Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mad Men on Mars, Wires: The best NYC history on film, TV

Some high-quality films and television shows returned to New York's past for inspiration this year. Here's a few of my favorites:

This documentary purports to be the story of Philippe Petit, the daredevil highwire artist who staged one of the craziest stunts in modern times, an illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. But to me it's as much a portrait of 70s New York as it is anything; look through the branches and see the grit and the glamour of downtown Manhattan. And of course the World Trade Center, retaining its wonder and majesty, back in the day when you could both hate it and love it.

A world ten years older than Petit's is depicted in this John Patrick Shanley play turned self-directed flick. The scene, practically gothic, is the St. Anthony parish in the Bronx in 1964. This is the darkest portrait of the Bronx I've ever seen. Literally. The one time there's sun, it's used by viperous Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) as a light of interrogation upon Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), accused of a heinous crime with one of his young charges. Although the film (almost to its fault) stays claustrophobically indoors, snow-covered Italian and Irish working-class neighborhoods set the tone of a deceptively innocent world.

Set almost ten years earlier than Doubt, this re-teaming of the Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet essentially depicts the clash of 50s suburban life with the toils of midtown Manhattan. The pair bicker throughout the entire film as a married couple thinking they can survive the banality of middle class life in Connecticut. To offset it, director Sam Mendes gracefully uses Grand Central Terminal as a metaphor for DiCaprio's homogeny, its arching windows cast as prison bars.

Honorable Mention: Anyone looking to visit pre-developed 90s New York need only rent The Wackness, a loving portrait of the city and its music. The low-budget but heartfelt Henry May Long was only in theaters for a week, but its worth a look for its drawing-room portrait of two vastly different New Yorkers in the late 19th Century. (Should be on DVD next year.) Milk is set entirely in San Francisco but for the first ten minutes, with a passionate kiss in the subway between Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his soon-to-be boyfriend Scott (James Franco). A brief flash to the Stonewall riots remind you of New York's links to the events of the film.

New York seems to be a backdrop on half the TV shows currently broadcast -- even when it's Toronto -- but to take the risk and display New York's past is pretty admirable when it's done right. Until HBO answers my calls to make a weekly series about Five Points, these will have to tide you over:

Modern-day cop gets stuck in some kind of mental wormhole, jettisoning to a 1973 New York straight out of old, comfortable cop shows. Although I find it a bit costume-y, I love its attention to detail and zany cultural clashes. Its amber glow grants New York's near bankrupt, joyously cultural era a buffer of sweet nostalgia. If the 70s were like this for real, who wouldn't want to be knocked into a coma and join him? Here's hoping the show makes it at least four years to the blackout, Son of Sam and Studio 54. (Hmm, maybe next season, he can go arrest Philippe Petit!)

This show still isn't filmed here, but the second season of Mad Man fine-tuned its depiction of early 60s New York in its perfectly dressed interiors and fashions. You never see Madison Avenue, but boy do you feel it on the smarm these ad men bring to their work. Don Draper disappears in Los Angeles for a few episodes, and you feel the loss of New York like a missing limb -- or a weight off your shoulders, depending on the perspective.

Almost none of this epic mini-series was filmed here, or for that matter, even set here. But for the New York history geek in all of us, did you not get chills at the reenactment of Washington's swearing-in at Federal Hall, with bug-eyed Paul Giamatti looking on as the testy, tormented vice president?

Honorable Mention: American Experience had two great New York stories this year -- one on Grand Central Terminal, the other on Brooklyn's favorite son Walt Whitman, a gorgeous, poetic episode that won an Emmy

Monday, December 29, 2008

2008 - The Bowery Boys history in review

Below is a list of all the podcasts we did for the year 2008. This year has been a tremendous, overwhelming time for us, and Tom and I want to thank all of you for listening or just checking out this website. I can't promise we'll be able to produce quite this many shows for 2009, but we do plan on making the shows even better than before. We have many more 'epic' shows in the pipeline, and we're also going to do a few that are way off the beaten path.

In addition, we now offer another way of getting these shows. In addition to downloading from iTunes and other podcasting services, you can download them directly from our satellite links that are now included below. Just click on the name of the podcast you want to hear, and it will take you to another screen. From there, you can listen with Quicktime or just download to your computer!

Brooklyn Bridge
Original release date January 11

Peter Cooper and Cooper Union
Original release date January 18

Battery Park and Castle Clinton
Original release date January 25

Museum of Modern Art
Original release date February 1

The World's Fair of 1964-65
Original release date February 8

Katz Delicatessen
Original release date February 15

The British Invasion 1776
Original release date February 22

Life In British New York 1776-1783
Original release date February 29

Henry Ward Beecher and Plymouth Church
Originally release date March 7

Tiffany & Co.
Original release date March 14

New York Yankees
Original release date March 21

Union Square
Original release date March 28

New York Post
Original release date April 4

Triangle Factory Fire of 1911
Original release date April 11

Studio 54
Original release date April 18

Rikers Island
Original release date April 25

Grand Central Terminal
Original release date May 2

PT Barnum's American Museum
Original release date May 15

Grant's Tomb
Original release date May 22

Stonewall Riots
Original release date May 30

LaGuardia Airport
(will be uploaded to the new page within the next couple days)
Original release date June 6

Canal Street and Collect Pond
Original release date June 13

McSorley's Old Ale House
Original release date June 20

DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal
Original release date June 27

Meatpacking District
Original release date July 10

The Creation of Central Park
Original release date July 18

The Evolution of Central Park
Original release date July 25

Randall's Island and the 1936 Olympic Trials
Original release date July 31

Carnegie Hall
Original release date August 8

Delmonico's Restaurant
Original release date August 15

Five Points Part 1: Wicked Slum
Original release date August 22

Five Points Part 2: The Fate of Five Points
Original release date August 29

The Pan Am Building
Original release date September 12

Shea Stadium
Original release date September 19

New York Stock Exchange
Original release date September 26

Green-Wood Cemetery
Original release date October 2

Spooky Stories of New York
Original release date October 10

Who Killed Mary Rogers?
Original release date October 17

Guggenheim Museum
Original release date October 24

New York City Marathon
Original release date October 31

The Plaza Hotel
Original release date November 14

The Bowery Files
Original release date November 21

Saks Fifth Avenue
Original release date December 4

Rockefeller Center
Original release date December 19

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays from the Bowery Boys!

I hope these children from 1914 had a great Christmas, because personally I would be very scared of that tree.

I'll be offline until the weekend so have a great holiday and thanks for listening and coming back and reading the blog! Picture above is courtesy the always wonderful Shorpys

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Best Rockefeller Center Christmas Trees EVER

Not all Rockefeller Center Christmas trees are born alike. Once removed from their serene forest habitats, each winner of New York's annual arboreal beauty pageant finds itself in a different set of circumstances, thanks to world circumstances and fashions of the day. The following trees deserve special commendation:

1931 The Original Tree By Although the first 'official' tree would get its launch in 1933, in a lavish lighting ceremony orchestrated by Rockefeller Center publicist Merle Crowell, nothing seems more heartfelt than the 50-foot tree planted in an excavation hole by construction workers, months before any building would even be completed

1934 The Singing Tree It was apparently in vogue at the time to install speakers inside Christmas tree to somehow give it the appearance 'singing'. The White House Christmas tree tries it two years before, and Rockefeller Center follows suit. I'm sure nobody was fooled. If a tree can sing, what's to stop it from getting up and walking around? (By the way, isn't it a Christmas miracle that the tree has never fallen over into the skating rink?)

1936 The Twin Trees Speaking of skating, the rink below opens this year, and to honor what would soon be one of the most popular features of Rockefeller Center, organizers get two 70-foot trees. (They do the same thing in 1937 and 1938.) If you're being technical -- and let's be technical, it's the holidays! -- at a combined 140 feet, that's the largest amount of footage ever utilized for the annual display.

1941-1944 The Dark Trees The annual trees remain unlit throughout the war and are decorated with "unessential" materials, with all those twinkly lights and garland apparently donated to the war effort.

1949 The White Tree In what was certainly the most ridiculous, plastic-looking yet utterly fantastic tree ever created, a 76-foot Norway spruce is actually spray painted white to give it the appearance of looking covered with snow or else to publicly humiliate it for some unknown offense.

1951 The Televised Tree (above) Songstress Kate Smith turns on the lights in the first broadcast celebration of the Center's annual tradition, setting the stage for this year's ultimate celebrity appearance by the Jonas Brothers. (My 10-year-old niece told me to write that.)

1966 The Foreign Tree (below) For the first time, a handsome 64-foot specimen is brought in from Canada. Another country! This would never happen had George W. Bush been president!

1971 The Zombie Tree The Balsam Fir at the center of this year's celebration, already severed from its native forest and gussied up like a cheap Christmas harlot, has the unusual distinction of being mutilated, mulched and recycled for other purposes the very first time. The 1970s have arrived!

1980 The Daredevil Tree Something about the thick, brawny branches of this year's 65-foot tree drew a man to attempt to climb to the top. The nimble climber was promptly arrested and security inevitably doubled after that.

1993 The Flamboyant Tree For the first time, the number of lights embracing the Christmas tree exceed 30,000, possibly making it the most energy-wasting tree up to this point. And they were proud of that back then! (The 'green trees' of the past two years look to reverse this unfortunate side effect of holiday cheer.)

1995 The Holy Tree This year's selection isn't just from any forest. The 75-foot Norway spruce used for this year's ceremony was donated by a convent. Hallelujah!

1999 The Tallest Tree The monstrous creature towering over obviously frightened skaters this year chimes in at an astonishing 100 feet tall.

2004 The Blingy Tree The tree goes truly upscale when its topped for the first time with that hefty Swarovski crystal star, comprised of 25,000 crystals, making it the most decorated lady on Fifth Avenue.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

History in the making - 12/20

Frosty turns his back on the Rock Center skaters

Something things in New York don't change much at all: check out this snowy look back at the White Horse Tavern [Ephemeral New York]

A road trip worth taking -- the New York State Museum in Albany opens an exhibit on New Netherland and the first European settlers on the state [New York History]

A history of all those OTHER official Manhattan Christmas trees, including the City Hall holiday celebration [New York City Department of Parks and Recreation]

AM New York investigates endangered 'architectural treasures of the outer boroughs. Are they worth saving? [AM New York]

Five great old New York City restaurants from the past that are no longer with us [Gothamist]