by Abigail Charpentier
New York City is beloved by theater fans from all over. With shows on Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and various cabaret venues, it’s easy to find entertainment. One setting that often does not come to mind is a restaurant. Theater enthusiasts visiting the city may not be familiar with one establishment, but will love it once acquainted – Ellen’s Stardust Diner.
The ‘50s-themed diner at 1650 Broadway is famously home to a singing waitstaff. Founded by Ellen Hart in 1987, customers can enjoy “Mamma Mia Meatloaf” while hearing songs from the show sung by their waiter.
While the experience is desired for tourists and theater fans, it may be more so for actors and actresses looking to make it to the theaters down the street. Gabrielle Elisabeth, an ensemblist in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, worked at the diner before performing on Broadway as Little Eva, a Shirelle and a "One Fine Day" backup singer.
The high-rise building in Times Square where Ellen’s settled on the ground floor was also the birth place of several classics created by songwriting teams Goffin/King and Mann/Weil in the 1960s while contracted by Aldon Music.
“I literally worked in the building where Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann created hits, and then I book a show about them!” Elisabeth said. “That blew my mind, and I didn't really make the connection until I had been in the show for a few weeks.”
Elisabeth first heard about Ellen’s when she was working for Disney World in 2016 from her friend Nikisha Williams. When she made the move from Florida to New York, she immediately called up Williams and was put in touch with the manager of the diner.
After auditioning to be a singing waitress with Alicia Key’s “If I Ain’t Got You,” she made it to the next round in the audition process.
“I was ecstatic! Then I remembered I had no experience serving... so I did what any sensible person would do. Lie,” Elisabeth said. “I lied and said I worked as a server in my hometown, which is kind of true. I did some catering, but nothing on the scale of what I knew they would expect from me.”
As a Starduster, Elisabeth loved performing “If I Ain't Got You,” “Don't Forget Me” from the NBC show SMASH and “Proud Mary” by Tina Turner.
She explained that performers often are able to choose the songs, which usually fall into categories: a “build” song, a song that is recognizable, a “pre-bucket” song, a “bucket” song and the occasional ballad.
Once an hour, Phillip (as in “fill-up”) the Bucket is passed around the eatery and people make donations. The money raised is split up between the waitstaff on that shift and goes toward training (voice lessons, dance classes, etc.).
Pre-bucket songs are songs that are huge numbers incorporating several Stardusters, like “One Day More” from Les Misérables. A bucket song “is a song that has a nice beat and keeps the energy going.”
Elisabeth said Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” is a fan favorite.
With the pooled tips, she learned the importance of working as a team and helping one another so everyone does well at the end of the night.
“You can build off one another and create a great experience for the guests,” she said.
Over the course of time at Ellen’s, she learned how “to audition smarter, not harder.” She would wake up at 7 a.m., audition all day, serve tables from 5 p.m. until after midnight and then do it all over again.
“The exhaustion I felt was one I hadn't felt since college,” she said. “I wasn't giving my best in auditions, and my attitude at work was getting worse and worse. Having a job at Ellen's is such a physical job on the body, the voice and the mind. I had pain in places I didn't even know existed.”
She then started budgeting her time better; instead of auditioning for everything she could, she started going in roles she thought she was truly right for. She worked the hours she needed to survive and spent the rest of her time in class.
Despite the difficulties, Ellen’s Stardust Diner was still an enjoyable job. One of Elisabeth’s favorite shifts took place when the computers and Posi, the operating system used to take orders and run credit cards, went down. Unable to cash people out and get them along their way, the line outside kept growing longer and longer.
“A few of the servers, myself included, went out to the line and started a sing-along. We had a tambourine and a cow bell,” she said.
“It was so much fun and really just showed me you don't need much to make magic.”