The Taco Joint That Loves Ernest Borgnine
from todays NY times!
February 14, 2009
WEST VILLAGE JOURNAL
The Taco Joint That Loves Ernest Borgnine
By MICHAEL WILSON
“Wade!” the restaurant owner called.
Wade Mammon, a 22-year-old bartender and waiter, ambled over to his boss’s table at Tortilla Flats, a Mexican restaurant in the West Village.
“When Ernie won the Best Actor Oscar for ‘Marty,’ ” asked the boss, Andy Secular, “who did he beat?”
Mr. Mammon was born 31 years after Ernest Borgnine’s star turn in “Marty,” but he did not hesitate: “Frank Sinatra, Spencer Tracy, James Dean and James Cagney.”
“Very good,” said Mr. Secular, 48. Mr. Mammon was dismissed.
Let the other guys have their fancy leather banquettes uptown. Mr. Borgnine was always at his best playing a regular Joe or Marty; fitting, then, that it is a no-frills taco-and-tequila spot that has chosen him as an idol.
Past the bar and decked in little colored lights is the Borgnine Booth, a shrine of pictures mounted on the wall and hand-painted portraits tacked to the ceiling. That Mr. Borgnine has no particular connection to the restaurant, or to the West Village, or to Tex-Mex chow never really mattered — he seems to have nothing against any of them, either.
On Wednesday, the restaurant will celebrate its 17th Annual Ernest Borgnine Night, when another lucky man or — lucky? — woman will walk away with the prize in the Ernest Borgnine Look-alike Contest.
“We try to do our best to educate them on the legend,” Mr. Secular said, sitting in the Borgnine Booth, with its array of pictures from movies and television shows: “The Wild Bunch” and “McHale’s Navy,” “Hee Haw” and “Airwolf.”
Past years have included other contests, like “Pitch Ernie a Movie Deal!” and a prize for best haiku. (“The cool wind whistles/ Ruffling the gray bristly hairs/ On Borgnine’s broad back.”)
It all started shortly after the restaurant opened in 1983, with a manager and partner and Borgnine fan named Steven Pagnotta.
“Just randomly, out of pure inspiration, I would just shout out: ‘Paging Mr. Borgnine! Mr. Ernest Borgnine!’ Or if something broke or the power went out or if something went awry,” Mr. Pagnotta said. “He always just reminded me of the real people I grew up around. They were more like Ernie Borgnine than Paul Newman or Charlton Heston.”
This caught on with the staff, and then with the regulars, who toasted Mr. Borgnine’s health over tequila shots, which in turn led to the accumulation of Borgnine paraphernalia, and before long, there was a shrine. And haikus. (“Ernie, you sent Frank/ From here to eternity/ But I forgive you.”)
The staff is put through a rigorous Borgnine School upon hiring. “It’s in our training manual,” Mr. Mammon, the young bartender, said, acknowledging that he had no idea who the actor was when he started at Tortilla Flats a year ago.
Mr. Borgnine is 92 and lives in California with his wife, Tova. In a telephone interview, he recalled first hearing of Tortilla Flats while passing through New York years ago.
“They said, ‘You know, there’s a place down there in the Village where they have you and Elvis Presley,’ ” Mr. Borgnine said. “ ‘You have one corner and Elvis Presley has the other.’ I said, ‘You got to be kidding.’ ”
At Tortilla Flats, the customer is always right, unless Mr. Borgnine should happen to enter and that customer is sitting in the Borgnine Booth.
“Sure enough, I walk in, and there’s a sudden hush. ‘Oh, my God, he’s here,’ ” Mr. Borgnine said. “And the people who were sitting in the booth — ‘Out. The man has come.’ ”
As it happened, Mr. Pagnotta, who had been paging Mr. Borgnine for years, was at a party and could not get away, but he managed to call the bar and have Mr. Borgnine paged. “He said, ‘Are you that nut that’s been paging me?’ ” Mr. Pagnotta said. “ ‘You’re some kind of kook.’ ”
There is an urban legend that Mr. Borgnine once entered the look-alike contest — and lost. “That’s the kind of publicity I have down there,” Mr. Borgnine said. “Three women have won so far that I know of. Now that’s funny.”
Past winners have included the actors Chris Farley, who died in 1997, and Madeline Lee Gilford, who participated right up to her death last year at age 84. “It was bawdy and blue,” Mr. Secular said of her portrayal.
Mr. Borgnine is still working, and recently wrapped an episode of “E. R.” He calls the bar from time to time, like on Ernest Borgnine Night, and he has been known to buy a round for the house.
He gave the place a quick plug on a “Good Morning America” appearance last year, when he was in town promoting his autobiography, and he said he once wore a Tortilla Flats T-shirt while filming a scene in a 1995 movie called “Captiva Island.”
“They’re wonderful people,” he said. “You can put on a hell of a drunk if you want to. I was drinking tequila and beer one time, and it really caught up to me. I don’t drink anymore. I’m 92; I don’t need it.”
He said he could not attend Wednesday’s party, but he hoped to call and congratulate his newest look-alike and thank the strange little bar that loves him without condition.
“At one time it looked like a hole in the wall,” he said. “People are nice over there, and nobody’s doing anything wrong.”
Any advice for the female contestants in this year’s look-alike contest?
“Good God,” he said. “Good luck.”