Thursday, February 28, 2013

I've been out on jury duty yesterday so I haven't had time to write anything for the blog. However, emerging from the courtroom on the 21st floor of the Kings County courtroom on Jay Street, I was able to take a few pictures of the clouds rolling over Manhattan. It occurs to me how few times I've actually seen Brooklyn from above more than a few floors.

There's a black-and-white filter on the photo, of course, but the rest is Mother Nature!

Speaking of Brooklyn jury duty, it appears the former independent city once had a big problem getting smart people to show up for it back in 1868!  This article appears in the July 23, 1868 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The turtle cure: At the Waldorf-Astoria, a German doctor offers an unusual cure for tuberculosis

"I am here to show what the serum will do," said the visiting doctor from Berlin. "That is my only answer to those who have natural doubts before they have made observations."

Dr. Friedrich Franz Friedmann had come to New York in February 1913 to tackle one of the city's most persistent scourges upon its population.  Tuberculosis (or "consumption") had killed thousands during the 19th century and showed few signs of abating in the new century.  It was considered a "disease of the working class," ransacking neighborhoods of crowded tenements.  Hospitals on Blackwell's Island and others around the city were devoted solely to those afflicted by it.  Parents sent their children to open-air schools, inspiring all sorts of strange costume, anything to avoid the dread disease.

So one could imagine the excitement which greeted the visiting doctor, flown in from Berlin where he had announced his marvelous and unusual cure.  According to Friedman, a serum had been created taking a  sample of tubercule bacilli and "passing it through a turtle" in a laboratory, creating a non-virulent strain that could function as a vaccine.  Dr. Friedmann had come upon this discovery in 1902 while experimenting with turtles at the Berlin Zoo.

New Yorkers affected by the disease were anxious to see Dr. Friedmann's miracle serum. Wealthy banker Charles Finlay, president of Aetna National Bank, immediately sent for the doctor and conspicuously put him up at the Waldorf-Astoria at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, the finest hotel in New York.  The invitation also had a challenge attached -- if Dr. Friedmann could cure 95 out of a 100 patients (including Finlay's own son) using the turtle cure, he would be awarded one million dollars. (About $22 million in today's currency.)

Above: Dr. Friedmann leaving a New York hospital

Friedrich arrived on February 25 and readied his remedy from his room at the Waldorf. Meanwhile, hundreds of interested parties gathered in the lobby, including members of the press and desperate family members whose loved ones sat in tuberculosis hospitals.

Friedrich eventually rejected the million-dollar challenge -- 95 out of 100 is probably ambitious, even for an early vaccine people were confident with -- but came armed to the Waldorf with his little red box containing the vaccine and apparently a host of future plans, including the opening of a dispensary somewhere in the city.  As soon as the vaccine was thoroughly tested and approved, that is.

The doctor stayed in New York for several weeks but he was eventually ejected from the Waldorf.  Manager Oscar Tschirsky rightly feared the hotel would soon be filled with tuberculosis patients begging to be test subjects for the vaccine.  Soon after a near-riot erupted in the lobby, a sick man collapsed and was taken away in an ambulance.  The Waldorf evicted Dr. Friedmann on March 5th.  He then escaped to the equally tony Ansonia Hotel in the Upper West Side.

Friedmann's secretive activities soon caused great doubt in the city.  He administered the vaccine to a few patients from an office at W. 51st Street but no results were reported.  People quickly grew skeptical of this miracle cure.

The 'turtle man', as Friedmann was soon called in the press, soon became distracted by a  potential thief in his midst --  Dr. Maurice Sturm, the house physician at the Ansonia.  In May, Sterm claimed an improved version of the turtle vaccine, one he was eager to share with reporters (if not actually with patients).

Accused of outright stealing the vaccine, Dr. Sturm declared, "I do not care whether my name is smudged, if I can give the public the benefit of this discovery....I want the cure in proper hands."  Sturm then produced three turtles in a pail, one of which was named Friedrich Franz.

At hearing of Sturm's announcement, Dr. Friedmann reportedly replied, "Ach, Gott!" and threatened to sue the former Ansonia confidante.  Amazingly, Sturm eventually counter-sued, citing a lack of payment for services rendered to Dr. Friedmann.

Further pandemonium arrived on the RMS Mauretania on May 17th with another doctor who claimed an even more improved "turtle germ," using vastly superior turtles from South India.

Hyteria over all these turtle cures died down when it was quickly revealed that they didn't actually work. "POOR RESULTS FROM THE TURTLE GERM" declared the New York Tribune in late May.

Even still, Friedmann eventually cashed in, selling the American rights to the turtle vaccine for $125,000 and almost $1.8 million in stocks for a planned series of dispensaries in his name (which never materialized).  He died in Monte Carlo in 1953.  The most successful tuberculosis vaccine -- the BCG vaccine -- would not be tested on humans until after World War I.

Pictures courtesy Library of Congress

Friday, February 22, 2013

Midnight Cowboy: 25 fascinating, sleazy New York details, a celebration of 42nd Street from an X-rated Oscar winner

In 1970, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to an X-rated film set within the world of gritty, vice-riddled Times Square.

The central figures in that film -- 'Midnight Cowboy' directed by John Schlesinger-- were a clueless cowboy named Joe Buck (Jon Voight), clomping into New York with dreams of becoming a successful hustler, and the wheezing Enrico Rizzo or 'Ratso' (Dustin Hoffman), a con man with even bigger dreams of Florida sunshine.

There are few time capsules of New York's darker days quite as pleasurable as 'Midnight Cowboy'.  It's hardly as provocative as when it was released in May 1969, but its ragged edges have only become more remarkable to view as a piece of history, paying tribute to an era often romanticized today.

We know now that this is not as low as New York City would sink. The 1970s would bring further financial ruin and physical deterioration.

But 'Midnight Cowboy' is in no way sugar-coated, and for those who think they would prefer this New York over the overpriced, condo-centric Manhattan we live, work and play in today might do well to give this film a very close inspection.

Here are 25 fascinating facts and details from the film itself, some of them specific to individual shots in the film.  There are no major spoilers here, but you'll appreciate this more if you've at least seen the film once.

And 'Mad Men' fans, take note!  This season, which starts in April, is most likely set in 1968, around the time when this movie was filmed in New York City.  It would not be a stretch to see Don Draper or Peggy Olson somewhere in the background of certain scenes.

At the bottom is a Google map of some of the places mentioned in this article:

1. 'Midnight Cowboy' was shot in New York City during the spring and summer of 1968.  Inspired by the making of Schlesinger's film, Andy Warhol protege Joe Dallesandro starred in his own cowboy hustler movie called 'Flesh'. Given its micro-budget and cheap production values, the Dallesandro variant made it into theaters many months before 'Cowboy' did. (More on Warhol in a bit.)

2. As Buck heads into New York on a Luxury Liner bus, New Jersey is epitomized with a montage of tangled highways, roadside hotels and congestive industry.  Featured in this quick-cut of unpleasantness is the Seville Motel (in North Bergen), the Pitt-Consol Chemical Company in Newark, and of course Newark Airport.

 3. On the bus, Buck holds a radio to his ear and listens to the sunny voice of Ron Lundy from WABC, 770 on the AM dial.  'Midnight Cowboy' features many iconic images and names which would disappear in the 1970s, but Lundy's career was just taking off, soothing the anxieties of New York commuters well into the 1990s.   If you stuck around listening to 770 that particular day, you'd also be likely to hear another famous broadcaster -- Howard Cosell.

 4. For the first third of the film, Joe Buck resides at the Hotel Claridge at Broadway and 44th Street.  Back in the 1910s, this might have been considered the heart of New York culture, as Rector's Restaurant, the ultimate lobster palace, resided on the first floor.  The Claridge was demolished in the early 1970s.  Today, ABC broadcasts Good Morning America and other programming from this site.

 Joe buys a copy of the postcard (at left) to send back home, indicating with an arrow what floor he's on. He eventually rips it up. (Pic courtesy Postcard Attic)

5. The cowboy strolls through the streets of Midtown, stunned and confused by the rhythms of city life.  His Texan gait and cowboy flair stands apart from the life of Fifth Avenue.  Along the way you can spot some places that are still around (like the Swiss National Tourist Office at W. 49th Street) and some long gone, such as the children's clothing retail Best & Company at W. 51st Street, torn down in the 1970s and replaced with the Olympic Tower.

Joe finishes his tour of Fifth Avenue with a stop at Tiffany's & Co., ogling a lady as she ogles a piece of jewelry behind the window.  The 1960s began with the site used in the film 'Breakfast At Tiffany's'.  You could spend an hour comparing and contrasting the characters of Joe Buck and Holly Golightly.  Both characters maneuver through New York nightlife using their sexual wiles.

Below: Buck stands flummoxed in front of a man lying on the sidewalk, more confused perhaps of the reactions of others walking by. (Courtesy On The Set of New York)

6. The naive Buck looks for prospective clients along Park Avenue, stopping older women with his silly line, "I'm looking for the Statue of Liberty."  (He clearly saw it on his way into Manhattan.)  One lady suggests taking the "7th Avenue Subway" (today's 1-2-3 train) before catching on and escaping to her home at 117 East 70th Street.

The exterior of this luxurious townhouse in Lenox Hill sends Joe into one of his many gauzy fantasies.  This house, built in 1931, is situated along Millionaire's Row and was built by Frederick Rhinelander King, who worked at the firm McKim, Mead & White.  Today the building holds the headquarters of the Harambee USA Foundation, an African relief organization.

7. Joe finally gets lucky (relatively speaking) when he meets a socialite played by Sylvia Miles, who invites him up to her apartment at 114 East 72nd Street.  He's rebuffed when he eventually gets around to asking for money.  "Who do you think you're dealing with, some old slut on 42nd Street?!"  Unlike the previous townhouse, this apartment building was only a few years old when it was notoriously used as the location of Buck's first New York hookup.  A few years after 'Midnight Cowboy' was released, this building became a co-op.

8. The Mutual of New York building at 1740 Broadway makes regular appearances throughout the film, as much for its glowing MONY sign as for the Weather Star atop the building, alerting midtown Manhattan of the time and temperature.  The ubiquitous timepiece -- in 7,344-point Futura, for you font buffs -- first made its appearance in the 1950s.  The sign comes up in a gag later in the film involving a drug-induced Scribbage game.

(Courtesy the New York Times, via Official Guide New York World’s Fair, 1964/1965)

9. 'Midnight Cowboy' is rather ambivalent on the subject of gay people.  While out and confident gay people are seen along the fringes, the film mostly focuses on those who troll 42nd Street and are generally ashamed or guilt-ridden by their actions.  It does make for an intriguing time capsule, as literally one month after the film's release came the riots and gatherings outside Stonewall bar in the West Village.

10. Buck meets Rizzo (aka Ratzo) at a midtown bar, and the nervous, chronically ill grifter takes on the cowboy as a client.  The movie's most famous line was delivered as Hoffman and Voight are crossing 58th Street at Sixth Avenue.


11. Rizzo and Buck continue their stroll back over to Fifth Avenue and the Plaza Hotel.  Rizzo briefly commiserates with a carriage horse before heading over to a spectacular row of green phone booths, similar to design as the one at right (courtesy Forgotten New York).   These green phone booths must have been quickly replaced in the 1970s with the more familiar silver booths.

'Midnight Cowboy' is a celebration of old New York phone booths, which sadly dwindled in number starting in the 1980s.  For that loss, we're sorry, Clark Kent.

12. After Rizzo abandons Buck with a crazed preacher, the cowboy lapses into a black-and-white fantasy sequence, chasing Rizzo down into the subway.  Rizzo is seen riding away on an F train, specifically the R40 style subway car.  These would become very popular with graffiti artists and most associated with New York's rundown transportation system.  What you're seeing in the film, however, is a new car, as they entered service in 1968.

13. One of two memorable Times Square signs in the movie is the one hanging outside Buck's hotel window for Haig's Whiskey.  While the sign proclaims 'Haig's for Today's Taste', its  more popular slogan was 'Don't Be Vague'.  A picture of the Times Square sign, below, is from 1970, astride one of Times Square's most famous signs for Bond Clothing Stores. (Courtesy Skyscraper City)

14. Ah, 42nd Street!  The bright illuminated marquees, the all-night shops, the weird and dangerous street scenes, the alternative world that it offers in 'Midnight Cowboy'.  Among the many prurient delights seen in the background is the great old Hubert's Museum, a classic old dime museum that held on even as the culture around it became debauched and seedy.

The museum closed the year after it was featured in the film, becoming, like so many places along 42nd Street, a peepshow.  You can find some incredible pictures of Hubert's here.

It's around this spot that Buck is picked up by his first male client, played by a young Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Best In Show).  While portrayed as a skiddish, quiet boy, today his character looks more like the hipster lead singer of a Brooklyn rock band. (Below, in an official press image)

15. Buck emerges from an all-night movie theater and wanders down 42nd Street early the next morning.  Among the many films advertised on the row of marquees is one with a most arresting title -- The Twisted Sex.  The sexploitation flick was made in 1966 by Chancellor Films, famous for all sorts of naughty pictures, including 'Fanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico', 'The Diary of Knockers McCalla', 'Animal Love' and 'Sex Cures The Crazy'.

16. Buck chases down Rizzo at a diner on the Upper East Side.  They argue and turn the corner to reveal the Hotel Kimberly for 'transients'.  This is NOT the Kimberly Hotel in Times Square, a far classier joint.  This Kimberly was located at Broadway and 74th Street, which becomes obvious when you see the exterior of the Apple Bank Building in a cross shot.

The Hotel Kimberly had once been a rather fabulous hotel in the 1930s-40s. In fact, a young Lucille Ball lived here in 1931! (Image courtesy Pay Phone News)

17. Rizzo takes Buck back to his place, not the "Sherry Netherlands" [sic] that he claims earlier in the film, but in a rundown East Village tenement, presumably on its way toward demolition.  Although I do not know the specific address, these scenes are memorable for perhaps being the first time Lower East Side squatting is featured in a Hollywood film!

18. Rizzo decides Buck needs to score clients the old-fashioned way -- by stealing them from other men. They visit The Perfect Gentleman Escort Service  -- "endorsed by leading travel agencies and credit clubs" and probably in no way disreputable -- and snag an address where a potential client awaits at the Hotel Berkley.

The Berkley is a women's hotel, "a whole goddamn hotel with nothin' but lonely ladies," as Rizzo indelicately describes.  That is one of the few places in 'Midnight Cowboy' that does not exist.  The Gotham Hotel, at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, stood in for this fictional haven.  Today, you may know it better as The Peninsula.  

Above: 42nd Street in 1975, a strip of movie palaces for exploitation films (Courtesy Temple of Schlock)

19. The second notable Times Square signage gets a few seconds of glory at this point -- the Gillette Right Guard sign, dispensing a steam of aerosol into the street.  The steam effect was another iteration of creativity began in 1933 with the A&P 8 O'Clock Coffee cup.

20. Desperate for money, Buck resorts to selling plasma at a midtown blood bank.  I can only recoil in horror at the sorts who frequented this place in the late 1960s, looking for extra money.  I'm not sure of the exact address of the neon-advertised blood bank featured in the film, but it's possibly the one featured in this picture, located over on Eighth Avenue. (Courtesy Christian Montone/Flickr)

21. In a refreshing break from Manhattan, the duo are seen walking all the way to Queens to visit the grave of Rizzo's father at Calvary Cemetery.  Rising in the distance you can see the Kosciuszko Bridge.  A few years later this same cemetery would be used in 'The Godfather'.  (Below the scene from Calvary, courtesy DVD Beaver)

22.  Rizzo and Buck are talking in a diner when a strange duo enter, snap Buck's picture and hand him a flyer to a mysterious party, located "at Broadway and Harmony Lane," another false address designed for the film.  Rizzo is incredulous and possibly jealous.  "Where does it tell you to go? Klein's bargain basement?"  This is a reference the famous discount clothier S. Klein, and in particular to their location off Union Square.

The store typified the square's general fall from grace as a place of high-end retail.  S. Klein would remain open until 1976. (Below: Klein's being being demolished in 1978, pic courtesy Forgotten NY)

23. They eventually go to the strange party -- or should I say 'happening' -- of Hansel and Gretel Mac Albertson.  "Flesh and blood and smoke will be served after midnight," according to the flyer.  The party style and decor is heavily influenced by Andy Warhol's own psychedelic events, and there's a glimmer of The Electric Circus in the set design. If that wasn't enough, Warhol acolytes Viva, Ondine and Ultra Violet make brief appearances.

Warhol was asked to participate in the film, but declined.  In June 1968, as 'Midnight Cowboy' was wrapping up filming, Warhol was shot by Valerie Solonas.

24. Buck's last desperate trick involves an out-of-towner he picks up at a midtown arcade. (This might even be the arcade in question.)  Later, we see the pair up on 49th Street, turning the corner to be greeted with the facade -- of Colony Records!  The classic music store was located in the Brill Building and had remained a surviving relic of midtown's popular music glory days, right up until its closure last year.

25. Finally, that omnipresent song!  Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talkin'' is probably one of the most famous pop songs to ever be featured in a motion picture, its ease and flowing charms compatible with Joe Buck's carefree attitude.  But if the artist had had his way, another song would have been used -- "I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City."  You can give it a listen here. Which do you prefer?

Here's a map of some of the places from 'Midnight Cowboy' mentioned in the article above. I'm absolutely positive a couple places may be off -- and a few are speculations, based on clues in the film. If you have any further information, please email me!
View Midnight Cowboy: The Map in a larger map

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Broadway Melody: New York's first Oscar victory and an ironic success for the Astor Theatre in Times Square

The second film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture was hardly a movie at all.

'The Broadway Melody', a frothy Hollywood revue about the mounting of an frothy Broadway revue, was a total celebration of every strength and weakness of the early Broadway stage, and a hopeful sign that the New York entertainment world would still wield some influence over its West Coast counterpart.

"Before an enthusiastic throng there was launched last night at the Astor Theatre a talking picture teeming with the vernacular of the bright lights and back-stage argot," began the New York Times' original review by Mordaunt Hall, when the movie opened on February 8, 1929.

One of the first-ever movie musicals, 'Broadway' was, of course, not filmed on Broadway, but in Hollywood, on an MGM soundstage.  Even when movies were regularly filmed in New York in the early years, they were rarely filmed on an actual Broadway stage.

But the movie's opening shot is within an office on Tin Pan Alley, that sector of songwriters at 28th Street and Broadway who changed American pop music.  The melody of the film's title is delivered to Zanfield (a thinly disguised Florenz Ziegfeld) who uses it as a vehicle to make stars out of a couple freshfaced sisters.

The puffy love triangle at the heart of 'The Broadway Melody' is merely an excuse to launch various musical numbers in the vaudeville-variety style.  The movie was produced at astonishing speeds; filming began in October 1928 and was ready for its two-city premiere (Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, the Astor Theatre in New York) by early February.

The Astor Theatre, in Times Square at Broadway and 45th Street, played host to 'The Broadway Melody' for an entire year.  Some might have thought that deeply ironic, as the Astor had once been a legitimate stage that permanently switched to motion pictures in 1925.  And with great success it was now exhibiting a motion picture about the legitimate stage.

Below: The Astor Theatre in 1936, exhibiting another Broadway-themed film that would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture --  The Great Ziegfeld (Courtesy LOC)

It's been claimed that the film was made by MGM's Irving Thalberg on a suggestion from the owner of the Capitol Theatre, up the street from the Astor.  If so, its debut here must have been a real slap in the face!

In this tenuous day of movie sound, many were unsure people a film with music would work.  "Although the audible devices worked exceedingly well in most instances," Hall continued in his review, "it is questionable whether it would not have been wiser to leave some of the voices to the imagination, or, at least to have refrained from having a pretty girl volleying slang at her colleagues."

Audience members, especially those in the Astor's $2 reserved seats, were rapturous for it.  "'Broadway Melody' has everything a silent picture should have outside of its dialog," praised Variety in 1929.  A basic story with some sense to it, action, excellent direction, laughs, a tear, a couple of great performances and plenty of sex....It's perfectly set at the Astor.  And will it get dough around the country. Plenty."

At right: Anita Page, one of the stars of 'The Broadway Melody', from Flushing, Queens!

The very first Academy Awards the previous year had rewarded serious fare -- and all silent.  The first Best Picture winner, 'Wings', had also been a big box office hit in New York, making its debut in August 1927 at the Criterion Theater, just one block away from the Astor!

But Oscar voters went carefree for their second Best Picture winner. Additionally, 'The Broadway Melody' became the first sound picture to be awarded the Best Picture Oscar. And the first of a great many to find inspiration in that great big city on the opposite coast.

It would also introduce a lasting connection between the movies and stage musicals, a connection that still lasts today with the Oscar-nominated 'Les Miserables', which had its Broadway debut on March 12, 1987 at the Broadway Theatre (Broadway and 53rd Street).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The curious tale behind the first film ever made in Brooklyn

Millions and millions of hours of television and film have been made within the five boroughs since the invention of the camera.  But have you ever wondered where the very first roll of film was ever shot?

That distinction most likely goes to a nondescript rooftop studio built atop a building at 1729 St. Marks Avenue in Brooklyn.  Of course in 1894, Brooklyn wasn't yet a borough of New York proper, but would be within five years.  So I think it's fair to grant it the title of New York's first ever film shoot, or at very least, Brooklyn's first movie.

The idea of moving pictures was barely a decade old by then, still very experimental and produced under controlled environments.  Europeans like Eadweard Muybridge had already captured the movements of animals by the early 1890s, and the Lumieres Brothers would have completed the development of the cinematograph, the first successful motion picture camera to gain widespread acceptance in Europe.

In America, engineers working for Thomas Edison began experimenting with film devices as early as the late 1880s out in his Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey.  It was William Kennedy Dickson's work for Edison which produced the Kinetoscope, a cabinet peep-show where a rapid flipping of cards created instant movement.  An observer would hunch over the box, looking into a view-finder to witness the amazing visual trick contained inside.

In 1893, a completed Kinetoscope made its debut to the world at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (the precursor to the Brooklyn Museum).  Observers there were treated to the very first American film, Blacksmith Scene.

Above: A poster for a series of Edison kinetoscope films, including a boxing movie or 'Fight Picture' (Courtesy LOC)

But that's not Brooklyn's only stake in early American film history, thanks in part to another of Edison's employees named Charles E. Chinnock.

The London-born inventor came to Edison as a telephone electrician and soon moved on to work on other key projects, including the lighting of lower Manhattan via the Pearl Street Station in 1882.  Chinnock excelled so ably at his management of the station that, as legend has it, Edison paid him a bonus of $10,000 right from his own pocket.  As the electrical grid expanded throughout Manhattan and into the future boroughs, Chinnock was put in charge of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn, preparing Brooklyn for its own electrical lighting grid.

Like so many of Edison's employees, Chinnock fell out with the inventor-mogul and left to pursue his own electronic concerns, including the creation of his very own version of the Kinetoscope.  In fact, Chinnock would be a minor competitor of Edison's for the New York Kinetoscope market in the 1890s.  While Edison would strike first, Chinnock's machines would eventually grace the saloons of Coney Island and the lobby of the Eden Musee on 23rd Street in Manhattan.

So obviously, Chinnock would need his own films to exhibit, as Edison would certainly not give permission for his.  Chinnock lived in Brooklyn at this time -- in a townhouse at Sixth Avenue and St. John's Place in Park Slope -- so it would make sense that his own makeshift film studio would be nearby.

At right: One of Edison's kinetoscopes. Chinnock's would have looked quite similar.

In November of 1894, Chinnock began making films for his own version of the Kinetoscope.  The place was a rooftop at 1729 St. Mark's Avenue, a couple miles east from his home, at the edge of today's neighborhood of East New York.

Chinnock's rooftop studio was probably similar to Edison's Black Maria, a small black-walled room built to capture as much natural light as possible. The filming space was very small and could accommodate only a couple subjects.  For this reason, boxing became a popular subject of early films because it was compact, thrilling, full of movement and -- for its day -- rather bawdy.

Edison has already filmed a boxing match, so Chinnock decided to do the same.  Two boxers unknown today in the annals of sport -- James W. Lahey and Chinnock's own nephew Robert T. Moore -- were chosen to compete, and their battle was captured sometime that November in 1894.  The film would have been quickly produced and distributed to Kinetoscope operators.

No copies of the Moore-Lahey faceoff exist today. However, this Edison film featuring the Glenroy Brothers was made just a couple months prior to Chinnock's old film, so this gives you a good idea of what it could have looked like:

Chinnock continued to rip off Edison films, with his own blacksmith scene, a few dancing girls and even a cock fight.

A few months later, the Latham Brothers, another competitor of Edison's, filmed another boxing match between Young Griffo and Battling Charles Barnett at Madison Square Garden.  This movie holds the distinction of being the first film projected for a paying audience vs. Chinnock's the soon-to-be-unfashionable kinetoscope.

Chinnock, of course, is no household name.  He was eventually run out of the film business by Edison and others.  He died in his Park Slope home in 1915.

Chinnock's real failure may have been a simple one -- instead of humans boxing, he should have had cats do it.  Just a few months before Chinnock put his nephew in the ring, Edison placed two cats in a ring against each other at the Black Maria studio, in what must certainly be the world's first LOLCATS video.

In fact, these two were a popular vaudeville act of the day -- Professor Welton's Boxing Cats, named Corbett and Mitchell.

For more on this era of film history in New York City, check out our 2010 podcast NYC and the Birth of the Movies

Chinnock picture courtesy Victorian Cinema

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A film milestone in New York, 1913, but sadly out of sync

 The future (almost): Edison's kinetophone system

On February 17, 1913, on the day that the Armory Show was preparing to reinvent American art, Thomas Edison was attempting a revolution of his own for the young moving pictures industry.

On that date, he debuted a new projection system called the kinetophone in four vaudeville houses in New York owned by impressarios B.F. Keith and Edward Albee -- Proctor's Fifth Avenue (at Broadway and W. 28th Street), the Union Square Theater, the Colonial Theatre in Columbus Circle, and the Alhambra in Harlem.

Previously, his workshops' greatest film accomplishment had been a standing box which viewers peered into, but with the rise of the nickelodeon -- featuring a string of silent short films upon a screen in front of an audience -- projected film was quickly becoming the preferred method of watching moving pictures.

With the Edison kinetophone, a projecter and a phonograph were linked together with a complicated belt and pulley system.  In theory, it was the next step in the evolution in film.

The two-reel menu at the four New York theaters began with a demonstration film introducing the kinetophone technology.  According to the Sun, "Dogs called before the camera bark at the proper time; a falling plate smashes not a second too late; and 'The Last Rose of Summer', sung with a violin obligato and piano accompaniment, indicated the perfection of the invention."

The second reel was all song and dance -- a minstrel act, followed by a rollicking version of the Star Spangled Banner!

Audiences loved it, applauding after each sound cue as though it were a live performance.  The kinetophone was soon placed onto the schedules of many vaudeville houses, slipped between live comedy and musical acts.  Newspapers soon speculated at its potential for broadcasting lectures to rural communities and political campaigning. (Few were thinking narrative fiction at this time.)

So why didn't this start a movement for sound films? Why did it take another fourteen years for The Jazz Singer -- the first movie with synchronized dialogue -- to debut, ushering in the true era of modern movies?

Because the kinetophone required alert projectionists to keep the sound and image perfectly in-synced. Within a couple weeks, unskilled operators were playing both at varying rates, creating an unwatchable mess of out-of-sync music and dialogue.  At the Union Square Theater, audiences were prone to booing and walking out during the kinetophone section, and it was soon eliminated.

Perhaps Edison's team in West Orange, New Jersey, would have worked to improve this technology, but the following year, his factory there burned to the ground, and all production of the kinetophone ceased shortly after.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Six ways to celebrate 100th anniversary of the Armory Show this weekend

A study in madness:  a view inside one room of the 1913 Armory Show

This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art -- aka, the Armory Show of 1913 -- which stunned New Yorkers and revolutionized the direction of American art in the 20th century.

So on top of celebrating Presidents Day weekend, add a little art to your agenda this week! Some ways to celebrate across the country

1  "Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York features many works that were displayed at the Armory Show, including the powerful "Dances at the Spring" by Frances Picabia.  The show will be open a few more weeks.

2  The 69th Regiment Armory at 68 Lexington Avenue is where the lunacy took place, so walk by and imagine the rows of limos and carriages and the throngs of shocked art enthusiasts spilling out on to the street.

3  For a new show focused specifically on the Armory Show, take a short ride to the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ, for their new show "The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show 1913" which celebrates some of the American stars who participated in the show, including John Marin and Robert Henri. According to their website, Edward Hopper will also be featured, so I assume they will have his little sailboat.

4  The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the permanent home of the Armory Show's most notorious entrant -- "Nude Descending A Staircase, No. 2" by Marcel Duchamp -- and I assume it's still there confusing audiences, if it hasn't been loaned out.

5  A new documentary about Marcel Duchamp's participation in the Armory Show makes its debut this Sunday in Provincetown, MA, at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.  The film was made by Richard N. Miller, who worked with Duchamp during a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Armory Show. If you're in Cape Cod and want to check it out, visit their website for more information.

6 But the easiest thing to do is simply listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on the Armory Show! Download it for free on iTunes, find it on Stitcher, or click this link to listen to it on the original blog page. Art Insanity: The elegant audacity of the Armory Show of 1913, the daring exhibit that awed and outraged America

What if? Meteors over Manhattan, 1922

In 1922, the New York Tribune envisioned what it would be like if a meteor hit downtown Manhattan. 

The article is a real scare piece on the potential of meteors destroying life on Earth.  It references the American Museum of Natural History's own meteor, Ahnighito, brought to the institution by Robert Peary in 1904.  As I mentioned in my post from 2010, that famous rock was of no particular threat and in fact was itself pummeled by the jackknifes of rowdy young children.

"Ahnighito ... had it reached Earth this year instead of ten thousand or more might have shattered the Woolworth Building," writes Boyden Sparkes in the Tribune article.

Unfortunately, as you've probably noticed, this image also accidentally recalls other, more recent tragedies. You can find the original image at the Library of Congress (read it here)

Just in case you think the recent meteor in Russia is somehow an aberration and a true sign of the times, you should remember that meteors have already landed much closer to home  here.   For instance, in 1922, a meteor almost crashed into Asbury Park, NJ!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Whip it! Early Valentine's Day custom in old New York involved public displays of flirtatious flagellation

In old New York, there was a curious Valentine's Day custom involving young women running around town whipping men with rope.

Yes, you read that correctly.  This form of socially acceptable violence was popular in the colonial era and extended well into the early 1800s.  It derives from a tradition practiced as part of an early Dutch holiday known as Vrowen Dagh* (or Woman's Day) and was likely popular among the young ladies of New Amsterdam, New York's precursor.

According to the 1850 history 'Rural Hours' written by Susan Fenimore Cooper (daughter of James), "[e]very mother's daughter ... was furnished with a piece of cord, the size neither too large or too small" and fitted with a "due length left to serve as a lash."  Cooper elaborates on this playfully violent custom:

"On the morning's of this Vrowen Dagh, the little girls -- and some large ones, too, probably for the fun of the thing -- sallied out, armed with such a cord, and every luckless wight of a lad that was met received three or four strokes from this feminine lash."

Young men of marrying age dashed from place to place, fearful of being flirtatiously struck in this whirlwind of flying rope.

At left: Woman with a whip, 1780

"Every lad whom they met was sure to have three or four smart strokes from the cord bestowed on his shoulders," writer Gabriel Furman recalled in 1875.  "These, we presume, were in those days considered as 'love-taps', and in that light answered all the purposes of the 'valentine' of more modern times, as the lasses were not very likely to favor those with their lashes whom they did not otherwise prefer."

There obviously seems to be some statement about domestic violence in this practice.  At one point, injured males suggested the following day be a "Men's Day," allowing men to chase women around with these braided whips.  But they were told "the law would thereby defeat its very own purpose, which was, that they should, at an age and in a way most likely never to forget it, receive the lesson of manliness -- he is never to strike." [source]

At some point in New York, this custom actually did blend with the English custom of Valentine's Day, and young women of the colonial era continued enjoying this frivolous custom -- in fact, well into the early 1800s.  It blessedly vanished by the mid-19th century, replaced with the more recognizable gesture of sending valentines through the mail.

"We heard that 20,000 [valentines] passed through the New  York office last year," Cooper writes in 1850.  But it seems the writer had grown tired of even this custom. "They are going out of favor now, however, having been much abused of late years."

*I think the actual Dutch word would be Vrouwendag but I'm preserving the original spelling from Fenmore and Furman's text. An 1832 Dutch dictionary says Vrouwendag means 'Lady Day'!

Vintage valentine and whip lady courtesy New York Public Library

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"The First Dandelion" and Walt Whitman's very bad timing

In 1888, the New York Herald ran this poem by the great Walt Whitman:

                                         The First Dandelion

                                         Simple and fresh and fair from winter's close 
                                        As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, 
                                                   had ever been, 
                                       Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass— 
                                                  innocent, golden, calm as the dawn, 
                                      The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful 

Whitman was a living legend by this point.  The infirm 78-year old writer lived in Camden, New Jersey, and rarely left his home.  His most notable appearance in New York the previous year had been as a lecturer at the Madison Square Theater, discussing the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to an audience which included Mark Twain and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

A poem by Whitman would have been reason alone to buy an edition of the New York Herald. And indeed, as the Herald's 'poet laureate', several of his most notable works had debuted there.  "Mannahatta," for instance, debuted in the Herald on February 27 that year.

At right: Walt Whitman in 1887, taken in New York by George C. Cox

Unfortunately, "The First Dandelion," a little ode to the coming spring, ran on March 12, 1888, the worst day of the Blizzard of 1888, a day when several feet of show and deathly winds were making the American northeast a very unpleasant place to be. The poem "made its appearance at a most unfortunate time," said the journal Illustrated American in 1892.

Nobody wanted to read about a gentle dandelion that day.  And in proceeding issues of the Herald, the poem was roundly mocked with parody verse.  Two days later, ran a verse below, signed simply "After Walt Whitman."

                                     The First Blizzard

                                     Simple and fresh and fierce, from Winter's close 
                                    As if no artifice of summer, business, politics 
                                         had ever been, 
                                   Forth from its snowy nook of shivering glaciers-- 
                                        innocent, silver, pale as the dawn, 
                                  The Spring's first blizzard shows its wryful 

Not quite finished, the Herald ran another mocking poem the following day:

                                  Served Him Right

                                  The poet began an ode to Spring--
                                 "Hail, lusty March! Thy airs inspire
                                 My muse of flowers and love to sing--"
                                 And then the blizzard struck the lyre

Neither the Herald nor its readership held it against Whitman personally. Four days later, the paper published "The Wallabout Martyrs," his tribute to those held capture aboard prison ships during the Revolutionary War.

And the reputation of "The First Dandelion" was saved when it appeared in the 'deathbed' edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, where its beauty was better appreciated.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Frozen in time: The Blizzard of 1888 knocks New York City off its feet, creating the deadliest commute in history

In the blizzard of 1888, the streets disappeared and the snow came down almost horizontally. Imagine being trapped at work, several miles from your home. This was the plight experienced by thousands of New Yorkers (and others throughout the northeast) that Monday. (Library of Congress)

PODCAST This year is the 125th anniversary of one of the worst storms to ever wreak havoc upon New York City, the now-legendary mix of wind and snow called the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Its memory was again conjured up a few months ago as people struggled to compare Hurricane Sandy with some devastating event in New York's past.  And indeed, the Blizzard and Sandy have several disturbing similarities.  But the battering snow-hurricane of 1888, with freezing temperatures and drifts three stories high, was made worse by the condition of New York's transportation and communication systems, all completely unprepared for 36 hours of continual snow.

The storm struck in the early hours of Monday, and many thousands attempted to make their way to work, not knowing how severe the storm would be.  It would be the worst commute in New York City history!  Fallen telephone and telegraph poles became a hidden threat under the quickly accumulating drifts.

Elevated trains were frozen in place, their passengers unable to get out for hours.  Many died simply trying to make their way back home on foot, including Roscoe Conkling (at right), a power broker of New York's Republican Party.

But there were moments of amusement too. Saloons thrived, and actors trudged through to the snow in time for their performances,  And for P.T. Barnum, the show must always go on!

STARRING: Hugh Grant (although maybe not the one you're thinking)

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: The Great Blizzard of 1888

NOTE:  And, yes, we can't believe the timing of this one, releasing on the same date of an ACTUAL blizzard.  We really had this one planned for awhile, delayed it a bit because it seemed too eerie to do it so close after Hurricane Sandy.

So if you're in New York or the northeast United States, stay inside, stay safe and let this podcast be the only dangerous snow drifts you experience this week!


Why did the 1888 blizzard become such a hazard for New Yorkers? Let this picture be your first clue. The city was a cobweb of elevated telegraph, telephone and electric wires.  This picture is from 1887. (LOC)

One example of a terrible (although minor) snow drift that might have kept this family in their home all day.  Because of the unpredictable changes in wind, some houses might have been drift-free, while others close by completely locked in with snow. (LOC)

George Washington at the Sub-Treasury Building (today Federal Hall). I ran this photo a few weeks ago, but it's so bizarre that I think it needs a second posting.

The Brooklyn Bridge, not even five years old, weathered the winds quite well, but became a hazard due to ice. In this picture, people are crossing over as there was no other way to get between Manhattan and Brooklyn.  It's not clear if any of the trains are operating in this picture.

The biggest danger for those venturing outside were the hundreds of downed telegraph, telephone and electrical poles, no match for the intense gusts.  The poles would quickly fall then get covered with snow, creating deadly hazards for people walking past.  The snow would just as quickly cover over an unconscious individual; many New Yorkers froze to death when they fell and were instantly shrouded.

Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He did not survive the blizzard. (NYHS)

Transportation in and out of the city was at a complete standstill for half the week.  Here workers frantically try to clear the way for trains going into Grand Central Depot.

Clean-up was truly chaotic, a feeble effort by the city paired with private contractors with horses, shovels and carts. The piles of snow were taken to water's edge and dumped, or, in a few less preferred cases, people just started bonfires and melted it away. (For a great picture of a snow dump in the river, see this photo at Shorpy of a blizzard from 1899.) Top pic courtesy LOC, at bottom Maggie Blanck.

The cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, usually one of the more sensational pieces of journalism people might have found at their newsstand.