Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The real 'Ghostbusters': 25 spooky, historical New York facts about 1984's slimiest supernatural comedy


Malevolent entities and pretty special effects drape themselves over New York City.

I have gained an incredible appreciation for the Ivan Reitman-directed horror comedy Ghostbusters ever since we started recording ghost-story podcasts seven years ago.

This goofy, supernatural tale starring Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson was one of the biggest hits of 1984, a rare blend of wry comedy, special effects and spectacular New York City landscapes.  Despite its preposterous premise -- that ghosts look either like oozing fat blobs or Sheena Easton-ish supermodels -- the film flawlessly displays the easy comic talents of its stars and reveals a New York City with only monsters as its greatest threat.

But in looking over old tales of mediums, haunted houses and ancient legends for our annual Halloween podcasts, I realized there was a very broad, but legitimate basis of historical spiritual skepticism behind this story, written by Ackroyd and Ramis.  There have been both believers and cynics from New York history who have attempted to prove the existence of supernatural forces and have even tried to purge them from the city.

From there, I took a deeper look into the historical people, places and events depicted in the film, if not only to find evidence of New York's ghostbusting forefathers, then at least to enjoy the pop culture references of the early 1980s.  Ghostbusters was a mainstream offering, so it goes very light on its urban commentary of a city picking itself up out of withering debt.  Its ghosts are quite democratic, in fact, terrorizing libraries, public places, ethnic neighborhoods and wealthy condominiums alike.

Here are 25 fascinating pieces of trivia about Ghostbusters, putting the film within the context of New York City history.  Obviously there are a ton of spoilers here, in case you haven't yet seen it.  But hopefully I'm giving you a good excuse to catch on television this Halloween!






1)  Ghostbusters is set in 1984, late October-early November, judging from the dates on newspapers and magazines which appear midway through the film.  But the film's release date was in June 1984, so technically the film documents future events.

The appearance of Sumerian gods on the Upper West Side and a team of wise-cracking ghost exterminators certainly would have been the top story of the year.  Real life is not as magical.  The big story in New York City that year came over a month later, when Bernhard Goetz shot four men who tried to mug him in the subway.



2) The New York Public Library, setting for the delightfully shushy spectre in the opening scene, may actually be haunted.  After all, it sits on land that was once a burial ground.

According to historian Charles Hemstreet, writing in 1899, "The ground between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Fortieth and Forty-second Streets, now occupied by Bryant Park and the old reservoir, was purchased by the city in 1822, and in 1823, a potter's field was established there, the one in Washington Square having been abandoned in its favor."

By the way, the two lions (named Patience and Fortitude) are prominently featured in the opening, a sly parallel to the stone monsters which will appear later.

3) Our ghostbusting heroes are originally located at Columbia University, in Weaver Hall (actually Havemeyer Hall).  Although there is no actual department of paranormal psychology, Columbia does have a connection to one of New York's earliest institutes of paranormal study.

The American Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1884 -- exactly one century before Ghostbusters -- as a legitimate organization looking to separate spiritualist quacks from actual supernatural phenomena.

Its most prominent leader was James H. Hyslop (at right), a former professor of ethics and logic at Columbia University.  His early studies read like a jazz-age X-Files, investigating ghosts, spiritual possession and a strange variety of mental abilities.  (We speak of Hyslop in two of our old ghost story podcasts, investigating a case of spiritual harassment and contact via a Ouija board.)

4) While no hauntings are actually displayed at Columbia University in the film, they certainly could have been.  The campus is located on the site of old Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, where more than a few mentally disturbed individuals met their end.  Columbia bought the facility in the 1880s and demolished most of it to make way for their McKim, Mead and White-designed campus.  But one structure still remains -- the Macy Villa, a home for mentally-troubled rich gentlemen, in today's Buell Hall, home of La Maison Francaise.

5) The deck of cards used by Dr. Venkman (Bill Murray) to test the telepathic abilities of his patients (and to flirt with the pretty blonde) are called Zener cards, invented by Karl Zener and J. B. Rhine, who was inspired to enter psychical research after listening to a lecture by author and paranormal cheerleader Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In 1980, the New York Times printed a set of Zener cards in its January 29, 1980 edition. "The reader may judge for themselves."



6)  Dr. Venkman's continued skepticism gives Murray a host of excuses to stare at the camera and mug sardonic.  But his character probably has the most in common with New York's original ghostbusters, especially adventurer and conjurer Joseph Rinn.  He and his childhood friend Harry Houdini basked in debunking frauds while keeping alive the illusion of magic and mystery for their acts.  Rinn most famously held a demonstration at Carnegie Hall where he taunted mediums and mystics to exercise their powers for a prize pot of $10,000.  Nobody ever won the money.

7) Manhattan City Bank, depicted in the film, is not real.  Coincidentally, the scene was filmed at another bank directly across the street from the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue/41st Street.  In fact, you can still see the library scaffolding to the left.

What was the scaffolding for?  In 1982, the library embarked a $20 million renovation project.  It's difficult to imagine today, but this classic New York institution had been badly abused over the years.  The 1982 renovation was meant to return the building to its original glory. "It is a restoration in some ways, a modernization in others," said the Times. "[T]his ambitious plan emerges out of the conviction that this building is as much a part of our cultural heritage as the billions of words that it contains."


Ghostbusters headquarters -- the TriBeCa fire house on North Moore. Pic courtesy Phillip Ritz

8) Perhaps the most beloved New York site from the film is Ghostbusters headquarters, the Hook and Ladder Company No. 8 fire station at the corner of North Moore Street and Varick Street.  If the building looks awkwardly slender to you, there's a good reason -- half the building was demolished in 1914 when Varick Street was widened.  Several other buildings, including St. John's Chapel, owned by Trinity Church, were not so lucky, wiped out entirely by Varick's expansion.

Spengler (Harold Ramis) says of the firehouse. "I think this building should be condemned....The neighborhood is like a demilitarized zone."  In fact, the converted lofts and warehouses of TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal) -- the name was slightly over a decade old in 1984 -- were a haven for artists, designers and musicians by this time and probably deemed 'gritty' by the standards of 1980s American film goers.

9) Sigourney Weaver is probably the most New York-centric star of Ghostbusters and a perfect choice for the role of Dana, the sophisticated lady possessed by an ancient God.  (Dana's in the New York Philharmonic after all!)  Weaver was a regular on the off-Broadway stage, an offbeat star who once starred in a Christopher Durang play about the Titanic.  Her first two film performances are in two 1970s New York film classics -- Serpico and Annie Hall.

10) As Sigourney arrives at her apartment building, you can clearly identify Checker Cabs passing on the street, even though that were already a dying breed by this time, the last rolling out from its Michigan plant in 1982.

11) The Sedgewick Hotel, site of the Ghostbusters' most conspicuous catch, is one of several Los Angeles locations pretending to be in New York.  However, if they wanted a haunted hotel near the New York Public Library, they could have looked no further than the Algonquin Hotel, two blocks north on West 44th Street, notoriously famous for the ghosts of the Round Table.

The Sedgewick is played in the film by L.A.'s Biltmore Hotel, site of several Academy Awards ceremonies and itself haunted by a famous ghost, that of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia.

12) Ectoplasm isn't just a cool word for 'slime'.  In 1922, the New York Evening World ran photographs of mediums coated in ectoplasm.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described it as "thick, sticky, whitish substance exuding from the medium in trance and strong enough to lift tables, perform spirit rappings and other weird stunts."



13) A New Jersey high school student named Jeff Nichols found momentary fame when he accidentally appeared as an extra in the film, during the brief scene in which Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd storm through Rockefeller Center.  (Did they not sign release forms back then?) The scene appears in a montage of the crew's many ghost-exterminating antics.

Nichols' fame was then compounded by being interviewed by the New York Times in July.  ''I got a bunch of phone calls from friends who saw it, saying, 'Hey, Jeff, you're in the movie,' '' said a surprised Jeff last week. ''It's strange to think that I'm in a movie that's playing all over the country...... I guess it's like being part of history.''

No offense to Jeff, but I'm kinda more fascinated in another brief scene during this montage, when the Ghostmobile speeds past Umberto's Clam House in its original location (the corner of Mulberry and Hester).

14) Larry King on the radio in Ghostbusters in 1984:


And you can click here to see Larry King actually recording his show in 1984.  The difference? In the real video, he's smoking a cigarette!

15) There's a silly montage of 1984 publications that go swirling by.  A People Magazine touting the trio also reveals "Princess Di Expecting Again!"  The magazine (supposedly from October 1984) is a little off -- Prince Harry was born on September 15, 1984.

The New York Post also celebrates one off-screen Ghostbusters' victory: GHOST COPS BUST CHINATOWN SPOOK.

In the early 1980s, the Post gave $50,000 a week in its WINGO! lottery promotion.  According to author and former Post reporter Charlie Carillo, the contest illicited some rather mysterious winners:

"One Wingo winner showed up soaked in sweat and literally looking over both shoulders.  He wouldn't even tell me his real name, and he covered his face with his hands when the photographer lifted the camera.  'No pictures!' he cried through his fingers.  'Can't have my picture in the paper!'"

16) Also given credible prominence during this montage is the long-gone OMNI Magazine, a science publication with the unique distinction of being one of the first magazines to simultaneously publish a digital edition (in 1986).

Here's a copy of the October 1984 issue from the movie, and the actual October 1984 issue:


17) Dana listens to Casey Kasem gab about the Ghostbusters during his Top 40 countdown show.  His wife Jean Kasem appears later in the movie as Rick Moranis' ditzy date.  Had we been privy to the entire broadcast, we would have heard that the top five songs that week were (in Kasem countdown order): 5)  "Lucky Star" by Madonna, 4) "Purple Rain" by Prince,  3) "Hard Habit To Break" by Chicago,  2) "Caribbean Queen (No More Love On The Run)" by Billy Ocean, and 1) "I Just Called To Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder.

18) Veteran New York broadcaster Joe Franklin appears on television, asking Murray, “I'm sure there's one big question on everybody's mind, and I imagine you are the man to answer that.  How is Elvis, and have you seen him lately?”

Franklin, presumably recording from WWOR's brand-new studios in Secaucus, NJ, was touching on a hot-button issue in 1984.  That year, some believers found proof that Elvis Presley was actually still alive, due to an infamous photograph that emerged in the press of Elvis with Muhammed Ali.  A video of that investigation is below:




19)  A supernatural upheaval of godlike forces emerges from Dana's icebox, located in a penthouse at 55 Central Park West.  In the film, this building, constructed in 1929, was made with cosmic connections in mind, with a super-conductive antenna, "pulling in and concentrating spiritual turbulence." Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) adds,  "The architect was either a certified genius or a pathetic wacko."

In Ghostbusters lore, the architect is Ivo Shandor.  In reality, the building was constructed by the less immortal architectural firm of Schwartz and Gross, best known before then for their building The Majestic on West 75th Street.  55 Central Park West has been home to Rudy Vallee, Ginger Rogers, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.

There does appear to be something strange going on with the building. According to the latest AIA Guide: "[I]f the sun seems brighter at the top than the bottom, it is brighter.  A flush of brick from red to yellow rises from the second floor to the sun."  Gozer is impressed.

20) Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) just wants somebody to like him.  Although a "nerd" in the classic 1980s nerd style, he's pretty much a prototype for the modern hipster.  In a futile effort to get Dana to his party, he proclaims that they will "play some Twister, do some breakdancing."

1984 was the year that this form of street dancing went mainstream, with films, fashion and music that year monopolizing on the trend.  Breakin' was in theaters for a month already when Ghostbusters opened on June 8, 1984.  It handily beat a competing film making its debut that same week -- Beat Street (see below).  Believe it or not, Beat Street debuted on more screens than Ghostbusters, but lost in the box office battle.




21)  Louis runs into Central Park to escapes Gozer's demon minion but is cornered at Tavern On The Green.  It would have been quite a party that Louis and the hellbeast were crashing, as the fancy restaurant was celebrating its 50th anniversary that very month.  Tavern On The Green opened on October 20, 1934, with a lavish dinner attended by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and parks commissioner Robert Moses (pictured below, image courtesy New York Times)


22) Later, a possessed Louis (as the Key Master) streaks through Times Square in a demoniacal rage, looking for the Gate Keeper.  It's a fairly nondescript early 80s midtown landscape, but look for the curious chain restaurant WienerWald in the background.  The German franchise had several locations throughout the United States but was unable to turn Americans on to its menu -- mostly chicken, despite the name.  One intrepid Ghostbusters fan has successfully located the precise block on Seventh Avenue where this WienerWald was located.

23)  With the city in crisis, the Ghostbusters are invited to City Hall for a meeting.  As they enter the building, you can clearly see the banner for an exhibit in the rotunda called "Furnishing the Streets: 1902-1922."  This was an actual exhibit which opened on September 22, 1983, featuring antique street decorations -- from fire posts and old subway signs to even an old horse trough.  Because the banner could not be removed for some reason, the filmmakers cleverly obscure the exhibition's date with a flagpole.  However you can still make out that it says 1983.

24)  The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in his deliciously savage rage stomps up Central Park West from Columbus Circle.  The most significant landmark destroyed by this sugary-sweet demon spawn is Holy Trinity Lutheran Church which sits next to 55 Central Park West.

The picturesque Gothic building has been a magnet for chaos from the very beginning.  Over 3,000 people filled the street when its cornerstone was laid in November 1902, causing a traffic meltdown.  According to the New York Tribune, "It was as much as the police could do for a time to prevent people from being run down by trolley cars and automobiles, as many people were compelled to stand in the middle of the street."

25)  Our brave heroes vanquish Gozer and return to the street, greeted to the applause of grateful New Yorkers.  I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention another set of Ghostbusters who once scoured Manhattan of its supernatural nuisances:  the 1940s wacky Bowery Boys comedy troupe made a film in 1946 called Spook Busters.  Instead of a fire station, these exterminators of unwanted phantoms set up shop in a candy store:



If you like this article, you might also want to check ou my 'historical trivia' story on Midnight Cowboy.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! Both movies were on this past weekend and even though I've seen them 100x. looikng back at old NYC is great. In the second one they mentions the New York Pneumatic Railroad (NYPRR), which was the Beach Pneumatic Transit which actually existed too.

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  2. Worth noting that while only one of Bloomingdale Insane Asylum's buildings exists above ground, some of the Columbia's famous (and closed, unless you're an intrepid freshman with a flashlight on, say, Halloween) tunnel system goes back to the asylum's days.

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