Menemsha Films

NEW YORK -- Kristi Jacobson's documentary about the legendary saloonkeeper Toots Shor makes one immediately want to enter a time machine.

"Toots" affectionately and vividly recalls a bygone New York era, one in which life was simpler (if not more innocent, as one interview subject points out) and celebrities and ordinary folk could be in close proximity without hulking bodyguards getting in the way.

The director is, in fact, Shor's granddaughter, but her portrait, while obviously loving, doesn't shy away from dealing with the darker aspects of her subject's life, from his ties to the mob to the self-destructiveness and stubbornness that ultimately reduced him to impoverishment before his death in 1977.

But "Toots" is by no means downbeat. Documenting her grandfather's rise from Prohibition-era bouncer to the owner of one of New York's most-famed watering holes in the 1950s and '60s, the filmmaker presents an evocative portrait of a vanished era.

As the film well depicts, Shor's eponymous restaurant on Manhattan's West 51st Street was a meeting place for the rich and famous, where a wide-ranging collection of celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Gifford, mob boss Frank Costello and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, among many others, all held court. It also was an unofficial clubhouse for the newspaper journalists of the time (especially sportswriters and gossip columnists), who found plenty of fodder for their columns on the premises.

Employing an oral history recorded by Shor two years before his death, interviews with such former habitues as Walter Cronkite, Nick Pileggi, Peter Duchin, Gay Talese and copious amounts of fascinating archival footage and photographs, "Toots" is a glorious exercise in nostalgia.