Woody Allen’s New York
I used to sort of hate New York. I rooted against the Yankees and saw the “big city” as a scary place of noise, fast-talk, and blood-filled drama. Then I watched Annie Hall. And Manhattan. And The Purple Rose of Cairo.
By the time I finally visited Manhattan, during a college break, I half expected ragtime or Irving Berlin to break out spontaneously as I walked down 42nd Street. After 13 years of living in New York, I still do.
Though not all of Woody’s films are New York films, ones like Manhattan make up the “I want to be a part of it, New York, New York” of cinema: uplifting, heart-breaking, aspirational. Funny, too. Woody doubts all this, of course. In the superb Woody Allen: A Documentary, he predicts “the only real value [of my work] is going to be the background scenery.”
You can find “Woody Allen moments” all over New York by hitting the sidewalks and keeping your ears open for a bickering couple outside Lincoln Center or Brooklynese chatter at an old-school diner. While actual film locations can be a bit anti-climatic, others feel timeless. Almost like you’re in the movie.
Here are a few examples:
No New York image on film is more iconic than Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, and an unnamed dachshund greeting the dawn at the end of Sutton Square. After a night of bouncing between parties, taxis, diners, and sidewalks in Manhattan, the two finally fall for each other (even if nothing happens) as the sun starts to peek over the string of lights atop the Queensboro Bridge.
Woody sums Manhattan up simply: “This is really a great city. I don’t care what anyone says.” Unless, of course, they note that there is actually no bench there. The pocket park below has a couple, but the one in the movie was added for the shot. You can even recreate the film’s opening scene — an epic pan of Midtown — by riding the Roosevelt Island Tram.
Some of the bookshops in Woody Allen films are gone, but the one where Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey meet before their affair gets going in Hannah and Her Sisters is Pageant Book & Print Shop in the East Village. It’s an old-school, book-browser survivor worth seeing while it’s still there.
Woody features another classic bookstore in The Front, the Argosy. This one, which is close to his real-life Upper East Side home, stocks rare books and has the feel of a London secret.
Broadway Danny Rose, the story of an unlikely manager (played by Woody of course) of failed acts, may be Woody’s most underrated “New York movie.”
“Borscht Belt” comics, playing themselves, anchor the film by swapping “Danny Rose stories” at a back table in Carnegie Deli, a Midtown eatery that’s barely changed. You can sit in the same spot and consider the “Woody Allen” sandwich (“lotsa corned beef plus lotsa pastrami”), which goes for $20 and could feed two. It’s a tad touristy, but the real deal.
The film ends just outside the famous deli, when Woody sweetly tracks down Mia Farrow as Tina, whose character was inspired by the Italian-American co-proprietor (Anna Rao) of still-going Rao’s, which opened in East Harlem in 1896.
The Long Shot in Annie Hall
With a bit of video equipment, you can recreate the fun 77-second shot along E. 66th Street in Annie Hall when Woody as Alvy Singer and Tony Roberts as Rob (finally) walk into frame discussing anti-Semitism and California’s appeal. The street (between Second and Third avenues), distinctive for its pedestrian island, has hardly changed.
The towering Modernist apartment building that appears in the shot (behind, to the right in the film) is Manhattan House, a city landmark that was once home to clarinet legend Benny Goodman.
Of the many theaters Woody patronizes on film, the most famous is probably the Beekman, where he wishes for a “sock full of horse manure” to silence a pontificating professor in line behind him in Annie Hall.
To overhear funny conversations, go early to a film at the Paris Theatre on 57th Street, which also makes a cameo in Annie Hall. Though the Film Forum tends to screen films more likely to hit you, as the professor put it, “on a gut level.”
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You’ll have to use your imagination to reenact Woody’s childhood days in Midwood, Brooklyn, where Woody (then going by his given name, Allan Konigsberg) grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s. His family lived on the top floor of the dorky three-story red-brick home, at 968 E. 14th Street, off Avenue J. He played with toy soldiers and “rooted against the Nazis” on the stoop, as he says in Woody Allen: A Documentary. If you make the trip, stop by Di Fara Pizza, a circa 1964 hole-in-the-wall around the corner that serves what many consider to be the city’s best slice.
Woody returned to Midwood to shoot the theater scenes of The Purple Rose of Cairo in the modest but enduring Kent Theatre (1170 Coney Island Avenue).
You can still ride Coney Island’s legendary roller coaster (one that still occasionally claims a life), but it’s not the coaster Woody (as Alvy) grew up under in Annie Hall. That one, the Thunderbolt, was demolished in 2000. A fancy new version is set to debut in 2014, though it is hardly likely to have the same atmosphere (or rickety home underneath).
The ultimate Woody is Woody himself. He famously skipped the 1978 Oscars — when Annie Hall took four awardsAnnie Hall took four awards — because he had a clarinet appointment. And you can watch Woody and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band play the intimate bar at the Carlyle Hotel. That is, if you don’t mind the ticket price ($145, plus a $25 drink minimum!).
The Carlyle has appeared in several of Woody’s films (in Manhattan Isaac (Woody) learns that Diane Keaton’s character is cheating on him by right outside). It’s also where Marilyn Monroe visited JFK (they sneaked in via tunnels to his private quarters) after delivering her breathy birthday tribute.
Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.