Bagel Boy to
the Stars.

A Schmear Story.

by Mitch Lemus

This story originally appeared in

It's 5:30 a.m. on a frosty February morning. While most New Yorkers are catching their last winks before sunrise, Michael Klein, 32, is meticulously straightening out the celebrity photos on the walls of his store, 3rd Avenue Bagels.

There's Michael pictured with Brooke Shields. And there he is chumming it up with Spike Lee. And yet another one of him cavorting with ex-heavyweight champ, Joe Frazier.

In fact, nearly every inch of the store's walls are covered with autographed photos of celebrities, most of them posing with Michael. One would expect to see such pictures in the office of some high-powered Hollywood agent. But in a bagel store?

Michael's schmear story began back in 1991 while vacationing with his wife at the Beverly Hilton. The couple was simply looking to relax and had no inkling of the birthday bash Merv Griffin was throwing for Sophia Loren the night they checked in.

As limo after limo rolled up, a virtual Who's Who of Hollywood paraded before the star-struck couple.

Camera in hand, Michael finally got the nerve to ask a celebrity for a picture. It was Vanna White, all "tan, tall, and beautiful," he recalls. "It would be my pleasure," said Vanna, snuggling up to Michael while his wife took the shot.

Surprised by the ease of his feat that night, Michael then proceeded to get his picture taken with Sophia Lauren, Sylvester Stallone, Audrey Meadows and Pat Sajak.

Back in New York, he blew the shots up to 8 x 10, framed them, and hung them up in his bagel store. The pictures attracted so much customer attention, that from then on, Michael decided to actively seek photo ops. And a hobby was born.

The wall of fame is definitely good for business, says Michael, who's been in the family business since graduating from the University of Florida in 1986. Last October, he became sole owner of the store on 3rd Avenue and 82nd Street, buying it from his father.

When not answering customer questions like "Who's new on the wall?" and "What do the celebrities eat?," Michael commands the counter like a general, directing employees, fielding phone-in orders, and waiting on customers in impossibly scant time. Regulars needn't even say a word. As soon as he sees one enter the store, he's making their bagel and pouring their coffee just the way they like it.

An avid sports fan, Michael is also a Knick's season-ticket holder. One night while trolling for celebrity pictures at Madison Square Garden, he met his greatest childhood idol, former Knick Walt Frazier. "Hey, I know your store," Clyde told Michael, who was wearing his 3rd Avenue Bagels jacket. "I live near there." Thrilled that his idol of all idols lived in the neighborhood, Michael sent free appetizers to Frazier's apartment every day for a week.

At first, Frazier didn't respond, as he was on the road announcing Knicks games. But a few days later, he dropped by for lunch, and the two bonded immediately. "I admire Michael as a family man and talented entrepreneur," says Frazier, who comes in nearly every day, fond of Michael's apple muffins, whole wheat bagels and turkey breast. On occasion, Clyde even works the store's counter to the delight of neighborhood customers. "He's the coolest, most down-to-earth celebrity I know," says Michael.

The two have become so friendly, in fact, that after most Knick games they go out to dinner together. "We'll be eating in a place like Canastel's, Mulholland Drive Cafe, or Martell's, and five or six people will be hovering around us," says Michael. "It feels good sitting with him, although sometimes its annoying because I just want to enjoy my meal. But can you imagine what it's like for Frazier?

For him, it's like this every single day of his life. Would I trade places with him? You bet. In a minute!" "Mike is a huge sports fan. So much so, that he feeds me sports news I don't even know about," concedes Frazier. The budding paparazzi credits Frazier for opening doors for him. But Frazier disagrees. "The guy is very effervescent, says Clyde. "He'd be getting his pictures with or without me."

Within a short time, Michael became known as "The Bagel Man" to Garden staff, players and fans. "You've got to know who you can and can't take a picture with," says Michael, who arrives at the Garden an hour or so before gametime looking to schmooze and take pictures with stars seated in "Hollywood Row" on court level.

"A guy like Woody Allen won't even look at you. Whoopi Goldberg you can't get near. Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger are a tough picture. John McEnroe is a nice guy, but I wouldn't ask for his picture because I know his temperament. But others are really cool. Like Bill Murray, who grabbed my camera and started taking pictures of himself."

But not all of Michael's celebrity photos are taken at the Garden. A fair amount walk into his store straight off the street by chance. CBS sportscaster Pat O'Brien, came in one recent Sunday morning, took a look at Michael's wall of fame and said, "Hey Michael. If I send you my picture, where's it going to go on the wall?"

"Well, you're top notch. I'll give you good placing," Michael assured him. Sure enough, within days, O'Brien's autographed mug was delivered via Federal Express to the bagel store where it now hangs with nearly a hundred other famous personalities. Other walk-ins include Sigorney Weaver, Sharon Stone, Madaline Kahn and Hugh Grant. But Michael won't pounce on a star the moment he or she walks in. "If I or one of my workers recognize a celebrity here for the first time, I won't say anything. The second time I usually won't say anything, either. The third time I'll say, Aren't you so-and-so? and develop a rapport." For opportunities like these, Michael keeps a camera handy in the back room.

On his wish list: "I'd love to take a picture with David Letterman, Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Hurley, Jennifer Aniston, and Tiffany Amber Thiessen from Beverly Hills 90210. She's, like beautiful. Totally awesome. But my ultimate picture would be President Clinton."

While shooting celebrity photos may be glamorous, running a successful bagel store requires hard work and long hours. Michael, who lives 8 miles away in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, leaves his wife and two small daughters every morning at a quarter after five. 15 minutes later he's behind the counter, his car, embellished with a "BAYGEL" license plate, parked right in front of the store. At 3:30 he heads home, where he begins on paperwork.

"We bake 17,000 bagels a week. All hand rolled, made with high-gluten flour, and baked in stone-shelved ovens. Primarily, it's the New York water that makes a good bagel. But knowing how to get the bagels soft on the inside and crispy on the outside separates our bagels from the rest. And of course, the personality behind the bagel."

So, what's next for New York's paparazzi bagel boy? Bagel sandwiches named after the stars? I can see it now ... "Give me a Clyde on whole wheat, Michael. Hold the onions."

This story originally appeared in The Upper East Side Resident.

Copyright © 1996 Mitch Lemus