Thursday, August 22, 2019

A Forest Hills Mystery... "Celebrity Walk"

By Michael Perlman

Every community has forgotten relics which either survive or have been concealed, demolished, or carted away and awaiting rediscovery. The latter is the case with “Celebrity Walk,” a collection of handprints and signatures in cement slabs which existed in the 1960s and 1970s along the perimeters of the lawns in front of one of Forest Hills Gardens’ most historic and storied buildings, the Forest Hills Inn. It evoked the ambiance of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre’s forecourt’s footprints and handprints feature.

“I loved coming up with press-generating ideas, including the creation of a Celebrity Walk in front of the hotel’s sidewalk cafe. Marketing seemed to come easily to me,” said Mark H. Fleischman, former owner of the famed Studio 54 nightclub and author of “Inside Studio 54” which features a memoir of his life. From 1965 to 1968, he co-owned the Forest Hills Inn and served as executive director, although he retained stock in the company that sold to the co-op and rented the restaurants.

Fleischman explained, “It was a real coup when we got Frank Sinatra to put his handprints into a block of wet cement when he headlined the Forest Hills Music Festival at the nearby tennis stadium. As soon as other celebrities heard about Sinatra’s handprints and signature, they agreed to be included in our Celebrity Walk when they performed.”

Other celebrities who followed included Barbra Streisand, Trini Lopez, Woody Allen, and Buddy Hackett. On August 17, 1965, locals picked up the Long Island Star-Journal and read, “The Forest Hills Inn has Frank Sinatra’s and Barbra Streisand’s handprints imbedded on their sidewalk pavement, but it had to get them the hard way. Both stars agreed to make the imprint, but refused to do it at the sidewalk. So wet cement was sent to both stars, the imprints made, and the hardened blocks were then inserted in the pavement.”

The same publication read that on July 8, 1966, Sammy Davis, Jr. was expected at the Forest Hills Inn to place his handprints in the hotel’s “celebrity sidewalk.” Fleischman reminisced, “I was also able to get tennis stars playing for the U.S. Championship to participate in our Celebrity Walk, including Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe, John Newcombe, and my hero from Spain where I attended summer courses at the University of Madrid, Manuel ‘Manolo’ Santana.”

In May 1965, the 300-room Forest Hills Inn and the adjoining apartments were sold for over $1 million to Martin Fleischman, who owned the Skyway Hotels at Kennedy Airport, and his son Mark Fleischman, a 1962 graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. At the time, it offered an English pub, cocktail lounges, a formal dining room known as the Windsor Room, a sidewalk cafe, what was originally named “The Tea Garden,” and four social function rooms accommodating 400 guests. “The Inn was a venerable hotel that looked like an English country manor,” explained Mark Fleischman. A draw was also its location in an upscale community and the proximity to Forest Hills Stadium, but yet it was in foreclosure. “I focused my energies with absolute determination and belief in my ability to revive the Forest Hills Inn, while also still committed to my duties as a Naval officer,” he reminisced.

Fleischman said, “Reviving the Inn involved more than just upgrading the food in the formal restaurant, the Windsor Room, and bringing in a new maĆ®tre d’. I had to change the stuffy attitude of the staff as well and went head to head with the Hotel/Restaurant Workers’ Union.” He hired some new personnel and transformed the Tournament Grill into the Three Swans, an authentic English pub that became a neighborhood success. At the grand opening, local VIPs and politicians attended, including Mayor John Lindsay.

Some local residents recall the existence of a tunnel with a series of catacombs, which may have connected the inn’s basement to the Clubhouse of the West Side Tennis Club. Rumor has it that a sidewalk construction project led to the relocation of the handprints, which may have been placed in the inn’s basement in a potentially concealed tunnel for safekeeping, possibly in the mid to late 1970s.

“I am unsure what happened to the slabs of cement, and my partner in charge of construction passed away many years ago, so I wouldn't know who to ask,” lamented Fleischman. In 2015 and 2017, a search began to rediscover and potentially resurrect the handprints at a secure location to be determined, to educate the public and commemorate diverse celebrities while celebrating Forest Hills history. A small but ambitious committee ventured into the Forest Hills Inn’s basement with flashlights and camera equipment, but on both occasions, the search yielded no results.

George Hoban, president of the board of the Station Square Inn Apartments Corporation is a member of the committee that began searching for the handprints. “I’ve personally looked through the bowels of the Forest Hills Inn for the infamous handprints and came up empty every time. I’ve never found photographic proof that they actually existed.” At one point, he said, “I’m beginning to think that the handprints may be an urban legend like ‘Bigfoot’ or the ‘Loch Ness Monster.’”

“It was an honor to be invited by this columnist, Michael Perlman, to explore the basement of the Forest Hills Inn to look for the signature and handprint slabs,” said Bea Hunt, co-chair of West Side Tennis Club Archives Council. “We searched every nook of the basement and learned much of the Inn's rich history. Unfortunately, we did not find any slabs, but I am confident that the search will continue. The West Side Tennis Club is extremely fortunate to have one slab in our archive.” It features the signatures and handprints of three famous tennis players from various decades, Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, and Manolo Santana.

Upon viewing a photo of the sole cement slab that turned up in the West Side Tennis Club’s archives in more recent times, Hoban said, “The fact that Celebrity Walk existed is a testament to the rich history of the Forest Hills Inn, and we proudly honor that history as we continue to restore the Inn.” He is in favor of resurrecting Celebrity Walk in some form, if many slabs resurface. “We would need the approval and support of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation and Friends of Station Square.” 

An alternate form of this article has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: