Friday, October 31, 2008

PODCAST: New York City Marathon

Photo from Flickr

A true five-borough episode! The New York City Marathon hosts thousands of runners from all over the world, the dream project of the New York Road Runners and in particular one Fred Lebow, an employee of the Fashion District turned athletic icon. Find out how he launched a massive race in the midst of bankrupt New York.

Also -- our guest host Tanya Bielski-Braham takes us on a speedy tour of the course, from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Tavern on the Green.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

The race route. The official New York City website also has a detailed map.

Fred Lebow joined the New York Road Runners in 1969 and helped turn the marathon into a premier event for New York.

One of the marathon's true superstars, Bill Rodgers (that's him wearing number 3) won the marathon the first four years of its existence as a tri-borough event, from 1976-79. In 1980, he placed 5th, handing the mantle to rising star Alberto Salazar.

A clearly pained Salazar fights his way to the finish line during the 1981 race, on his way to setting a world's record.

Sure, Salazar's good, but his co-winner in 1980, Grete Waitz, would be the all-time New York City Marathon champ, winning nine times. (Pic courtesy Sports Illustrated.)

Rosie Ruiz, looking totally exhausted form feigning her completion of the Boston Marathon. It was later discovered that she had also faked her run in the New York marathon.

The statue of Fred Lebow stands watch for every finisher of the marathon. For the rest of the year, this tribute stands at the Engineer's Gate in Central Park.

Fred and Grete triumphantly cross the finish line in 1992.

A few months after giving birth, British runner Paula Radcliffe ran away with the victory at last year's race. (Courtesy Ed Costello Flickr)

Paula with the men's winner Martin Lel from Kenya (Pic courtesy

Our guest host, Tanya Bielski-Braham, at the completion of the race last year, swathed in a "space blanket"

Go to the New York Road Runners website for information on this Sunday's race, including places to watch it from the sidelines.

I highly recommend two recent releases about the marathon: the book "A Race Like No Other" by Liz Robbins, a great profile on the 2007 race with lots of history nuggets thrown in; and the new documentary Run For Your Life about Fred Lebow, new to DVD this week. You seriously have to check out all the great footage from the 1970s, particularly the shots of the Playboy Bunnies posing for pictures for the 1972 "Crazylegs" race.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween Eve!

Try out our two ghost story podcasts, listen to them here or download them from iTunes, Zune or other podcasting services:

Ghost Stories of New York

Spooky Stories of New York

Pic courtesy flickr

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Magic New York: Martinka & Company casts a spell

Did you know it was National Magic Week? Please cast thoughts of David Blaine hanging upside-down from your mind and return to the mystical days of illusionists in thick capes, beautiful assistants that vanish in mid-air and, almost forgotten, the rustic old-time magic store, with shelves of mysterious accessories for the amateur conjurer.

New York City had many famous magic stores, but perhaps none more beloved than Flosso-Hornmann Magic or, as it was known when it opened in 1872 (although the official website gives a date of 1875), Martinka & Company. From then until the year 2000, when it was sold by proprietor Jackie Flosso to a company who turns it into an Internet business, it was the epicenter for Manhattan magic lovers.

German brothers Francis and Antonio Martinka brought over their successful "conjuring and toy shop" as immigrants to the New York melting pot in the 1870s, opening Martinka & Company just north of Chelsea on Sixth Avenue. The shop's fabulous slogan?
"The world wants to be deceived, let it be deceived."

The shop featured mechanical monkeys and "automatons" that played chess and the shelves were loaded with camp items as "The Mephisto or Satyr's Head Trick," "The Wonderful Cigarette Paper Trick," and "The Mystic Barrel of Salt."

Behind the displays of magical wares however was a backroom "Palace of Mystery," where budding young magicians would try their hand at more elaborate tricks. Soon, this performance hall would host the city's best displays of magic. And it was here, in 1902, when the Society of American Magicians was formed, an organization which would feature the biggest names in illusion and trickery.

And if you were looking for a good fright here, for a short time, the shop also kept a live lion named Monty. Its owner, the magician known as Carter the Great, had purchased the shop from the Martinka family and kept his own king of the beast on hand for special tricks.

The shop was later owned by a far more acclaimed New York magician Harry Houdini, a friend of the Martinkas who decorated the entrance with a gigantic bust of himself.

In 1939 the store was purchased by Brooklynite Al Flosso (a theatrical stage name). He had bought magic tricks there as a child and brought his stagecraft to the aging store, keeping it in delightful state of clutter as not to "disturb Houdini's dust." According to an interesting bio page on Flosso, he was "constantly repairing, soldering, building and tinkering with equipment and illusions. Customers could bring in their favorite deck of cards, and, for a nominal fee, have it made into a stripper or Svengali deck. He custom-painted thumb tips to match his customers' skin tone...."

When he died in 1976, his son Jackie took over the shop (and the last name), moving it up to 34th Street and keeping it stocked with magical tools and gags until finally selling it in 2000.

You can visit the website and shop for vintage magic memorabilia, posters and, yes, powerful tricks to amaze your friends!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fall foliage freakout at two Bronx botanical gardens

I'm skipping out on history today to give you a plain testimonial: if you're craving a flashy autumn show courtesy of Mother Nature, the time is ripe to visit two lovely Bronx institutions in the throes of fall foliage madness. If you can't actually get out of the city but need some seasonal therapy, both of these options are available via the subway.

The New York Botanical Garden is currently in the throes of an amazing fall transformation. Although they currently have enormous Henry Moore sculptures scattered throughout the park, more striking art hangs on the trees in the Native Forest section, particularly those hugging the shoreline of the Bronx River:

Botanical gardens are odd things in the fall. While some blooms are clearly out of seasons (the rose garden is a little sad this time of year), other sections are clearly just getting started. And if you can't find enough to see and do outdoors, there's always the lawn of Mertz Library, a veritable Beaux-Arts indulgance in the form of its Italian style fountain:

Meanwhile, at the theatrical Haupt Conservatory, the garden is presenting a fantastic Japanese kiku (chrysanthemum) show, which displays the more acrobatic and colorful traits of this popular flower:

The garden even has a map that tracks the projected leaf-changing time of various trees in the park. You can get to the New York Botanical Garden easily by the B and D subway lines, or on Metro-North (the preferred method).

Wave Hill is a little trickier. Taking the 1 train to its final stop (Van Cortlandt Park at 242nd Street), cross the street and hang out in front of Burger King, where a Wave Hill shuttle comes back even hour at ten minutes past the hours. Personally, having to meet in front of a fast food restaurant for a bus gives the whole occasion a decidedly high-school-field-trip feel.

It's one-tenth the size of the New York's official botanical garden, far more remote and tinier gardens. However, Wave Hill has one crucial element that the Botanical Garden doesn't have: crazy views of the Hudson River

The 19th century manor at Wave Hill served as an oasis for everybody from Mark Twain to Theodore Roosevelt. Today the home is a cultural center with photo galleries, art exhibits and children's programs throughout the year.

Check out the official websites of both the New York Botanical Garden and Wave Hill for more details on hours and special programs. Back to normal history stuff tomorrow....

(Click on all pictures above for larger views)

Friday, October 24, 2008

PODCAST: The Guggenheim Museum

The spiral-ramped wonder that is the Guggenheim Museum began as the dream of two colorful characters -- a severe German artist and her rich patron art-lover. So how did they convince the most famous architect in the world to sign on to their dream for a modern art "museum temple"? Come meander with us through the Guggenheim's quirky history. Co-starring Robert Moses!

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

Solomon Robert Guggenheim -- his love for artwork late in life culimated in one of the world's most impressive collection of modern art

"Yellow Red and Blue" by Vassily Kandinsky, a particular favorite of Solomon's who would end up owning over 120 paintings by the abstract artist.

The enigmatic Hilla Rebay, muse and adviser to Solomon and the original curator to what would become the Guggenheim Museum -- until she was unceremoniously dumped by the trustees after Solomon's death

"Squares", a work by Rudolf Bauer, whose relationship with Rebay and the Guggenheim would quickly sour

Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captures Frank Lloyd Wright in his final days, an iconic architect who would go out on top with the construction of the museum

During construction: the distinctive curves were created by essentially creating a plywood mold and having the concrete sprayed from the inside.

The museum, right before its opening in 1959. (Pic courtesy New York Magazine.)

Like a typical Wright creation, the museum seems both natural and alien at the same time. Natural light streams in at unusual angles.

Solomon, Hilla and Frank stand admiring a model of their future museum.

CORRECTION: In the podcast I incorrectly state that Wright had already built a house in Staten Island before getting the commission to build the Guggenheim. In fact, he was hired to build the private residence well after receiving the museum job. The home, called The Crimson Beech, is located in Lighthouse Hill. Apparently it leaks.

Having fun with the Guggenheim's different exterior shades

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Clowns at Lincoln Center! the Big Apple Circus returns

The Big Apple Circus is probably the only show featuring acrobatic dogs and European clowns ever to play Lincoln Center. Well, play next to Lincoln Center.

P.T. Barnum made his name in New York with his American Museum and a host of publicity stunts, but his world-famous circus actually originated elsewhere. However, the Big Apple Circus, which opens Thursday at Domrosch Park, is born and bred in New York City.

If you get a vague 70s disco feeling every time you hear the name Big Apple Circus, that's because its first year was in 1977, a not-so-hallmark time in the history of the city. But amidst the blackout, financial despair and a certain serial killer came this little ray of sunshine, who set up their first ring in patch of landfill that would later become Battery Park City.

Michael Christensen and Paul Binder were jugglers making money on the streets of Paris in the 1970s. They soon found work with the one-ring Nouveau Cirque de Paris, part of a new movement of circus experience with greater cultural influence. Think a precursor to Cirque de Soleil: more ribbons and acrobatics, fewer lions and tigers.

Meanwhile, back in New York, a Russian duo working out of a downtown loft created the non-profit New York School for Circus Arts to train aspiring performers. When Binder and Christensen returned to the U.S, they teamed with the school to form their very own one-ring in the shadow of the recently completed World Trade Center. The first Big Apple Circus featured various trapeze artists, a soon-to-be renown group of Harlem acrobats known as the Backstreet Flyers, and a lively dog act.

The next year they moved to 8th Avenue and 50th Street and finally in 1980 to their annual home at Damrosch Park near Lincoln Center. With each year they attract larger crowds, but Binder and Christensen would keep the show small. As quoted in a 1982 issue of Time, Binder says, "This is the maximum size I ever want to have. If we were larger, we would lose our intimacy and immediacy."

During this period, one notable performer at the Big Apple Circus would be Phillipe Petit, the "Man on Wire" best known to New Yorkers for slinging a high wire between the Twin Towers and walking it. In 1982, the circus would be featured in the film version of "Annie."

The circus has crossed over into some unusual arenas, even operating an entire floor of clown doctors (CCU, or Clown Care Unit) in the children's branches of hospitals throughout the city.

On tour throughout most of the year, the Big Apple Circus is always back in New York in time for the holidays. Binder, who has been with the show from the beginning, will finally step down as master of ceremonies for good tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum: it's FREE

In celebration of National Design Week, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum has had free admission all week until Saturday. Why aren't you there now?

Even if exhibits like "Wall Stories: Children's Wallpaper and Books" don't sound interesting to you (but who doesn't like fun wallpaper?), at very least go to check out the building, one of the many original homes of Andrew Carnegie.

The museum was created by the daughters of mayor Abram Hewitt, making them granddaughters of eccentric industrialist Peter Cooper. Their brother, fortuously named Peter Cooper Hewitt, was a dexterous inventor of photography "vapor lamps," unmanned airplanes and primative hydrofoils. If for some reason you'd like to have his face on a tee-shirt, somebody has invented one.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pierre Lorillard: Manhattan's original snuff king

Just a few gentlemen, enjoying healthy lungfuls of smoke (Picture courtesy National Cigar Museum)

One of the key locales in the mystery of Mary Rogers was the cigar store in which she worked, Anderson's Tobacco Emporium to the west of City Hall on Broadway. Anderson was known nationwide for the quality of his wares, but by the 1830s New York was already well-known for world-class tobacco products, thanks to one man -- Pierre Lorillard.

A habit borrowed from the Native Americans, tobacco was actually grown in Manhattan as far back as the Dutch occupation, with tobacco fields dotting the area, from Greenwich Village to where the United Nations building sits today. But it made a greater impact on the city being shipped in and out of the harbor.

Lorillard, a French Huguenot in British New York, opened the city's first successful "manufactory" for tobacco products in 1760, on what was then Chatham Street (or today's Park Row, to the east of City Hall). Described as a "snuff grinder", Lorillard's business secret sounds a little repulsive today: to keep his snuff fresh, Pierre sold it in dried animal bladders, "dried and tanned like parchment."

His products were branded with a trademark of a Native American enjoying the delights of a barrel-full of tobacco. One of the earliest developed trademarks to have derived from New York, the Lorillard brand would quickly catch on even in Europe, as his snuff, all snug in its animal bladder, could be shipped with ease.

Pierre however would see little of his lasting legacy, thanks to the Revolutionary War. In 1776, the anti-Tory Lorillard followed the Continental Army out of town after they were driven out of Manhattan, but Lorillard was tragically killed by a Hessian soldier.

Fortunately, the Lorillard family had tobacco figuratively in their blood. The business was taken over by his two sons George and Peter, who moved the business to the Bronx and expanded nationwide. Believe it or not, the old Lorillard Snuff Mill is still standing, now a part of the New York Botanical Garden.

You can thank current Lorillard Tobacco Company today for providing the world with Newport Cigarettes and a bevy of other nicotine products. Cough cough.

You can find some other historical details about Lorillard here.

Below, some of the cheesy masculinity wrought by the Lorillard empire:

Friday, October 17, 2008

PODCAST: Who Murdered Mary Rogers?

It's a mystery! It's 1841 and the most desirable woman in downtown Manhattan -- the 'beautiful cigar girl' Mary Rogers -- is found horribly murdered along the Hoboken shore. Hear some of the stories of this case's prime suspects and marvel at the excessive attentions of the penny press.

Also: Edgar Allen Poe takes a crack at solving the case, and who is the mysterious Madame Restell?

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

NOTE: The sound quality is a little wobbly at first but it goes back to normal after the first few minutes. Sorry!

Many of the events of the story take place around the City Hall area -- Anderson's tobacco shop would have been just to the left of the picture, Mary's boarding house to the right. (This illustration is actually from 1854, but you get the idea.)

Sybil's Cave, in an area along the Hoboken shore once called Elysian Fields -- it's here that the body was found ... and another gruesome death related to Mary Rogers would occur just a couple month later

Printing House Square, across from City Hall and mere steps from Mary Rogers' boarding house, got into the act by printing ever scandalous detail of the murder investigation

The murder inspired Edgar Allen Poe to write 'The Mystery of Marie Roget', changing the names and location but leaving the essential facts intact. But had Poe been paid to write the story by one of the case's suspects, Mary's former employer?

Madame Restell -- what role did she play in the disappearance and death of Mary Rogers?

Mary Rogers lived at a boarding house run by her mother that once stood here, just a block from CIty Hall. It was here that Mary met most of the men who later became suspects in the case.