Do Not Disturb



January 11, 2007 -- As one grows older, it would seem that one misses more and more of the past. Especially the past of great hotels. There are so many lodging items now vanished for which I pine.

Common courtesy would be high on the list. What happened to the nicely uniformed front-desk staffers who addressed you as "sir "or "madam"?

I checked into a chain hotel the other day and the staffers were wearing black turtleneck sweaters. When I gave my name, the clerk immediately started addressing me as "Mike." Excuse me, you little punk, I'm 67, old enough to be your grandfather, so kindly show me some respect. Besides, I hate Mike. It's a name I associate with a huge, Irish-American football player and that I'm not. To hotel management, first-naming guests may be hip, but to me it's just plain rude. Where have all the manners gone?

Where have all the keys gone? In an earlier column, I wrote about how I used to collect those wonderful hotel key fobs, some so huge that you just had to check them at the front desk when you left the hotel. No more, of course. Now you get a piece of plastic.

Then there were the elevator operators. The wonderful Carlyle in New York, most hotels in Japan and a few rare properties around the world still have them and what stories they must have to tell. My friends all say that they have been helped to their rooms more than once by an obliging operator. Where have they all gone? Is there a central community somewhere in Arizona that houses retired hotel elevator operators?

Talking about operators, where have all the wonderful hotel telephone operators gone? They not only woke you on-time, but they also sent you off to sleep with a happy "good night" when you requested your wake-up call. They did everything else in between, like take your messages and place your calls. They even told callers that you were out when you were in. They've probably joined the retired elevator operators in Arizona.

What ever happened to those wonderful armoires that stocked the television, the minibar and a few drawers? They had folding doors that smartly closed up and hid everything away when the television or bar was not in use. When we were designing hotels in the 1970s, we spent inordinate amounts of time designing the perfect armoire. Now armoires are going the way of the dodo to make way for flat-screen televisions that sit on the wall like an ugly picture.

Where have all the lights gone? Do you remember when there was terrific lighting in your guestroom? I mean, lamps with 100-watt bulbs that you could read by without going blind with eye strain? When the energy crisis hit in 1973, we were all asked to reduce wattage whereever we could. Hotels assiduously complied and placed 40-watt bulbs in the rooms, never to revert back. Some have even converted to those squiggly things that give off a fluorescent glow that's about as bright as a glowworm's tail.

Who invented the clothes hanger that couldn't be stolen? I don't want to know where he has gone. Remember the old-fashioned hangers that you could remove? Now you have to be a contortionist to hang anything. A few of the old, high-quality wooden hangers used to get stolen. Big deal. That's no excuse for those rinky-dink hangers that seem welded to the coat bar.

Where have all the sheets and blankets gone? In the early 1950s, on my first trip across the English Channel to France, there were no sheets on the bed. Just this huge, blanket-type thing full of horsehair. It was called a palliasse and it confirmed what my grandmother had told me: The French were heathens. You either sweated to death under it or threw it off, guaranteeing a case of hypothermia. Now they are the rage again and it's hard to find a hotel that has good, old-fashioned sheets and blankets. They are no longer called palliasses and stuffed with horsehair, of course. Now they are called duvets (damn French again) and stuffed with feathers. But, hey, they still come off in the night, falling to the floor and leaving you shivering like jelly.

Where have all the bathtubs gone? I mourn the loss of a real, honest-to-goodness bathtub. Older hotels, and by those I mean pre-World War II, still have magnificent tubs. Two can happily lay full length with just one's heads above the water and turn the tap on with your toes to add more hot water. Wonderful things, those tubs. But when did you last have a bath in a hotel room? You might if they brought back those honest-to-goodness bathtubs.

And where has all the dining-room showmanship gone? I agree that menus have to evolve, but, to me, there was nothing grander than sitting in a great hotel dining room while flames shot in the air as the Captain set off another order of Steak Diane or Crepes Suzette. (Big hotels don't serve these dishes anymore because they set off the fire sprinklers.) And where have all the carving trolleys gone? The trolleys where magnificent sides of roast beef would be carved or perhaps a duck disjointed or a leg of lamb slowly sliced at your table from a silver guridon. It was showmanship at its best. Now it's all done in the kitchen and plonked down in front of you.

For that matter, remember when the Maitre D' wore white ties and tails, the Captain wore a dinner jacket and the waiters had crisp, white jackets and ties? What do they wear now? Jeans and sneakers and they call themselves servers. I was once a waiter, a Captain and a Maitre D'. I was immensely proud of those jobs. Where has all the pride gone?

Lastly, there are flowers. Some hotels still have truly magnificent floral displays, so grand that you actually go over and feel them to see if they are real. But generally hotel flowers today are artificial and made in China and they are usually covered in dust as they sit near the plastic palm trees.

Where have all the flowers gone? Or am I just getting old?

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2007 by Michael Matthews. All rights reserved.