“I loved coming up with press-generating ideas, including the creation of a Celebrity Walk in front of the hotel’s sidewalk cafe,” said Mark Fleischman, former owner of the Studio 54 nightclub and author of the memoir “Inside Studio 54.” “Marketing seemed to come easily to me.”
From 1965 to 1968, Fleischman co-owned the 300-room Forest Hills Inn and served as executive director.
“It was a real coup when we got Frank Sinatra to put his handprints into a block of wet cement when he headlined the Forest Hills Music Festival at the nearby tennis stadium,” he said. “As soon as other celebrities heard about Sinatra’s handprints and signature, they agreed to be included in our Celebrity Walk when they performed.”
“The Forest Hills Inn has Frank Sinatra’s and Barbra Streisand’s handprints imbedded on their sidewalk pavement, but it had to get them the hard way,” read the August 17, 1965, issue of the Long Island Star-Journal. “Both stars agreed to make the imprint, but refused to do it at the sidewalk. So wet cement was sent to both stars, the imprints made, and the hardened blocks were then inserted in the pavement.”
“I was also able to get tennis stars playing for the U.S. Championship to participate in our Celebrity Walk, including Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe and John Newcombe,” said Fleischman, “and my hero from Spain where I attended summer courses at the University of Madrid, Manuel ‘Manolo’ Santana.”
When Fleischman purchased the inn and adjoining apartments for $1 million with his father in 1965, he hired new personnel and transformed the Tournament Grill into Three Swans, an authentic English pub. Local VIPs and politicians, including then-mayor John Lindsay, attended the grand opening.
“The inn was a venerable hotel that looked like an English country manor,” said Fleischman. “Reviving the inn involved more than just upgrading the food and bringing in a new maître d’. I had to change the stuffy attitude of the staff as well, and went head to head with the Hotel/Restaurant Workers’ Union.”
Some local residents recall the existence of a tunnel with a series of catacombs, which may have connected the inn’s basement to the clubhouse of the West Side Tennis Club.
Rumor has it that a sidewalk construction project led to the relocation of the handprints, which may have been placed in the inn’s basement in a potentially concealed tunnel for safekeeping, possibly in the mid- to late-1970s.
“I am unsure what happened to the slabs of cement, and my partner in charge of construction passed away many years ago, so I wouldn't know who to ask,” said Fleischman.
In 2015 and 2017, a small but ambitious committee ventured into the Forest Hills Inn’s basement with flashlights and camera equipment, but on both occasions the search yielded no results.
George Hoban, president of the board of the Station Square Inn Apartments Corporation, is in favor of resurrecting Celebrity Walk in some form if any slabs resurface.
“I’ve personally looked through the bowels of the Forest Hills Inn for the infamous handprints and came up empty every time,” he said. “I’ve never found photographic proof that they actually existed. I’m beginning to think that the handprints may be an urban legend like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.”
The West Side Tennis Club has one slab in its archives featuring the signatures and handprints of tennis players Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, and Manolo Santana.
“We searched every nook of the basement and learned much of the inn's rich history,” said Bea Hunt, co-chair of West Side Tennis Club Archives Council. “Unfortunately we did not find any slabs, but I am confident that the search will continue.”