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'Mixologist' shares stories of stars

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Published:   |   Updated: July 22, 2013 at 10:24 AM

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Steady wind challenged John Doscher's Guinness Stout golf hat, blowing the brim down and slanting the straw hat over his forehead.

With every gust, Doscher tipped his hat back with his finger as he and his wife, Irene, sat in the crosswind on the deck of the food concession stand at Alfred A. McKethan Park.

All along, Doscher continued to sip a nonalcoholic strawberry concoction.

Looking back from his seat, Doscher gestured a thumbs-up to Willy Kochounian, owner of Willy's Tropical Breeze Café. That gesture made the café owner's day.

After all, that sign of approval came from a man who knows beverages.

Doscher was once head bartender at the upscale Plaza Hotel in New York City.

"Mixologist!" Back then we were referred to as a mixologist," Doscher, 85, exclaimed.

"If a customer sat down and ordered an uncommon drink from a waiter, he would respond, "I am sure our mixologist can prepare that for you," Doscher elaborated.

"It was a swanky hotel," he said with a smile.

While in his 20s Doscher worked at The Plaza between the years 1950 to 1961.

While there, he kept a very unconventional journal.

"It really wasn't a journal," he said.

Whenever something unusual happened, or if he heard something about a famous person from a doorman, chambermaid, cigarette girl or front-desk clerk, Doscher would write it down on a slip of paper or bar napkin.

That collection of notes tossed into a cardboard box survived decades.

Some of those notes became the guts of his first book, "The Back Of the House"

Over the seven years Doscher was in the employ of The Plaza, he compiled quite a few tidbits about some very popular people.

A few years ago when he and his wife sorted out the notes, Doscher began writing and it was all in longhand.

Luckily, for him, Irene was a wordsmith. She worked for the American Institute of Physics as a proofreader and later as an editor for the U.S. Naval Institute, publisher of the 1984 Tom Clancy novel, "The Hunt for Red October."

"He would write it out and I would transcribe and edit it for him," she said.

When she came across something she could not figure out, she asked her husband, "What's this word?" She could not help laughing and thinking back to the week or so it took her to decipher his notes and input his story into the computer.

Doscher began his book with a disclaimer. "This is a work of fact and fiction. Names, dates and instances have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the author." Although he admits, most of the people he wrote about are all gone, he decided to keep some secrets safe.

His style is unique as he shifts from the first person to the narrative of his main character, assistant hotel manager Mike Gilson.

Doscher tells his story through the eyes of the fictitious manager Gilson, saying, "as the manager I'm able to move around the hotel and write about what I saw and heard as well as what my co-workers saw and heard."

His stories are reminiscent from exclusive experiences, the kind we wish we all could have lived.

Take for instance his va-va-va voom encounter with Marilyn Monroe. The starlet stayed at the hotel numerous times.

Doscher said he was awestruck by the entourage of photographers, hair stylists and makeup artists accompanying Miss Monroe each time she came in.

"They were from Life, Look and Photoplay magazines, all there for photo opps, he said, early paparazzis, you know?"

One day Monroe was having a late breakfast in what was the Edwardian Room and sitting by the window overlooking Central Park South. A few tables away with her back to Monroe sat Plaza-regular New York newspaper columnist, Dorothy Kilgallen.

Working the bar that day in the Edwardian, Doscher mentioned to Kilgallen that Monroe was sitting by the window. Kilgallen, he said, "Let out a "harrumph" and said, "Yes. I saw her. She looks like an unmade bed."

"Apparently, there was some animosity there," Doscher observed. "I mean, Marilyn Monroe has been described many ways in her lifetime, but never the description Kilgallen offered."

During his tenure at The Plaza Hotel, several moviemakers used the hotel as a location for various scenes in the movies: "Callaway Went Thataway" in 1951, "Love Is Better Than Ever" in 1952, and "The Girl Who Had Everything" in 1953, among others.

When it came to movie stars, one of John's fondest memories was his brush with actress Elizabeth Taylor.

He vividly remembers her first visit to his bar.

"She was 19 years old and absolutely gorgeous", he said.

At the time, Liz was married to her first husband, Nicky Hilton. Nicky's father Conrad just happened to own The Plaza at that time.

"Nicky was a real hellraiser," recounts Doscher.

"One night it was about 9 o'clock at the end of my shift, I was about to leave," he said.

Calling her Liz, he vividly remembers the encounter.

"She was holding what was left of a frozen daiquiri and asked him if that drink came from his bar.

You do not want to lie to Elizabeth Taylor, so Doscher nodded affirmatively that it did.

"'Liz' pointed out there was a small piece of glass in the drink and that she was concerned that if there were additional glass chips mixed in with the ice, someone might get hurt."

"Well, we were all dumbfounded" he said, referring to himself, the bar-back and the bottle breaker. "We stood there at attention."

"I mean, here's the boss's daughter-in-law, who really could have raised a stink. Instead, she just brought it to our attention. She was so polite," he said.

Over the years as Doscher got used to his swanky title as head mixologist. There were benefits to the job and sometimes there were burdens.

It didn't take long for Doscher to realize that some people would rather confide in their bartender than doctors or clergymen.

John "received" a confession at least once a day. "It's really kind of funny", he said with a laugh. You'd think I was sitting in a confessional."

Movie actor Van Johnson made his way into the bar one evening.

"He was wearing a tuxedo and sat down on one of the stools and ordered a scotch on the rocks." Doscher noticed Johnson seemed preoccupied, reaching down at his ankles.

Van called Doscher over and confided, "These socks are driving me crazy." Johnson began lifting his pant legs to reveal the problem.

Peering over the bar, Doscher saw what was bothering the movie actor. "He was wearing a pair of bright red knit socks, with a tuxedo for crying out loud," Doscher recalled.

Apparently, Johnson's sister and aunt had knitted him a pair and forced him to wear them that night. By the looks of it, they were itchy.

"I don't think the first drink helped Johnson get rid of the itch," Doscher laughed. "Johnson ordered another, gulped it down, got up and headed for the Grand Ballroom to attend a wedding."

Snippets like that and other stories from the famed Persian Room, Oak Bar, the fancy Palm Court and the Rendezvous Room include other personalities such as: baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, famous boxer Jack Dempsey, singer Andy Williams, football player Frank Gifford and Tonight Show pioneer host Jack Paar.

Celebrities were in and out all the time.

One in particular was early TV comedian Ernie Kovacs, a lunchtime regular at The Plaza.

"Kovacs always smoked his trademark cigar. It must have been a foot and half long," Doscher chuckled.

Standing behind the bar, the young mixologist wiped a flurry of cocktail glasses watching Kovacs perform his daily ritual.

Kovacs held a lit stogie in one hand and the other was reserved for his silverware.

Standing wide-eyed and focused on Kovacs, Doscher could only say, "It was amazing watching him smoke that cigar while he was eating his lunch."

There were plenty of humorous observations. Doscher takes you behind-the-scenes at the "Artists & Models Ball" a risqué event which "bounced from hotel to hotel and was never invited back" he writes. The annual affair was notorious for guests "showing up half-dressed with body parts exposed," he added.

"The Back Of The House" portrays a little bit of Plaza Hotel history during a heyday when baby-boomers were being born.

The book does not lack compelling moments.

There is an account of a young widow, dressed all in black, who appears each year on the Northwest corner of the hotel. For over 10 years, she would stand on the same spot, sometimes waiting in a downpour.

She was there to keep a promise, one that is only revealed in John Doscher's book.

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