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September 11, 2015

My Favorite Story from the Summer

The meteorologists say that summer doesn’t end until the final moments of September 22nd, but most of us disagree. Labor Day’s the day when we say, as the Goldmans and John Kander wrote in A FAMILY AFFAIR, “Summer Is Over.” As a result, we then welcome, as Lerner and Loewe wrote in PAINT YOUR WAGON, “Another Autumn.”

This was a terrific summer for me, and I hope you can say the same. One event that happened to me on June 30 caused me to tell a tale to most everyone I met from July 1 on.

At first, I prefaced the story with “You probably know where I’m going with this story, because I don’t know nearly as much about SEINFELD as the next person. Therefore, what I’m about to tell you may be common knowledge.”

But everyone – more than three dozen people and counting, including rabid fans of who can cite chapter, verse, episode and dialogue exchanges of every SEINFELD episode – did NOT know how the story would turn out.

Perhaps you will, perhaps you won’t, but I’ll take a chance and relate what happened on that sunny Tuesday morn.

At 10:30, I left my apartment and began walking to the SiriusXM studio on West 47th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Frank De Caro, who has a weekday show on the satellite network, had read my book THE GREAT PARADE and had graciously invited me onto his program to talk about it.

I had awakened a little too late to fit in breakfast, so I’d just rough it until I’d finished the 11 a.m. interview. Besides, by then my favorite lunch spot would be open and I’d just grab something there on my way back home.

The Sirius XM studio turned out to be directly across the street from the Cort Theatre, whose marquee screamed “Jason Alexander FISH IN THE DARK.” That started me wondering how Alexander was doing in the role that Larry David had originated in his own play. David’s voice betrayed that he was no theater actor, but Alexander – starting with a dynamic debut in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG – had plenty of stage dust on his feet (and probably in his lungs, too).

After the interview, which went very nicely, I headed for that favorite lunch spot that’s not far from my apartment: The Soup Man. It was the inspiration for the famous SEINFELD episode about “The Soup Nazi.” It fictionalized one Al Yeganeh, proprietor of The Soup Kitchen, a little open-air storefront at 259 West 55th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.

Yeganeh apparently struck fear in the hearts of those who hoped to buy some of his delicious soup. Apparently every customer had to be ready with his order the second he approached the counter, for the proprietor would not endure any hesitation, not to mention any questions or criticisms. He actually painted in black footprints on the sidewalk to indicate where each person should stand and then move while waiting for the order.

Some time in the ‘90s, I did make my first visit to The Soup Kitchen. This was either before the famous episode aired or before I had heard of it, so I didn’t know Yeganeh’s notorious reputation. And yet, I must admit I did feel a somber fear from those in line in front and back of me. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t go again, although I discovered that The Soup Kitchen did offer g-o-o-d s-o-u-p.

Yeganeh hated the episode. When he went out of business in 2004, he claimed that SEINFELD was responsible for the failure – for people who’d seen the show became fearful that even if they got his ever-so-great soup, they’d pay in psychic coin when “The Soup Nazi” embarrassed or mistreated them.

The place did re-open, although I can’t say I remember when I decided to give it a second chance. It was a few years ago, and since then, I’ve been a steady customer. Spending time there has allowed me to see that to this day tourists still stand in front of the storefront, holding cameras that range from cell phones to Leicas. They happily snap away pictures as if they were photographing The Empire State Building, The Statue of Liberty or, best of all, Broadway marquees.

If they also order soup, they’re probably a little surprised (and maybe even a tiny bit disappointed) that the various staff members are now very nice. I’ve never seen any one of the eight or so employees be even slightly rude to anyone. Depending on who’s working, you may even hear coming out of the overhead loudspeaker selections from FINIAN’S RAINBOW, SOUTH PACIFIC, GUYS AND DOLLS and KISS ME, KATE. They won’t be sung by any original or revival cast member, but from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr. and many others who recorded for the short-lived “Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre” that Sinatra’s label did in 1963. And, really, what could be more welcoming to anyone standing in line than hearing classic Broadway show music?

One Soup Man server reminds me of Dolores Dante, the extraordinary waitress that Studs Terkel interviewed for his book WORKING. Her panegyric to customer service spurred one of Stephen Schwartz’s greatest songs: “It’s an Art.”

And there is artistry in this gentleman’s work, for he takes pride in remembering what each loyal customer prefers. No matter what nine soups are offered that day, he’s memorized your favorite and heads for that pot as soon as he sees you.

Each soup comes with bread (except in George Costanza’s case) and fruit. Usually there’s only one fruit available each day, but if there are two, he knows which of the two you prefer. In packing everything, he’s speedy as can be, to the point where one time he was rushing around so quickly that I thought I saw three arms. If Edward Albee’s 1983 play is ever revived, this guy should definitely audition for it.

The gentleman runs at the cash register is genial, too, always offering a smile. He too has been paying attention and has noticed that I organize the bills in my wallet face front and right-side-up, so that’s the way he hands me my change.

Oh, the vestiges of the bad ol’ days remain. There’s a sign that says “Management reserves the right to refuse service to anyone,” but that seems to be there so that camera-toters will have one more ominous item at which to point and shoot. What’s more, it’s close to the list of soups of the day, so any photographer just might say “Hmm, while I’m here, that Jambalaya looks good …”

Also on sale are “No Soup for You!” T-shirts and mugs ($15), nestling near a picture captioned “Soup for Me!” with SEINFELD’s Jason Alexander atop it with his arms defiantly crossed --

And on that Tuesday morning it hit me. Jason Alexander! Given that he’s working only a few blocks from The Soup Man, there’s a great photo opportunity here!

Then I started thinking that Alexander had already visited the stand while photographers were snapping away and reporters were taking notes. Philip Rinaldi, FISH IN THE DARK’S press agent, is no slouch and knows when opportunity knocks. Because I’d been on the road so much in the time that Alexander had been doing the show, I probably missed the many newspaper and Internet stories where he’d showed at The Soup Man, was jokingly shunted to the side or denied bread. On the other hand, perhaps Rinaldi had arranged for an even a better photo op in which Alexander was welcomed as royalty before he tasted the wares (I recommend the broccoli and cheese) and decreed “It’s g-o-o-d s-o-u-p!”

Still, on the off-chance that Rinaldi hadn’t thought of this, maybe I could get the ball rolling. Jason Alexander and I have always got along, so he might be amenable to my doing a story on this and, in the process, helping out the store, too.

To be frank, I also saw another potential benefit. Maybe, just maybe, the nice Soup Men would be so grateful for the press coverage that they’d give me free soup – maybe even for a week.

Maybe even for a month!

Maybe even for a --

By now I was at The Soup Man, where I said to the nice guy at the register “I don’t know if you know this, but doing a play right now on Broadway is Jason Alexander,” I added, giving a thumb-thrust to his picture before semi-bragging, “I have a feeling that with a little wangling, I could get him over here for a press event that would be good for business.”

And that’s when the nice guy droned “Jason Alexander is part owner of the company.”

No soup for me.

         — Peter Filichia



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His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available
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