BY WENDY HUNG
When Stephen Bruce was 16 years old, he came to New York City with a dream of fame and fortune, as a dancer. He lived 50 miles outside of Manhattan, and came to the city three times a week for classes. In ballet training, he met a young man and his roommate: Calvin Holt and Patch Carradine, both were aspiring artists from Arkansas. Stephen eventually moved in with them, forming a happy trio, or three modern-day princes, so to speak. In time, they created a theater for themselves. The stage, which many also referred to as: Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole, was – Serendipity 3.
Today, Serendipity 3 has become an iconic institution treasured in one of the greatest cities in the world. International tourists wait patiently for an anticipated glass of the infamous Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, or purchase a whimsical souvenir from its historic Upper East Side location that has welcomed the likes of: Andy Warhol, Jackie O, Marilyn Monroe and almost every U.S. President since the 50s. But the story of Serendipity 3 begins with uninhibited guts and boundless imagination. “Calvin and Patch had these recipes from their grandparents: pecan pies, biscuits, all these homemade desserts that had a southern charm.” Stephen (founder and owner) remembers, “Every time we had a dinner party, it was a huge success. Someone finally suggested that we opened a restaurant and decorate it just like our own apartment.”
With $500 and six months later, the happy trio were in business. They rented a basement, surrounded by two of New York’s best restaurants that served mostly advertising executives, who took notice of Serendipity 3’s unconventional location and suddenly became regular customers. Within a few days, lines began to form outside of the restaurant that only served pecan pies and espressos at the time. Vogue editors, heads of advertising agencies and influential artists perceived “the rabbit hole” as something bold and new. During 1950s, most restaurants were of Italian influence that carried Chianti bottles with candles and dripped wax. Serendipity 3 had white walls plastered with random, found objects from the streets of New York City. Church medallions, stained glasses, giant clocks, street signs, Tiffany lights that cost $10-$25, comprised the theme of “entertainment,” which greatly differed from other eateries in the city. Soon, fashion magazine editors provided stylish merchandize to display within the space, giving birth to a unique image that emphasized Serendipity 3 as more than a restaurant – one that exhibited and sold funky, one-of-a- kind items.
One day, Andy Warhol walked in and ordered an espresso. Politely, Stephen asked him what was in his portfolio. Andy replied that he was working on I.Miller ads but the company had only selected one image out of twenty, the rest were scrap. “I said to him, ‘the walls in here are bare. How would you like this place to be your first gallery in New York?’” Stephen recalls, “Suddenly, Vogue editors began to buy Andy’s drawings. It was so successful, he started to do shoes.” Andy came into the restaurant with a few workers, painting shoes with India Ink then designated names after movies. “A red shoe would be called, Dial M for Murder. Andy also did books for us: 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy, In the Bottom of My Garden…which all put us on the map.” Stephen needed some shopping bags, so Andy printed Campbell Soups on them. The bags were so popular, they disappeared from the shelves within a week.
“He did these instant drawings of me, and he would add flowers. He gave me 25 drawings of myself, I suppose they were love poems.” Stephen candidly notes. They became friends. They found each other. Andy came through the doors of Serendipity 3 at its old location and became a dear customer, a dear friend. “The last week of his life, he went into the hospital for a gallbladder operation. Although the operation was a success, he didn’t survive. He died of a stroke. It was a shock to the world. His existence meant something exciting to the world, something exciting to me. You see, the 60s were the most exciting time in our history.”
When Serendipity 3 eventually moved to its current location, its menu expanded to include lunch and dinner. While its decor remained the same, the restaurant added a gift shop and a second floor that became a haven for Stephen’s clothing designs. At one point, he had a denim museum where customers and friends would bring in everything made in denim. James Beard, for example, made a denim apron. Meanwhile, Serendipity 3‘s reputation naturally attracted more recognizable names. “Jackie O used to come in here all the time, even when President Kennedy was a Senator.” Stephen continues, “when she was pregnant with Caroline, she asked me to design baby doll dresses. So we did six colors for her. She continued to be our customer, the kids would come in throughout time.” Apparently, John John would bring his girlfriends. Marilyn Monroe, Cher, President Clinton are only a few of the famous faces that poised Serendipity 3 to remain evermore infamous, even to its present day.
It’s a total New York story. Everything about Serendipity 3 is a part of Stephen. He picked out the floors, every piece of furniture. He’s been able to thoroughly express creatively through this restaurant. He knows he’s lucky, not too many people possess his lifetime of serendipitous experiences. “We were society’s darling for so many years, but you can’t hold the spotlight for terribly long, there’s always something new coming behind you. Just like movie stars, you always have to project and show something different.” So Stephen persists to expand Serendipity 3’s brand by revealing the formerly secretive Frrrozen Hot Chocolate recipe in recent books, appearing in films that take place within the restaurant and opening multiple locations around the world.
Its name, came from the Greek princes of Serendip. Since its opening, the word “serendipity” has been one of the most popular in our dictionary. It’s been a great word for Stephen, once a young boy who came to New York City from a small town in New Jersey, seeking after a life on stage. “I’ve always had a sense of myself and what I wanted to create. When the doors opened, it all came to me. The greatest pleasure is, I created this with two wonderful people. It’s an expression of all of us.”