Many aspiring actors, singers and dancers come to New York with big dreams of fame and fortune. While waiting for their big break, a popular day job is waiting tables. That’s probably why New York (second only to Los Angeles) features the most attractive waitstaff in America.
For a lucky few there is a place where a day job is also an opportunity to perform. Yes, those who work at Ellen’s Stardust Diner as part of the “singing waitstaff” can say they perform on Broadway on the corner of 51st Street that is, where the diner moved in 1995. In between sets, the waitstaff see to their duties like other servers, carrying trays and refilling coffee mugs. For locals and tourists alike, a meal at Ellen’s is part of the quintessential New York experience. Despite all the changes and security added to the cities boroughs, Manhattan is still a hotspot for travelers, and there is no better place to be entertained than on Broadway.
This was not always so. Back in the 1980’s, Times Square was going through a phase of urban renewal. The peep shows, three card monte games and open prostitution in broad daylight was a big problem. The challenge was to make the area around the theater district less dangerous and more family friendly. The Sanitation Department could not keep up with the amount of refuse littering the streets. New York was losing tourist dollars as rampant crime and porno billboards were discouraging visitors. Shows were closing, not necessarily because they bombed, but because of poor theater attendance. Backers willing to take a chance on new shows were hard to find. =The seventies had hit New York hard and the eighties promised a recovery, but just who would help save the city was the question.
The answer came in the form of real estate developers along with politicians and philanthropists who joined forces to transform the scary seventies into an area that would once again capture the true spirit of the city. This renewal was going to take time and lots of money but offered unique opportunities for those who had quite a few dollars and a dream. Sometimes all it took was a facelift for a place already doing business.
In 1987, Ken Sturm transformed his place called Ellen’s Cafe into a 1950s themed, brightly lit, showcase called Ellen’s Stardust Diner where the decor and entertainment complete with the wonderful food for top billing. Head shots grace the walls and the theme is old time Broadway. The place is named for Sturm’s mother, Ellen. Sturm is a well known successful real estate investor and entrepreneur and Ellen’s is one of his most famous investments.
Many of the songs performed come straight from the Broadway Theaters. Gorgeous fairytale numbers from “Beauty and the Beast “ mesmerize the diners. Then for the next song, it could be a number straight from the 70s Ike and Tina Turner review “Rolling on the River.” Sometimes it’s a solo performance of “Memories” from the show Cats, and then three model gorgeous young men will jump up on the middle table and sing “New York, New York” and have the diners swaying along between bites of their Reuben sandwiches.
Yes, this is the best job in town for aspiring performers as it’s easy to sprint off between shifts to try out for a theater part, or most recently, a chance to compete on American Idol. The problem wasn’t getting time off to audition, as team mates covered each other’s shifts. The challenge was how to keep that day job at Ellen’s when the showbiz gig was over. Season 11 of “American Idol” brought Ellen’s Stardust Diner into the news as one of the contestants, Devyn Rush, was a member of the singing wait staff who took time off to compete on the show. When Devyn was eliminated, she tried to go back to her diner job but found she had been replaced and was turned away. Wait staff have cried foul on firings over the last few years, particularly in cases where a showbiz gig conflicts with the diner’s need to serve customers.
Still, for locals and tourists alike, nothing beats a visit to Ellen’s’ Stardust Diner and that is why the restaurant has been featured in films like 2011’s “New Year’s Eve” starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Just don’t expect to just stroll into the place around midnight without a reservation like they do in the movie. Movie critics were quick to pick up on the far fetched notion that a woman with a little gang of 15 year old’s could get a table at Ellen’s even after the ball drops at midnight. But then again, natives of the Big Apple know that movie New York often bears little resemblance to the real deal. Tables for the ultimate party night of the year are reserved often months in advance. As listed on their website, the price to ring in New Years Eve at Ellen’s is $225.53 per person and that includes dinner, entertainment and floor space for dancing.
For all its glitz and glamour, and many people willing to pay the price to have the “Ellen’s Stardust Diner” experience, trouble continues to dog the famous eatery. In early 2016, a protest to enhance job security and to champion worker’s rights forced the diner go silent, with picketers in front engaging in a protest rather than a performance. The magic of the singers was replaced with background music for the first time in years. The strike didn’t last long but things are still tense at the Stardust Diner.
In April of 2017. Ellen’s management fired back with accusations of theft against the staff. Two particular members of the wait staff are being investigated by prosecutors for theft equaling tens of thousands of dollars.
Will this mean the end of Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Not likely? Despite the problems in recent years, getting the chance to sing and dance between filling orders makes the diner one of the best Broadway gigs in town for those looking for their big break.