Warwick's bell captain wins national award

PHOTOS: MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER In his years on the job, Hornstein's seen a lot of changes to the hotel and this lobby that he's carrying a guest's bag through.
PHOTOS: MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER In his years on the job, Hornstein's seen a lot of changes to the hotel and this lobby that he's carrying a guest's bag through.
Posted: March 13, 2014

NAME a celebrity who's been to Philadelphia in the last century. Tell that name to Steve Hornstein, the bell captain at the Radisson Blu Warwick. Chances are, he'll tell you a story. A really good story.

He's been full time at the circa 1926 hotel, which lifelong locals like Hornstein know to pronounce "War-ick," for well more than 30 years.

The West Oak Lane native began there in August 1973. Worked two days a week as a bellman. He left in '76, when the place got sold and closed for renovations. Came back in '81 after gigs at the Bellevue (he was the guy who padlocked the doors when Legionnaires' disease broke out; it's now a Hyatt) and the Ben Franklin (recently renamed the Franklin, a luxury condo building).

In between, he got married in the Warwick's ballroom to Irene, a teacher and social worker from Nicetown. The parents of two will celebrate their 35th anniversary in November.

He's seen a lot in those few decades. Seen the place go from 614 tiny rooms to a decadent apartment-hotel to its current iteration, a historic-contemporary hotel-condo. Seen endless big names come and go through the doors. Politicians. Actors. Rock stars. Athletes. Mob bosses.

But, right now, the soft-spoken bell captain is the hotel's big name. Radisson Blu, the sleek, upscale arm of the Minneapolis-based hotel chain, chose him out of more than 500 to be their employee of the year.

Nice guy finishes first

Hotel GM Joanne Cunningham helped nominate Hornstein for the prize. He's always been a star worker, she said, the kind of guy who "makes you feel that you are the only person in the room, even if you're standing on the sidewalk with a busload of people."

He champions Philadelphia's standout destinations and hidden hangouts, refers guests to the best tailors and runs the oddest errands. (One Sunday night, he scored skin adhesive for a guest with an artificial ear.)

But this past year, while the building underwent an ultramodern makeover, he went above and beyond.

"What he did during our renovation was unbelievable," Cunningham said. He directed traffic. Notified cabdrivers about the temporary entrance. Worked on his day off.

"He made it like it was his business, like he owned the reputation of the hotel," she said.

His hard work was celebrated three weeks ago at the company's home base in a formal dinner emceed by Louie Anderson. Today, that party comes to 17th Street.

During an employee meeting this afternoon, he'll receive $1,500. Tonight, at a cocktail reception on the mezzanine, family (including his son David, who works the night shift at the front desk), friends, residents and co-workers will gather to watch him get a dramatic glass sculpture. He hopes he won't have to give a big speech.

"I don't like crowds," he said. Public speaking makes him "shaky." He'd rather spend time talking one-on-one. Mostly about his job.

Rich and famous

"We've had so many prominent people over the years," Hornstein said. Back in the day, the Warwick and the Bellevue were "the two flagship hotels in Philly."

Of all the boldface names who stopped by, the ones who made the biggest impression on Hornstein were the ones who acted like regular people.

Take Ed McMahon. Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" sidekick would get his morning paper while wearing boxers. Or Bill Clinton, who considered the Warwick lucky after spending his first presidential election eve there, and came back 16 times. Hornstein got to know Bubba intimately. He once had to dig through the prez's gym bag, stuffed with sweaty running clothes and cheesesteaks from Pat's, to procure his tip.

He took a shine to Martin Sheen when the actor, carrying his own bag, asked for directions to 30th Street Station. He wanted to walk. Recalls Jay Leno as just another guy who ate a slice of pizza on the hotel's front steps. Referred to Marion Ross, Valerie Harper and Ann-Margret, each of whom stayed in the penthouse, as "a sweet lady." Said Marilyn Manson was "as nice as can be." Disagrees with the reps of John McEnroe and Sean Penn. Described them as "just really nice people."

Politically connected

Maybe not everyone was down-to-earth. George W. Bush booked a suite the day the Constitution Center opened. He didn't spend the night. Instead, on July 4, 2003, the sitting president had the hotel send exercise equipment to his suite.

"So our tax dollars bought a treadmill for the day," Hornstein said.

On the other hand, Jimmy Carter. He tipped the hotel's manual elevator operators in peanuts.

The bell captain helped the Warwick become an election-night destination. When Ed Rendell was district attorney, he'd sit in the south side of the lobby, reading the People Paper. Hornstein would tell him, "Can't wait till you're elected" and "Guess you'll be having your election returns here."

"Sure enough, he did," Hornstein said. "And he won. And after that, they all decided to [do the same]. It was superstition."

Lately, Hornstein has been calling Anthony Williams "Mr. Mayor," much like he did with John Street and Michael Nutter. "They always win when they come here," he said. "We've never had a loser on election night."

Other nonlosers in the bell captain's book?

Hotel guests, regulars and residents David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, Eric Clapton, Glenn Close, Charles Schwab, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Flip Wilson, Joe Frazier, Garry Maddox, Alan Dershowitz, the O'Jays, David Brenner, Jack Klugman and Teddy Pendergrass, who had been at the Warwick's famous Elan nightclub the night of his catastrophic car accident.

"You'd never meet these people on Bustleton Avenue," he said.

Wiseguys, nice guys

He got close to longtime Warwick resident Leonard Tose. During the Eagles owner's latter years, Hornstein would write his checks and do his shopping. Tose was partial to Lifebuoy soap, Clamato juice and playing "3, 5, 7, 9" on the Big Four.

One Saturday, they both hit: Tose won $100,000 off $20; Hornstein's 50 cents yielded $2,600. The bellman drove his Mazda to Wilson's Check Cashing, on Susquehanna Avenue near Girard, to pick up their dough.

He said that Tose, even in his decline, was a generous soul, buying drinks, giving money to the homeless, helping a front-desk clerk get his kid cancer treatment at CHOP. "He always had class. He said to me once, 'You gotta be good when you're on top, because coming down, you wanna have friends.' "

Hornstein called Jimmy Hoffa "extremely nice," and said he got to know Salvatore Testa and Phil Leonetti. At one time, the hotel's 24-hour cafe and bar Brasserie - "Bras-err-ray," in Warwick speak - was, Hornstein said, the mob's "clubhouse."

Hornstein still considers two of their attorneys, now dead, his best friends. He described Ed Reif (defended the Merlino family) and Bob Simone (represented Nicky Scarfo; did four years for extortion and racketeering) as "two guys who would do anything for anybody." They'd represent cabdrivers and widows pro bono.

Another one of his favorite local icons? Kenny Gamble, who once lived in unit 915. "He is, without a doubt, one of the most humble, easygoing guys you'd ever wanna meet - just a really fine human being," he said.

"Somebody like that, you don't forget, because it was such a positive experience, meeting him. He'll come through now and then and kid me. He'll say, 'Do you own the hotel yet?' "

Nope. Doesn't want to, either.

"When I leave, I'm leaving," Hornstein said. "It's been nice. This place doesn't owe me a nickel."


On Twitter: @LaMcCutch

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