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Concerning Rachel, Joey and my other four imaginary “Friends”

I live next door to a sacred shrine that draws pilgrims from all over the world: It’s the Greenwich Village apartment building where the characters from TV’s “Friends” are said to reside.

Frame grab from the “Friends “ debut in 1994.

Stroll along most any Manhattan block and you’ll likely pass a spot — maybe marked with a plaque or highlighted in a guidebook, or, just as likely, long forgotten — where something notable or curious or downright weird occurred. Manhattan is a jam-packed place where lots is going on, and has been going on for centuries. History is stacked on this island like pages in an encyclopedia. No matter where you look, it’s just been one thing after another.

For instance, only a couple of blocks from where I live in the West Village is the Stonewall Tavern, celebrated as the site of the Stonewall riots of June 1969, widely regarded as the start of the modern LGBT Rights movement in the United States. Right across tiny Christopher Park is the basement flat where Alex Haley once lived and where, before he wrote Roots, he spent two years interviewing Malcolm X to write that firebrand activist’s bestselling life story.

Just across Seventh Avenue South, on Grove Street, is a one-time boarding house where, in early 1865, Samuel K. Chester got a knock on his door from a fellow actor looking to enlist him in a “conspiracy to take over the government” and kidnap President Abraham Lincoln, according to testimony from Chester a few weeks after Lincoln’s assassination that April. Chester wisely chose not to throw in with John Wilkes Booth but didn’t bother to warn anyone about his plan until much too late.

This is the block I live on, and, next door to where I live, where narrow Grove Street crosses just-as-narrow Bedford Street, is a landmark that, in the eyes of many, far eclipses any other historic site in my neighborhood, one that draws camera-toting pilgrims from around the world. The building that stands on the southeast corner of this pinched intersection is where the characters on Friends are supposed to live.

This, of course, is a double fiction: For starters, the coffee-craving, I’ll-be-there-for-you characters from this highly popular NBC comedy are make-believe. Moreover, the actors who brought them to life did so on a soundstage 2,500 miles from here in Burbank, Calif., where stage sets represented the make-believe apartments that supposedly were occupied by Monica and Rachel and, across the hall, Chandler and Joey. The only filming that took place here at 90 Bedford St. was exterior footage spliced into each episode as establishing shots. And at least four of the series’ half-dozen stars never darkened the door of this otherwise undistinguished corner building, never even glimpsed it in person throughout the run of the show or for years afterward. This I know because I’ve asked them. (As for Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston: What say you?)

April 2018

But none of that keeps tourists from around the globe from their pilgrimages every waking hour in almost any weather, year in and year out, to pose for selfies outside this TV shrine where, according to a decade’s worth of Friends half-hours, Ross, Phoebe and the others resided or, at least, hung out, and always will in perpetual reruns. Nor does that keep me from basking in my fragment of reflected glory, since a slice of the building I really do live in can be spied by any alert viewer at the far-left edge of the frame in those establishing shots.

Little did I know when I settled here (years before Friends was ever thought of) that a TV show would make my own home almost, sort of, peripherally famous. In the early 1990s, a sliver of enduring global TV exposure was bestowed on me without my so much as lifting a finger, then or ever since. In the meantime, with my daily comings and goings along Grove Street, I continue to join fellow residents — us real residents — in my neighborhood as background extras captured in the photos and video these Friends fans shoot.

By now, I take it all for granted, including the occasional inquiry in broken English and awkward gestures from a traveler asking me for confirmation that, yes, this in fact is the building seen on Friends.

But I do continue to savor the irony. For more than a quarter-century as a TV critic I have written about television and TV programs, including Friends. I have interviewed hundreds of TV personalities, including, as I noted, four of the Friends stars. I have observed from up close the phenomenon of TV-conferred fame, both when it’s earned and unearned, both when it’s won and after it’s lost. And while all this was going on, TV imposed itself on the streetscape right outside my front door.

How did this happen? “By design and by random chance,” said Kevin Bright when I asked not long ago.

Bright, an executive producer of Friends through its decade-long run, told me it was he was who made the fateful decision. He had bucked studio pressure to save a few bucks by resorting to stock footage when the pilot episode for Friends was in the works. Instead, he contacted a friend from film school in New York to find him some possible locations.

Bright wanted a corner building and a building that radiated “West Village” and “starter apartment” (notwithstanding the preposterously roomy units soon erected out West on the Warner Bros. soundstage). Among the several possibilities his friend came up with, it was 90 Bedford St. that suited Bright when he arrived in New York to do the filming. As he recalled, “We basically camped out” at the intersection of Grove and Bedford, shooting footage all day and into the night to match any episode’s time frame, repeatedly zooming in to the fifth-floor level where the characters’ apartments were meant to be waiting.

Friends premiered the night of September 22, 1994, with the building first glimpsed in one of Bright’s location shots right after the first commercial break. The series was an instant hit and a bedrock of NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup, and remained so through its finale on May 6, 2004. It would live on after that, maybe forever, in reruns.

Thus did Kevin Bright and Friends make this building a star. But as with so much of New York City (a favorite setting for filmmakers since the birth of movies more than a century ago), the cross-streets this building sits on have long enjoyed their share of close-ups.

Woody and Mia pass by the future “Friends” domicile.

A few examples: In his 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen shared a brief, anguished scene with co-star Mia Farrow discussing his infertility as they strode east on Grove then turned north onto Bedford. Three decades earlier, in the Peter Sellers comedy The World of Henry Orient, teen pals Gil and Val (Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker) frolicked through the same intersection before disappearing into what was supposed to be Gil’s home — a townhouse a few steps away at 10 Grove St. And in a 2012 episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, the TV journalist played by Alison Pill was comically splashed by a tour bus as she stood on that very Friends corner.

Such blink-and-you-miss-them film appearances made no lasting impression on the public, nothing like the repeated showcase granted an otherwise unassuming six-floor, circa-1900 building by Friends.

How long did it take after Friends premiered for this building to get famous? I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t even remember when, while watching Friends in my living room, I realized I was looking at the building right next door to me. But at some point in the 1990s it began to gain renown. And at some point, the camera-toting pilgrims became, for me, just a part of the scenery.

April 2018

I do know that online fan sites have long recommended it for visitors. And for years, it’s been a favorite stop for On Location Tours, which pitches it as “a familiar place, the perfect photo-op outside the apartment building that was home to Monica, Chandler, Joey and Rachel from Friends.” Here is the opportunity “to straddle the border of fiction and reality,” to “feel as though (you) are part of the TV show,” tenuous though that connection might be. No matter. Any real place that represents a fantasy is ripe for engagement. Which is to say, the visitors never seem to photograph the building for its own sake, as you would a truly beautiful or sacred monument. Instead, they shoot themselves, with the building in the background. The suggestion is, they’re pausing on their way in, as if the friends from Friends are their imaginary friends. It’s about them, not that building. Which leads me to wonder, is what they are actually straddling the border of fan worship and dementia?

I don’t mean to be harsh. I wonder the same things about myself. After a lifetime of TV viewing and a career of writing about TV, I find I am straddling a line between reality and fiction, between TV viewing and TV immersion. And I see that with me, as with the culture, the line seems to be shifting and blurring. I’m less and less sure of where that line might be.

“Give your eyes a real treat,” urged an ad for Sylvania’s HaloLight black-and-white TV set in 1952: Its “soft frame of light around the screen to reduce that sharp contrast between the brilliant picture and the darker outside surroundings” promised the viewer “movie-clear pictures.”

Only in recent years might a TV screen (now dazzling color, digital, high-res) be truthfully described as “movie-clear.” But a “halo” or anything else that might divide such a screen from the darker outside surroundings of real life is today considerably muddled. These days, we all live in a world where, at my house, your house, the Friends house, even the White House, any line between reality and make-believe may be in plain sight, yet hidden from view.

From my fire escape landing.
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