Tony Award winner John Rubinstein is currently playing the title role in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground at Theatre at St Clements in Hell’s Kitchen, but his love affair with the neighborhood goes back to the 1970s. He rides his bike to and from the theater every day. This is his West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
Born in Los Angeles, but moved here with my family in 1954, when I was seven years old. Went to school here at St. Bernard’s (98th Street) and then at Collegiate (77th Street). Fell in love with the theater, and saw as many plays and musicals as I could — which was many!! — all through school, during what is often called the “golden age” of Broadway. Graduated high school, went back to California to attend UCLA’s Theater Arts Department. Started working as an actor and as a film composer in LA, but came back to New York to play the title role in Pippin in 1972 for Bob Fosse, and then Children of a Lesser God in 1980, for which I won a Tony Award. Since then I have been commuting between LA and NY, working on- and off-Broadway, as well as doing national tours and working in film and TV on both coasts and in between. New York always feels like home, but… I root for the Dodgers!
What was your first job? What do you do now?
My first job was in San Carlos, California when I was 18, in the musical Camelot, playing young Tom of Warwick, who only comes on in the last 10 minutes of the three-hour show, and has a terrific scene with King Arthur (Howard Keel at the time). Howard would then get me hired wherever he was appearing in Camelot, and I continued doing that show over the decades — as Mordred in LA, and finally as Arthur, at the Muny in St Louis. That first job was in 1965, and now, 58 years later, I’m still doing it; grateful to have managed to make a living as an actor, a composer and conductor, a director, and a teacher for all these years. My love for the theater is as enthusiastic as it was when I was a young boy sitting in the audience in this great town.
What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
Perhaps an autumn morning in 1973 when my daughter Jessica, then one and a half, and I played kick-ball in the leaves in Central Park under the yellow and red fall trees, just a few days before her little brother Michael was born. A suspended moment of beauty and love, fun and happiness and an endless future. But really, it’s impossible to pick one. I’ve lived and worked here so long, gone through so much, seen and done so many things, raised my children, met and worked with so many astounding people, that to pick a “favorite” would be crazy, and not quite authentic. I walk (and bike) the streets now, as I always have, and virtually every street corner on the East or West Side, or section of the Park, of Brooklyn, of Inwood, of the Village, of Soho, of the theater district, carries not one, but a bunch of memories of “minutes” I have lived in this city. Some wonderful beyond imagining, some heartbreaking and regretful, but all alive with me as I journey on. I do love New York.
Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
Hell’s Kitchen, first and foremost, encompasses most of the Broadway theaters, where I have gone all through my life as a devoted member of the audience, and where I subsequently have experienced so much challenge and rapture and hard work, acting on so many of those stages I used to just dream about. In the 1950s, I would go to Europe every year, because my father worked there during the spring and summer months; so we would board the big passenger ships at the docks, and see them lined up at their mooring slips all along 12th Avenue, and then arrive back in the fall with all the people and the luggage in the giant covered landing areas.
My son Michael lived there near 10th Avenue in the 90s, and I’d visit him when I was in town. And when I’ve worked in the theater over the last 10 years, I’ve brought my wife and our youngest son from LA, and we rent an Airbnb on 10th Avenue and 45th Street, half a block down from my favorite bicycle shop (which has a partner up on West 96th Street) — Trek Bicycle. I always rely on Alcone Company on W49th Street to stock up on stage makeup when I’m working. The restaurants in the area just get more plentiful and better every year. Yum Yum Too, a Thai on 9th Avenue and 46th; Frankie & Johnnie’s, an old haunt of mine from when they were on 45th between 8th and 9th and now in their newer spot on 46th Street; 44 & X on 10th; of course Joe Allen on 46th, where at 25 I had my first and only credit account (before I had a credit card) and would get a monthly bill instead of paying the check each time — which made me feel like a true member of the theater community and of Hell’s Kitchen itself! For a year I rented an apartment on West 56th Street on the 44th floor, saw the Hudson, New Jersey and all of lower Manhattan, listened at night to the loud moaning of the winds battering away at the windows. Magical stuff. Magical place.
What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
I would never characterize anything I do or have as a superpower. But what I do feel I have, and make reasonably good use of — probably learned from my father — is the ability to truly enjoy each day, to value the gift of being alive and part of this whole gigantic Thing. I’m not at all religious, quite the contrary; but even when things are tough, or truly painful and hard to understand or accept, I still find myself able to feel grateful to be there, if only to tackle that pain or problem and see if I can whittle it down a bit. My wife, my five beautiful children, my siblings, my dear friends, my students, my colleagues — just knowing them, living and working with them — always allow me to have that feeling of enjoyment and joy and gratitude, just to stick around to see what happens next.
What else should we know about you?
I sincerely hope for this country, which is in a pretty terrible tailspin on many levels right now — mostly politically, but also in the terrible inequality of opportunity and earning potential for its people, not to mention the growing hatreds of various kinds which were always there, although with a certain kind of lid or limit on them, but which now have been popped open and made hideously “acceptable” or even commonplace — I hope that the coming generations can manage to navigate the murky and troubled waters ahead and emerge in a country that has learned, and made the necessary adjustments that will offer a decent life to everyone who is here, and who comes here in the future.
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John’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places
Joe Allen — 326 W46th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
This great theater meeting place and restaurant — where the quality of the food is taken seriously, not just thrown together, has been at the top of my list for over 50 years. Joe is gone, but the great food, service and ambience are as good as ever. I can’t wait to go there. Tonight!
Alcone Company — 322 W49th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
This is a small theatrical makeup store. I invariably need to buy makeup when doing a run in a play, and these people know their clientele and their products. They advise me on what I need, show me tools and substances I am unaware of, and it is a dependable and terrific place to get exactly the right stuff for whatever kind of role I’m playing.
The Imperial Theatre — 249 W45th Street (bw Broadway/8th Ave)
The Imperial is one of the many great Broadway theaters. It happens to be the first one I was ever honored to work in as an actor. We opened Pippin there in 1972, over 50 years ago, and I can’t sit in it or walk by it without being flooded with memories, pretty much all good ones!
Ollie’s Sichuan — 411 W42nd St (bw 9th/10th Ave)
All my kids and I have enjoyed Ollie’s great food and bustling atmosphere for years and years. Those pan-fried noodles . . . don’t get me started!
Trek Bicycle — 653 10th Avenue (bw W46/47th St)
There are many excellent bike stores in the city, but being a person who almost exclusively travels throughout the city by bicycle, I have depended on Trek on 10th, as well as their partner on 96th Street, to get me around New York. I’ve bought bikes there, had emergency repairs done quickly and expertly, bought lights and other paraphernalia to keep me safe. It’s almost a haunt of mine.
Yum Yum Too — 662 9th Avenue (corner of W46th St)
I love Thai food. Whichever city I’m in, I first look for the Thai restaurant where I can always feel at home and be well-fed. Since I work in the theater, I find myself at Yum Yum Too more than any other, even though New York abounds in great Thai restaurants from top to bottom. The food is delicious, the cocktails are imaginative, the people who work there are kind and welcoming, and it’s quiet, in case one has lines to learn, or just needs a break from the noise.
Sushi Seki Times Square — 365 W46th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
One of the best Japanese restaurants in town, certainly in Hell’s Kitchen. Again, with so much amazing competition, it is a joy to go into the very calm and inviting Seki, and be treated to some of the most delectable food and drinks in Manhattan. I never miss it, whenever I’m in the city.
John is currently performing as President Eisenhower in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground at the Theatre at St Clements in Hell’s Kitchen on W46th Street (between 9/10th Avenue) until the end of July. eisenhowertheplay.com
If you know someone who would make a great West Side Story (or you would like to nominate yourself), please fill in this form — w42st.info/WSSnominations.
You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.