Toots Shor, the legendary “saloon-keeper” whose restaurant/bar became one of the epicenters of Manhattan celebrity social life in the ‘40s and ‘50s, had a hulking frame almost as large as his generosity of spirit. Toots mirrors that kindness, which is to be somewhat expected given that director Kristi Jacobson is Toots’s granddaughter. And yet hers isn’t simply a puff piece on a beloved relative; rather, it’s a snapshot of a particular post-prohibition, post-WWII period in which looking glamorous and having fun were the prime objectives, as well as a warts-and-all portrait of a self-made man who defined the era.
Through archival photos, clips of Toots on This is Your Life and Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person, talking-head remembrances from famous friends, and an audio conversation with the restaurateur from 1975 that serves as de facto narration, Toots charts with unabashed affection its subject’s rise from Jewish discrimination as a kid in South Philly to magnetic celebrity and close friend to Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Joe Dimagio, and Frank Gifford. Through Toots’s story, the film captures a sense of bygone male-female and celeb-media dynamics that—along with the then-commonplace two-martini lunch—seem downright quaint in today’s 24-hour Britney-Lindsay-Paris news cycle. Nonetheless, the focus remains primarily on Toots himself, a larger-than-life figure whose fondness for family and professional sports was matched by his love of booze.
Jacobson conveys Toots’s gregarious charm and provides details on his tough childhood but never stoops to overt psychoanalysis, and in that sense her nonfiction form also seems harmoniously entwined with her content. At home in New York’s good-times ‘50s, Toots would eventually fall into professional and personal troubles during the ‘60s and ‘70s, a collapse driven by his excessive drinking, his lack of business acumen, and his dogged refusal to understand (much less embrace) the momentous cultural changes of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Toots doesn’t sugarcoat or shy away from such behavior, nor from his close ties to mob kingpin Frank Costello and union chief Jimmy Hoffa. And in so doing, it sidesteps easy idolization for something more endearing: a multifaceted character study that recognizes that success and failure are often byproducts of the very same impulses.