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His behind the scenes work is awarded
It took Broadway actress Kelli O’Hara six nominations before she finally won her first Tony Award
in 2015 when she took home the trophy for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a
Musical” for her performance in
The King and I.
For Ernest Winzer Cleaners of New
York, the wait for a Tony was quite a bit
longer: 110 years, in fact. But, as the old
stage saying goes… all’s well that ends
well.
In late April, the Tony Awards
Administration Committee announced
three contributors who earned special
Tony honors this year: New York Times’
culture photographer Sara Krulwich;
costume beader Bessie Nelson; and
Ernest Winzer Cleaners.
“This year’s group of Tony Honors for
Excellence in the Theatre award
recipients perfectly exemplify the scope
of work in our industry,” jointly noted
Heather Hitchens, president and CEO of
the American Theatre Wing and Charlotte
St. Martin, president of The Broadway
League. “Each one has left such a mark
on the Broadway community in such
different ways, and we’re proud to be
able to honor their contributions.”
For Ernest Winzer Cleaners, that mark
dates back to when the company began
in 1908 as the company quickly earned a
reputation for being the master
drycleaner for the stage productions on
Broadway at the time.
That legacy was preserved when
current owner Bruce Barrish’s
grandfather, Al Steinhorn, purchased the
business and it has been in the family
ever since. The company has also
remained the go-to business for
Broadway.
“Pretty much all of Broadway, we do. We’ve been constantly 90 to 95 percent,” explained Barrish.
“Maybe there’s one show that doesn’t use us that’s been a long-running show, but outside of that,
pretty much everything that runs on Broadway uses us.”
Some current productions that rely on Ernest Winzer include Harry Potter, Anastasia, Summer:
The Donna Summer Musical, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera and My Fair Lady.
The last on the list holds a special place in the heart of Barrish’s family. Grandpa Al was prone to
say after seeing most shows: “It’s not My Fair Lady.”
Still, singling out any production is hard with such a huge body of work, but there are still a few
jobs that stick out for being so challenging.
“We’ve been doing the Christmas Spectacular since day one, which is somewhere around 80 years
at this point. That in itself is thousands of garments every year,” Barrish recalled.
Of course, the job itself pales in comparison to one where the production’s host setting, Radio City
Music Hall, needed Ernest Winzer for help with a very unusual job.
“You know when you walk into the venue and you can look up at basically all three stories?
There’s drapes there three stories high,” he explained.
About ten years ago, representatives from Radio City Music Hall called Barrish in to figure out how
to clean those draperies.
“When they called me in, my first thought was even if we could figure out a way to get them
down, I would never find a machine that we could put them in.”
“When they built the building, there’s a track that goes around the top of the ceiling, so like when
they clean mirrors and stuff, basically a guy kind of hangs in a sling from the hooks,” he said.
That did not seem like the best and safest way to do it. Barrish came up with an alternative plan.
“What we ended up doing was working with a company that builds stages for outdoor concerts and
stuff and we basically ended up with a window rig at the end of the day. We went up and down and
we moved it along.”
Hopefully, Barrish and his wife won’t be distracted by trying to solve any crazy cleaning challenges
when they attend the Tony Awards this year.
“We actually get our award with other special awards the Monday before the actual Tony Awards
night. Then we’ll be at the Tony’s and it will be mentioned there. It will also be mentioned on TV.”
Naturally, winning the award entails a little bit more than just enjoying a couple of ceremonies.
Barrish wasn’t expecting all of the events leading up to the big night.
“So far we found out there is a lot more involved besides winning it,” he said. “We’ve already done
a full press conference. We have a luncheon coming up.”
After working in the drycleaning industry for over 45 years, he might be able to handle any
costume that comes through his plant, but handling the press was a little foreign to him.
“I never expected to do like a full couple hours of press conferences. All the Tony nominees were
there for a few hours last week, but there was one room where they actually threw me in and I was
standing at a podium in front of 25 reporters, which I didn’t know about before which was probably
a good thing having not ever done something like that I would have been nervous,” he laughed.
Despite being out of his element, Barrish kept his sense of humor, explaining to the press corps
that it was “about time” they were honoroed as “the Tony’s have been doing this for 72 years. We’ve
been doing this for 110.”
It is a little sad, though, that the two previous generations who ran Ernest Winzer Cleaners won’t
be there to be experience the amazing achievement.
“My grandfather died when I was young, so he’s been gone a long time. I kind of wish he was
here. But, my dad passed away last February. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to see the
recognition also. Unfortunately, that’s how life works sometimes,” Barrish said. “They’ll definitely be
in my thoughs when I’m accepting and sitting there the night of the actual show.”
It’s only appropriate since, for years the family has literally done all the dirty work behind the
scenes. It’s nice that they’ll finally be appreciated in such a public way.
“Sometimes, obviously, we’re a little bit forgotten because we’re not there in their faces, I guess,”
he said. “We’ve delivered in snowstorms. We’ve never missed a pickup or delivery because the show
must always go on and they know that.”
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