NY singing diner must find its tune amid pandemic

A masked and face-shielded server performs to two tables during the evening shift Nov. 5 at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Photo by Rachel Roberts

A disco ball hangs over empty tables and reflects neon lights strung around the railing of an indoor balcony. Burgers and onion rings arrive on platters at the hands of masked servers as one waiter ditches his serving tray for a microphone. Adjusting his mask and stepping up on a small-scale stage, he leans into the karaoke of Peter Allen’s “Not The Boy Next Door.”

At the end of the number, the diners at the two occupied booths offer a small amount of applause. The masked singer steps down and walks to the back to meet his coworkers, who are leaned up against the registers. From overhead speakers, an announcement rings out, “Welcome to Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where we sing so you don’t have to.”

It’s a slow shift on a Thursday evening.

While Broadway has been quiet since March, its showtunes are still being sung and the stage remains lit at this 1950s-themed restaurant at the north edge of Manhattan’s Theater District, which reopened to limited reservations Oct. 1. The singing diner, which is one of the only musical venues to return to the theater strip, is facing the challenges of operating live entertainment during the pandemic.

“I think we’ve kind of mastered what we need to do within our space, and I’m hoping that other places will be able to figure out how to do it in their spaces,” said artistic director Scott Barbarino, adding that his hope is to see the rest of Broadway open soon.

Broadway’s earliest return to New York City is set for June 2021, according to Broadway League, a national trade association for the industry.

“The reason that Broadway is Broadway is because of music and lyrics. That’s what it’s all about,” Barbarino said, adding that the reopening may satisfy the city’s craving for live theater and entertainment. “If they want to be in a place where that’s happening and it’s happening live, we’re an option.”

Prior to the pandemic, the diner, which opened in 1987, was known for having lines of customers wrapped around the building. Its singing-waiters barely got a break in between serving American food platters and keeping the rhythm of Broadway showtunes. The hustle of the tuneful restaurant was a spectacle in itself.

Ellen’s Stardust Diner reopened Oct. 1 with indoor and outdoor seating and limited reservations and hours of operation. Photo by Rachel Roberts

But the restaurant and its ambiance have changed. Along with undergoing temperature and health checks at the door and staying masked throughout their shifts, the servers are also encouraged to get tested for Covid-19 bi-weekly, Barbarino said.

On a busier day, the diner may fill up to its 25% capacity, but the seating limit is rarely met each shift. Now, instead of tourists, the diner is hosting locals and local travelers.

With a smaller number of customers and reduced hours, Barbarino only brought back 30 singing-servers, also known as Stardusters, which is about half of what his roster used to be. It’s hard to turn a profit with such restrictions in place.

The restaurant is now only open five days a week, which also limits shift openings for Stardusters. Many at the diner are still able to collect unemployment as long as they tell the state Department of Labor of their part-time work.

“Frankly, I’m making more on unemployment,” said Starduster Brian Esposito, who has been at Ellen’s for eight years but now works only a couple of morning shifts a week. “But it’s nice to be back at the diner and have a sense of normalcy back in my life. I honestly don’t mind it that much.”

Esposito got his start at the diner working as a host and behind the dessert counter, gradually working his way up until he was made a server.

For the past four years, Esposito also has been performing at BATSU!, a comedy improv show in Manhattan. Aside from working at Ellen’s, BATSU! was a steady gig for the 27-year-old up until March, when shows halted in the wake of the pandemic.

What was once a full-time position for Starduster Johnny Beirne is now more of a part-time hobby.

The 28-year-old has been with the diner for about four years now and was working the last shift in March before the shutdown.

Most of Beirne’s work aside from the diner was in children’s theater and New York’s Fringe Festival. For the most part, however, the diner was his main source of income, he said.

When his theater gigs and job at Ellen’s were put on pause in March, Beirne moved out of Manhattan and back into his parents’ house on the Jersey Shore. He depended on unemployment and stimulus checks to sustain himself.

Working only two shifts a week can slash more than $150 off his unemployment, he said, adding that it’s hard to make up that money. “That’s $150 I’m probably not going to make at the restaurant.”

While Beirne is used to throwing confetti at his crowd, running around the diner and belting out tracks like, “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen,” he is now resigned to serenading four other servers and a few customers.

“I can’t do ‘Africa’ by Toto with only two tables. I can’t do ‘Total Eclipse of The Heart,’” he said explaining that the restrictions put a new challenge on engaging with the audience.

Since he’s only working a few shifts, Beirne says he’s looking for other work outside of the diner to bring in some money and ease his stress.

“I’m hanging in there as much as I can, but it’s not easy right now,” he said adding that he was not certain the city has enough opportunities for him right now to succeed in his chosen field. “On the other hand, I’m also trying my best to be really hopeful. I’m trying to keep creating my own art, write down new scripts and put out into the universe that things are going to work out.”

Musical performances are now named “incidental” to adhere to the State Liquor Authority’s restrictions on live music venues, and singers stay masked and at least 10 feet away from customers during performances. Guests are also discouraged from singing along with the performances without reapplying their masks, making it truly an atypical shift at Ellen’s.

When it comes to classics, like Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, “you can hardly put muzzles on people,” Barbarino said. “When we’re getting ready to do something like that, the step is setting it up in advance by basically requesting, ‘If you’re going to sing along, put your mask on.’ I mean, we’ve got it down to details.”

While the diner is doing its best to abide by all the regulations and suggestions for health and safety, Barbarino, who’s been with the diner for 18 years, says it’s an adjustment, but it’s worth it.

“Our future is bigger than the future of our place,” Barbarino said, in reference to his hope for the rest of the industry to reopen. “We’re setting the tone for an environment that can accommodate this kind of thing.”

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Rachel Roberts, an Arkansas native, is a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Arkansas, where she studied journalism, political science and French. She’s interested in covering politics, arts and culture. Twitter: @ratchelroberts

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