Monday, November 29, 2010
Rock of ages: The meteorite is lifted off its wagon for removal into the American Museum of Natural History. I wonder if those ragamuffins to the right in the photograph have their jackknives ready? (Pic courtesy JFGryphon/Flickr)
As mentioned in last week's podcast, one of the great treasures of the American Museum of Natural History is the Cape York meteorite -- in fact, three separate pieces, the largest being called Ahnighito (Inuit for 'tent'). Explorer Robert Peary discovered the rock in Greenland and brought it back to New York (along with six unfortunate Inuit companions) in 1897.
The extremely heavy rock -- at 31 metric tons -- sat at the Brooklyn Navy Yards for many years before Peary's wife sold the interstellar stone to the museum in 1904. The museum hired a wrecking company to carefully transport the meteorite through New York Harbor to a pier on West 50th Street. From there, it was lifted onto a wagon pulled painfully by 30 hard-working horses, up Eighth Avenue and Central Park West to the museum on 77th Street.
From there, however, the poor unsettled stone, far from home, received its most vicious attack. According to the Tribune: "Hardly had the truckman unhitched their horses when the heavenly body was covered with ambitious boys, all eager to dig out a piece of the metal as a souvenir. Jackknives were broken by the dozen."
The Cape York meteorite is one of the few items displayed in the museum -- may, in fact, be the only item -- to appear on an international postage stamp (Greenland, 1978).
Less than a couple years later, the museum bought their second largest stone -- the Williamette meteorite -- from the widow of Bronx philanthropist William E Dodge.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
PODCAST Millions of years of space rocks, fossils, artifacts and specimens are housed in New York's world famous natural history complex on the Upper West Side. But few know the whole story about the museum itself.
Residents of New York tried a few times to establish a legitimate natural history venue in the city, including an aborted plan for a Central Park dinosaur pavilion. With the American Museum of Natural History, the city had a premier institution that sent expeditions to the four corners of the earth.
Tune in to hear the stories of some of the museum's most treasured artifacts and the origins of its collection. And find out the tragic tale of Minik the Eskimo, a boy subject by museum directors to bizarre and cruel lie.
You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.
Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: American Museum of Natural History
CORRECTION TO THE PODCAST: I mention that the blue whale hanging in the Hall of Ocean Life is made of wire and plaster. The original whale displayed earlier in the century, in fact, was; but the current one, created in 1968, is of sturdier fiberglass design.
A sketch of what the Paleozoic Museum might have looked like, had construction not been stopped by the cronies of Boss Tweed.
The lonely little first building of New York's natural history museum, pictured in the early 1870s, placed on an unspectacular plot of land alongside Central Park called Manhattan Square. It was the former home to goat fields and small farms. To the left of the picture, you can see the development along Columbus Avenue.
This illustration of the building from 1871 displays the particular touches of Jacob Wray Mould, in the whimsical window design. What it doesn't show is the vibrant, robust color of the building. Although subsumed by later additions, some areas of the original walls are still peeking out within the larger structure today. [source NYPL}
The regal, theatrical 77th facade of the American Museum of Natural History, finally presenting a bold look worthy of the treasures inside it. (source)
Roy Chapman Andrews, the dashing adventurer who became one of the museum's most valuable explorers. It's rumored that Andrews was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.
Images of Minik Wallace, the Inuit boy brought to New York with his father in 1897. Minik was subject to one of the most bizarre and tragic cover ups in the museum's history. [Image courtesy Nunatsiaq Online]
James Earle Fraser equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt,dedicated by Teddy's relation Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936, along with the entire Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. Although they are concealed by scaffolding, there are actually sculptures of four explorers looking down at Roosevelt, also created by Fraser -- depictions of Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, and John James Audubon.
The current 94-foot long blue whale that greets visitors in the Hall of Ocean Life is modeled after a female blue whale found of the coast of South America in 1924.
An example of the enduring fontage of an earlier era, still adorning some of the older exhibits. I hope they never upgrade it.
Further examples of graphic design, Natural History style. This is from an advertisement in 1941 or 1942. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
The monster Ahnighito rock, part of the Cape York meteorite.
A great example of the marvelous miniature work done for some of the displays. Much of the fascination found within the various display cases comes not from specimens, but from the clever presentation, a mix of painting and lighting techniques mixed at times with a little optical illusion.
The website of the American Museum of Natural History has all the details you need for your visit. On top of suggested admission, there are additional costs for the special exhibits, including the planetarium. The museum is open everyday by two -- Christmas and Thanksgiving.
However, you may still be visiting the museum on the evening before Thanksgiving for the annual inflation of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons! Below: Kermit gets ready for the big event (pic from 2006, courtesy Gothamist)
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Beautiful monsters: The stars of The Munsters are predictably not on their best behavior during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade of 1964 (Photo courtesy Frankensteinia)
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is a fixture of the American holiday, as integral as the elements which comprise a standard turkey dinner. Don't you get in the mood the moment you turn on the TV and hear the sound of marching bands echoing through the corridor of buildings on Broadway?
Since the parade's debut in 1924, it has helped define Thanksgiving tradition for many people despite touching only occasionally on the whole point of the holiday itself. These days, you are far more likely to see a musical number from 'Annie' than a frank depiction of early Puritan life.
But in letting the show into your home -- inviting in the floats and balloons, the falloons and the balloonicles, the never ending procession of clowns -- you're also inviting in a blistering microcosm of celebrities that have slowly come to define the event's jovial interworkings. What was once a simple and earnest celebration by regular Macy's employees in 1924 is now an event whereby any float can contain any number of unrelated celebrities, in most cases lip syncing to a pre-recorded Christmas track.
Santa, on his first Macy's float, in 1924 (pic courtesy Smithsonion)
The Early Years
The first parade in 1924 was a labor of love, with employees in gaily colored costumes accompanied by four marching bands, a live animal procession, and modest floats celebrating a host of nursery rhymes figures. The only celebrities were some notable animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo -- this potentially bad idea was scrapped when the balloons came -- and Santa Claus, who arrived in Herald Square to unveil the Christmas windows.
The inflatable balloons debuted in 1927, and along with the nameless dinosaur and dachshund floatables came Felix the Cat, the art-deco feline who had received his own comic strip four years previous. This would make Felix the first non-Macy's related celebrity (albeit a drawn one) to appear in the parade with something to promote.
Nobody was really paying attention to the humans below, especially in the days before television. Perhaps that's why the first human celebrities were accompanied by balloon versions of themselves. Eddie Cantor, who made his first parade appearance in 1935, was a comic song-and-dance man who had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies and strummed along in silly, Hollywood toe-tappers like 'Kid Millions' and 'Ali Baba Goes To Town'.
In 1940, Cantor made another appearance, in person and, this time, in balloon form (at right). He might have been using the parade to bolster his reputation. The year previous, Cantor had criticized the rants of Hitler sympathizer and Catholic priest Father Charles Edward Coughlin and lost his endorsement deal with Camel cigarettes in the process. It seems that criticizing a priest (even an anti-Semitic one) was not a boost professionally. The parade (and famous friends like Jack Benny) helped resuscitate his career.
It was quite hard to compete with balloons if you were a star. The performances of Eddy Duchin and Dinah Shore were broadcast on the radio, and band leaders like Paul Whiteman and Kay Kyser led their orchestras at the parade's finish line in Herald Square. But a few celebrities actually braved the parade itself, such as comedian Harpo Marx. In the days before cameras, most of the crowd would never know these famous folk were there, although in 1935 the zany Harpo climbed atop the Macy's marquee to get noticed. Harpo also brought along a balloon in his likeness, carried along by Macy's employees dressed like the other Marx Brothers.
Sadly, neither Marx nor Cantor are featured in this newsreel film from 1935:
One of the most notable celebrity appearances in the 1940s was done in disguise. Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle in the classic 'Miracle on 34th Street', a film set partially in Macy's department store, dressed as Santa Claus for the 1946 event. Footage of his appearance was used in the film; most of the audience was none the wiser. Gwenn would go on to win an Oscar for that role.
Audrey and Jayne Meadows atop a lavish float, probably 1952 (photo courtesy Macys)
The Debut of Television
The first television broadcast, believe it or not, was in 1939, from a camera mounted atop the American Museum of Natural History. Of course, few had televisions to watch it, and it was shown only locally. But in the years following World War II, America embraced television, and television embraced the parade. CBS would take the first crack at broadcasting the extravaganza nationwide in 1952. NBC took over in 1955.
With cameras come celebrities, and they came in droves in the 1950s. Shirley Temple, well into her 20s, graced the parade, as did Jimmy Durante, Abbott and Costello, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Boris Karloff, and arguably one of television's biggest stars Jackie Gleason, who was grand marshal in 1952.
That year was the debut of Jackie Gleason's eponymous show on CBS -- his TV wife Audrey Meadows also stopped by (see above) -- and the comedian's appearance opened the floodgate for a new breed of small-screen stars that used the parade to cross-promote new projects debuting on the very box broadcasting the parade into American homes.
Danny Kaye, Howdy Doody, Hopalong Cassidy, even the Lone Ranger and Tonto, all made appearances in the parade. The first TV celebrities were clearly those that appealed to children, the key audience of a morning program that featured large buoyant cartoon characters and floats. But that distinction would soon be blurred as the parade began reaching adults as well.
As the volume of celebrities increased, they became embedded in floating dioramas. That wasn't just Cinderella waving at you; that was Connie Francis dressed as Cinderella, in 1959.
Stars of the Small Screen
In 1961, NBC made the critical decision to expand coverage to two hours. By the end of the decade, the entire parade was broadcast, from start to finish. With all this time to fill -- and broadcast technology advanced enough to comfortably record live outdoors -- the floodgates opened and a phalanx of small-time stars filled the parade route.
Key in this invasion was NBC's presentation of the event. The parade was hosted in the 1960s by Bonanza star Lorne Greene and an attractive young comedienne by the name of Betty White (at right). Both achieved their fame from television work, not film. There was little fear that the big stars of that other world (the movies) would spill into frame. Parade entertainment would be gleaned from other places -- TV shows, Broadway musicals, cabaret lounges. Even old radio and vaudeville stars would be dusted off and given a go.
In the early 1960s alone, the parade featured such luminaries as Ray Bolger, Gene Krupa, Mitch Miller, Jack Palance, Troy Donahue, Annette Funicello and Greene's young co-star Michael Landon. Young and old stars, mingling among the clowns, mugging for the cameras.
The stars were mostly well-behaved, with some notable exceptions. Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis, stars of The Munsters, appeared in the 1964 parade in their ghoulish costumes, riding along in their 'Munster Koach' car. Neither star was very amused. Gwynne was high on 'nerve medicine' and began cursing at the crowd. Passing the hosts Greene and White in the media box, Herman Munster fired off a rude expletive in their direction.
The video below captures them in a more sober mood:
Another trend manifested in 1965, when the fledgling McDonalds restaurant opted to sponsor the parade and debut its new mascot on national television -- Ronald McDonald. (The man who regularly performed as Ronald -- Willard Scott -- was not used for the TV debut, which is unfortunate, as Scott would return as host of the parade in the late 1980s.)
Parade goers could greet William Shatner, star of Star Trek, in 1968, and Neil Armstrong, star of an actual space adventure, in 1969. Music, for the most part, was still saccharine, performed by artists like Jack Greene, Bobby Vinton and Dionne Warwick. Although Aretha Franklin brought a bit of soul on her own personal float in 1967.
Phyllis Diller as Mother Goose, 1985. Photo courtesy X Entertainment
The Advent of the Super Float
Encouraging celebrity appearances perhaps even more than NBC was the debut of flashy, blockbuster floats into the parade in 1969. Before this, decorative vehicles and floats of modest proportion were interspersed among the bands and balloons. In 1969, parade designer Manfred Bass began construction of giant floats at the Parade Studio in Hoboken -- elaborate, multi-staged platforms requiring multiple performers and specifically created to be showcased for television. To that end, these newly introduced floats made ideal platforms to display even more celebrity entertainment.
By the 1970s, television had produced hordes of stars, and the parade became a virtual Hollywood Squares of B-list talents. If you were a sitcom star of the 70s and 80s, it's possible you were even contractually required to make an appearance. Making this doubly appealing for NBC and parade organizers was the possibility of float sponsorship by third-party products, such as Ocean Spray, who produced a Cranberry themed float and randomly threw 'Buck Rogers In The 25th Century' hunk Gil Gerard upon it for good measure.
The biggest television stars of 1976, Laverne and Shirley's Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, made a splash in their first appearance that year. According to Williams, "Suddenly there was all this screaming. We looked around to see who they were carrying on about, and it was us!"
The cultural changes of the '70s hit the parade full force. Early in the decade, lite pop performers like the Fifth Dimension engaged the crowd. But the rising popularity of '70s country music with pop overtones delivered notable performances, including George Jones and Tammy Wynette singing “We’re Gonna Hold On” in 1973, and a young Dolly Parton bringing "Love Like A Butterfly in 1974.
And then there was disco. Borne of decadent nightclubs that could be found just a few blocks from the parade, disco music slithered from the dance floor into the sunlight, walked upright and became mainstream in the mid-1970s. This would explain the appearances of Gloria Gaynor singing you-know-what-song in 1977 atop a Doodle Bug float, and a vibrant performance by the Village People in 1978. The following year, Diana Ross rode a gigantic apple while wrapped in a fur coat.
But the musical genre of choice was and continues to be Broadway, and further broadcast sophistication allowed whole production numbers to be presented. Perhaps the most unusual of all came in 1980, when the unorthodox Public Theater production of 'The Pirates of Penzance', starring later Solid Gold host Rex Smith and Linda Rondstadt.
The clip below also underscores the disastrous relationship such performances have with the television requirement to lip sync:
The Surreal Show
By the 1980s and 1990s, the parade broadcast has become a full-fledged beast of absurdity, a colorful swath of product placement, celebrity promotional events, and bleached out entertainment. Now it was the balloons and the marching bands' turn to compete with the increasingly over-the-top celebrity appearances and elaborate Broadway routines, now bolstered with dated camera effects, such as the ones demonstrated in this 1981 performance by Donny Osmond (click here to view).
Further staged combinations hurled the proceedings into the land of the nonsensical. What was going through the mind of Broadway star and pop singer Melba Moore when she was asked to perform a hit by Bonnie Tyler while being accompanied by dancing, gyrating Marvel Comics characters in 1989?
It was now possible to perform in the parade without even being there. Oh, to have beheld the faces of children as they turned on the television sets in 1993 and witnessed this abstract performance by Chita Rivera from the show Kiss Of The Spider Woman:
Ultimately, what may have prevented the parade from degenerating into a pure mockery of its former self was the regular appearances of older, seasoned stars like Milton Berle (in drag, seen above), Sammy Davis Jr, and Phyllis Diller garbed as Mother Goose, in 1986.
As a counterpoint to old Hollywood, music artists popular with the parade's core audience were interspersed to keep the proceedings relevant. Chief among these acts were boy bands like N Sync and the Backstreet Boys and, performing a few years earlier, their precursor, New Kids On the Block, in 1989:
Gone were the rational and linear selection of big band and film celebrities of the 1930s and 40s. Sixty years after Harpo Marx made his first appearance on the Macy's marquee, in 1995, the parade welcomed a professional grab-bag of entertainers -- LL Cool J, Brady Bunch maid Ann B. Davis, Shari Lewis and Lambchop, skating diva Oksana Baiul, country star Shania Twain, Kelsey Grammar, Matthew Broderick, Carol Channing, Stevie Wonder and the cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe.
Never Can Say Goodbye: Gloria Gaynor makes another Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade appearance in 2009. Photo courtesy Day Life
Today's multi-million dollar procession is as chock-full of stars than ever before and is the only place on television where you can see, for example, British songbird Sarah Brightman and rapper Ne-Yo in the same place (as you could in 2007). Perhaps the key is to simply embrace the absurdity and take in the dizzying, mind-dulling array of entertainment like a virtual dose of strong coffee. And perhaps quietly note that the performers themselves recognize how odd everything seems, as referenced quite nicely in this performance from 2008, featuring the twisted stars of Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends and a special musical guest:
Milton Berle photo courtesy Flickr/John McNab
Monday, November 22, 2010
What if your best known accomplishment in this world was the fact that you posed for a well-regarded American masterpiece by your more talented older brother? Welcome to the world of Rubens Peale!
Philadelphians and American art lovers in general should be quite familiar with Rubens' father Charles Wilson Peale, one of early America's pre-eminent painters, portraitist to Washington and Jefferson, and patron of what would become the Philadelphia Museum. Peale's museum for Philly, which opened in 1786, is not only one of this country's most important natural history institutions, it set the stage for pioneering museums across the country.
Peale graced his children with some truly loaded first names -- Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Titian and of course Rubens. And they all attempted to follow in their father's footsteps, both as painters and as curators of their own museums.
Raphaelle tried to open one in Charleston. Rembrandt set one up in Baltimore (unfortunately timed for the War of 1812). Baby brother Titian took the reins in Philadelphia and became the family's most prolific naturalist.
Rubens would have more ambitious designs. At first more interested in the sciences than the arts, the youngest and frailest Peale operated the Philadelphia Museum after his father's retirement before coming to New York City in 1825 to set up his own version of his father's dream. The address for the Peale Museum of New York City was 252 Broadway, a building better known as the more austere-sounding Parthenon.
Peale's museum opened on October 26, 1825, to monopolize on a huge city celebration occurring that day: the opening of the Eric Canal. By 1840, Peale would change the name to the New York Museum of Natural History and Science.
In the early days, Peale's chief competition was the small museum housed in the former almshouse across the street, next to City Hall. The collection of John Scudder, advertised as the American Museum, had thrilled New Yorkers here since 1817. But Scudder was dead by 1825, and his collection was worn and barely upgraded. It was definitely not of the calibre of a Peale museum, or so Rubens believed. Unbeknownst to Peale at the time, his real competition would sprout up just south of the park.
Rubens' new museum would have had much the same makeup as the one in Philadelphia : great displays of stuffed animals in natural settings, display cases of butterflies and insects, postulations of pre-Darwinian scientific theories laid out over several rooms and supported with lectures and even theatrical productions. One book refers to Rubens as a "popularizer of scientific discoveries and a manager of theatrical attractions."
In 1826, Rubens imported two mummies from Cairo for display; after 16 days of presenting the draped bodies, he presented for the interest of the "scientific and the curious" the unwrapping the age-old corpses in the museum lecture room.
His museum also featured fine arts and historical portraits, some by his own family members, others by respected painters as Bass Otis.
Rubens was sensitive to some of the cheap ploys of the Philadelphia Museum (live animals, displays of human deformities) and tried to keep his New York museum a dignified affair, although today we would find its use of waxworks and flashy lectures rather silly.
Above: an illustration entitled 'Mesmerism on Wall Street'
Rubens adherence to the scientific led him into some unusual directions. He became mesmerized, if you will, by the theories of Fredrich Anton Mesmer, who believed a magnetic fluid in the body controlled the personality. A precursor to hypnotism and later the intellectual embrace of clairvoyance, mesmerism was such a popular distraction that Rubens placed a New York newspaper advertisement on February 8, 1841, claiming "a demonstration on the principle of animal magnetism" would be presented at his museum.
"The time is not far off when it will be said where is the person that doubts its existence," he later said in a letter to his brother Remington.
Unfortunately he could not quite predict the financial disaster that was the Panic of 1837 which sent his museum deeply into debt for years, later unable to keep up with the flamboyant American Museum just opened down on Broadway and Ann Street (south of City Hall Park) by showman P.T. Barnum.
Rubens had to eventually sell his entire collection, and it ungraciously ended up in the hands of Barnum himself in 1843. (The old John Scudder exhibits now belonged to the flamboyant showman as well.) Included in the sale: one of the surviving mummies that had been brought from Cairo.
Almost as a slap in the face, Barnum actually kept Peales' museum open under the original name as a faux rival to the much more popular American Museum on the other side of City Hall. Eventually its contents were absorbed in the bigger museum
Rubens drifted to his brother's museum in Baltimore, and, swallowing his pride, even tried to interest Barnum in a collaboration there, involving P.T's newest star Tom Thumb. Eventually, Rubens retired from museum operations entirely, turning first to his love of taxidermy then to a dalliance in painting. He did achieve a certain amount of renown for his excellent still lifes, and when he died in 1865, he had literally just finished the aptly named work The Artist's Last Birthday.
Rubens' earnest collection set the stage for the world-class museums that we have in our city today. However, art historians probably know him best as the subject of his brother Rembrandt's portrait Rubens Peale With Geranium (below).
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Fran with Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran (Life Google images)
Fran Lebowitz is such a wry, curmudgeonly treasure to so many people that it takes no less than Martin Scorsese to actually make a documentary about her. The film 'Public Speaking' debuts on HBO this Monday at 10pm, taking an adored look at the career at the woman whose wit became a comic voice in the pages of New York publications in the 1970s and 80s.
Her books 'Metropolitan Life' basically gave me my first viewing of an underbelly of New York that combined the city's 1970s downtrodden grit with champagne verbal riffs lifted from Dorothy Parker and the Round Table. With that book and 'Social Studies', she became the wisest commentator of both Manhattan gloom and glitterati without ever really seeming a part of either.
One of most famous quotes about the city: "When you leave New York, you are astonished at how clean the rest of the world is. Clean is not enough. "
Friday, November 19, 2010
In the meantime, you can check out our television debut on the Brian Lehrer Show, which was recorded on Wednesday. It's running throughout the week on CUNY TV, Channel 75.
We talk about Robert Moses, Union Square, the birth of the subway and debut a lot of old videos.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
The National Book Award for Non-Fiction was awarded last night to a book loaded with gritty New York History -- 'Just Kids', the lovely memoir by Patti Smith about her friendship with Robert Maplethorpe. If you're a fanatic of Manhattan in the '70s, it's simply a must-read, from meandering along St. Mark's Place to hanging out at Max's Kansas City and, of course, the Chelsea Hotel. [The Atlantic]
Chef Boyardee used to work at the Plaza Hotel. How's that for trivia?! [Ephemeral NY]
Brooks of Sheffield profiles one of my favorite restaurants in Cobble Hill, the rustic, no-frills Sam's Restaurant. [Lost City]
New York's best Revolutionary War attraction, Fraunces Tavern, is reopening after almost a year of 'renovations'. [City Room]
And finally, just wanted to let you know that this week's podcast will be delayed a few days. It will be available for download on November 24, 2010.
One of the reasons for the delay is that we made our television debut last night as guests on the Brian Lehrer Show, on CUNY TV. I'll post the video when it becomes available later today.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
This is beautiful because it's not real: a cross-section of Paul Rudolph's cross-Manhattan proposal, looking east towards the two approaches consuming the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges.
This is your last week to catch the fascinating and strange drawings of Paul Rudolph at the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery in Cooper Union. Rudolph drafted proposals for Robert Moses' devastating Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have cleaved the island with an elevated highway, linking the East River bridges to the Holland Tunnel.
Community opposition and New York's woeful financial crisis killed the Lower Manhattan Expressway project. Rudolph, a Bauhaus-influenced architect, was the rare master of the Brutalist style, as clearly evidenced in these drawings and mock-ups. Magnificent as stand-alone works of science fiction, Rudolph's ideas unveil nothing less than a complete reconstruction of downtown Manhattan, with crystaline multi-level towers of concrete that evoke ancient architecture and a heavy, dreary aesthetic firmly planted in the late 1960s.
Here are a couple more images from the exhibit, courtesy the Library of Congress. The show runs through this Saturday and also feature an actual model reconstruction of what LOMEX would have looked like. More information about the exhibit can be found here.
The Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery
The Cooper Union (7 East 7th Street, 2nd floor)
Wednesday-Friday 12:00-7:00pm, Saturday 12:00-5:00pm
An overhead map laying out the course through downtown, eating up the Bowery, Chrystie, Delancey and Broome streets.
Rudolph's proposal didn't just include highways, but a massive network of transportation hubs, skyscrapers and apartment towers. LOMEX wouldn't just assist traffic flow; it would have defined downtown.
Monday, November 15, 2010
"Wanting too much. That's why she went wrong. Bright lights and theatres and furs and nightclubs. That's why she's dead now. Dear God, why wasn't she born ugly?"
'The Naked City', one of the very best films ever made in New York City, screens Tuesday night at the Museum of the City of New York, introduced by Julia Blaut, guest curator for the museum's latest photography exhibit 'Glorious Sky: Herbert Katzman's New York'.
Not only did this Jules Dassin crime caper set a standard for gritty realism, it presaged a generation of Manhattan based crime-based dramas.
You can find details on how to get tickets here. The screening is Tuesday, November 16, at 6:30pm.
Friday, November 12, 2010
An exotic tableau from the Ziegfeld Follies. The presentations by Burton in the mid-19th century would have been less ornate, but certainly more tantalizing. (photo source)
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: Palmo's Opera House/Burton's Chamber Street Theater
39-41 Chambers Street, Manhattan
In operation 1844-1870s
The sexual appetites of New Yorkers in the pre-Victorian era would sometimes manifest themselves in peculiar ways. Let me take you back to the 1840s, when raunch and salacious behavior infiltrated the Bowery theater scene, and even respectable downtown playhouses like the Park Theater cordoned off the third tier for encounters with prostitutes. A statesman of the time, Francis Grund, complained: "[F]ew ladies....are ever seen at the theater; and the frequenting of them, even by gentlemen, is not considered a recommendation to their character."
Public sexual practice become distorted under conflicting cultural movements that smashed together like tectonic plates. On the one hand, New York's growing international prominence combined with new American religious fervor to create a chaste facade of propriety, a population that seemingly had no sexual life. On the other, growing immigration filled the streets with single men and women, restless and crammed together. The 'sporting man' culture -- erudite, rich men of well-tweezed masculinity -- created New York bachelorhood; a couple social classes below, the Bowery b'hoy, did the same, and had more fun doing it.
It's under these conditions that a strange new craze erupted -- the artist-model tableau, New York's first unofficial flesh show. I call it the Era of the Nude Body Stocking.
Before the days of burlesque and striptease, New Yorkers could enjoy all the nude flesh they desired. It just pretended to be art. And often, it pretended to be nude.
In the early 1830s, legitimate stages began presenting tableaux of the human form, 'living statues' as they were called, stationary figures in nude or white body stockings, in classical poses. Assumably there would be some musical accompaniment or a reading of poetry, with tasteful lighting illuminating the heavenly contours of the human form. Very tasteful, right?
Down-market stages ran with the idea, eventually contorting it for a more tittilated crowd. Early instances of the 'artist model' presentations had men dressed as women. Quickly, women joined them on stage. And then, sometimes, the body stockings came off entirely.
One of the most famous stages for this skimpy sort of tableau vivant began with less prurient intentions. Palmo's Opera House (pictured above, 39-41 Chambers Street), opened in 1844 by an Italian immigrant Ferdinand Palmo. Italian opera had debuted in New York in 1825 at the Park Theatre, and instantly meshed with the upper class notions of acting more European. But working class New Yorkers didn't quite warm to it; according to Mark Caldwell, "[o]pera was the ambrosia to a self-professed elite but chloroform to the masses."
Palmo, owner of the Cafe des Mille Collones right around the corner, threw his money into the new opera house in an effort to bridge the gap. His first production was Bellini's 'I Puritani', launched in February 3, 1844. The masses stayed away, in droves. Palmo kept the opera house open for two years, fending off mounting debts. At one point, performers went on strike -- in the middle of a performance -- because they had not yet been paid.
The restaurateur lost all his money in the endeavor and promptly lost his opera house as well. The stage then passed through various hands, some taking a crack at legit amusements, with ballet and even Greek tragedy.
A showman William Burton (at right) took over the lease in 1848 and threw out those high-falutin acts. Burton was concerned with mainstream entertainment, not art per se. And it was during Burton's variety programs -- which notably featured the best minstrel acts in Manhattan -- that this unusual, shall we say, indiscreet tableaux made its debut, a presentation of lilywhite, illuminated flesh decorating an evening of song and dance.
In most cases, it was presented as a straight-up art lesson, with such mythology themed dioramas as 'Psyche Going To The Bath' and 'Venus Rising From the Sea'. But, as I said, Burton didn't care to sell art. He sold a view to nude bodies -- or bodies that at least appeared nude -- and soldout crowds raced to have a look.
But what if you wanted to see all this solitary nudity but the damned horse carriage had made you late? No worries, for at the newly named Burton's Chamber Street Theater, you were provided with a New York first -- numbered reserved seats.
Burton's stage wasn't the only place displaying 'artist models'; it soon became so common on New York stages that it soon became incorporated into productions, such as the extravagant 'The Black Crook' at Niblo's Garden in 1866, considered the first Broadway musical.
Obviously, the degree to which onstage nudity appeared scandalized proper New Yorkers. In fact, in 1848, police raided several establishments, including Barton's. According to a contemporary account by Foster Rhea Dulles, a "beautifully formed creature, just drawing on her tights for the Greek Slave, and some of the others, were so dreadfully alarmed at the sight of the police with their clubs in hand that they seized up a portion of their garments in order to hide their faces, forgetting their lower extremities, thus making a scene mixed up with the sublime and the ridiculous."
While prudish tastes frowned upon such displays, they never quite went away. Even as late as the 1920s, Florenz Ziegfeld frequently paid homage to the craze during his famous Follies.
As for the old opera house, it would continue featuring minstrel shows and comedy pieces well into the 1860s. For a short time it even served as federal courthouse before its demolition in 1876.
And here's the final kicker -- Palmo's Opera House and its later incarnation as Burton's Chamber Street Theatre was sat on top of -- you guessed it -- the African Burial Ground!
Thursday, November 11, 2010
The picture above is not of actor James Franco. If captioning can be believed, this is the 'youngest veteran' of World War I, posing with other more appropriately aged and clothed veterans, next to some clearly satisfied women. (Notice what the lady in black is staring at.) Yes, he is handcuffed.
These pictures were taken in Queens at the Worlds Fair of 1939-40. The fair at Flushing-Meadows hosted many events throughout its duration honoring 'Veterans of Foreign Wars', although sadly the greatest war of them all was looming on the horizon.
I was not able to confirm the identify the scantily clad man in the photograph, but he might be Paul Iogolevitch, a corporal for the Russian army who allegedly enlisted when he was 13. [A 1919 Boys Life article wrote him an enthusiastic bio.] He wrote a book on his exploits and seems to have coasted on the 'youngest veterans' tag for, well, as long as the 1939-40 World's Fair, apparently. (If that's not Paul, I'm open to other guesses. But he looks like a hardy Russian man, no?)
If you liked that picture, you'll love this one. I have absolutely no idea what the context is. Caption reads '"Youngest Veteran" handcuffed on boat':
You can check out more of these unusual photographs in the New York Public Library archive.
I'm not sure if anybody will be handcuffed or wearing bikinis, but if you're interested in the '39 World's Fair, I suggest you check out a new photography exhibit opening at the Queens Museum of Art -- Luis Márquez in the World of Tomorrow: Mexican Identity and the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. Marquez was the official photographer of the fair and advisor for the fair's Mexican Pavilion. The show opens this Sunday, November 14.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
I put some of my favorites below, with the answer 'true/false' in white type which you can highlight. Can you tell the truth from the lies? And of course, the link directly to the article it to the side:
1. Nine months after the Blackout of 1965, the birth rate in New York rose suddenly and drastically (apparently thanks to all those dark bedrooms) with hospitals filled with expectant mothers. FALSE [article]
2. In 1823, did "a pair of hoaxsters once lead hundreds of gullible New Yorkers into participating in a scheme to saw Manhattan in half" (as vividly described in Joel Rose's book 'New York Sawed In Half')? FALSE [article]
3. The New York Yankees began wearing their now-signature pinstripe outfits because of the great Babe Ruth. Being a heavy man, the stripes were used to make Mr. Ruth appear thinner. FALSE [article]
4. Alligators once thrived in the New York City sewer system. MOSTLY FALSE [article]
5. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, upon hearing that an old woman was charged with shoplifting a loaf of bread, demanded everybody in the room pay 50 cents to pay her fine. MAYBE! [article]
6. Did Harlem resident Colin Powell learn to speak Yiddish from working at a South Bronx baby supply shop? TRUE [article]
7. Was early sponsorship of Major League baseball's annual finale by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World newspaper the reason the yearly event is now called the World Series? OF COURSE NOT. [article]
8. Was that marvelous synthetic fabric -- nylon -- named after the two cities in which it was jointly created, New York (ny) and London (lon)? NOT TRUE [article]
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
ABOVE: Liberty keeps her lights on during the blackout of November 9, 1965
Photos courtesy Life Magazine, via the Blackout History Project
Forty-five years ago, during the 5pm rush hour, the entire American Northeast and parts of Canada were attacked by Unidentified Flying Objects from outer space who used their intergalactic powers to cause an electrical blackout that kept New York in the dark for ten hours.
Facts, of course, reveal that the blackout was actually caused by an electrical surge from the Robert Moses (!) Niagara Power Station that overloaded neighboring power lines and automatically caused electrical power interruptions throughout the region. The outage rolled through northern states and eastern Canada, arriving in New York just in time for rush hour sometime before 5:30 pm.
According to Life Magazine, "The abrupt reversal took place just as 600 New York City subway cars were rolling with their rush hour passengers, when elevators in skyscrapers were hustling tens of thousands to the streets, when housewives were lighting up homes and preparing dinner on electric stoves and warming up TV sets for the evening news."
Over three quarters of a million people were stranded on mass transit, most underground. Grand Central was even more chaotic than normal and some commuters were forced to camp out there and in the lobbies of nearby hotels overnight. Park Avenue skyscrapers kept workers imprisoned in elevators.
Believe it or not, almost all those trapped in trains and elevator shafts had been freed by midnight, and the city met the darkness with little looting or violence, especially notable considering the mayhem stirred by the disaster known as the blackout of 1977. The 1965 event was perhaps more in line with the blackout of 2003, which lasted well over 24 hours in many parts of the city, but resulted in no significant spike in crime.
Below: It's business as usual -- with a little romantic candlelight -- at a local New York barbershop. Many store owners stayed open later to accomodate stranded commuters and even kept people overnight until the power was fully restored by morning.
One component that the '65 fiasco had over the other blackouts was a rise in UFO spottings throughout the Northeast, including many in the city. Some naturally theorized that the bright orbs seen in the sky might have caused the event; major newspapers speculated on it, and advisers to even hinted at it in updates to the White House.
People in the Time-Life Building on Sixth Avenue reported seeing a glowing 'spindle shape' in the sky, and a Life Magazine photographer even snapped it and ran a shot in their next issue. A woman just north of Manhattan reported seeing "a disk hovering and going up and down. And then shooting away from New York just after the power failure."
Nothing ever really came of these purported sightings outside of providing a proper crescendo to the UFO craze of the early 1960s. Although reports of silvery globes floating over Chelsea alarmed pedestrians just a few weeks ago. (They were probably balloons.) The closest I've ever seen to an unidentified object floating overhead in New York was probably this.
This is worth a look -- the NBC News technically spotty coverage of the blackout, featuring a statement the spokesman of Governor Nelson Rockefeller:
This reminds me -- what would Don Draper be doing?
Maybe one day we'll do a podcast on the '65 blackout, but in the meantime, you can hear one of our early podcasts on the topic of the 1977 Blackout. Download it here.
Monday, November 8, 2010
What lies beneath: "Site of the first church burying ground of New Harlem. Viewed from 127th Street and Willis Avenue Viaduct" (From the book New Harlem Past and Present, 1903 via NYT)
Elmendorf Reformed Church, which traces its lineage to New Amsterdam and the earliest days of the village of Haarlem, currently makes its home at East 121st Street and Third Avenue. But it once occupied a spot on First Avenue between 126th and 127th Streets, near the banks of the Harlem River. And although the city built a bus depot over part of that spot in 1947, a vestige of the former congregation still exists underground.
Community organizers are still waged in a battle with the city over Elmendorf's former burial ground, with interments from the early 17th century and well into the mid 19th century. The MTA is interested in ripping up the old bus depot and replacing with a new modern facility; Harlem community leaders want the depot gone and not replaced.
Once known as the Reformed Low Dutch Church of Haarlem, the congregation's current name comes from its late 19th century leader, the Rev. Joachim Elmendorf, already an august religious leader upstate when he arrived in Harlem in 1886.
The Uptowner has the latest on the controversy. The New York Times originally wrote about the discovery in this article from January 2009.
Friday, November 5, 2010
African Burial Ground: History from underneath the city, and the secret tale of New Yorkers once forgotten
A small cemetery for African slaves and free black New Yorkers developed along the southern edge of Collect Pond. But when that filthy body of water was drained and filled, the burial ground disappeared underground with it. (Image courtesy Preserve America)
PODCAST During the construction of a downtown federal administration building, an extraordinary find was discovered -- the remnants of a burial ground used by African slaves during the 18th Century.
In the earliest days of New Amsterdam, the first Africans were brought against their will to build the new Dutch port, slaves for a city that would be built upon their backs. Later, forced to repress the cultural expressions of their forefathers, the early black population of British New York did preserve their heritage in the form of burial rites, in a small 'Negro Burial Ground' to the south of Collect Pond (and just a couple short blocks to today's City Hall).
How did this small plot of land -- and its astounding contents -- become preserved in the middle of the most bustling area of the most bustling city in the world? And why is it considered one of the most spectacular archaeological finds in New York City history?
You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.
Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: African Burial Ground
The African Burial Ground monument, at street level. Designed by Rodney Leon, the monument in contained on a quiet patch of land that seems to escape the bustle of the city around it.
Within the 'Circle of Diaspora' are various spiritual and religious symbols, many quite exotic.
There's no shortage of information about the history of slavery in New York. I would definite start with the materials related to the New York Historical Society's extraordinary show from a few years ago. The GSA's site on the African Burial Ground is a treasure trove of information as well.
For hours and directions, check out the National Park Service, not only for the Burial Ground, but New York's many other national monuments.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
(Picture above by Ruth Orkin, source)
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The Provincetown Playhouse, at 133 MacDougal Street, makes its debut in New York on November 3, 1916, with a series of plays that included Eugene O'Neills's Bound East for Cardiff. In the picture above, O'Neill (on the ladder) and his troupe prepare the stage for opening night.
The theater was ripped down by NYU to make way for a new law building; however, according to the Playhouse's official history page, a new theater is slated to be built nearby.
If you're ever in Provincetown, Mass., finding a good walking tour of the town's theater history is well worth the effort. The New York Playhouse was founded by playwrights and actors who gathered in Provincetown during the summer and debuts new works at their rickety, ocean-front stage.
Below: the outside of the theater, 1936, in a striking photo taken by Berniece Abbott. From this melancholy angle, you can tell the building was a former stable.
Photo (taken in 1936) by Berenice Abbott [source]
Monday, November 1, 2010
Rowdy drunks on New Years eve? Angry protesters? No, just a jailcell full of "fraudulent voters in custody at the United States Circuit Court, New York. (1876)" [source]
Ah, electioneering in the 1800s! You can smell the corruption in the air, the perfume of cigar smoke, the sweat of a street gang. Voting was easily manipulated by political machine bosses, and the techniques used -- from voter intimidation to outright fraud -- would sometimes inflate vote totals to absurd numbers in an effort to keep their party in power.
Here are just six of the most tried and patented techniques in vote manipulation in 19th century New York:
1. Using the names of children, the deceased or incapacitated people
You can find one example in an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 29, 1893, about an election in Richmond Country (aka Staten Island), entitled Voting The Dead:
"Violation of the election laws in November was no less flagrant in Richmond County than in New York or Kings [Brooklyn]. Proceedings before Justice Cullen cast a significant light on the methods employed to reverse the will of the people.
At Castleton there were many votes cast on the names of dead men. Other ballots were deposited to the credit of the insane and bedridden. Inmates of the Sailors Snug Harbor who have not stirred out of doors for years are recorded as having voted."
Children were also used, as in the election of 1860. "In one instance two boys of an Irish widow the one being six and the other seven years of age were registered without the knowledge either of the mother or sons," according to the History Box.
2. Voting more than once
Either returning to your voting station multiple times wearing a variety of costumes, or simply going to other voting stations and hoping they don't notice. (A pretty likely occurance in the mid-19th century.)
Below: From an Ed Sears woodcut, entitled "Arresting A Pretender," 1870
3. Faking illness to make your vote public
In being able to prove they voted a certain way, corrupt voters would receive cash bribes. From the same Brooklyn Eagle article as above: "Over fifty of those who actually went to the ballot box pretended that they were physically incapacitated and required the assistance of 'workers' to prepare their tickets. The effect was to destroy the secrecy of the vote and enable them to carry out their compact with the machine bosses. Dr. Joy, surgeon at the harbor, testifies that the inmates in question really needed no assistance. The inference is that they were bribed to support the ringsters who conspired to maintain their supremacy by unlawful means."
4. Everybody gets to vote!
Oh, not women of course. But in a rush to get eager new Irish male voters to the polls, in 1868 Tammany appointed judges would grant citizenship (and a right to vote) to immigrants right off the boat, if they promised to vote Democratic. "The New York Supreme Court along cranked out more than sixteen hundred naturalizations each day, in additions to hundreds more from the Superior Court and the Court of Common Pleas." [from Kenneth Ackerman's Boss Tweed bio] Meanwhile, out on Coney Island, charming John McKane would register hundreds of the resort destination's seasonal workers as residents, as means to voting his way.
5. Just don't count the votes correctly
But who cares what the votes actually say? Just rig the count, either sabotaging or bribing vote counters or positioning your own machine cronies into the positions to do the dirty work. Those vote counters uncorrupted and above reproach would become victim to physical intimidation and even power outages. On one occasion, in 1868, the lights went off and 'ruffians' sauntered in and simply purloined the objectionable votes.
6. Or, when all else fails, just destroy the ballots
As evidenced below in an Ed Sears woodcut, entitled "Tipping Over A Booth," 1870