New York’s City Council this week approved a controversial office tower at 15 Penn Plaza, swatting away criticism that the project will obscure some views of the Empire State Building, the city’s defining structure.
But while New York — and the nation — are obsessed about whether a certain cultural center should go up in lower Manhattan, few noticed that the Penn Plaza plan will bring down the legendary Hotel Pennsylvania. The hotel — a 25-story, once-magnificent edifice built in 1919 — has a rich history, an essential part of which is bound up with my father’s first hit as a songwriter.
By 1940, my dad, Carl Sigman, had made some noise with the Johnny Mercer collaboration Just Remember and Benny Goodman’s recording, with Helen Forrest on vocals, of Busy As A Bee. Ravenous for his first real hit, Carl prowled the Runyonesque mid-town Manhattan environs of music publishing mecca the Brill Building, where the elevator men were bookies and the building’s three restaurants — The Turf, Jack Dempsey’s and The Greek — waged a gangster-tinged turf war. He pitched his songs to anyone who’d listen, then repaired to nearby Lindy’s to eat the city’s best cheesecake and share “…and then I wrote” stories with other writers, musicians, comedians and Broadway theater folk.
At that time, the biggest and hottest nightclub in town was the Pennsylvania Hotel’s Café Rouge, where such Swing Era icons as Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers and Artie Shaw performed. Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, who played the club more than anyone else, were showcasing a tune — not much more than a riff, really — whose precise origin is lost in the mists of musical lore. (In those days an orchestra leader frequently took credit for tunes written or arranged by his players. Miller’s name, along with that of arranger Jerry Gray, appears on the recordings.)
Music publishers were the kings of the industry then, so when king of kings Jack Robbins asked — okay, demanded — that Carl write a lyric, and fast, that’s exactly what Carl did. Call it fate, but somehow the riff wed perfectly to the hotel phone number. Pennsylvania 6-5000 became Miller’s signature number at the Rouge, and the RCA Victor Bluebird recording quickly ascended to the top 5 on the Billboard charts.
Most listeners think the lyric to Pennsylvania 6-5000 comprises that one phrase — the website CD Universe represents it as “Pennsylvania 6-5000, Pennsylvania 6-5 oh,oh,oh.” But later that same year, the Andrews Sisters showcased the full lyric with their own top-5 smash on Decca.
Those familiar with “Lawn Guyland” Jewish geography won’t be surprised to know that a significant chunk of the Hotel Pennsylvania’s history belongs to an old Great Neck friend I’ve known since seventh grade, Elie Hirschfeld, who owned and rejuvenated the place between 1983 and 1998.
Elie appreciates the history of the hotel, but also believes it’s time for a change. He told me, “I regret losing the Hotel Pennsylvania. When built it was the world’s largest hotel with 2,300 rooms and amongst the most luxurious. It was built by the great institution — the Pennsylvania Railroad — who engaged the great architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, also responsible for such landmark buildings as the White House East and West Wings, Harvard Business School and the National Museum of American History, to build it. The hotel façade and important columnar entry, in particular, are magnificent. It will be sad for New York to lose this monument, but I can’t deny that the hotel has passed its prime. The new building will bring new life to the neighborhood.”
Songs have a way of living on when physical objects — even historic buildings — come and go. Pennsylvania 6-5000 has, over the past 70 years, been featured in countless movies and TV shows, including The Glenn Miller Story, The Simpsons, American Dad, Twin Peaks, Any Given Sunday, Carol Burnett, The Muppet Show, The Gary Shandling Show, Transylvania 6-5000 and, perhaps best of all, a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Notable covers have included Brian Setzer’s rockabillyish reinvention, a ska/jazz version by Heptet, a disco take by Meco and, less gloriously, a mix of Milli Vanilli’s Baby Don’t Forget My Number.
Call the Hotel Pennsylvania today at (212) PE 6-5000 — the oldest continuing phone number in New York City — and you’ll still hear Glenn Miller’s recording of Pennsylvania 6-5000.
Of course, all things must pass. Those who’ve seen or stayed at the hotel recently probably won’t shed any tears about its destruction. But the smart mega-corporation that takes over should see the branding opportunity, if not the cultural value, in preserving that famous phone number just a little while longer. (Hat tip to Jonathan P. Kahn, another great Great Necker.)