Friday, February 26, 2010

Reisenweber's Cafe: glamour, late nights and hot jazz

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, on occasional Fridays we'll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION Reisenweber's Cafe
Columbus Circle, 58th Street and 8th Avenue, Manhattan
ERA 1856 (as a tavern)-1922

On this day in history, February 26, 1917, the instrumental ensemble Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded the very first usable* jazz recordings in a Victor studio here in New York. I can't confirm exactly where that studio was, but according to here, Victor's studios in 1917 were at 46 West 38th Street.

The thick 78 record "Livery Stable Blues" and B-side "Dixie Jass Band One Step" was pressed and released one week later March 6.

And yes, that's Jass. They changed it to Jazz a year later. (The term was still coming into its own back then.) And though they started in New Orleans in the Dixieland jazz scene, they made their name in Chicago and moved on to New York in 1916. Oh right, and they were a white ensemble who popularized for white audiences a genre created and performed mostly by black musicians.

That shouldn't nullify the ensemble's accomplishments. They were possibly the first white musicians to make jazz fashionable to New York nightlife; as a result, we can thankfully hold them partially responsible for the coinage of the Jazz Age. For from the moment of that first recording, the youth of the late '10s went wild for the naughty sound of jazz.

Before the release of this recording, the only way to hear the ensemble was live, and the place to hear them live in New York was Reisenweber's Cafe, one of the most fashionable clubs of the 1910s.

The restaurant/nightclub hybrid -- one of the first true 'entertainment complexes' --was owned by John Reisenweber, whose father had owned a small tavern at this very corner in 1856. Needless to say, John was far more ambitious plans.

Below: Columbus Circle in the 1900's. You can see the Reisenweber's marquee to the left of the picture, on 58th Street.

Reisenweber's was truly a product of the decade, expanding in 1910, closed by 1922. It held court in Columbus Circle at 58th Street and Eighth Avenue during a time when this corner of Central Park was a popular destination for theater goers, of both the high and low brow varieties. The most famous -- and respectable -- stage in the neighborhood was the Park Theatre (formerly the Majestic) featuring the hottest names in drama and musical comedy. So, naturally, Reisenweber's became a magnet for theater stars and their champagne entourages.

Producers would fete their leading ladies here, in festivities that would begin in the downstairs restaurant, move to the second floor 400 Club cabaret, pause for a dance in the elegant third-floor Paradise Supper Club (featuring the first dancefloor within a restaurant), and settle in either the cheeky Hawaiian Room on the fourth floor or up at the rooftop garden.

Below: From an advertisement dated March 1917 (thanks to Mule Walk & Talk blog, where there are many more examples)

The Dixieland ensemble hit Reisenweber's 400 Club in January 1917 (thanks in part to a recommendation from Al Jolson) and were an immediate hit, combining furious, syncopated sound with a comedic touch, perfect for a smoky cafe full of trendy New Yorkers.

But they weren't the biggest star at Reisenweber's. The lady that drew them in 1918 was one of the era's biggest celebrities and the first star of the Ziegfeld Follies -- Sophie Tucker (pictured above).

Tucker was a sassy, vibrant, bawdy performer, hammering out hits loaded with double entendre, inviting starlet pals and even regular cafe patrons on stage to perform with her. Her escapades upstairs to sellout crowds in the 400 room, during her so-called 'Bohemian Nights', were so popular that Reisenweber shrugged and remained it The Sophie Tucker Room in 1919.

In fact, Tucker's regular engagements helped popularize the cabaret form in New York. According the Musicals 101, "Delmonico's, Reisenweber's, Palaise Royale and Shanley's all became legendary night spots. Within a few years, dance floors became a required part of the cabaret environment."

Reisenweber's fused together elements that now seem quite commonplace together -- music, food, dancing, celebrity, performance -- in a way that was both respectable and yet edgy and scandalous for its day. It also introduced a staple of New York nightlife: the cover charge (25 cents).

At its height, Reisenweber's was one of Manhattan's best known restaurants, "hous[ing] a dozen dining rooms, employed more than 1,000 in help and seated 5,000 diners at one time" according to the owner's obituary.

In a way, it mirrored the most appealing elements of its neighborhood: the glamour of the theater, the abandon of the taverns, the glitz of the rich, the abandon of the working class. This mix would perfect itself by 1920, the time of Prohibition, when it would go underground.

The modern nightclub would be born there in the shadows; unfortunately Reisenweber's would not join it. It was an easy target for temperance groups; screamed the headlines in 1922, "CLOSE REISENWEBER'S, DRY OFFICIALS DEMAND". Crippled by constant police raids -- including a bummer of a raid on New Years Eve 1922 -- it was closed for good that year.

By 1925, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band would break up. But Sophie Tucker would thrive during the Roaring 20's, moving on to movies and radio.

Finally, for your listening pleasure, that recording of the "Livery Stable Blues," a tune which certainly lit up the floors of Reisenweber's as the champagne flowed....

*A month earlier, they apparently performed for management of the Columbia Gramophone Company and may have recorded for them, but nothing was ever released.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mayor John O'Brien: his heart is as black as yours!

Above: An unemployment line in November 1933. The O'Brien administration offers no relief to the city.

KNOW YOUR MAYORS Our modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in our mayoral survey can be found here.

Mayor John Patrick O'Brien
In office: 1933

There's not much to say about New York mayor John P. O'Brien that's very positive. He's one of the most forgettable mayors of the 20th century. But I haven't forgotten!

His obscurity is partially due to his length of term; he was mayor for only a year. But thank goodness. He was the last pure mayoral puppet of Tammany Hall. His blandness is further accentuated by the fact that his duration of mayor is sandwiched between that of the debonair Jimmy Walker (1926-1932) and the reformer Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-1945) -- two men of great charm and strong personal narrative.

What makes his mediocrity less than humorous is the fact that O'Brien governed the city during the pitiful year of 1933, the last truly disastrous year of the country's greatest depression, a year when the nation's unemployment rate actually hit 25%.

His predecessor Walker was a political illusionist, known more for his style than his substance. He hypnotized the city while keeping its corrupt, ineffective infrastructure churning. When no-nonsense, progressive judge Samuel Seabury exposed widespread malfeasance in the New York legal system, all roads eventually led to 'Beau James', who resigned in September 1, 1932. [More in the Know Your Mayors entry on Jimmy Walker.]

In the wake, Walker's deputy mayor Joseph V. McKee was declared temporary office holder until a special election could be hastily prepared to find someone to complete Walker's term. Normally, such wholesale exposure of corrupt Democratic leadership would have assured their immediate ouster at the polls; however, the anti-Tammany forces had yet to properly gel when the special election took place two months later in November 1932 -- and the political machine was able to squeeze in one more elected representative.

Below: New York in 1933, and it's not pretty. Men selling their possessions on the street.

John O'Brien, a lawyer of some renown, was known as a quiet but obedient public servant. ("Loyal and industrious" according to Allan Raymond.) The man was stiffer than stiff, a devout Catholic who wore his holy medals everywhere, even on gym clothes. Born to Irish immigrants in Massachusetts in 1873, O'Brien graduated from Georgetown, moved to the city, and moved into and up through the ranks of the Democratic machine to become Corporation Counsel in the early 1920s. (A nice description of what the Counsel is can be found here.) He was later appointed a New York Surrogate Court judge.

As deputy mayor, McKee was merely a fill in. Even at veiled gestures that McKee would cut wasteful city jobs was too much for the liking of Tammany leaders, who often filled those very jobs. Also McKee was also from the Bronx. That will never do!, cried party leadership.

So they went hunting for a more malleable choice, and found O'Brien. With opposition scrambling for a real candidate for the full election a year later, O'Brien handily won the special election on December 1932, double the votes of his inept republican competitor, former Brooklyn borough president Lewis H. Pounds.

"Square jawed" O'Brien went right to work -- doing virtually nothing. Despite being in the midst of the Great Depression, little was truly accomplished. Even if he had wanted to do something -- and there is no evidence he did -- he was so beholden to his Tammany Hall masters that he had little latitude for change. Those jobs he did eliminate were those least interesting to his Democratic overlords, namely school teachers.

He did secure a agreement with private banking firms to continue loaning to the city until 1937, so long as the city stopped raising real estate taxes. This balm merely disguised a rueful out-of-balance city budget that would weigh heavily upon his successor. Even worse, emergency relief funds from the federal government (what we would call 'stimulus money' today) was re-routed to the pockets of Tammany rank-and-file, dispersed almost at random instead of places in the city of greatest need.

Below, midtown Manhattan in 1933 (Pic courtesy Shorpy)

By design, O'Brien was selected in contrast to slick party hound Jimmy Walker. Unfortunately this also meant that the party was over, that "a pious, laborious dullard" occupied City Hall, "a hack given to malapropisms," according to George J. Lankevich.

To African-American crowds in Harlem, O'Brien proclaimed proudly, "I may be white but my heart is as black as yours." To Jewish constituents, he herald the talents of 'that scientist of scientists, Albert Weinstein."

Even worse, he was apparently not bright enough to disguise the Tammany strings affixed to his back. Famously (in fact, it's the soundbite he's most known for), O'Brien, when asked by the press who New York's new police commissioner would be, replied, "I don't know. They haven't told me yet." D'oh!

By the end of his term, O'Brien had wasted any shred of credibility he might have had. Yet Tammany stuck with him going into full election in November 1933. A fusion coalition of Republicans and anti-Tammany Democrats had the upper hand going into the election. Their first pick for mayor was young parks commissioner Robert Moses (who called O'Brien "a winded bull in a china shop.") Moses was considered too divisive, even back then, so Samuel Seabury, revered voice of the fusion ticket, convinced party leadership to switch to a mayoral also-ran, former city alderman and house representative Fiorello La Guardia.

La Guardia had run for mayor before and lost -- in 1929, to Jimmy Walker! The stock market crash had occurred two weeks before election day, and Walker was still charming. This time, however, La Guardia had the winds of reform carrying him.

O'Brien, naturally, stood no chance. In the final outcome, even former temp-mayor McKee, as a candidate for the hastily assembled Recovery Party, beat him. It was the most crushing defeat of a Democratic hopeful in decades.

The start of La Guardia's term in 1934 would usher in the beginning of the end for Tammany Hall. O'Brien, for his part, remained faithful to his party to the end, even serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention a few times. Having rescued his reputation by returning to law in his later year, O'Brien lived in the Upper East Side until his death there in September 27, 1951.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Attention trivia lovers: take the Panorama Challenge

We don't have another trivia night lined up yet, but the Queens Museum is offering a fine alternative this Friday -- with the glamorous Panorama of the City of New York as a backdrop.

Using the miniature replica (designed for the 1964 World's Fair), The Panorama Challenge is geographical trivia night, so polish up on your obscure Manhattan alleyways. "Team members will be asked questions ranging from easy to tricky as game controllers assist by highlighting landmarks, bridges, neighborhoods and other sites with laser pointers." Laser pointers, people!

Hosted by the The Levys’ Unique New York, plus there's beer by Brooklyn Brewery! At the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, 7-10 pm. More information at the Queens Museum website.

Thanks to Jon on our Facebook page for the tip.

UPDATE: Due to Thursday's snow/rain fiasco, the trivia night moves to Friday, March 12. Visit the Queens Museum website for updates.

Below: a view of the 1964 World's Fair on opening day, photo by George Silk (courtesy here)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Yes, there really was a FIFTH Madison Square Garden

A packed house at MSGBowl on June 21, 1932, turning out for a prizefight between Max Schmeling and Jack Sharkey Picture courtesy Awesome Stories

There was so much to speak about during the Madison Square Garden podcast that we didn't have time to mention that, for a brief time, the borough of Queens once had its own Madison Square Garden -- one that spawned a 'cinderella' sports legend.

Situated in Long Island City, the Madison Square Garden Bowl was a roomy Depression-era spinoff of Tex Rickard's midtown Manhattan branch, built in 1932 at 45th Street and Northern Boulevard, an immense outdoor stadium that could seat up to 72,000 people. It was not a regular venue but instead hosted big-ticket events during the summer. The Bowl cost the Garden only $160,000 to build, designed for high capacity if not longevity.

It may not have exactly been a popular place among name boxing stars. Sometimes referred to as the 'Jinx Bowl' or 'The Graveyard of Champions', reigning champs who boxed here frequently lost, heavyweight championship titles regularly changing hands here. "It was the arena where champions went to die," according to author Jeremy Schaap.

People were willing to pay up to $25 for ringside seats because of the talent sparring in the ring, including Max Baer, Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, and (most famously) James Braddock, aka 'Cinderella Man'. A depiction of the Bowl naturally pops up in the Russell Crowe film 'Cinderella Man' about Braddock.

The Bowl hosted more than boxing, famously hosting several vigorous midget auto races (that's like NASCAR for really small cars). "They had these midget auto races there and a lot of times the fumes of whatever it was they used to keep 'em going would spill through the entire neighborbood," recalled Yankees legend and neighbor Whitey Ford. "If the wind was blowin' the right way, we could get asphyxiated in our apartments if we didn't keep the windows closed."

During World War II, the arena saw little use, and Garden management soon gave up on it entirely, tearing it down in 1942, to be replaced with a mail depot for the U.S. Army. At some point that too was ripped down. As you can see, the area remains singularly unexciting today.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Madison Square Garden, World's Most Famous Arena(s)

Augustus Saint-Gauden's Diana twirling overhead on the second and arguably greatest version of Madison Square Garden

Madison Square Garden is certainly the recognizable name in arena entertaining, hosting Rangers and Knicks games, concerts, even political conventions. But it inherited that reputation from three other buildings which also called themselves 'Madison Square Garden'.

The first, inspired by P.T Barnum and a popular bandleader, staked its claim in the hottest area of New York in the 1870s. The second, a classic designed by the city's most famous architect, featured both trendy new sports and high society events. The third Garden, moving up town, stripped off the glamour and helped make the Garden's sporting reputation.

We'll also tell you about the most famous event to ever happen in any Madison Square Garden -- a shocking and brutal murder which led to the 'trial of the century.

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, get it straight from our satellite site.

The Bowery Boys: Madison Square Garden

Pre-Garden: It was all Barnum, with his spectacular tented Roman Hippodrome.

Madison Square Garden I, built for William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vandebilt. Click for larger view. Photo courtesy NYPL

Madison Square Garden II, designed by Stanford White, studded with towers, weathervanes, grand arches and other Moorish touches. (Courtesy NYC Architecture, also a good place to find more information about the building's design)

The two beauties of Madison Square Garden. The first, Julia Baird, was the model for Diana. Her nude exploits in its creation cause quite a fervor in the press.

The tragic, beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, caught up between a powerful man and an insane spouse. Read here for an in-depth look at the murder and trial of Henry Thaw.

White's Garden in context with the neighborhood in 1925, the year of its demolition. This one will require you to click into the picture for greater detail to see the full effect. (courtesy NYPL)

Madison II being demolished in 1925. (See full image here)

Unlike so many architectural calamities, at least it was replaced with something of equal beauty -- namely the golden Cass Gilbert gem New York Life Insurance Building, looking here as though it were situated in California.

Madison Square Garden III. Why be fancy? Tex Rickard, moving the venue uptown to 50th Street, was more concerned with the entertainment inside than the flash and fancy outside. His glitz came from the lighted marquee and the big names blazing across it.

Promoter Tex Rickard, who helped form the New York Rangers and changed the sport of boxing forever with dozens of sell-out matches at his Garden.

Madison Square Garden IV, designed by Charles Luckman Associates. This may surprise no one, but their other claims to fame include designing both Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Texas. The firm also designed Los Angeles's convention center which was partially demolished over a decade ago to make room for the Staples Center. (Pic from New Penn Station)

Although I can't say it's aging well, the current MSG will have officially outlasted all others in a couple years. Photo courtesy here

However, with the exception of Fashion Week, there may not be a fancier, more celebrity-laden row of seats than courtside during a Knicks game (below, Spike Lee, Michael Jordan and Ahmad Rashad, 2008).

For more information on special events, visit Madison Square Garden's official website.

Finally, some great events hosted by Madison Square Garden. First of all, some pro-wrestling from January 30, 1920 at MSG II. Very rough footage, but extraordinary to watch if you have the patience.

Marilyn Monroe sings to JFK on his birthday (and just a few months before her death) at MSG III.

Elvis Presley in 1972, during one of his last performances here, at MSG IV

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stars of MSG: Two great Johns on a Thanksgiving night


John Lennon's last stage performance ever took place on 1974 at Madison Square Garden, and he only did it because he lost a bet.

Elton John, an up and coming young star fresh from the successes of his album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, collaborated with the Beatles icon on the Lennon single "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," providing piano and background vocals. As legend has it, Lennon was incredulous that the song would have mass appeal and agreed to perform with Elton in concert if the song hit number one.

Appearing on Lennon's album Walls and Bridges, "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" did indeed hit #1 on the charts -- the only Lennon solo track to ever reach that spot.

And so, at the Elton's Thanksgiving performance at MSG, November 25, 1974, Lennon took to the stage, and the two Johns plays a small set together which included renditions of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds."

More info at the Franklin Mint blog, where you can also hear the live performance.

Stars of MSG: Fears of Ku Klux Klan and a political dud


Both the Republicans and Democrats have held presidential nomination conventions here at Madison Square Garden, and with some success. The Republicans, in their only New York convention, re-nominated George W. Bush here in 2004. The Democrats propelled both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton from MSG conventions, in 1976 and 1992, respectively. (They also re-nominated Carter here in 1980, but we won't talk about that.)

All these triumphs have been in the current Madison Square Garden, the one opened in 1968. But the second Garden, the one from 1890, hosted just one convention, but boy what a doozy. And after all the drama, they produced one of the most forgettable political candidates of the 20th Century -- John W. Davis.

Davis was not a horrible candidate, per se; born in West Virginia, the dignified Davis practiced law in New York and served as the US ambassador to England. He was a staunch old-school conservative with somewhat centrist opinions on race, eventually making him a safe choice in Prohibition-era 1924. In fact, nobody truly wanted him.

The real battle at the Garden convention, held June 24 to July 9, was between Woodrow Wilson protege William Gibbs McAdoo and New York governor Al Smith. At issue was the rise in the South of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan who garnered some support in the conservative wing of the party. Also not helping matters -- Al Smith was Catholic and obviously taking all his orders from the Pope (claimed the racist organization).

The battle between factions on the Garden floor were ferocious, Smith taking the progressives, McAdoo receiving support from the conservatives. (Peter Carlson of the Post calls the conflict representative of "the two sides of America's cultural divide -- what today's TV yappers would call the red states and blue states.") After the first vote, McAdoo was in the lead; John W. Davis was SEVENTH. A candidate needed two-thirds of the vote to be declared the nominee.

By the 20th vote or so, candidates were weeded out, but McAdoo and Smith were still battling for the lead. Davis had now moved to third position. With deals swiftly being made on the convention floor, handshakes and whispers gradually shifted the vote over the course of literally dozens more vote calls -- and over the course of two weeks -- with the lead gradually shifting from McAdoo to Smith. But still, no consensus, no two-thirds. Deadlock.

Things were getting out of hand, with demonstrations and fistfights breaking out. Not even Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering the now famous 'happy warrior' speech, in support of Smith, clarified matters. Inflaming matters further was the fact that this was the first political convention broadcast on the radio. Americans must have thought politicians mad.

Davis, consistently in third place, suddenly became something of a compromise; while conservative, he openly reprimanded the KKK. Most importantly, for McAdoo supporters, he wasn't Smith, and for Smith supporters, vice versa. After 103 ballots, Davis became the nominee. And was promptly destroyed in the election that following November by incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge even beat Davis in New York City.

Incidentally, all political conventions held in New York have taken place at some version of Madison Square Garden, except for one. In 1868, Democrats were so firmly in the grasp of Tammany Hall that, heck, they just decided to have the convention there, at their new headquarters on East 14th Street. The boss of Tammany at the time was, of course, Boss Tweed; the candidate? Horatio Seymour, like Smith, a governor of New York. (He lost to venerated war general Ulysses S. Grant.)

TOP Photo courtesy University of Mississippi, and check out their great site on presidential elections

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Stars of MSG: the Garden goes gospel - summer 1957


Sitting squarely where boxers and hockey stars frequently bloodied themselves, worshippers sit and listen to evangelist Billy Graham, during a run of 98 'Crusade' sermons at the Garden in 1957, beginning on May 15. Events that summer would also continue onto Times Square and Yankee Stadium. Graham would famously include African-American preacher Howard O. Jones in the line-up, a radical step for its day.

According to Jones: "When news hit the street that Billy was thinking of bringing me on board, he received an alarming number of disparaging letters: 'You should not have a Negro on your team,' came the warnings. 'You're going to ruin your ministry by adding minorities. We may have no choice but to end our support.'"

Much, much more information at the Wheaton College website

Top photo courtesy Life images. Bottom photo courtesy here

Stars of MSG: The deadliest roller skating event ever

People were just wild about skating in the 1880s.

STARS OF MADISON SQUARE GARDEN: Six-day skater William Donovan

People were a touch insane in the 1880s and 90s. One of the most popular sports was the six-day bicycle race, a sport so popular, particularly in Madison Square Garden II (debuting there in 1891), that they were referred to as 'madison events' in international circles.

But they were preceded by six-day rollerskating marathons, the first one in New York on March 1885, in the original Madison Square Garden -- an event so strenuous it actually killed the young 19-year-old winner, William Donovan.

Donovan was a newsie from Elmira, NY, who trained for the event with a man who went by the name 'Happy Jack Smith.' The event, a 'go as you please' event involving a velodrome built within the garden, attracted 36 skaters aiming for a $500 prize.

The dangers of this event were apparently well elaborated. " 'It's the first test of endurance that has ever been made on roller skates,' said a sporting man, 'and I believe that over half the men entered will cripple themselves for life.' " [source] Great, where do I sign up?!

I can't help but think this sort of event would attract a certain sort of young, brash derring-do, possibly with lots of time on his hands. From the same article, two spectators were quoted describing a participant:

" 'I shouldn't think his mother would let him come out of the house looking that way,' said a pretty little miss.

" 'Perhaps he's an orphan," said her companion. "He looks like he's seen a lot of trouble.' " [source]

Contestants would frequently collapse in a faint, be taken off the track, revived, then taken back to the course. Spectators actually sat in the arena for the entire six days, in apparently some kind of come-and-go ticket arrangement. There was an ongoing carnival and bicycle demonstrations to keep ticket holders busy when the skating got boring.

It appears athletes were allowed to rest off-track, but obviously the time spent sleeping was taken off their total. Many of the most popular skaters were given nicknames; redheaded Donovan, for instance, was 'Sorrel-top', I assume for the color of red sorrel, not green. The total length of the track multiplied by the 144 hours of non-stop riding meant that young Donovan had ridden 1,092 miles, awarding him the prize money and a fine diamond belt.

A few days later, while staying nearby at the trendy Putnam House, the victor Donovan caught pneumonia. While looking out his window at people streaming to P. T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth (holding court at, yes, Madison Square Garden), Donovan collapsed and died within 36 hours -- of acute pericarditis (heart inflammation).

Newspaper investigation of his death reveals that the boy had skated the course with a 'dead bone' (necrosis) on his right leg.

Within days it was revealed that a second skater who participated in the event, Joseph Cohen, had also died afterwards.

Now, why the heck would anybody be interested in roller-skating for six straight days?

Rollerskating was a popular craze in the 1880s, with mass production and sale beginning then, so a six-day roller-skating fest would have been the 1885 equivalent of x-treme sports.

Evaluating the safety of the event was indeed in its infancy, as this excerpt from a medical journal in 1885 illustrates:

"The mind acts "exoneurally," we are told, and the vibrating brain-cells of the enthusiastic roller-skater communicate their rhythmical pulsations to the previously insensitive spectator. Whatever the mechanism, there is certainly at present a morbidly exaggerated passion for, and indulgence in, roller-skating. And the question comes home to the physician, whether it is doing any physical or mental harm."

Too much skating, as Donovan proved, was dangerous. Organizers of the skating marathon booked the Garden for a second event in May 1885, but participants were handpicked only the most experienced and healthy, including a few surviving the last go-round. Shortly afterwards, official skating events were prohibited from being longer than four hours in length.

Stars of MSG: Indoor fishing in an outdoor wonderland

ABOVE: Fly fishing in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, August 1909. Meanwhile, downtown, people cast for greater prizes indoors. (Pic courtesy LOC)


Of all the curious events to ever happen at Madison Square Garden -- from the first one to the latest -- no competition seems more surreal to me as a spectator sport than watching somebody fish. But in fact, for many years, Madison Square Garden II had quite popular fly fishing contests, either on their own or as part of elaborate hunting and fishing extravaganzas, the Bass Pro Shops meets Disneyworld.

The luxe, new Madison Square Garden, designed by Stanford White, was equipped with its own aquatic tank for water polo events, but in sporting season, it was apparently used for fishing events as well. The arena was obviously dressed up to resemble the 'great outdoors'. In a tournament in 1911, an artificial mountain and waterfall were even designed as casting sites. The following year promised "so complete will be the change in the appearance of the amphitheatre that it will be hardly recognizable." [Times]

For the fishing competitions, there was both 'dry fly-casting' using distance and accuracy markers, as well as the naturalistic kind, immersed in these natural dioramas.

And the leader of this sports was apparently one R.C. Leonard, who set a record for fly casting for black bass - at 101 feet and 6 inches -- at the very first indoor fishing event at MSG, on March 15, 1897. He was still setting records as late as 1905: "He made the most notable cast that has ever been seen in the Garden," according to the Times, breaking a distance record that he himself had set a few years previous. When Leonard made this "most notable" cast, the "rubber frog" hurled over the end of the 130-foot tank and hit the decorative "rustic bridge"!

Leonard, born either in 1862 or 1863, was the undisputed master of the sport, by 1905 the winner of 55 gold medals in the sport.

Leonard might have met his match many years later in 1911 -- in the form of a four-year-old girl. If ever a novelty act existed, it was Madge Seixas, a tot with an impressive arm, "having a mark of forty-five feet with a fly rod weighing about four ounces." She climbed the fakemountain, situated on the Park Avenue (Fourth Avenue back in the day) side of the auditorium, and "insisted upon casting into the waterfall."

Fishing was only one of several curious displays honoring the great outdoors. As part of an annual Motor Boat and Sportsmen's Show festival, the 1905 event also featured canoe races at the Garden on a makeshift lake, and a whole hunter's paradise -- tent, camp fire and all, with a recently killed deer suspended from a tree and other game dangling from other faux foliage. In addition, there was a shooting range for schoolboys.

Incidentally, the New York Boat Show, held just a few weeks ago at the Jacob Javits Center, traces its lineage back to this 1905 convention.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stars of MSG: Young Griffo, unconventional film star


Excerpted from my article from October 2, 2007
"[E]ver wonder what the very first movie ever shot in Manhattan was? It also happens to be the first film ever shown to a paying movie audience at all -- Young Griffo versus Battling Charles Barnett

[Brother filmmakers] Otway and Gray Latham had invented the Eidoloscope projector (also called the Pantoptikon), running very crudely like a film projector today. However its image size was very small, about the size of a small TV set. The Latham brothers had debuted test images to the press. But their real test of this device was to film something live and then display it a short time later.

So on May 4, 1895, the brothers filmed a boxing match on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, then on 27rd Street and Madison Avenue. The competitors were 'Battling' Charles Barnett in the ring with Young Griffo (pictured above), a legendary Australian boxer who was also a raging alcoholic and later ended up in an insane asylum.

Sixteen days later, that four-minute film, Young Griffo versus Battling Charles Barnett, was displayed to a paying audience, at a makeshift theater in a storefront at 153 Broadway (a couple blocks up from Wall Street). .... Sadly, no extant copy of Young Griffo has been found. "

You can read more about the sad life of Young Griffo here.

Photo courtesy here

Stars of MSG: No miracles on ice -- Russians beat USA!


Nope, that headline is not from an alternate timeline. Thirty years ago, the most memorable moment in US Winter Olympics history occurred on February 22, with the victory of the US men's hockey team against its athletic and ideological rivals from the Soviet Union. What's lost in the mists of history is that these two teams has played each other two weeks earlier, in New York, at Madison Square Garden -- and the Russians iced the US team.

In promotion of the 1980 Olympics that year, in Lake Placid, NY, the two squads played an exhibition round for fired-up New Yorkers on February 9th, 1980, just three days before the opening ceremonies. Despite an openly hostile crowd, the Russians handily beat the young team of American athletics, 10-3.

According to sportscaster Al Michael, "Anybody who left Madison Square Garden that day thought to themselves: ‘The Soviets will win every game in the Olympics, take home the gold medal, and never be challenged.'"

Of course, in the game that really counts, the American team swept aside the Russians in Lake Placid, 4–3, in what has been called 'the greatest sports moment of the 20th century."

The Sheila Variations has a nice, full write-up of the MSG battle

Picture from the Lake Placid match-up, courtesy World Hockey

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stars of MSG: Warren Remedy, the winningest dog

The picture above is of the Katharine Hepburn of dogs, Warren Remedy, the only dog to ever win the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show three times in a row.  Despite the name, this smooth-haired Fox Terrier canine superstar was female.

She also kicked off the storied Best In Show competition, which was held for the first time in 1907 and chosen from the winning dogs in other categories by a panel of ten judges.  The annual dog show, of course, predates all incarnations of Madison Square Garden, with the first one on May 8, 1877 -- easily the oldest continuing sporting event in New York City.

Warren Remedy, "the fantastic bitch whose major achievement has yet to be duplicated" according to Harold Nedell, was owned by the appropriately named Winthrop Rutherfurd.  She's the only dog to win Best In Show in successive years, and given the highly political nature of the dog show today, I can't imagine this ever happening again.

According to the Times, "The little white twenty-month-old son of Sabine Resist ... was handed out of the ring to the attendant who had handled him [sic] since his birth on Mr Rutherford's New Jersey farm and was wild with exultation. He hugged the little champion ecstatically and hurried off to the dong's bench, where he and the winner held an improptu reception that continued most of the afternoon and evening."

The New York Tribune gives a fuller desciption of the little girl's charms:  "Warren Remedy is practically true to type. She is tan marked, with strong head, keen expression, good outline and grand ribs. She was in fine coat also, and should be worthy of winning in the best company in England."

Apparently, the spirited dog barked herself hoarse -- although that was more likely a bit of anthropomorthism by the Tribune reporter.

Her owner Rutherfurd, with kennels in Allamuchy, NJ, got in the Fox Terrier breeding business quite suspiciously; their first terrier was from an English lot stolen in Liverpool and smuggled over.  It is unclear whether Warren Remedy is from this pirated lot.

Above illustration by Gustav Muss-Arnolt, a New York illustrator who actually specialized in dog portraits, drawing over 170 portraits for American Kennel Club Gazette.

Previously: My article "Who Let The Dogs In?" on the first dog show. And for the truly adventurous of you, my very first solo podcast, from way back in 2007 -- the Famous Dogs of New York.

Friday, February 12, 2010

History in the Making: Fashion Forward Edition

Wealth and elegance mix with Egyptian relics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 1960 Fashion Ball. Photo by Walter Sanders (courtesy Life Google images) click for larger view

It's Fashion Week! Seventy years older and still looking good. Check out a brief history on the eve of its final performance in Bryant Park. [Slate]

Did a cyclone drop Dorothy and her house in the middle of Manhattan in the 1940s? What's that country home doing on 5th Avenue and 48th Street? [Gothamist]

Coming up March 4th: Bowery Boys, the art show! Featuring "the flamboyance of a wild-style bombed train pulling into a subway station in the '80s to a haunting red opium den from Chinatown in the 1880s," by Texas painter Rossan Crow. At 18 Wooster Street in SoHo, starting in March. [Deitch Projects]

Corsets, billiards and a full head of hair! The Virtual Dime Museum looks at a few humorous classified ads from a February 1855 issue of the New York Times. [Virtual Dime Museum]

Village Paper, a staple party store of the West Village, burned down this week. Jeremiah does some excellent detective work as to the history of the building -- it used to be the venerable bakery Sutter's -- and reveals some crazy conspiracy theories as to the cause of the blaze. [Vanishing New York]

Sunday rings in the Year of the Tiger with a Chinatown 'cracker show' this Sunday in Roosevelt Park. The traditional New Years parade will be next Saturday in Queens, and Sunday in Manhattan. [Chinatown Online]

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Will an aquarium come to midtown Manhattan-- again?

From a pack of old, aquatic themed 'cigarette cards', naturally [NYPL]

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that a Canadian developer may bring a luxury, multi-floor aquarium to a new skyscraper in Times Square. The proposed aquatic amusement, to feature "sharks, rays, penguins, otters" and a pirate museum, would liven up the freshly built, so-called 11 Times Square, at the corner of 42nd and 8th Avenue, a corner once famous as a place for picking up male hustlers.

This would not be the first time an aquarium graced midtown Manhattan. In fact, the first aquarium in this region was also a privately run endeavor -- The Great New York Aquarium, located at 35th Street and Broadway, the latest escapade by William Cameron "W.C." Coup, a former employee of P.T. Barnum.

Coup knew something about spectacle as manager of the earliest incarnation of Barnum's greatest contribution -- P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome, soon to the alleged 'Greatest Show On Earth', the first travelling circus. The show would soon make its home in Manhattan in 1874 on the site of an old train depot off Madison Square, a block that would later be built up to become the very first Madison Square Garden.

The Great New York Aquarium, glorious and rather tragic (for the aquatic captives, that is). Pic courtesy NYPL

For his next feat, opening on October, 11, 1876, Coup would bring the oceans to Manhattan. Of course, 35th Street was hardly "midtown" then; Central Park had only been completed a few years prior, Macy's was still on 14th Street, and Longacre Square (future Times Square) was still the smelly home of horse stables and carriage houses. But theaters and concert halls, newspapers and restaurants, all of New York society was booming from Union Square to 34th Street, and thus Coup's aquarium would have been nicely situated.

This was no ordinary aquarium. Like many museums and other 'well-meaning' spectacles of the time, the Aquarium mixed the outlandish with the intellectual, with libraries and laboratories on site, as much to give the joint credibility as for actual research.

The centerpiece was a gigantic tank fit for a whale; too bad the whale died in transit, sitting empty for opening day. Displays for porpoises, sharks and sea lions were scattered around it, swimming in small tanks with painted backgrounds featuring the creature's native flora and fauna.

Like aquatic displays before it -- such as the basement of Barnum's American Museum -- the environment was probably not very healthy for sea creatures. However, Coup did feature a set of fish hatcheries for display, possibly the first such nurseries ever featured in a public aquarium.

Coup's venture was an immediate success, and he soon opened a smaller outlet in Coney Island. He was not long for the Great New York Aquarium however; after financial disagreements with his partner, animal importer Henry Reiche, Coup left to pursue other bizarre projects, including something called The New United Monster Shows.

Reiche, for his part, had made quite a name for himself in animal trade. He and his brother Charles had a pet store at 55 Chatham Street (that street is now Park Row today), equipped with a backyard pen for lions, monkeys and even gnus -- all for sale to private collectors. (This helps explain the founding of places like the Central Park Zoo, formed from discarded animals left in the park.)

Reiche gnu, er, knew his animals, but he didn't know business. An expensive endeavor to maintain and to import new creatures, Reiche attempted to draw audiences with theatrical performances and even pigeon shows set among the glowing tanks. Nothing worked, and so in 1881, the aquarium's contents were auctioned off. I can't imagine the creatures displayed here benefited well from this.

Of course, New York City would get its very first official aquarium many years later, in 1896, with the opening of one at Castle Garden (the once and future Castle Clinton). When Robert Moses drove it out of here in 1941, the city aquarium took up residence in Coney Island, where it remains today.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Always a lady, even in a New York blizzard

(click for larger view)

1899 "On the streets in a New York blizzard." I can't quite figure out where this is taken. Any guesses?

Photo taken by the Byron Company, one of the city's leading photography studios of the day. Remarkably, a descendant of founder Joseph Byron still operates a photo studio today.

From the Library of Congress

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

New York governor resigns* in disgrace (in 1913)!

STRESSED: William Sulzer in 1911, a New York City representative on his way up...and out

*okay, technically he was removed in disgrace

As bloggers, newshawks and politicos wait to see what, if anything, comes of the latest New York Times supposed bombshell about current governor David Paterson -- he's already protesting "I DID NOT HAVE SEX WITH THAT WOMAN" in the Post -- I thought I'd turn to state politics for a day and see how many of our state's governors have been shamed into resigning. Certainly, in the wild-west days of state politics, there must have a been a few, right?

In fact, there's only been two -- the infamous Eliot Spitzer and of course, that dastardly William Sulzer.


Sulzer is a perfect example among many as to why you never trust Tammany Hall, especially if you're one of them. Sulzer was a handchosen successor for the governor's seat in 1913, a man of middling talents selected to do the Democratic machine's bidding in state affairs. But like a bad gangster movie, you step outta line, you pay the price.

Sulzer was a practicing young lawyer during the 1880s who like many men worked his way into politics using the sticky graces of Tammany patronage. Sulzer more than paid his dues; in 1895, he served as representative of the various electoral districts in the U.S. House of Representatives, and served there up until the events described below.

They called him 'Plain Bill' Sulzer for entirely fictitious reasons; in fact, he was a "vain and self-important," according to author Oliver Allen, miming the role of an elder statesman in dress and deed. He made grandiloquent statements about the public good but was mocked down in the Bowery saloons as a bit of a peacock. "When it comes to preserving our liberties, " said one reporter, "Willliam is a whole canning factory."

But he was subservient to Tammany, a loyal Freemason and, most important, well liked in an over-crowded district of potential voters. When governor John Dix, a Tammany Democrat who swiftly proved overwhelmed by the job, was nudged aside in 1912 by Tammany's boss Charles Murphy, he was replaced by Sulzer on the ticket. Despite a challenge from a surging Progressive Party -- led by former president Theodore Roosevelt -- Sulzer was handily elected.

Perhaps it was the way in which his predecessor Dix was swept aside. Perhaps it was stupidity. Perhaps it was failed ingenuity. Whatever the case, Sulzer took office and immediately began ignoring Murphy's requests for appointments. Even worse, he began calling for inquiries into questionable state construction contracts -- always a hornet's nest of illicit behavior by Democratic lawmakers. Looking to deeply here would expose dozens of legislators to accusations of graft and bribery.

Sulzer is not the first Tammany representative to turn his back on the corrupt organization. In fact, the same thing had been going on in New York with mayor William Jay Gaynor, a former golden boy of Murphy's who proved difficult to control. Gaynor, however, was a deft, able politician who managed to step on Tammany's toes without crushing them; Sulzer was simply too bold in his rebellion.

By the fall of 1913, Tammany would have neither Gaynor nor Sulzer to deal with. Gaynor would die that September during an overseas voyage of a latent bullet wound, received years earlier in a failed assassination attempt. Sulzer was felled in a more successful assassination, by Murphy, via accusations of improper allotment of campaign finances for personal use.

Sulzer did, in fact, dip into campaign money during the election; in 1910s politics, who didn't? The investigation was created for the sole purpose of discrediting Sulzer, and its victim proofed feeble to the task of defending himself.

Perhaps sensing futility Sulzer didn't even show up to trial to defend himself. He was hastily found guilty of "falsifying campaign documents," impeached and removed from office in October 1913. Sulzer would die in November 1941 as the only governor of New York ever removed from office. And all for giving sass to the party politic.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Critical mass: Montgomery Schuyler on the bridges

Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, well before the FDR Drive.

New York Times architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler passed away in 1914, just as New York was entering a new era of the skyscraper. Schuyler was "a stanch advocate ... who believed it was a legitimate development and architectural expression of the times." An unfortunate loss, is it seems his words were crucial in forming public opinion for a certain project -- or in the case of some unfortunate projects, against it.

His rich diatribe from the March 1909 issue of the Architectural Records provides the most densely eloquent contemporary criticism of modern New York bridge building. It's also rather stodgy, quoting poetry and evoking ancient civilizations. I highly recommend you swim through the entire article if you're interested, available in its wonderfully original format in PDF form here. However, here's a few salient details:

On the Manhattan Bridge's name: "The Manhattan is absurdly and meaninglessly miscalled; it has no more to do with this island than any one of the other three [bridges]. 'The Wallabout' [for Wallabout Bay] is a designation that would have local and historical significance."

On the Manhattan Bridge anchorages: "The effect of massiveness in these anchorages is almost more than Roman. They wear, indeed, an aspect of Egyptian immobility, and immobility is the very purport of their erection. Where in the world can one see a more impressive effect of sheer power than in the ordered masses of this Manhattan anchorage, which so few of us have thus far taken the trouble to see at all?"

"These anchorages give visible promise of a duration equal to that of the great temple of Ramses, or the great pyramid of Cheops.

On the Williamsburg Bridge: "The ugliness of the Williamsburg has been the means of an increased appreciation of the beauty of the East River. ....In spite of the proverbial prohibition against speaking ill of the bridge which has carried you safely over, the Williamsburg, as a work of art, has no friends."

"No accessories, it is evident, could make an admirable or even a presentable work of art out of a project so bedevilled in the primary conception. "

On the Brooklyn Bridge: "But in the detail ... we cannot help seeing that caprice has been allowed to play its part; that the form is by no means 'inevitable'; is, in fact, contradictory of the function. The function of the towers, for example, is merely that of cable-holders. Nobody would ever guess it to look at them."

Reflecting on the success and failure of the Brooklyn Bridge: "And, in the old East River Bridge, it is interesting and instructive to note that the successes are all won by letting the structure 'do itself,' so to speak, the failures all incurred by forcing it to do something else."

photo above from A Picture History of the Brooklyn Bridge, Mary J Shapiro, date unknown

Friday, February 5, 2010

Manhattan Bridge: New York City's dysfunctional classic

[from Flickr, taken by ajagendorf25]

We love the Manhattan Bridge, but there's no doubt it's had a rocky history. For one hundred years, it's withstood more than just comparisons to its far more iconic neighbor, the Brooklyn Bridge. Built to relieve pressure on the East River's best known bridge, the Manhattan Bridge went through two different engineers -- and a couple different ambitious designs -- before finally being completed by another architect, who then went on in 1940 to design one of the WORST bridges in America. And serious design flaw afflicts the bridge to this day?

Listen in and find something to appreciate in this seriously under appreciated marvel of the East River.

You can tune into it below, or download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services.

The Bowery Boys: Manhattan Bridge

I mention many bridge engineers in this podcast -- Leffert Lefferts Buck, Gustav Lindenthal and Leon Moisseiff -- but due to time constraints on the show this week, the contributions of Henry Hornbostel were left out. Hornbostel was instrumental in the work with Buck on the Williamsburg Bridge and with Lindenthal on the Queensboro. When we do podcasts on those bridges, he will get his fair due.

Preliminary work on the Manhattan Bridge began in 1901 under Buck, with Lindenthal taking reign of the project a year later. When Moisseiff was brought in to rework the bridge in 1904, construction kicked into high gear. Lindenthal's innovative suggestion to use eyebars was discarded for a more conventional wire structure. [Pics courtesy Life Google images]

Stringing the cable across the East River took only four months in 1908. Indeed, the traffic snarls on the Brooklyn Bridge demanded them to work quickly. It was also mayor George McClellan's intention to finish the bridge before he left office. [Photo by GG Bain and cleaned up by Shorpy, see a nifty close-up image here]

Gustav Lindenthal, born in Brno (now in the Czech Republic), came to the United States, built many bridges, and dreamt up many more that were never completed, like the North River Bridge, which would have spanned the Hudson River, and a monumental Manhattan Bridge designed with 14 lanes of traffic.

The bridge opened on December 31, 1909, although the pedestrian walkways were not completed and no trains were ready to go over it at that time. Setting it apart from its sister bridges was the flat, blue two-dimensional towers. As you can infer from this photo, facing both sides of the bridge were rows of docks and industrial ports. [Pic courtesy NYPL]

Berenice Abbott has some spectacular views of the Manhattan Bridge, taken in the 1930s. For crisp, dreamlike pictures of Manhattan, you can't do better than Abbott. [courtesy NYPL]

Speaking of Berniece Abbott, Gothamist has some great shots taken by her of the area below the Manhattan Bridge on the Brooklyn side -- today it's DUMBO, known then as the strangely desolate Irishtown. [Flashback: Brooklyn 1936]

A day in the life of the Manhattan Bridge, wobbling around due to subway traffic.

I also find this video of a bike ride across the Manhattan Bridge to be strangely hypnotic.