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CHAPTER FIVE

The RTR

Song Stories

album liner notes

In this series of Song Stories we’re taking you behind the scenes of each song.
Chapter V– The Russian Tea Room is the fourth EP from our album Old Bones Odyssey
Coming soon: we’re creating a podcast that dives deeper into the stories and history behind our songs.

***These posts contain my special memories as well as family history and photos of the 49 years my family owned and operated the Russian Tea Room, 1947-1996,
and are not, in any way, affiliated with its current ownership.-Ellen Kaye

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THE RTR

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Lyrics

The RTR

“Golden balls and tinsel, Stiller and Meara in the corner, blini and caviar 
Through the revolving door, the world came dancing, loving
It all happened on 57th Street”-Ellen Kaye

Ellen C Kaye – Lead Vocal
Ethan Fein – Guitar, Tenor Banjo
Andrew DrellesClarinet, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax
Diane Monroe – Violin
Koa Ho – Upright Bass
Zach Mullings – Drums
Jackie Presti – Backing Vocals
Soara-Joye Ross – Backing Vocals                (c) 2022 All rights reserved

Red glass globes on fire
Salvador Dali in the corner
Crushed ice and caviar 
Through the revolving door
The world came tumbling, 
Laughing

Golden balls and tinsel
Stiller and Meara in the corner
Blini and caviar 
Through the revolving door
The world came dancing, loving
It all happened on 57th Street

They’re eating
Cherry blintzes, Chicken Kiev,
Kasha and piroshki
Steaming bowls of pelmeni
Pumpernickel, sour cream,
With lots of boiled potatoes
And White Russians 
Steeping tea bags
In free boiling water

 

Pink table cloths are glowing
Sidney Poitier sits in the corner
Vodka and caviar
Through the revolving door
The world came winning,
Losing

Pool green walls surround us
Sylvia Miles in the corner
The brass and samovars
Through the revolving door
The world came schmoozing,
Boozing

It all happened down the block
from Horn & Hardart’s Automat

They’re eating
Vareniki and sirniki
Blinchiki and rosolnik
Butter pouring over blini
Mushroom barley, sour pickles
And lots of cold zubrovka
And White Russians
Steeping tea bags
In free boiling water

 

Sidney Pollack’s Tootsie
Madonna hatchecking in the corner
Zakuski and caviar
Through the revolving door
The world came thinking,
Dreaming

Red banquettes on fire
Harry Belafonte in the corner
Day-O!
Smoked tongue and caviar
Through the revolving door
The world came moving,
Shaking

Just across from that ol’ Chock full
o’Nuts The Heavenly Coffee

They’re eating
Kulebiaka, Luli kebab
Bitochki and pojarski
Forshmak dragimiroff
Tomato herring Russian dressing
Lots of chicken liver
And White Russians
Steeping tea bags
In free boiling water

People lined up to the sidewalk
Zero Mostel sings in the corner
Tradition!
Murals and caviar
Through the revolving door
The world came hondling,
Schnorring

Blacklisted artists on fire
Lee Grant loves to linger in the corner
Shashlik and caviar
Through the revolving door
The world came swirling,
Twirling

We were all slightly to the left of
Carnegie Hall

And White Russians
Steeping tea bags
In free, free boiling water

Ellen C Kaye – Lyrics
Ethan Fein – Music 
Recorded/Mixed/Mastered by Bill Moss
Outlier Inn Recording Studio – Woodridge, New York
Ellen C Kaye, Ethan Fein, Bill Moss, Alan Joseph–Producers
A Repair With Gold Production LLC SM
 (c) 2023 All rights reserved.

The Story

The RTR

“And White Russians steeping tea bags in free boiling water!”-Ellen Kaye

The Back Story To The Song
History in a nutshell told by a nightclub singer, not an historian.

  • A Little Russian History.
    The Russian people lived as serfs for thousands of years. In 1917 they overthrew the Czar, the king of Russia. The aristocrats of his empire who survived the violence of the Communist revolution, called by some the “White Russians,” fled to various parts of the world. Many of them landed in New York City. Not a few had hit financial hard times. 
  • A Little Russian Jewish History. 
    The Czars of Russia were not overly fond of the Russian Jewish people. The Czar sent his Cossacks, his horse guard, to beat and kill my ancestors in sweeping pogroms. My father’s people came here, fleeing from the murder and mayhem.
  • A Little White Russians At The RTR History.
    And then NYC being what it is, and life being what it is, the Czar’s relations ended up in our restaurant,The RTR, due to its Russian identity. And,  what I’ve recently learned, is that the owners of the Tea Room before my father’s time were possibly “White Russians,” so that also explains their hanging hard at the Tea Room when my father took over.
    According to family lore, there were a large group of them. They would descend on the banquets and while away the afternoons, ordering boiling water and supplying their own tea bags. My father would watch with growing anger and after a bunch of days would kick them all out screaming “get the hell out of my restaurant.” Time would pass and they would all return and the entire cycle would begin again.
  • A Little History Of The 1950’s Black List Written by Alan Joseph
    In 1941 the United States Congress, led by Montana Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler and North Dakota Republican Senator Gerald Nye led a Congressional investigation into Hollywood’s alleged role in promoting Soviet propaganda.
    In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to investigate Hollywood as well.
    During the 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy, through the Senate Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations, joined in the fray alleging the existence of communists in the US Government and numerous institutions throughout the country. As a result of these investigations, over 200 actors, writers, and musicians were ultimately blacklisted from working in the entertainment industry.
    Among those blacklisted were Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Judy Holliday, Burl Ives, Artie Shaw, Lena Horne, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein, and good friends of Sidney Kaye, the owner of The Russian Tea Room, Lee Grant and Zero Mostel.

    While not blacklisted themselves, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara continued to work with blacklisted artists throughout that era.  
    Hollywood would strike back by making movies like “High Noon,” written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman, as an allegorical warning to those enforcing the blacklist and the people standing silently by allowing it to happen.

My Personal Backstory To The Song
“My memories are of a dazzling, whacky, red and gold swirling non-stop world
with wonderful people rolling in and out every moment.”-Ellen Kaye

The RTR Slide Show

Blini
Carnegie Hall
57th Street, NYC
Zero Mostel
circa 1960's.
"Tootsie" filmed at the Russian Tea Room 1982
"Tootsie" was directed by Sydney Pollack and filmed in NYC and Upstate New York during 1982.
Anne Meara, Faith Stewart-Gordon, Jerry Stiller
Salvador Dali, Sidney Kaye
Lee Grant
Faith & Anne Meara
Old friends. circa 1970s.
Sidney, Alice, Jan @The RTR
The RTR
57th Street, NYC. circa 1980's.
RTR Staff
Please email us if you know these two gentlemen, thank you! @The RTR. circa 1970's.
RTR Postcard #1
circa 1960s.
Sidney & Faith
@The RTR. NYC. circa early 1960's.
Julie Wilson & Billy Roy
@The RTR Cabaret, performing in the New York Room. circa 1990s.
Horn & Hardart
Faith Stewart-Gordon
@The RTR.
Chock Full O.Nuts
Sidney & Sidney
Sylvia Miles
Milton Glaser
RTR NY Times Ad
circa 1960s-1990s.
Sidney - RTR - Illustration
Mushrooms A La Russe
RTR Bus Stop Sign - NYC
Anne, Faith, Jerry #2
Hot Borscht
RTR Holiday Lights
RTR Menu
circa 1960's.
Shaslik, Chicken Kiev, Beef Stroganoff, Borscht, Piroshki, RTR Tea
RTR Dining Room
circa 1980's
RTR - The Brass Door
Walter Kaye
circa 1960's.
RTR Banner
Anne & Jerry
RTR Cookbook
Faith Kaye
Outside the RTR. circa 1960's.
Click Here
Faith with RTR Team
Dame Alexandrova Danilova
Early RTR #1
Sidney Kaye @The RTR
Sylvia Miles
Find credits
"Unfaithfully Yours" - the film
Dudley Moore, Armand assante, Natasia Kinkski
The Russian Tea Room - A Tasting
Ellen & Faith
Alice, Ellen, Faith
Ellen @The RTR
circa 1964.
RTR Postcard #2
RTR Postcard #3
cica 1960's.
RTR Postcard
The RTR
circa 1931. Owned by Albertina Rasch.
The RTR
Early days. circa
Sidney Kaye & Anne Mesavage
RTR - circa 1960's.
RTR Staff
circa 1960's.
RTR Staff #2
circa 1960's.
Ballet Painting #1
Ballet Painting #2
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My family once owned the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street in New York City next to Carnegie Hall. It was a quintessential New York watering hole. Full of characters. From the people who worked there to the movie stars, the theater legends, their agents and managers, the eclectic New Yorkers, tourists from all over America and all over the world. It was a fabulous, hilarious place. 
My father Sidney Kaye owned it from 1947-1967. When he died my mother Faith Stewart-Gordon took over and ran it very successfully till 1996.

My earliest memories in my life are of the RTR, or the “ol’ watering hole” as my mother liked to call it. My father Sidney owned it and for the first seven years of my life it was my home away from home, across the street from our apartment. He died when I was seven and for me the restaurant became the embodiment of him. My mother took over the reins, and what my father had built, and took the place to a whole other level. She was a groundbreaking woman in a famously male dominated industry. 

My memories are of a dazzling, whacky, red and gold swirling non-stop world with wonderful people rolling in and out every moment. That place held my heart. This song, “The RTR,” is an ode to those days, to that funny little building crammed into a hectic New York City street. A little building that seemed so much bigger than it was. Written partly through the eyes of a child, mostly through longing and remembrance of a golden place. Completely, as a loyal and devoted lover of all things deeply New York City. Especially the people who live in it.


Full transcript of interview with Ellen below

“I want people to feel like they’re in a Marx Brothers movie
because there was such a slap-⁠dash crazy world of talented, wacky people.“-Ellen Kaye

Well, I was lucky enough to be born into the RTR. My father Sidney Kaye bought into it in 1947. He owned it until 1967 when he passed away and my mother inherited it and ran it until 1996. My mother Faith Stewart-Gordon. It’s in my blood. I’m actually a third generation restaurant person. My grandfather owned restaurants before the crash of 1929. I’ve been in them all my life. I love them. I owned my own restaurant with my partners, Seth and Ethan, called Moscow 57. I wanted to bring it to life. So I wrote this song so I could live in it once more.

I want people to feel like they’re in a Marx Brothers movie because there was such a slap-⁠dash crazy world of talented, wacky people. New York City was a really special place and the Tea Room was a special place within a special place. Some of the most interesting actors and writers and just every kind of human being walked through the doors of that place. And I’m hoping that people capture the zaniness, and if I’ve done my job and I know that Ethan has done his job, you will definitely feel like you’re in this strange kind of whirling, revolving door of Russian Cream and champagne, caviar and a huge amount of butter being poured over your blini. That’s pretty much what I’m looking to get.

I guess if I have to choose, I’m going to choose: “White Russians, steeping tea bags, in free boiling water.” The story is really long. So the first thing I’m going to say is come to one of my live shows and I’m going to tell you all about it. And the second thing I’m going to say is just imagine my father, Sidney Kaye, standing in the middle of the restaurant screaming at the top of his lungs, in language that I’m probably not supposed to use right now, telling the White Russians, look it up, to get the heck out of his restaurant. Because once again, they’d all arrive and sit for three hours with their own tea bags ordering boiling water. That’s not good in the restaurant business. That’s the story. 

I would have to say that working on the archives that my mother had given me while she was alive and then the rest of them that I inherited when she passed away during COVID have a lot to do with it because I’ve been surrounded, I mean, up to my eyeballs in slides of the Tea Room, photos of the Tea ⁠Room, documents of the Tea Room. I even found an old tape recording of my father in a session with his attorney and it’s about air rights and I actually don’t think I’ve ever heard his voice since he passed away in 1967. So the song, it’s a way for me to travel back in time and I’d have to say that I was very glad to go there.

Sources And Inspirations

  • My life.
  • Family stories.
  • My RTR archives.
  • My Faith Stewart-Gordon papers.
  • The Bluebird of Happiness – The Memoirs of Jan Peerce  – Alan Levy . Harper & Row, Publishers 1976.
  • The Russian Tea Room Cookbook – written by Faith Stewart-Gordon & Nika Hazelton. 
  • Published by Richard Marek Publishers 1981.
    Introduction by Clive Barnes. Illustrated by Richard Giglio.
  • The Russian Tea Room A Tasting  – written by Faith Stewart-Gordon with Starla Smith.
    Published by Panache Press, a division of Clarkson Potter, Inc. 1993.
    Illustrations by Paul Cox. 

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Ellen C Kaye

Ellen C Kaye

Singer/songwriter, producer, podcast maker, mom, born and bred in NYC. Night Club singer at heart.