you do now?
My first job? Gosh, I’m not even sure. I just feel like I’ve had a million first jobs LOL. I was a busboy throughout most of high school, I worked at a summer camp, I was a maintenance man in an office building near Penn Station, I worked at the GAP all through college, I was a pianist for some singers, and a waiter on the Upper East Side, among other things. The first time someone ever paid me to perform, though, was at a dinner theater down in North Carolina (I went to the University of NC at Chapel Hill) where I played Jack in a production of Into the Woods. These days, I’m a professional actor and singer, always trying to find work. From concerts to theater to television, wherever I can perform, I do it! I’m probably happiest when I’m in a Broadway show and get to walk to work. I just love getting to perform in this neighborhood.
What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
As someone who’s been in the New York area my whole life, it’s really hard to pick my favorite NY moments. I mean, I’ll never forget seeing my first Broadway show when I was in seventh grade (Dreamgirls!). Or many years later, getting the call from my agent that I’d booked MY first Broadway show! Or being with my dad at City Hall the day he was sworn in as Fire Commissioner of NYC in the late 90s. Standing on stage at Carnegie Hall performing with the New York Pops. Buying my HK apartment. Getting nominated for a Tony Award and performing at Radio City Music Hall. The list goes on, truly, because I’ve been extremely fortunate. And yet with all that, my favorite moments are still when I get to sit and laugh with my best friends, margaritas in hand, at Arriba Arriba!
Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
Gosh, I’ve loved Hell’s Kitchen ever since I was a little kid and was told to be VERY careful around here. At the time, 42nd Street was nothing but porn theaters and drug dealers. I’d stroll along 8th Avenue and get propositioned by prostitutes, and guess what?…I LOVED IT! Hah. It was wild and vibrant, I could see Broadway shows, hang out with friends, and I knew that one day I’d live here. What a lot of people don’t realize, with Times Square right here, Broadway theaters, Port Authority, etc… is that Hell’s Kitchen is a community. I know every person in my building, my dry cleaner is on my Christmas gift list, local baristas know my order and I know my bodega cat’s name (Pancha). Even being here during the pandemic was special in its own way. Cheering for the essential workers, helping to keep businesses afloat and often seeing the area so empty. It was eerily beautiful and I got some unreal photos during that time. Anyway, people just love being here, they’re proud and they care about the community.
What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
Hidden talent? Hah, as if. Any talent I have I’ve already told my agents about and it’s on my résumé.
What else should we know about you?
Well, I have two exciting concerts coming up at the Paradise Club in Times Square on August 18 and 19 at 8pm. The series is called Broadway Speakeasy and I get to lean into my Rat Pack side, singing tons of great standards from the American Songbook. Tickets are available through TodayTix.com. I’m really excited!
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Max’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places
Birdland Jazz Club — 315 W44th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
Not only have I performed my solo show here many times, but on Monday nights, Jim Caruso’s Cast Party is one of my favorite New York City events. A weekly, joyous, surprise-filled open mic night. Some of the greatest performers in the world will jump up and perform and, as Jim Caruso says, “also…other people.” I have been going for, no joke, TWENTY YEARS. I was at the very first one Jim ever held and have been popping in to hang out with friends and sing ever since.
Nizza — 630 9th Avenue (bw W44/45th St)
I love Nizza so much and have been going since they first opened about 15 years ago. I’m allergic to gluten, so the moment I realized they have a separate gluten-free menu and it is DELICIOUS, I became a regular. Plus, everyone is so nice. I mean, even now, during the SAG and Writers Guild strike, Nizza and their sister restaurant Marseille, are offering creative artists free meals. Eat now, pay later…if you can. They are great restaurants AND they care about this community.
Notice I didn’t choose just one. It’s impossible. I can often be found working for hours in any of the local shops. I love Bird and Branch, Frisson, Vanilla Gorilla, Jolly Goat (if you’re on the run, no room to sit), UT 47, honestly so many. Coffee culture is huge and HK has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to coffee shops!
Senza Gluten by Jemiko — 626 10th Avenue (bw W44/45th St)
This place is new to the ’hood but as I said, I’m gluten-free and wow, it is full-out delicious and a completely 100% gluten free establishment, so those who are really sensitive can rest easy. Even if you’re not gluten free, the food is delish. Truly. Welcome to the neighborhood, you guys!
Arriba Arriba — 762 9th Avenue (corner of W51st St)
I mean, c’mon, this is a neighborhood staple for margs and Mexican food and it is one of my favorite pastimes with friends. All any of us need to do is just drop into our group text thread and say “margs this week?” and it’s on the calendar.
Pier 84 — 555 12th Avenue
I’ve been in the neighborhood a long time, so it’s been pretty incredible to see the piers and paths along the Hudson River transform over the years. Pier 84 is closest to my apartment, so I’ll often just stroll over to sit out on the lawn (sometimes I’ll even drag my cat, Pocket, so she can sit and watch birds), or I’ll just walk over to catch the sunset, look at the Intrepid. I’ve even jumped on a kayak there and ridden it in the river on a gorgeous summer evening. It’s just beautiful.
You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.