Thursday, June 30, 2011

The mysterious Central Park convent: Mount Saint Vincent

House on the hill: the stark and mysterious convent of Central Park, 1861

In tomorrow's podcast, I'll be spending a bit of time in 1861 and will be briefly mentioning Central Park. So I thought I'd give you a look at what it looked like then. Pictured above is a structure that once dominated the scenery -- the Academy of Saint Vincent -- on a hill that bore its name.

Located on the northern portion of the park, next to the charming Harlem Meer (and nearest 103rd Street), the Academy sat nestled amid a collection of hills and bluffs left over from its original topography.

A narrow passage between the hills was named McGown's Pass after Andrew McGown, owner of a popular tavern that sat alongside here called the Black Horse Tavern**.

It was through McGown's Pass that George Washington traveled on September 15, 1776. He and a portion of the Continental Army had escaped up to today's Washington Heights area; when hearing that part of his army had been stopped by the British, Washington rode down the pass and led the remaining troops back up to their fortification in the Heights. He rode back through the pass again seven years later, this time as the victor.

The British and their Hessian mercenaries built forts here to cut Manhattan off from the mainland. Later New Yorkers would seize upon this idea during the early days of the War of 1812. Not willing to become property of the British once again, Manhattan mobilized for any potential battles, building forts all over the island and throughout the harbor. It was here at McGown's Pass a couple fortifications were built, including Fort Clinton (not to be confused with the fort in Battery Park, although both were named for DeWitt Clinton) and Fort Fish, named after Major Nicholas Fish, father of the New York senator Hamilton Fish.

Nothing much remains of these two old forts, which were never used as the war thankfully never made its way to the city. There are, however, two remaining structures from the early days. A stone ledge overlooking the meer is all that remains of Nutter's Battery, named after a farmer who owned the property. And nearby stands the Block House, its stone face still fairly solid, once armed with cannons and used to hold ammunition -- that were, of course, never needed. The Block House was fairly intact when Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux included it in their plans for the new park, incorporating the existing building as a 'picturesque ruin' covered in vines.

Here's an illustration of how the Block House looked in 1860:


Before there was a park, however, there were nuns. In 1847 the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived at the still-bucolic region of Manhattan and opened the Academy of St. Vincent, a school and convent. The nuns left when the area was incorportated into the park, however the building remained standing and utilized for several purposes. During the Civil War, it was briefly used as a hospital; later, it was a "restaurant and hostelry," with some certainly spectacular views for guests. The stone chapel was even refashioned as an gallery for artwork and "stuffed specimens of animals of considerable value." Unfortunately, the structures were destroyed in a fire in 1881. (This site has some great pictures of where the convent once stood.)

Below: The buildings on the hill, circa 1863. By this time, the Catholic sisters had moved onto a new location in the Bronx (from Wikimedia)

It seems, however, that the area was not through with McGown or his old tavern. Although the Black Horse Tavern had been torn down decades earlier, a two-story refreshment pavilion was constructed at this site -- "heated throughout by steam and lighted with Edison's incandescent lights" -- and later renamed McGown's Pass Tavern.

In 1895, McGown's was strangely granted its own election district as, being inside the park, it lay outside normal district boundaries. "There were four voters in this territory last year," declared the New York Times. "They are four men employed at McGown's Pass Tavern." The tavern was eventually torn down in the late 1910s.

Below: McGown's Pass Tavern (date unknown, but possibly around the early 1910s)


This is a bit tangental, but I love this story. A plaque was erected at the old site of Fort Clinton in 1906 and unveiled in a publicized community event for children. It was apparently difficult for some people to find the location and "several chivalrous lads" guided people through the park to the unveiling.

However, the Times reports an incident that might be the only real battle that ever occured at this storied historical spot:

"Among the boys interested in the tablet unveiling were several whose spirit of mischief overcame their sense of the proprieties. These made misleading arrow signs .... and caused a number of persons to go far afield and arrive at the exercises late and angry. These mischievous youngsters were caught at their annoying trick by boys who were more sober and serious. Then there was a short scrimmage, and the mischievous lads scurried away through the Park."

Finally, from a 19th century book on the War of 1812 comes this spectacular map of the various fortifications built in anticipation of battle. Its dimensions are greatly distorted of course, but it lists the forts and blockhouses that stood in this area as well as those such as Fort Gansevoort and Fort Greene (click on the image to look at it more closely):



**This story is a revision of one I wrote back in July of 2008. (Here's the original article.) Thanks to commenter sallieparker from original posting in 2008 for this tidbit! All pictures courtesy the New York Public Library except where otherwise noted

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bernard Herrmann, film's finest composer, a century later

As if one needed any more examples of the importance of New York's immigrant culture to the history of music, today is the centenary of the birth of Bernard Herrmann, arguably the most important film music composer in history.

Bernard was born (and prematurely at that) to immigrants from Russia. His father, Abraham Dardick, came to America via the former Castle Garden in 1880, changing his name to Herrmann to sound more German. German immigrants, after all, thrived in the city by this time; Russians were a fairly new -- and isolated -- community. His mother Ida was a salesgirl, selling women's gloves.

The young family's home was at 18th Street and Second Avenue. Bernard's first sounds would not have been orchestral music but the sound of the rattling elevated train.

As a child, Herrmann hit the local library (today, the Epiphany Library on 23rd street) and soon fell in love with music, studying opera and the violin. He eventually attended Julliard and was so ambitious that, by age 20, he had even formed his own orchestra.

Herrmann fell into film composing through connections he made as a conductor at the Columbia Broadcasting System. The most notable of those connections was probably Orson Welles, and Herrmann would compose the film music for Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane. In the 1940s, the composer met Alfred Hitchcock and formed what would be one of the great film collaborations in Hollywood history. Herrmann scored many of Hitchcock's most famous films -- Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Birds, to name a few.

Bernard's last film brought him back home, so to speak, composing the score to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Herrmann died December 24, 1975, on the same day he had finished recording it.



Some of the details above are from the Herrmann biography A Heart At Fire's Center: The Life And Music of Bernard Herrman by Steven C. Smith.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Bowery Boys Go To War!


The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast celebrates its FOURTH ANNIVERSARY this week! And we're using the occasion to debut a trilogy of summer podcasts, starting July 1st, featuring New York City's involvement during the Civil War as a dramatic backdrop.

The secession of Southern states starting in February 1861 brought out the best in New Yorkers -- and the very worst. The city boldly fueled the early war effort with volunteers and money. But leaders and businessmen with strong Southern ties also attempted to hinder Union momentum. What kind of encouragement is it when the mayor himself threatens to pull out of the Union?

It all came to a head during the summer of 1863 during the Draft Riots, but even that devastating chaos -- certainly New York's most despicable moment -- was not the final word. Even as the South began to falter, New York found itself a target of financial conspiracies and shocking acts of terrorism.

The first part of the trilogy will be available this Friday, July 1, so check back here for details. Or visit iTunes and subscribe to our show there so you don't miss out!

Picture courtesy NYPL digital images

Friday, June 24, 2011

Time Capsule: Gay Hippies vs the Nudists in Central Park!

Above: From a great photo stream of images from the 1971 parade by Me In San Fran/Flickr (check them out here)

I happened across some rather extraordinary archival videos on YouTube posted by Randolfe Wicker, recorded in 1971 at New York's second Gay Pride festivities ever, initially called the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day. In those days, the march headed north (almost all New York parades head downtown), terminating in a rally at Central Park.

Mr. Wicker's video features interviews with parade participants and focuses on a controversy involving a 'nude-in' that spontaneously erupts at the rally. Hey, it's 1971 after all! (The nudists in the third video are blurred by the condition of the footage, so this is probably SFW).

Many of these interviews are hilarious, a few quite engaging, others rather awkward. This event took place two years after the Stonewall riots and just one year after the very first activists courageously took to the streets in New York's first true gay pride parade. So this footage is very valuable indeed, for members of the LGBT community, and for New York history lovers in general.







Wicker also has some videos relating to a gay marriage battle -- from forty years ago! Watch them here.

If you want a bit more context to the videos above, check out our podcast on the history of the Stonewall Riots, recorded back in 2008, which you can download directly from here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A chemical company in Union Square sells a kingly elixir

One hundred years ago today (June 23), the big news was the coronation of England's King George at Westminster Abbey. Judging from the New York papers, American fascination with this event makes the recent royal nuptials of William and Kate seem like a forgettable folly. The June 23, 1911, issue of the New York Tribune is filled with illustrations of queens, crowns and processions.

What grabbed my attention, however, was the king-themed advertisement that ran big and bold on the second page. Here are two sections of it (the original is here):



Sanatogen was a kind of vitamin water, "a concentrated scientific food that constructively gives strength and vitality." According to this advertisement, most of the crowded heads of Europe swear by it!

What caught my interest, however, was the location of its American distributor -- the Bauer Chemical Co. in Union Square. A chemical company in one of New York's most bustling public spaces?

Bauer was located in the Everett Building*, at the northeast corner of the park, right across the street from the Germania Life Insurance Company Building and, back in 1911, catty-corner from the headquarters of Tammany Hall. The Everett, with its simple and rigid face, was designed by Starret & Van Vleck, famous for their department-store designs. Indeed, the uptown flagships of Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's look like more elegant versions of the Everett.


Bauer moved in sometime after the Everett's opening in 1908. They were the exclusive distributor of Sanatogen in the United States and seem to have done quite well by it. "Nerves have a Hunger of their Own," said one ominous 1916 advertisement. "Sanatogen helps satisfy it." It also cures "Neurasthenia" and "Cholera Infantum." Remarkable!

The reason anybody really knows The Bauer Chemical Company is that it was a party in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Bauer & Cie. v. O'Donnell, a case involving the sale of Sanatogen, essentially affirming that selling the product below the suggested price to customers, as one druggist O'Donnell attempted, did not violate the terms of license.

After the trial, it appears the company moved a block over to Irving Place by the mid 1910s. I'm not sure what happened to them after that. However, although King George is long gone, you can still buy Sanatogen in the U.K.! And their products seem to be labeled to accurately describe their recommended usage.

*The Everett Building is named for the Everett House, a luxury accommodation that once sat at this very corner. In its day, the Everett played host to many a Democratic bigwig -- Tammany was across the street after all -- and, since we're on a British royal kick, once housed the Prince of Wales in 1860.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

History in the Making: It's Greater New York Baby Week!


If this were 1914, we would be in the midst of a week-long celebration of New York babies! Actually, the occasion was a bit more somber. According to the photo caption, Greater New York Baby Week was initiated "to reduce the toll of preventable infant deaths by calling city-wide attention to needs met and needs not met for infant welfare in greater New York." (Photo courtesy NYPL)

 

Fans of the early days of the New York film industry will geek out over this -- the blog Silent Locations an in-depth, self-guided tour of Brooklyn locations used the runaway trolley scene from the Harold Lloyd 1928 film 'Speedy'. [Silent Locations]

A Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, address receives a postcard in the mail -- 99 years later! [City Room]

And speaking of Cobble Hill, did you know that Winston Churchill's mother was born there? [Brooklyn Before Now]

H and H Bagels, a mecca for New York bagel lovers since 1972, is closing its famous Upper West Side location. (Don't worry: they still have one other storefront, albeit at 46th Street and 12th Avenue.) [The Atlantic]

Marilyn Monroe's fluttery white 'Seven Year Inch' dress -- which stopped traffic during filming on at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street back in 1964  -- collected a breezy $4.6 million in auction on Sunday. [NPR]

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who were the first kids to break open a fire hydrant?


Happy first day of summer! Who doesn't want to run down a street, streaking through bursts of water emanating from old-style fire hydrants? Although I'm pretty sure nobody has ever tried to guess the identity of the very first ragamuffins to break into a fire hydrant, common sense and a rote knowledge of teenage behavior can help narrow down the candidates.

The very first fire hydrant popped up in New York at the corner of William and Liberty streets in 1808.  So I'm guessing that the first kids to mess with a New York City fire hydrant were those kids that were living on the block within 24 hours of the hydrant's installation. (I mean, the temptation!) Early 'flip lid' hydrants might have been easier to tinker with, but the lack of a dramatic street spray would have bored early vandals.

Ah, but with the debut of high-pressure hydrants in the early 20th century, rowdy street teens could be assured of turning their local neighborhoods into a veritable low-scale city of fountains. By the 1970s, hydrants bursting at their lids would be a defining image of the depressed, cash-strapped decade. No wonder most of these nostalgic 'fat' hydrants were shut down by the 1980s. (Forgotten NY has a loving photographic tribute to some old stubs that you can still find around the city.)

The images below are from summer 1953, taken by Peter Stackpole for Life Magazine




Also, here's an entire website on the history of fire hydrants, and I recommend giving it a few moments of your time.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Before mermaids paraded, Coney Island went Mardi Gras!



A century-old party: ghoulish revelers from the 1911 parade

An even larger collection of freaks and aquatic oddities than Coney Island's everyday normal assortment will come slithering down Surf Avenue this Saturday with the 29th annual Mermaid Parade.

The parade is the heart of Coney's modern freak-show aesthetic, Christmastime for the tattooed and glittery. Most people think that, unlike most New York City parades, the Mermaid parade celebrates nothing specific, only a joy of costume, summertime and silliness. In fact, Coney Island 'mayor' Bill Zigun and Coney Island USA created the parade in 1983 as an homage to an even more legendary seaside tradition: the Coney Island Mardi Gras parade.

Let that stew in your mind a bit. Coney Island meets New Orleans.

The annual Mardi Gras celebration lasted from 1903, the heart of Coney's heyday, until 1954 -- the heart of the Robert Moses years. Curiously, it always took place in mid-September, which I suppose is a nicer time for a New York parade than February, the traditional date of Marti Gras. Instead, the parade was timed to coincide with the end of the summer season and the annual shuttering of the amusement parks.

Below: The 1908 festival, with nighttime floats and frippery (Click to see an enlarged version of this picture at Shorpy.)

In 1906, the great parks of Coney Island like Dreamland were still standing, but other current draws, like  Nathan's famous hot dog stand, wouldn't be open for many years. Even still, the Mardi Gras parade that year managed to attract 500,000 people. "Police Commissioner [Thomas] Bingham visited the Island and had [his] full share of attention from confetti throwers and wielders of the 'tickler'."

I don't know what a tickler was back then, but the idea of what I think it is being thrust at a police commissioner is absurd. Probably a souvenir from a Luna Park ride called the Tickler (which doesn't look that fun, see image from 1906):


That same year brewery mogul Herman Raub (pictured below), founder of the Coney Island railway, was anointed king of the parade.



The Mardi Gras parade sounds like it was a horrifying, chaotic, fabulous mess. In 1911, the celebration also gathered about a half million people to view this tenuously religious celebration.

It seems part of the fun of the original Mardi Gras involved drunken displays of violence. "Gangs March Through Street Insulting Women and Wrecking Stores And Restaurants" shouts the Times. "Several Hundred Arrested."

Despite rampant (probably exaggerated) violence, the parade became the star of a wacky Fatty Arbuckle-Buster Keaton film, the 1915 'Coney Island'. It hit celluloid later in 1935 in the Popeye the Sailor Man short 'King of the Mardi Gras'.



By 1921, the parade had to deal with a new menace -- Prohibition. "It was agreed that Prohibition had struck Coney Island a staggering blow." Many revelers dressed in costumes that "referred satirically to blue law advocates."

One popular event at the parade was the annual 'prettiest baby' competition. In 1921, the winner was "Rita Murphy, 6 years old, of 2,005 Sixty-Third Street, Brooklyn, dressed as a jockey." The tot was awarded "a ninety-two-piece silver set which she can use to start housekeeping when she gets married." What a future young Rita had in store for her!

The parade sadly petered out thanks in part to Robert Moses's ridiculous plan to turn the area into "an area of predominantly residential character." Brooklyn Pix has a good shot of the final Mardi Gras spectacle, and it looks alarmingly similar to today's Mermaid Parade.

Check here for all the details on this year's Mermaid Parade. I'll see you down there!

This article is a modified reprint of one I wrote back in 2008.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The best non-fiction in the universe (and in New York, too)

If you love perusing lists of books that you'll never get a chance to read in your lifetime, please check out the Guardian's list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books ever written. And when they say ever, they mean it. (The oldest entrant is dated c400 BC.)

The works on their list cover the entire history of the world, the development of art, science, spirituality and politics within the evolution of man. You know, basically everything.

Even so, a few notable New Yorkers did make the list. Have you read these yet?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (written in 1845) Douglass documents his escape from a brutal life of slavery and his arrival in New York City in 1838, his first tastes of freedom in a "boarding-house at the corner of Church and Lispenard Streets". He soon became one of the nation's leading abolitionists, and this account of his tribulations made him both the toast of New York City for some, and a symbol of scorn for others. Douglass's straight-forward account of slavery in the early 19th century makes this one of the most important American documents ever published.

Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress by Mark Twain (written in 1869) A recount of Samuel Clemens' often amusing voyage overseas with some of the congregation of Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church. Three decades later, he would return to live out some of his final years in New York, despite some sarcastic digs in 'Innocents' aimed at the city's elite.

Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag (written in 1964) The New York feminist icon brings her unique take of city subcultures -- specifically, of the gay and Jewish varieties -- into an inspection of modern sensibilities, a blunt manifesto that punctured traditional notions of social tastes. And includes such lines as, "The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful."

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (written in 1966) The colorful writer's classic reinvention of the non-fiction novel takes place in Kansas, but in many ways, this is the most New York of creations. Capote wrote much of it from his Brooklyn Heights townhouse, and its serialization in The New Yorker and subsequent publication -- paired with the fame of 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' -- made Capote the city's most famous writer.

And there are many books represented on the list written by people who were born here (William James, Studs Terkel, Richard Feynman), resided here (Richard Said, Gertrude Stein, Hanna Arendt, Tony Judt) and even a couple by authors who currently live here -- Joan Didion and Robert Hughes. And I'm sure I've left off a couple. You can check out the complete list here.

And since we're in a literary mood here, are you checking out any New York events in honor of Bloomsday, the unofficial holiday honoring James Joyce's 'Ulysses'?

Original book artwork courtesy the New York Public Library

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The cat's meow: NYC in the 1920s, through a gauzy haze


Capital of the World: A Portrait of New York City in the Roaring 20s
By David Wallace
Lyons Press

REVIEW 'Capital of the World' is a delicious but high-calorie Whitman's sampler of New York City delights during the 1920s. It is no surprise to find that it is authored by journalist David Wallace, whose publishing career is mostly comprised of tomes about Hollywood and southern California. New York is seen through the same sunny, star-studded lens; there is no hint that common people lived in New York City during the 1920s.

The 1920s were truly a decade of change in New York. Cramped Manhattanites moved to Queens in huge numbers, Wall Street reached a fevered and treacherous zenith, and automobiles forced physical changes onto the landscape. Of course, you'll find none of that in Wallace's jazzy little essays.

His is a New York of pure personality -- gangsters and flappers drinking bathtub booze, dapper gentlemen and unconventional ladies. He writes less of the actual '20s and more about the roaring '20s, the partial invention that inhabits our pop culture consciousness.  The book is a mostly a collection of profiles, of glamorous people you would readily invite to your dinner party.

Wallace starts and ends with Mayor Jimmy Walker, who reigns over New York from 1926-1932. The other mayor of the decade, John Hylan, merits just a couple mentions and is referred to as "long-winded" and "stuffy". That is the extent of politics. From there it's a survey of mobsters and dancers, wits and weirdos.

It's a great summer read, and you don't even have to read the chapters in order. Get your fill of baubles with Texas Guinan (Ch. 6) and Fanny Brice (Ch. 8), go high end with Dorothy Parker (Ch. 15) and Elsie De Wolfe (Ch. 17), top yourself off with Martha Graham (Ch. 10), then fall back to the gutter with New York's legendary madam Polly Adler (Ch. 5).

Or choose the movers and shakers of pop celebrity, from Walter Winchell (Ch. 7) and his favorite haunt the Stork Club (Ch. 2) to the radio king David Sarnoff (C. 9) and magazine mogul Henry Luce (Ch. 16).

It's a staggered view of the decade, but a succinct look at the decade's purveyors of culture. You do get a couple chapters on the growth of organized crime, but those essays are notable more for the number of references to mobster films and, in particular, The Godfather. (Wallace has his feet firmly planted in contemporary pop culture, often bringing in references to things like Madonna's 'Confessions On A Dance Floor' and 'Dancing With The Stars'.)

Of course, there are a few major figures noticeably absent -- and he stuffs the entire Harlem Renaissance into a single chapter, when it could have been five -- but then, this isn't meant to be nutritious, is it? 'Capital of the World' is a bottle of cheap champagne, perfect for the beach.

Pictured above: Cast members from Broadway's The Garrick Gaieties, 1925, photo by Ira D Schwarz (courtesy NYPL)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Happy 200th, Harriet Beecher Stowe!

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born two hundred years ago today in Litchfield, Connecticut. Although I don't believe she ever lived in New York for any significant length of time, her younger brother Henry Ward Beecher was the city of Brooklyn's most famous resident, a towering religious figure who came to exemplify the dignified society of 19th century Brooklyn Heights. She was frequently by her brother's side during a scandal in 1872 involving an alleged affair and certain "criminal intimacy" between Henry and the wife of his former confidante Theodore Tildon.

Below: Harriet and her little brother


While the importance of her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, serialized in the Washington abolishionist paper National Era and published in book form in 1852, cannot be understated, it was the various theatrical productions based on the book that had an equally big impact in New York. In the days before licensing and copyright, anybody could mount a production of the world's biggest book, and many did. (P.T. Barnum even mounted a successful variation at his American Museum in 1853.) Oftentimes, Stowe's abolitionist message would get lost in translation, rendering the story into simple minstrelsy.

Below: An advertisement for the Bowery Theatre's 1954 production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin (or Life Among The Lowly)." The show's big star, T.D. Rice, was a performer from the Lower East Side famous for his blackface character Jim Crow.



For more information on Henry Ward Beecher and strange scandal that tarnished his name, check out our podcast Henry Ward Beecher and Plymouth Church. Picture courtesy NYPL. News clipping courtesy Univ of Virginia

Monday, June 13, 2011

Notes on the podcast (#125) Sardi's Restaurant



Above: Brooke Shields admires her caricature, 1995 (courtesy Google LIFE images)

Thanks for listening to our breezy, kind of giddy tale of Sardi's Restaurant. We might sound a little strange at a couple points, as we were recording it in 95 degree weather, and our studio isn't adequately air conditioned! A little delirium might be evident. We decided to do a showbiz-type episode as our next episode will be going to a very, very dark place in New York City history.

Obviously, when I said this was our 'quasquicentennial' episode, I didn't actually mean it was our 125th year of podcasting. Although that's a remarkable thought -- our first episode would have been playable on a gramophone!

As we mentioned on the show, it's difficult doing a history podcast on a private business without it sounding a bit like an advertisement, but hopefully we were able to execute past that. (We came across this odd feeling with other podcasts like Saks Fifth Avenue and The Plaza Hotel.)

We left a few details on the cutting-room floor, including Sardi's lengthy involvement with the Dog Fanciers Club, which throws a congratulatory breakfast every year for the Best In Show winner of the Westminster Dog Show. Tom also did a rather nice job with reading an excerpt from Renee Caroll's biography, but some sound problems forced us to cut it.

Tom mentioned the glory of Broadway in 1927. Show Boat is definitely the breakout show of that year, but theatergoers could also choose from one of these show that year -- A Connecticut Yankee, Funny Face, Burlesque, Coquette, Hit The Deck, Rio Rita, Dracula and the hit play The Ivory Door, written by A.A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame. (Find a complete list here.)

Reading Recommendations: The best is Off The Wall by Vincent Sardi Jr. and Thomas Edward West, featuring full color representations of Sardi's best known caricatures. Worth seeking out a copy at your used book stores. More difficult to find is Vincent Sardi Sr.'s own biography Sardi's: A Story of a Restaurant, published in 1953 and well out of print. Carroll's biography In Your Hat is also out-of-print, but you can find excerpts scattered online. You should seek out a physical copy if possible, as it features original artwork by original Sardi's caricaturist Alex Gard.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Dinner at Sardi's: New York celebrity history, wall to wall


PODCAST The famous faces on the walls of Sardi's Restaurant represent the entertainment elite of the 20th Century, and all of them made this place on West 44th Street their unofficial home. Known for its kooky caricatures and its Broadway opening-night traditions, Sardi's fed the stars of the golden age and became a hotspot for producers, directors and writers -- and, of course, those struggling to get their attention.

When Vincent Sardi opened his first restaurant in 1921, Prohibition had begun, and the midtown Broadway theater district was barely a couple decades old. By the time the Italian-American restauranteur threw open its doors to its current locaton (thanks to the Shuberts) in 1927, Broadway's stages were red hot, and Sardi found himself at the center of the New York City show business world.

We have some insider scoop from the old days -- starring John Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, hatcheck girl Renee Carroll and a cast of thousands -- and the scoop on those famous (and often unflattering) framed caricatures. So sidle up to the Little Bar, order yourself a stiff drink and eavesdrop in on this tale of Broadway's longest dinner party.

PLUS: The birth of the Tony Awards!

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: Sardi's Restaurant

Vincent Sardi and his world-famous wall behind him. (Courtesy NYT)


The outdoor garden cafe of the original Sardi's, which opened in 1921 and was located two doors down from the current location. It was demolished to make way for the St. James Theatre.

The cover of the tell-all 1933 memoir by famed Sardi's hatcheck girl Renee Carroll and illustrated by Sardi's original caricaturist Alex Gard.

Tallulah Bankhead, Broadway diva and notorious Sardi's customer. (Courtesy NYPL)

The failed experiment Sardi's East, instantly problematic due to its distance from the theater district. Sardi Jr. attempted to solve the problem with a fun-filled double-decker bus -- often accompanied by Broadway stars -- that would zip diners to their shows after dinner. (source Flickr/edge and corner wear)

Vincent Sardi Jr. and his restaurant make an appearance in the film The Muppets Take Manhattan:


Top picture courtesy Life Google images

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Was Lauren Bacall the world's most glamorous newsie?

The answer to the question in the headline is absolutely, without a doubt, yes.

This story begins with a Minnesotan named Leo Shull, who moved to New York in the 1930s to become a playwright. He never wrote anything of note for the stage, but he wrote plenty about the stage, various guides to playwriting, "how to break into showbiz" style books, and eventually, directories of entertainment contacts.

In 1941, Shull rented out some mimeograph machines in a basement below a Walgreens at 44th and Broadway to produce a newspaper called the Actors Cue, a daily guide to auditions, agents and producers. (Actor's Cue was similar to today's Back Stage. That currently operating publication was spun off by two former employees of Shull in 1960.)

But this was no ordinary Walgreens. According to author John U. Bacon, this was the very first Walgreens in New York, in the basement of the grand Paramount Building.

It opened in 1927, the same year that Sardi's Restaurant opened its current location just around the corner. Both were associated with the theater business, with show folk. In fact, this Walgreens was often called the 'poor man's Sardi's'. There was even a wall of caricatures, just like Sardi's, lampooning the most famous faces of Broadway.

In his biography, Eli Wallach called that particular Walgreens a "hangout for actors," a place for out-of-work actors to spend their last dime on a sandwich at the lunch counter, wiling away time before an audition.

So then, obviously, it made sense for Shull to create his daily directory here. And he not only sold the paper to actors; he often hired them to spread out around the theater district and sell the newspaper on the street.

So who should walk in but an attractive young actress named Betty Joan Perske. She was born in the Bronx and currently lived on a ground-floor apartment in the West Village, making ends meet by modeling and ushering in Broadway theaters. But she hoped to soon be on the stage, not in the aisles.

At some point, she met Shull and began selling his newspaper on her lunch breaks. In her own words:

I spent most of my lunch hours rushing to Walgreen's to grab Actor's Cue and look for a job in the theatre. .......  Leo had a table in the basement of Walgreen's where copies of Actor's Cue were piled up and sold for ten cents apiece. I prevailed on him to let me sell some. He finally said okay -- to get me off his back, I think.

She took her papers to the sidewalk outside Sardi's, where powerful producers and agents frequently dined. From there, she hocked the paper, not to make money, but to initiate conversations. "I kept my eyes peeled for a recognizable producer, actor, anyone who might help me get a job." At right: Bacall, actually in Sardi's Restaurant, courtesy Life Magazine

Her gumption eventually paid off. In 1942, with a slight name change (to Betty Bacall), she made her Broadway debut in the short-lived "novelty melodrama" Johnny 2 X 4 at the Longacre Theatre.  However, her fame would be made on the movie screen, cast in 1943 (after yet another name change, to Lauren) opposite her future husband Humphrey Bogart in the Howard Hawks' classic To Have And Have Not. She never needed an Actor's Cue ever again.

I wonder if Winchell, a regular at Sardi's, remembered that when he wrote an entire column that year called "The Bacall of the Wild," raving about the young starlet.

Actor's Cue is still being sold today -- presumably not in front of Sardi's -- under its more descriptive new name of Show Business.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

History in the Making: The 'Good Show, Ole Chap' Edition

Trafalgar Square, by way of Park Row, in an imagined universe of American domination

"If London Were Like New York" -- as this 1902 article from Harmsworth’s Magazine imagines -- it would be twenty times more spectacular. [Lubin] (Thanks to Chris Perriman for sending this via Twitter)

A walk down Jamaica Avenue in Queens. I bet you didn't know you could find the home of a Founding Father still standing there. [Forgotten New York]

When New Yorkers went old school: The Museum of the City of New York celebrates the city's role in popularizing Colonial Revival architecture and design in their new show "The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis," which opens next Tuesday. [MCNY]

There were New York restaurants for vegetarians -- in the 1930s? [Ephemeral New York]

Music videos from the 1980s filmed in Greenwich Village. 'Nuff said. [Off The Grid]

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

As the High Line expands, return to a world without it


Above: Eleventh Avenue in 1911, pre-High Line. This photo disturbs me greatly. This is courtesy, of course, of Shorpy, so click in to admire (and cringe) at the detail. One loose horseshoe on a train track, and it's no longer pretty!

The High Line, an experimental and highly successful park using the elevated train tracks along the west side in the Meat Packing District, opens its second section tomorrow (June 8), allowing visitors to meander further north, from W. 20th Street to 30th Street.

These strange tracks, weaving around and sometimes straight through buildings, were constructed in the 1930s to essentially lift regular freight rails off the street. In the mid-19th century, westside freight trains were allowed to travel into the city, even as ordinances prevented passenger trains from going further than 42nd Street.

This created the famous legend of the far west side as 'Death Avenue', with steam engines plowing down the side of Manhattan, unconcerned with pedestrian or vehicular traffic.

Below: The scene along Tenth Avenue. Imagine trying to cross the street in this! (Picture courtesy Friends of the High Line)

Curiously, years before the elevated trail of railroad tracks was constructed, the New York Tribune tried to proclaim "DEATH AVENUE, NEW YORK'S SAFEST STREET" in August 28, 1921, although its tongue was mordantly in cheek..

Their reasoning was truly macabre. Thanks to the advent of streetcars and new motorized vehicles, so many more people died in accidents throughout the entire city that, by comparison, the fatalities along Death Avenue "seem mild by comparison."

As with many early newspaper articles, the author's morbid sarcasm is evident. It wasn't that Death Avenue became safer; it's that the rest of the city, in those early decades of automotives, became less so. Indeed, during the 1920s and 30s, it was routine to tally almost 1,000 pedestrian fatalities per year.  [Read the entire Tribune article here]

Below: The ludicrous illustration that accompanied the article

Although we don't talk about the High Line per se, you can visit a world of elevated tracks throughout Manhattan by checking out our podcast on New York's Elevated Railroad. [Download it from iTunes or from here.) I highly recommend you visit the Friends of the High Line for dozens of more old photographs of the line's early days.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Podcast Rewind: Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery


A special illustrated version of our podcast on Green-Wood Cemetery (Episode #64) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed. Just hit play and images of our topic will appear on any compatible media player.

If you're looking for a beautiful landscape of shaded hills and meandering paths, filled with classical architecture and populated with some of the greatest names in New York City history, look no further than Green-Wood Cemetery, once the most popular tourist destination in Brooklyn during the 19th century.

Green-Wood is one of New York's oldest gravesites, but its development reaches back all the way to the beginning of Brooklyn itself -- in fact, to Hezekiah Pierrepont, the founder of Brooklyn Heights. Find out why it took an inventive city planner with a funny name, a dead New York governor, and a few errant parakeets to make this place a beautiful, richly historical place to visit today.

Download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or you can listen to the cleaned up audio version (without visuals) right here: Green-Wood Cemetery



Original version released Oct. 3, 2008. Pictures above courtesy the Library of Congress

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Some Bowery Boys stats: Every place but New York

At some point in the next month or so, we will be celebrating the two millionth download of our Bowery Boys: New York History podcast. This is roughly speaking, as our first podcast host from 2007 (when we began) was a little non-specific with its stats.

We've grown to have thousands of regular listeners, and Tom and I are overwhelmed and extremely grateful to have you continue to listen in on our tales of the city.

One thing that may surprise you -- as it certainly suprised us -- is that a little under half of our listeners don't live in New York City, and a good portion (roughly 10-15%) don't even live in the United States.

So we extend a very hearty thank you to our international audience, near and far. Here are the top ten  countries, excluding the U.S. based on accumulated downloads over the years:

1 United Kingdom
2 Canada
3 Australia
4 Germany
5 Ireland
6 France
7 Netherlands
8 Japan
9 Italy
10 China

And let's not leave out our American listeners outside of New York state. Thanks for listening in as well!
1 California
2 Texas
3 New Jersey
4 Pennsylvania
5 Florida
6 Connecticut
7 Illinois
8 Virginia
9 Massachusetts
10 Ohio

(NOTE: For some reason, our second biggest state of listenship is something called 'Unknown'. So unless that's a 51st state that I haven't heard of, we've excused that data from the tally above.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tribute to a scrappy typewriter tower in lower Manhattan (yes, typewriters, remember those?)

I found this advertisement in an issue of the New York Tribune from one hundred years ago:


Although the famous Underwood Typewriter Company had principal manufacturing plants in Hartford, it was a New York company through and through. Its founder John Thomas Underwood became so wealthy that he built a stately home in the neighborhood of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Following his death in 1937, the estate was donated to the city and transformed into Underwood Park nearby Pratt Institute.

He desired a great skyscraper for his booming company, emulating those great towers built by industrialists like Frederick Bourne (of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and its companion Singer Building), and newspaper men like Joseph Pulitzer (who, after all, now used Underwood typewriters in their newsrooms at the mightt World Building on Park Row).

The Underwood building, at 30 Vesey Street, was designed by the firm of Starrett & Van Vleck, better known for their department stores than their skyscrapers. Their roster includes the flagship locations of Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylors. Looking up at all 17 floors of the Underwood Building, one can see some of its touches imitated in those more famous, accessible buildings.

The office building was quickly overshadowed just two years later by another skyscraper rising one block away, over three times larger than the Underwood and another great monument to industry -- the Woolworth Building.

Ladies, you'll be happy to know that a rest room facility has been placed on the ground floor of the Underwood, as of this 1918 trade-journal news clipping, where you can enjoy your lunch:



The article refers to "both buildings" of the Underwood Typewriter Company. By that time, they had expanded into a second office at Vesey and Greenwich streets. (That building no longer exists. I'm pretty sure it stood where 7 World Trade Center is today.)

The Underwood sustained serious damage during the attack upon the World Trade Center in 2001. But it still stands today, hovering over its old neighbor, St. Paul's Chapel, and greeting a new one, One World Trade Center, rising to its west.

Given that it stands on a heavily trafficked corner surrounded by greater tourist sites, most don't bother to give the Underwood its due. [Here's the Underwood on Google Maps.]

Below: the Underwood in 1911, photographed by noted city photographer Irving Underhill

MYSTERY! In the picture above, we see the south and west faces of the Underwood Building, the corner of Vesey and Church streets. (In the background you can see the Manhattan Municipal Building being constructed.) Today, across the street from the Underwood on the south side, is the famous St. Paul's Chapel cemetery. However, in the picture above, there is clearly a building sitting there, the one with the odd little turret! Any idea as to what that is?