Michael Elihu Colby’s childhood memories were anything but typical.
The 63-year-old Metuchen resident, himself an award-winning librettist/lyricist, recalled jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald serenading him over breakfast. His grandmother served Sir Laurence Olivier chicken soup when the celebrated actor didn’t feel well. The Oscar Peterson Trio played at his bar mitzva.
Colby remembered playwright and actor Sir Noel Coward as “one of the nicest and most generous people on earth,” and poet Maya Angelou became a close family friend.
He met them and other Broadway and movie stars, writers, playwrights, and composers as the grandson of the former owners of the famed Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, once a favorite hangout of literary and show business elite.
Colby, a longtime member of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, has written about his childhood in the recently released book, The Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up at New York’s Legendary Hotel (BearManor Media, 2015). Colby will appear Tuesday, Sept. 8, at the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison to speak about his star-studded youth.
Colby’s grandparents, Ben and Mary Bodne, owned the hotel from 1946 until 1987. Although raised in Hewlett on Long Island, Colby, his parents, and two younger brothers, Douglas and David, came most weekends to the hotel to stay with the Bodnes in their huge suite on the 10th floor.
Those weekend excursions produced a wealth of memories. Colby recalled seeing a young Dick Van Dyke, who stayed there while rehearsing for his Broadway star turn in Bye Bye Birdie. Many of the great writers of the day resided or stayed there, including Tennessee Williams and Tom Stoppard.
Composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe told Colby he could play the lead in their new play Camelot. When he went off to camp shortly after, Colby told his unimpressed counselor about his upcoming role.
“I was given the lead in every camp play that summer,” recalled Colby. And though he didn’t snag the role of King Arthur, he said, “I did get to go as my grandmother’s date on opening night.”
Lerner and Loewe used the suite below his grandparents’ when they were writing My Fair Lady. Colby recalled his grandfather telling him one night that he couldn’t stand the noise and called downstairs to complain.
“He told the operator he wouldn’t mind if at least it was something good,” said Colby. The offending song was I Could Have Danced All Night.
When Colby started college, he lived in the hotel full-time until 1986, launching his own career from his rooms there.
“My grandparents gave me an incredible gift,” recalled Colby. “They turned an unused portion of the hotel into a studio. I got to work with a lot of stars. I think they came because they knew they’d get a free lunch at the Algonquin.”