Plaza Hotel pic via Shutterstock

The Hidden Musical History of The Plaza

BY Rob LeDonne | December 19, 2020

As quintessential to New York City as the Empire State Building, as classy as a foie gras eaten in a silk dress, and as storied as a thick anthology, the hotel simply known as The Plaza has been a uniquely American cultural fixture since it first swung open its heavy ornate doors in 1907. Steeped in lore and mystique, The Plaza Hotel has had a front row to starlets and superstars; the cream of the crop of New York’s, and by proxy the world’s, social scene. 

It’s The Plaza’s role in music history, however, which makes it an outlier; generation after generation of the day’s top artists have waltzed in whether they appeared for a performance at the hotel’s famed Persian and Oak Rooms such as legendary songstresses like Liza Minelli and modern-day names like Lady Gaga, or stayed in their swank guest rooms like a certain mop-topped British boy-band on their first visit to the United States. 

“When the team for the Beatles made the reservation, they weren’t on the charts here yet,” explains Julie Satow. She is the author behind The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel which examines the spot’s extensive history. “The reservation staff just thought they were four British businessmen, but right before they were set to come (and perform in February 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show for their American TV debut), the front desk realized who they were and considered cancelling the reservation.” 

The Plaza Hotel entrance

According to Satow, the staff balked considering the mayhem they promised to bring. “It just wasn’t their vibe,” she explains, noting the staff preferred an understated atmosphere. “But when the manager of The Plaza at the time was having dinner with his family and told them he was thinking of canceling, his 12 year-old daughter went hysterical.” With that, reservation stayed put and John, Paul, George and Ringo wound up kicking back at The Plaza after making both television and music history.

Far from the only musical icons who have famously stayed there, The Plaza also hosted The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, who reportedly was a poor tipper. Micheal Jackson, meanwhile, was known for staying in its famous suites and stocking up on room service candy. Its legendary digs would also find itself in the middle of the cultural zeitgeist when Truman Capote, hot off his smash book In Cold Blood, wanted to throw a party. The result was his iconic Black and White Ball, a soiree that included a guest list including the likes of Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte. 

“He planned for it for months and months and he agonized over who to invite,” explains Satow noting some hopeful attendees claimed they commit suicide if they weren’t invited. “It was total craziness and became this big society to-do as the place to be. It was a seminal event because it was raining that night, but all of the photographers were lined up outside to try to get photos of everyone walking in. It really started the concept of celebrity in the way we all know it now.”

Celebrity also inhabited the hotel in fictional stories as well. Barbara Streisand’s 1968 musical-drama Funny Girl, the highest grossing of that year for which she took home an Oscar, was filmed at The Plaza. Five years later, she repeated the magic when her hit The Way We Were was shot in its confines as well. Elsewhere in the musical realm, the official after party for the TONY Awards is typically held at the hotel, wooing the stars of the Great White Way either buzzing from their wins or sulking from their losses earlier in the night. In 2011, the bash took over a whopping 40,000 square feet of space at The Plaza; an area so big, guests were given a map. Most recently, in 2019 the party hosted Broadway stars ranging from Darren Criss to Andrew Rannells.

But perhaps the most memorable modern bash at The Plaza was the after party for the 40th Anniversary episode of Saturday Night Live. “It was one of the most insane nights of my life,” said Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show the following night, recounting the story to his audience. “They had a stage set up with just instruments and no band in case anybody wanted to get up on stage and jam.” Playing MC, Fallon coerced Paul McCartney to sing a tune. “I see Taylor Swift is in the crowd. I go, ‘Taylor, come on up!’ and she’s like, ‘Great.’ We all sing ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and then we all sing ‘Shake it Off.’” 

What followed was a monster jam session featuring the likes of Ariana Grande, Elvis Costello and Miley Cyrus, interrupted by a tip that Prince was in the crowd which led Fallon to announce, Prince if you’re here I dare you to come up on stage…. He gets on stage and grabs his guitar (and plays) ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’” thus marking yet another moment etched into Plaza musical lore.

“It’s obviously iconic,” surmises Satow of its continuing lure. And while the property may have lost some of its luster in recent years (many of its guest rooms were converted into full-time condominiums for the ultra-rich), it still has a cultural cache. “If you say The Plaza everybody knows what it is. It still has that certain elegance.”