100th Birthday Bash at the Gonk

[ALGONQUIN HOTEL BIRTHDAY]The Algonquin Hotel turned 100 years old on Friday. What does eating Algonquin birthday cake do for you? Does eating a slice make you witty? Able to crack better wisecracks?

Not really. But it tasted good.

We were on hand with about 50 press and VIPs for the party at lunchtime on Nov. 22. The occasion was also the unveiling of the new 6-foot wide painting of the Round Table. When the Dorothy Parker Society held the fourth-annual Parkerfest in August, the “other” Round Table painting was visibly missing, but more on that later.

At the birthday party, we spoke to Christina Zeniou, the new sales manager at the Gonk. She outlined the year-long plan to celebrate the hotel’s centennial. The hotel is not forgetting it’s literary past, and will be marking it in many ways.

To begin with, the hotel is partnered with a non-profit book publisher to have readings for kids at the hotel. First Book is working to foster literacy. Every Saturday and Sunday in December, the hotel is hosting brunches for kids, bringing in notable children’s authors (and prix fixed meals) from noon to 2:30. A percentage goes to First Book in NYC.

On Friday, the gathering celebrated 100 years at one of the most famous hotels in the city, if not the whole country. Ken Widmaier, the hotel’s new GM, introduced Hans Ryder, the assistant food & beverage manager who is also the unofficial hotel historian. He recounted tales familiar to many Dorothy Parker fans about the glory days of the 1920s and 1930s, right up to today.

Andrea Marcovicci, a regular performer in the Oak Room, led the group in singing “Happy Birthday” as the cake was rolled out. Special guests were Mike Lyons, the bell captain who’s been at the door for 41 years, and Chuck Shah, a waiter on duty since Jimmy Carter was president.

Since Frank Case owned and managed the Algonquin, the hotel has changed hands many times. In June, Destination Hotels & Resorts came into the picture, who took over from Camberley Hotel Company, which had it for five years. Destination started sinking money into the place, to make it equal to other New York hotels, with the addition of such amenities as high-speed Internet connections in each room.

[NEW ALGONQUIN ROUND TABLE PAINTING]When Camberley left last summer, so did Natalie Ascenciosfirst Round Table painting, hung in 1998. It was the property of the hotel group, not the Algonquin. The new owners needed a new one, and quick. The artist only had a few months to paint a new one in time for the birthday party. We asked her a few questions while we waited to get our slice of birthday cake.

“I did two sketches and then a color study in August,” says the charming Ascencios, who is a regular contributing artist for The New Yorker. “I started painting in September… after making dozens of thumbnail sketches. I work in non-traditional composition.”

The painting is amazing, and the finished work is beautiful. Some in attendance were heard to comment that it is superior to her previous rendition of the same subjects: Mrs. Parker, Harold Ross, Robert Benchley, Franklin P. Adams, and the rest of the gang.

“It grew organically,” she said. “My sketches were non-descript, I was working with shapes. It was very intuitive.”

There are a handful of clever clues and hidden messages in the big (6′ x 3½’) oil on canvas. Among Ascencios’ favorite touches is the image of Matilda the cat coming from Benchley’s pipe smoke. There are also poker cards, magazines, and sideways glances among the Vicious Circle. The subject matter is well-known to the New York artist.

“I already knew the history,” she said, “I re-introduced myself to them… FPA was a favorite to paint; I respect him for what he did to help others.”

After the birthday party celebrations, the hotel is planning more events over the coming months. There is a spring gala planned in March. The hotel generated considerable press for the event, including stories in the New York Times, New York Resident, the Washington Post and the Associated Press.

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