In 1968 photographer Robert Mapplethorpe got his nipple pierced in a room at the Chelsea Hotel. Singer Patti Smith improvised a chatty soundtrack and residents looked on with cool detachment as filmmaker Sandy Denny spontaneously captured it all for a documentary short called “Robert Having his Nipple Pierced.”
These days, according to documentary filmmaker Amelie van Elmbt, such boho shenanigans are in short supply.
“The sad thing is that all this legacy is somehow fading,” said van Elmbt, co-director of “Dreaming Walls,” a documentary about New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, premiering Friday as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.
And some of the hotel’s permanent residents — who total around 50 — are unhappy about an 11-year makeover that turned the onetime headquarters of bohemian living into a sleek tourist attraction
“The worst is that the real residents can’t even afford to have a drink in the hotel’s new bar,” van Elmbt told The Post.
She is referring to El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant that has been on the ground floor of the 138-year-old Chelsea since 1930, and recently reopened as an upgraded tribute to the original. It is no longer beloved by Steve Willis, a resident who fell into the Chelsea after producing a Mariah Carey video there in 1994, snagging Janis Joplin’s former room.
“It feels like a recreation of a cool old restaurant,” he told The Post. “There is something painful about acknowledging that it was special but not special enough to preserve.”
“Dreaming Walls” chronicles the history of the hotel, name-checking the writers and artists — including Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Jackson Pollack, Mark Twain and Allen Ginsberg — who lived and created there and capturing the Manhattan landmark at a crossroads.
The place spent years going through renovations under various owners and litigation from tenants who did not want the work to be done. But now the majority of upgrades are in, art is back in the lobby, and guests are paying by the night again. (The hotel will fully reopen this summer.)
“It will be the hotel with artistic cachet, but you will have to pay the big money to stay there, even though the permanent apartments are rent stabilized, thank God,” co-director Maya Duverdier said. “It will be like a zoo or theme park, with people coming in to see the last bohemians in New York.”
Among the residents featured in the movie is Rose Cory, a performer at The Box, who has mixed feelings about the old and new. Former hotel manager Stanley Bard gave Cory her room at a discount for as long as she restored it, a deal she stretched out for 10 years before a rent increase. As much as she might have liked the legendary Bard, who managed the hotel in a famously eccentric style, she acknowledged that there are upsides to the more professional management.
“Stanley was cunning at the very least. Stanley would break into the rooms when he heard someone died — it was a suicide hotel [and] people went there to end their lives — and take their credit cards to bring their room bills up to date,” she told The Post.
Then there was the desk staff. While Cory appreciates the new employees’ politeness and deems them as “lovely,” she retains a soft-spot for their rough-around-the-edges predecessors.
“To work at the desk during Stanley’s time,” she said, “you had to be suicidally depressed. They smoked so much that they coughed up vile amounts of mucus and had seriously bloodshot, alcohol-soaked eyes. They were deeply troubled people, but that’s not to say I didn’t love them.”
For better or worse, the Chelsea will never be able to escape its reputation as the place where Sid Vicious allegedly killed Nancy Spungen and Dee Dee Ramone scored heroin. But residents prefer to remember the better bohemian times, like when Dutch punk rock star Nina Hagen wandered the hallways nude. “She knocked on my door, naked, when I had a room full of people chanting,” Cory recalled. “Nina stepped in and joined us.”
“There is a spirit in the hotel that still remains — even as some of it fades,” Duverdier said. “Artists and creative people continue to live in the Chelsea. We wanted to capture this moment in time and look at the spirit of the hotel.”
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