As promised, Robert De Niro led a group of 500 New Yorkers last night on a restaurant crawl through lower Manhattan.
The idea — which we wrote about here first on Monday — was to get people back to neighborhoods like Little Italy, Chinatown, Wall Street and Soho. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, eateries in all these places, as well as Tribeca, have been perilously empty.
Jane Rosenthal, De Niro's partner in Tribeca Film Productions, sent out faxes, told this column, and basically spread the word through networking. More than 500 people showed up last night at De Niro's TriBakery on Franklin Street, where they were assigned dinner captains. Then double-decker buses took everyone to their respective neighborhoods where waiters were, well, waiting.
The usually reticent Oscar-winning De Niro sat for several TV interviews, then climbed to the top level of one of the open-air buses and rode it to Little Italy with total strangers. Once there, he made the rounds, checking on all the participants to see if they had a good time.
"I grew up in this neighborhood," the actor said. "I feel a sense of responsibility about it."
Participants included novelist Alice Hoffman, comedian Denis Leary, Next Models owner Faith Kates, Better Baker online low-fat cookie empress Elena Castaneda, local radio star Joan Hamburg, local TV newsgal Perri Peltz, Law and Order emperor Dick Wolf, Avenue Magazine editor Jill Brooke and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, plus dozens of media types, artists, real-estate brokers, lawyers, you name it.
De Niro's close pals, actor Harvey Keitel and Stagebill publisher Gerry Byrne, sent their regrets, though. They were attending a reunion of Marine buddies. Really. I'm not kidding.
"I think people needed an event like this to make them comfortable enough to go out again," said Rosenthal. She and De Niro are already thinking about another event, focusing on Tribeca.
But one thing's for certain: New Yorkers, tourists and day-trippers must get back to supporting all downtown Manhattan businesses. They are suffering needlessly and need our help. One such restaurant, a big place in Little Italy, was virtually empty before De Niro and crew showed up last night. I've never seen a restaurant staff look so grateful. Or relieved.
It was a Dutch treat, by the way. De Niro's supportive, not crazy.
The Emotions, the classic R&B group that will receive a Pioneer Award tonight from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, like other groups from the 60s and 70s, are still waiting for millions in publishing and performing royalties.
Wanda Hutchinson, the lead singer of the group, wrote Earth, Wind, and Fire's mega-hit "Let's Groove Tonight," with her husband, so that's been financially helpful. But many other songs are unaccounted for.
The group's biggest hit, "Best of My Love," still a radio staple and always included on compilation CDs of the era, was recorded for Columbia Records, which became Sony Music. But Sony, they insist, doesn't pay them for records sold.
Wanda's sister Sheila, who was also in the band, laughs.
"Are you ready for this? Sony says we haven't paid back the money we owe them [from 20-odd years ago]," she says. "Jeff Jones, the head of Legacy" — the Sony reissue label which still puts out their old Columbia CDs — "told us Legacy is different from Sony."
I assured them that it was all the same company.
But such is the story with most recording artists who do not demand full audits from their labels. The companies often evade paying royalties by claiming the artist has not "recouped." But artists are finally wising up. Witness the lawsuit filed recently by the Dixie Chicks against Sony for "systematic thievery" of $4 million in royalties.
The Emotions also had a strange episode back in 1991 when Mariah Carey took "Best of My Love" for herself in 1991 and renamed it "Emotions." Maurice White, who wrote the song, eventually settled for a cash payment from Sony and Carey for the blatant note-for-note lifting of the music.
"It was at Sony," Sheila says, "so they already had the tracks." As upbeat as her sisters, she tried to look for a silver lining. "But it did generate interest in us again."
So how did their finances get so screwed up? "We were just in it for the fun part," Sheila says. "We were 16 years old and touring all the time. And daddy listened to Mr. Jackson."
They toured the Midwest with the Jackson 5 circa 1969, when Michael was 11 or 12 years old. His father, Joe Jackson, was friends with Hutchinson's dad, who was also manager of his daughters' singing group.
But the ladies say they do like a lot of contemporary music. They admire current star Alicia Keys — "she's even better live than on the record; they still haven't captured her" — and Destiny's Child.