Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Bowery Boys Year In Review: Our 2013 podcasts

Here's a recap of all the Bowery Boys podcasts from 2013 -- from the most shocking art show of all time to the weirdest mayoral election in history, from the corridors of New York's scariest psychiatric ward to the altar of the city's most transformed church.  From colonial America to Sesame Street, through several feet of snow and into the lobby of Harlem's most glamorous hotel.  We introduced you to the first television broadcasts and the first Broadway musicals.  And for 150th episode, we looked at the formation of the five boroughs and the sometimes contentious tale of becoming Greater New York.

Thank all of you for helping make this our greatest year ever.  Seriously.  This has truly been a game-changing kinda year for us, and we hope to provide you with even more interesting content next year.  I'm really looking forward to what the next year holds, and we hope that you'll join us for more adventures through New York City history.  We'll see you in 2014 with a whole new set of shows!

Episode #147:  The Armory Show of 1913
Blog post -- Art Insanity: The elegant audacity of the Armory Show of 1913, the daring exhibit that awed and outraged America

Episode #148:  The Great Blizzard of 1888
Blog post -- Frozen in time:  The Blizzard of 1888 knocks New York City off its feet, creating the deadliest commute in history
NOTE: This podcast has the unusual distinction of being released the same day as New York's biggest snowstorm of the year!

Episode #149: John Peter Zenger and the Power of the Press
Blog post:  The Cosby Show: A despotic governor in colonial New York and the sensational trial of John Peter Zenger

Episode #150: Consolidation! The Forming of the Five Boroughs
Blog post: Consolidation: The tale of five boroughs and one big city

Episode #151: The Limelight: Church, Club and Mall
Blog post:  The many lives of the Limelight, aka the facade formerly known as the Church of the Holy Communion

Episode #152: Bellevue Hospital
Blog post: The startling history of Bellevue Hospital, beyond the horror stories, the last resort for the New York unwanted

Episode #153: NYC and the Birth of Television 
Blog post: New York and the birth of the television industry, experimental broadcasts from the city's greatest landmarks

Episode #154:  New York in the Golden Age of Television 
Blog post: New York City in the Golden Age of Television: Behind the scenes with nine classic TV shows filmed in the city

Episode #155:   Sesame Street to Seinfeld: NYC TV 1969-2013 
Blog post: NYC in the modern TV age, from Sesame Street to Seinfeld, as the arrival of cable brings new productions to the city

Episode #156:  The Boy Mayor of New York
Blog post: The Boy Mayor of New York -- John Purroy Mitchel and a series of unfortunate events shake up a New York election

Episode #157: Early Ghost Stories of Old New York
Blog post: Ghost stories of old New York: Tales from the Revolution, restless Indians, haunted forts and a drunk, headless actor

Episode #158: Hotel Theresa: The Waldorf of Harlem
Blog post: The Hotel Theresa -- An historic treasure in Harlem

Episode #159: The Broadway Musical: Setting The Stage
Blog post: The Broadway Musical -- A trip through NYC's musical history, from HMS Pinafore to Show Boat, along its most famous street

Monday, December 30, 2013

The mayoral inauguration 100 years ago was quite a headache -- "the Most Cheerless Day Ever Known at City Hall"

On Wednesday, January 1, 2014, Bill de Blasio will be inaugurated at City Hall to become the 109th Mayor of New York City, sworn in by President Bill Clinton.  Mayoral inaugurations are never very exciting, but they're often reflected upon later as setting the tone for an administration, a clue to a possible style of governance.

A fine, athletic example that Mayor-elect de Blasio might consider would be that of William J. Gaynor, who celebrated his inauguration on January 1, 1910, by walking from his home that day in Park Slope, over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall.  Brooklyn had been a part of Greater New York for only a decade by that point, and Gaynor one of its most esteemed residents.  Nobody doubted Gaynor's pride that day in his home borough.  (De Blasio is also from Park Slope; his home is about ten minutes away from Gaynor's residence on Eighth Avenue.)

Below: Mayor-elect Gaynor as he strolled across the bridge to City Hall

Four years later -- after Gaynor died in office, from the internal injuries of an assassin's bullet -- New Yorkers elected the reformer John Purroy Mitchel.  He also made a bold statement during his inauguration on January 1, 1914, although one that cast a lingering pall over his subsequent accomplishments.

At right: Mayor-elect Mitchel with interim mayor Adolph Loges Kline, on inauguration day, 1914

Unfortunately for the young mayor-elect, he suffered from intensely painful headaches, and that morning, as he arrived at 9 a.m., Mitchel could barely withstand the pressure.

After greeting a few well-wishers and a brief meeting with reporters, he was sworn in during a private ceremony, made a five minute speech, then escaped into his private office, even as thousands lingered in the hallways and around City Hall for hopes of something -- anything in the way of celebration -- to occur.

Mitchel was noticeably aggravated and avoided any major announcements (such as the hotly contested job of Police Commissioner).

Early on, the police even dismissed the official receiving line of well-dressed politicians, the phalanx leaving with their hands unshaken.  This was a slight that many would never forget.  "[T]he reception room and corridor outside his office carried all the surging, bustling human exhilaration of Grant's Tomb," said the Evening World, who characterized the ceremony as "the most cheerless day ever known in City Hall."

Many would consider this a hallmark of Mitchel's style -- distant and removed, hardly politic -- a demeanor which would eventually label him as an elitist.

From the January 2, 1914, Evening World

For more on Gaynor, Mitchel and the tumultuous politics of 1914, check out our podcast on The Boy Mayor Of New York (Episode #156).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Santa Insanity: How a self-proclaimed Messiah and child abductor became NYC's most influential Santa Claus model

He knows when you've been bad or good:  A Christmas issue of Judge Magazine from 1919 by Guy Lowy, who studied at the Art Students League and very likely used Mnason for his model. (Courtesy Jon Williamson)

Early one spring day in 1922, while dutifully posing at the Art Students League on West 57th Street, Santa Claus had a fatal heart attack in front of a classroom of students.

"The man who was Santa Claus is dead," said the New York Tribune.  "He was a man of many names, but at the Art Students League, where he posed for beginners,  and in the studios of the best known artists, where he was sent for when a 'Santa Claus type' was needed, he was known as Mnason, the first 'n' being silent."

They called him Mnason, although his full name was even more spectacular -- Mnason T. Huntsman. (Or Huntsman T. Mnason or even Paul Mnason.  His aliases were legion.)  The burly artists model lent his body to the ages;  thanks to the scores of influential artists who hired him for Christmas projects, today's modern Santa Claus probably looks more like Mnason than perhaps any other actual human being in history.*

The poet Arthur Chapman declared:  "It's no exaggeration to say that Mnason posed for most of the Santa Claus pictures that have been made in recent years.  And he figured in a good many for which he did not actually pose -- as such pictures have been copied from originals for which Mnason was the model.

"Probably there isn't a man today whose picture has been cut out more times and is treasured in more scrapbooks."

At right: An illustration by renown magazine illustrator Orson Lowell, a confirmed image using Mnason as a model.

Mnason, the definitive Santa Claus of the 1910s and early 1920s, was a true "man of mystery" for many who painted and drew him.  A few knew the details of his past; perhaps it held the secret to his magnetic allure, to the deep, ancient gleam in his eye.

For Mnason was a former religious cult leader and proselytizer who had served time in jail for child abduction and religious blasphemy, and once he was actually tarred and feathered by an angry mob.  He was a charismatic to some, a psychotic to many others.

Below: Painter Kenyon Cox and his students at the Art Students League in 1887, a couple decades before the arrival of Mnason (Courtesy aaa.si.edu)

Mnason was born in Pennsylvania sometime in the 1850s, orphaned at eight years old.  His early religious philosophers were strict but conventional.  In the 1880s, he worked for New York's Sunday Closing League, visiting New York shops and saloons to ensure they were not selling anything too amoral on church day.  In 1883, he testified that one shop owner illegally sold cigarettes to young boys, but not before the judge excoriated Mnason for lying on the stand.

At some point between that moment and 1888, Mnason was "inspired and bidden by God" to become a preacher.  His message was not well received;  at one point, the "wild and absurd behavior" of this "obstreperous" man of God got him thrown into jail for disorderly conduct.

By then, he had started a religious commune called the Lord's Farm in Pascack Valley in New Jersey, where he began to attract (or lure) a young, impressionable flock.  He called himself "The Holy One" or "The Modern Christ" and granted bizarre nicknames to his most loyal followers.  Collectively, they were called the Angel Dancers, or the Church of the Living God.

In 1888, Mnason was arrested "on the charge of blasphemy," and of enticing two young women who claimed they "were obliged to do anything he required." He was reportedly tarred and feathered by irate residents.  (It is at this point that you might notice the odd coincidence of the name Mnason and 'Manson', as in Charles.)

Mnason T. Huntsman, from an image used in the New York Tribune

Even still, the Angel Dancers managed to attract on oddball list of adherents, including a local farmer's wife and her two children.  Eventually, according to a 1893 New York Times article, "the band was increased by two long-haired men, who called themselves 'Silas' and 'John the Baptist'.

This fanatical cult would reportedly practice 'angel dancing', "scantily robed and waving a huge blanket with which to drive away the devil."  Also notable to the press of the day:  Mnason and his flock were all vegetarians.  "Nothing save what grows in or on the ground may be eaten." [source]

The entire lot were arrested in April 1893 for attempting to swindle the aforementioned farmer, although it's obvious that some religious intolerance was embedded within the charge as well.  The affidavit read: "The conspirators deny, ridicule and curse all regular religion and religious customs, recognize no Sabbath, and set up a false god of their own, declaring the said Mnason to be the only and living God."

A few years later, the Angel Dancers had taken over the farmhouse and had grown to a membership of nine males and nineteen females, with two children.  After the reported death of a child in 1897, the Times intoned, "No physician was called to be of any service.  Mnason is 'the Christ'.  The dancers are vegetarians."  Another ugly abduction case reared its head in 1900, when two "little girls" were taken from the compound and then kept in jail for months in order to testify against Mnason.  The cult leader seemed to survive these charges, too

The Lord's Farm became so notorious that by 1909, the state found a good excuse to evict Mnason and his followers.  The charismatic moved to New York City and briefly opened a church for black parishioners.  It is then that former 'Modern Christ' then disappears, for a time, from public view.  But the Times in 1909 noted the following:  "Mnason is a man of many aliases."

215 West 57th Street. Fine Arts Building [Art Students League].

The Art Students League, circa 1910, courtesy MCNY

Finally, he popped up again, in 1916, at the Art Students League, and not unnoticed.  The New York Sun mocked his new profession (headline pictured below):  "[R]ecently he had turned himself into Santa Claus or King Lear or any other whiskered person that the embryo John Sargents of the Art Students League … wish him to be…."  It's no surprise he would find his way into an art collective -- he was a vegetarian, after all -- and his timing was rather perfect, given his particular look and body size.

The character of Santa Claus had gone through a major style makeover in the late 19th century.  His annual routine already immortalized in the popular verse A Visit From St. Nicholas -- penned by the godfather of the Chelsea neighborhood Clement Clarke Moore -- magazine and postcard illustrators began morphing the popular Christmas figure from a thickly robed saint to a child-friendly, candy-colored superhero.

This change came about through the hands of American artists and illustrators, led by Harper's Weekly artist Thomas Nast in New York.   Some of the modern look and mythos is credited to Nast, his influential pen elaborating on Santa's girth (eventually to rest on near-corpulency) and placing his residence in the North Pole.

By the early 20th century, Santa's physical characteristics were locked in place, but his spirit and personality were still very much uncertain. Should Santa be energetic or world weary?  Wise or playful? Approachable like a parent, or unfathomable like a god?

Many of New York's great illustrators of the period were associated with the prestigious Art Students League, and it was here that Mnason contributed his own sparkle to the characters, as artists recommended the man for his poise, mystery and sparkle.

"They found in him the ideal type, on account of his snowy beard, his bearing, the jolly twinkle in his eye, his fine color and his intelligence."

At left: J.C Leyendecker's 1919 cover for the Saturday Evening Post.  You can easily tell Leyendecker's influence on later Evening Post artist Norman Rockwell.  Given the artist's connection to the ASL, Mnason very likely posed for this painting.

It's clear that many of these legendary artists were aware of some version of their Santa's past.   "Mnason would hint to his artists friends regarding certain experiences in his life in which his pronounced and individualistic religious views played a part." [source]

One year, he was even hired as a department store Santa where he notably espoused his religious views  to the children who had come to present their Christmas wishes.

His days of Lord's Farm were behind him, but Mnason kept writing religious verse while living suitably on his artist-model wages.  For years, he was passed among New York's most renown illustrators, who claimed him the iconic visage of the holiday's most jolly proponent.

"Nothing could dampen his cheerfulness, but behind his smile there was an element of mystery which the embodiment of Santa Claus maintained to the last."

When he died in 1922, Mnason had been drawn and painted as Santa Claus dozens of times.  Eventually, Santa Claus would go through his final evolution in the 1930s, thanks to artist Haddon Sondblum, hired by Coca-Cola for their colorful advertising campaigns.

Sondblum's iconic depiction is directly influenced by Moore's famous poem, and but equally so by the dozens of artists and magazine illustrators before him, most of which who had used Mnason as their inspiration.

*A retired salesman named Lou Prentice was used by Haddon to create early versions of his Coca-Cola Santa and so might lay claim to being the most important physical inspiration.  But Mnason was used by more artists and within several pivotal publications of the day.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The lights of Madison Square: A Christmas tree at night

I'm not sure if the Madison Square annual Christmas tree was really the biggest in the entire world -- as the 1913 Evening World at right suggests -- but it was most certainly the largest in New York City. Its closest competitor in size would have been the City Hall Christmas tree.

This unique tradition in Madison Square began just the year before, in 1912, and is often considered to be the first community Christmas tree in America.

From my 2010 article: "This 'Tree of Light', mounted in cement, was such a novelty that almost 25,000 people showed up that night to witness it and enjoy an evening-long slate of choral entertainment."  [Read more about its history here.]

I've seen a few photographs of the Madison Square Christmas ceremony from this period, but rarely any at night.  I'm not sure whether the pictures at top and at bottom are from 1913, but they're definitely from the early 1910s.

We're so used to novelty lighting features now that it's difficult to imagine the extraordinary effect of a single tree draped in electric illumination.

From the ad by the Fifth Avenue Coach Company:
"See the great Christmas Tree in Madison Square Park to-night.
See it while it is All Alight --
See it from a 'bus
That is the best way --
You will be above the crowds.
You will get a good, clear view -- and
You will be comfortable -- for you will sure have a seat."
(Choral Singing and Band Concert, too every night"

Here's one view of a grand Fifth Avenue Coach omnibus of the type advertised (pictured here in 1906) that you might have been riding that particular evening.  I can't imagine this was the most enjoyable ride on a chilly December evening, especially passed the famously windy Flatiron Building:

Pics courtesy the Library of Congress

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The wonder of the Chelsea Hotel: 'Inside the Dream Palace' -- an interview with author Sherill Tippins

The Hotel Chelsea, August 1936, photograph by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

Inside the Dream Palace
The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel
by Sherill Tippins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Few places in New York exist with so many ghosts as the Chelsea Hotel. Oh, I don't know if it's really haunted, but the historical figures that have gained inspiration from their stays at this storied place have certainly left their mark.  But with geniuses -- with the pressure of being genius -- also comes drama, escapism, and tragedy.

Sherill Tippins' new book on the Chelsea Hotel -- aptly named Inside the Dream Palace -- does double-duty as a hall of fame for great substance-abusing artists and writers.  It's a wondrous, colorful account of a unique social living experiment as it slowly dismantled its pretensions and became a rustic den of creativity, community and debauchery.

All the great tales are recounted here -- from Dylan Thomas's death to Sid and Nancy's tragic evening -- and a many new ones introduced.  For all the names I expected to see (Henry Miller, Arthur C. Clarke, Thomas Wolfe, Patti Smith), there were a great many more that have surprising connections to this unique landmark.

I had such a fantastic time sampling the lives of the Chelsea's various characters that I wanted to ask the author a few questions myself.  Here's Sherill Tippins, elaborating upon the hotel's unusual origins, its tenacious spirit and uncertain future:

Reading of the original philosophies behind the Chelsea Hotel – the utopic, if somewhat simplistic notion of communal living of various types of classes – I kept thinking ‘Wow, imagine if somebody tried floating this idea today!”  What was it about this period and this project specifically that made people open to such a radical suggestion?

ST:  In the wake of Boss Tweed’s thefts, the long, deep recession of 1873, and the usual massive shift of wealth to the top one percent that followed (sound familiar?), the city’s social fabric seemed to many New Yorkers to be irredeemably destroyed.  People were so desperate for some kind of workable solution that New Yorkers from different economic classes started meeting in unprecedented ways – “bankers sitting next to bakers,” as one reporter put it in amazement – to discuss what had happened to the city and how it might start to recover.

Into this critical moment in history walked the Chelsea’s architect, Philip Hubert.  Basically, Hubert appealed to New Yorkers in the same way every successful idea man has in New York, before or since – via their pocketbooks.  (Below: The Chelsea, photographed by the Wurts Brothers, NYPL)

He introduced the concept of cooperative living – showing how much cheaper it was for New Yorkers to form a “club” to buy their own land, build an apartment house to their own liking, and share the costs of maintenance, fuel, and other services.  The new cooperative apartments were so appealing and cheap that the demand for them proved nearly insatiable.

 Here was a way to bridge the stultifying divide that had opened up between classes in a society where status was determined by the size of an individual’s bank account, so that citizens felt compelled to isolate themselves, as Hubert put it, “to guard their dearly cherished state of exaltation.” New Yorkers who lived together, on the other hand, would have to converse and exchange ideas. Alliances would form, and perhaps these alliances would arm groups against the chicanery of the next Boss Tweed.

To create real diversity, Hubert had to make cooperatives not only practical but, in a sense, sexy.  He managed that feat with the Chelsea Association Building, set in the heart of New York’s racy theater district, at the intersection of all the new elevated railroad lines and equidistant from the Ladies’ Mile shopping district and the decadent Tenderloin.  To make life at the Chelsea even more enticing, he built a cooperative theater and a drama school to go with the cooperative, and invited in an assortment of artists, musicians, actors and writers to spice up the core population of businessmen, financiers, and working people.

You walk us very vividly through different decades of the Chelsea's strange and storied existence. If you could re-visit a particular era of the Chelsea yourself, to which time period would you like to see? Its earliest days, the wild 60s, or another era?

:  Every time I’m asked this question I respond differently, because in fact I love every era at the Chelsea. Today, though, I’ll choose the Depression era as the one I’d most like to experience.

It was a surprisingly idyllic time at the hotel.  Room prices had lowered to a level that artists could actually afford, and secondly because many residents experienced a new kind of creative freedom as they were subsidized financially by the W.P.A. (“I can’t begin to tell you how rich everyone was,” one artist recalled.)

This was the era when the residents laid down a set of “house rules” that have been followed, more or less, ever since: don’t interrupt people during work hours; don’t visit without an invitation; don’t hit up famous neighbors for a job or a connection, and so on.  With their privacy protected, working artists felt comfortable socializing after hours: Edgar Lee Masters entertaining Thomas Wolfe in his suite, Masters and the artist John Sloan listening to music on the Victrola together, Van Wyck Brooks dropping in for cocktails with Sloan....  It was from these interactions that a real, lasting Chelsea Hotel culture was born—a culture that would nurture generations of artists in the decades to come.

From 'Dream Palace': "The artist Brion Gysin and his close friend William Burroughs arrived to market their new invention, the Dream Machine."

You’ve written about so many iconic writers and artists, both in this book and in your past projects. And this is really a story of icons, as they pass through this extraordinary landmark.  But I greatly enjoyed stumbling upon some of your rather obscure figures here, those fairly forgotten today. Any particular individuals that you newly discovered in your research that were a particular favorite of yours?

ST:   One of the most fascinating longtime Chelsea Hotel denizens, who is known surprisingly little considering his cultural contributions, is the anthropologist-musicologist-artist-filmmaker-occultist Harry Smith (at right).  Smith created The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of powerfully resonant American blues, ballads, gospel, and other songs that helped inspire the 1960s folk music movement and that inspired Bob Dylan in particular.

At the Chelsea, in his role as house magician, Smith provided the Yippies with a magic spell for levitating the Pentagon and Leonard Cohen with a love spell to seduce the singer Nico. (It failed, sadly.) Smith was also an experimental filmmaker, considered a genius by the underground film community; his films were designed to affect viewers neurologically, presumably altering their state of consciousness as a path toward further evolution. In the 1970s, Smith created a film, Mahagonny, based on the opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and featuring such Chelsea Hotel residents as Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Allen Ginsberg—a film intended to communicate to all cultures, regardless of language or location, humanity’s troubled state.

There are others I found captivating, even if they weren’t known outside their small circles of admirers.  In fact, I would have included hundreds more if I’d only had the pages to contain them.

There’s also a large amount of tragedy associated with the Chelsea, from the most famous events (Dylan Thomas and Sid Vicious, of course) to even the footnotes of history, those known only for their awful ends.  For instance, the woman who cut off her hand and jumped off the roof. (I went back and read that sentence like six times!)  Did you sense any particular reason for this in your research? Is it just the density of dramatic figures that stayed here? 

ST: I’m so glad you asked that question, because I’ve asked it myself so many times!  Unfortunately, I’ve never come up with a definitive answer, but I can give you my hypothesis.

Somehow, from the beginning—according to the letters and other writings in various archives—the Chelsea has always felt feminine to those who have lived in it.  Feminine and maternal, like a mother welcoming her children into her arms.  I would imagine that if one were in a state of existential despair or psychological extremity, one might look for comfort to an architectural (archetypal?) mother figure, particularly as one made the ultimate decision to end one’s life.

I’m thinking of Frank Kavecky, the impoverished young artist who was robbed on the subway of funds he was holding for the Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society.  Discovering his loss, he went straight to the Chelsea – checking into a room for the afternoon, locking the door, settling himself into a rocking chair, and shooting himself in the head.

And Almyra Wilcox, the well-to-do visitor who overdosed on pills while writing a love letter to someone she knew she’d never see again. She was found dead the next morning, unfinished letter in hand.  Reading these stories, I think, if I were ready to do myself in, I might choose the Chelsea.  Wouldn’t you?

Photo by Claudio Edinger (courtesy Ed Hamilton/Living With Legends)

The fate of the Chelsea Hotel remains undecided, sitting empty, “like a corpse in its niche on Twenty-Third Street.”  If you could somehow dictate the future of the Chelsea yourself, what would you like see happen here? A return to its transient roots or an entirely new purpose altogether? 

ST:  Of course, the obvious desire would be to bring back the old days, with the former co-owner Stanley Bard managing the Chelsea and his son, David Bard, waiting in the wings. But since life is about moving forward, I would hope that the new owner, Ed Scheetz, will respect the Chelsea’s traditional function as fully as he claims to do.

The new owner has some intriguing ideas for the “new” Chelsea: creating a small, urban MacDowell-colony type program in which a half-dozen artists would enjoy free room and board, along with space on the ground floor to display or perform finished work.  He has shown me his plans for placing large, expensive rooms next to small, relatively cheap ones, to encourage a mix of people in the traditional Chelsea Hotel way.  He has assured me that he intends to maintain the building as a hotel, with the much-needed circulation of daily visitors from around the world, along with permanent residences whose occupants can pass on the community’s memories and values.

All of this sounds wonderful. The challenge, as always, lies in making this culture both “real” and affordable. It’s ultimately my hope that Ed Scheetz will be willing to go so far as to make the Chelsea the loss leader of his collection of New York hotels, if that’s what it takes to keep the life of the Hotel Chelsea going.

Sherill was also on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, talking about the book. Here's the show (and thanks to Chip Pate on Twitter for pointing this out!): 

Other recent selections from the Bowery Boys Bookshelf:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Robert Moses was born 125 years ago today. Here's ten ways to celebrate/mourn his magnificent, controversial legacy

One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, Robert Moses was unleashed upon the world, born in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dwight Street.  He remains today one of the most powerful civic figures in American history, and obviously one of the most controversial.  Because of Moses, we have the modern New York City.  Many of its strengths and its difficulties can be traced, in some way, to decisions he made, from roads and housing to parks and waterways.

Can you really "celebrate" Robert Moses?  Of course you can.  Here's ten particular ways you can ruminate upon the changes he inflicted upon the city, from the mighty highways to the large, concrete-heavy parks.

1) Read his obituary in the New York Times. Robert Moses died on July 29, 1981.

An excerpt: "Robert Moses was, in every sense of the word, New York's master builder. Neither an architect, a planner, a lawyer nor even, in the strictest sense, a politician, he changed the face of the state more than anyone who was. Before him, there was no Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, West Side Highway or Long Island parkway system or Niagara and St. Lawrence power projects. He built all of these and more."

You might also like to know the contents of his will.

The Unisphere is still around (and presumably in no danger), but the New York State Pavilion, seen in the background, could face demolition. (NYPL)

2) Help save the New  York State Pavilion.  
The curious remnants that remain of the World's Fair 1964-65, located in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, are in danger of being torn down.  Certainly Moses himself would have approved of tearing down these useless -- and yet, priceless -- relics.

After the city projected it would be cheaper to tear them down than to renovate, many in the community rallied to save the embattled old ruins.  A couple weeks ago, Gizmodo asked the question 'Should Queens Tear Down The 1964 World's Fair Pavilion'.  Prepare an interesting preservation battle over this historic piece, designed by Philip Johnson.

3) Visit neighborhoods plucked from Robert Moses' grasp.
Had Moses had his way, a variety of beloved neighborhoods would have been wiped from existence -- parts of the Lower East Side and SoHo (thanks to the Lower East Side Expressway proposal), Willowtown in Brooklyn, just to start.

In particular, go to Battery Park and physically embrace Castle Clinton if you can. (It was still behind fences last I checked.)  Moses wanted to construct a bridge over to Brooklyn that would have wiped it from existence.  From my original article:  "The Brooklyn-Battery would be designed by bridge master Othmar Ammann, designer of nearly half the bridges of New York City, with an anchorage plopped in the middle of Governor's Island."

Fortunately, the community intervened, and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built in its place. But a vision of what it might have looked like is above.  (Courtesy Urban Omnibus)

4) Visit those neighborhoods he did replace.
This is a far more depressing stroll and far more common.  Moses' use of funds from Title I of the 1949 Housing Act replaced some serious New York slum conditions with low-income housing developments, but some of it was poorly designed and shoddily planned.  According to Joel Schwartz, "To a generation of critics ... Title I was also synonymous with reckless power that went unchecked until a small band of urban liberals rallied the conscience of the city."  Not surprisingly, Moses focus was on neighborhoods that were predominantly black and Latino.

Most striking of these was East Tremont in the Bronx and Manhattantown on Manhattan's Upper East Side:


5) Ride over the Triborough Bridge and head to Randall's Island
Easily one of Moses' biggest successes, the Triborough Bridge Authority took in millions of dollars in tolls which then funded other ambitious projects throughout the state.

Over at Randall's Island,  you should visit the Triborough Bridge Authority Building, which was the homebase for Moses for decades.  It was here that many of his greatest triumphs -- and a few city downfalls -- were planned.

6) Check out the ghastly Robert Moses mosaic in Flushing-Meadows Park.
The mosaic underfoot is based upon a work by Andy Warhol which the artist created after Moses destroyed Warhol's outdoor art piece involving the FBI Most Wanted list. From my previous article 'Most Wanted: Robert Moses vs. Andy Warhol':  "[H]is mural was literally whitewashed. Warhol intended to replace it with a new design: 25 silkscreen panels of Robert Moses' face in a Joker-like grin. Unsurprisingly, [Philip] Johnson did not think this appropriate for the main pavilion of Moses' fair."

Listen to the WNYC piece from 2010 for more information!


7)  Ponder his vast, virtually unchecked power.
Can you imagine if a politician or city leader were actually as successful as Robert Moses in getting anything done?  His reach and output makes him one of the most powerful city builders in modern human history.

Imagine such power in the hands of a modern politician today. Scratch that. Imagine that power in the hands of an unelected civic leader, as Moses was.

He was so powerful, in fact, that he changed the names of neighborhoods -- on a whim!  Like Throggs Neck, for instance.  Excuse me, Throgs Neck.

From my article on the origin of the name: "You may have noticed that John's last name [Throgg] has two g's in it, while most common spellings have only one. Legend has it that this is another thing you can blame on Robert Moses.  Not exactly known for reaching out to communities for their thoughts and opinions, Moses decided to drop a 'g' in 1955 when the bridge started construction, believing it would fit on more traffic signs without an additional and needless letter.  Who cares if it was in use that way for over 300 years!"

8) Watch Robert Moses on TV in 1953
Moses was even a guest on an early television show called Longines Chronoscope, sponsored by Longines.  This isn't the most fascinating television that was ever made, but it's interesting to hear Moses' authoritative voice during the era of his greatest power.

And check out this bonus video on Robert Moses' "improvement plans" for Coney Island:

9) Visit his burial site 
He's buried in a crypt at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  So is his most prominent collaborator, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

10) Listen to our podcast (Episode #100) on Robert Moses, our longest-ever show!

And check out our other podcasts and pages which feature Robert Moses and his effects on the city including the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Shea Stadium, Shakespeare In The Park The Rockaways and Rockaway Beach and Central Park

Below:  The glory that was Shea Stadium  (NYPL)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Podcast Extra! The Hippodrome and its famous ice ballet

Our show on the Broadway musical was quite epic, and we ended up cutting out some interesting stories to make the show a reasonable length.  However I'll leak out a couple of these 'deleted scenes' over the next couple weeks.

For instance, here's a segment about another great Broadway theater. In fact, one of the biggest stages ever -- the Hippodrome

And, as I referenced in this segment, here's the advertisement featuring John Philip Sousa.  "The Greatest Success in Theatrical History"!:

You can hear music that was performed at the Hippodrome by the Victor Military Band in a prior post.

Picture courtesy New York Public Library. Newspaper clipping from the New York Tribune, courtesy the Library of Congress.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Broadway Musical: A trip through NYC's musical history, from HMS Pinafore to Show Boat, along its most famous street

The comely ladies of 'The Black Crook'. The show originally debuted at Niblo's Garden, although I believe the photo above is from a later revival. (NYPL)

The Broadway Musical is one of New York City's greatest inventions, 150 years in the making! It's one of the truly American art forms, fueling one of the city's most vibrant entertainment businesses and defining its most popular tourist attraction -- Times Square.

 But why Broadway, exactly? Why not the Bowery or Fifth Avenue? And how did our fair city go from simple vaudeville and minstrel shows to Shuffle Along, Irene and Show Boat, surely the most influential musical of the Jazz Age?

This podcast is an epic, a wild musical adventure in itself, full of musical interludes, zipping through the evolution of musical entertainment in New York City, as it races up the 'main seam' of Manhattan -- the avenue of Broadway.

We are proud to present a tour up New York City's most famous street, past some of the greatest theaters and shows that have ever won acclaim here, from the wacky (and highly copied) imports of Gilbert & Sullivan to the dancing girls and singing sensations of the Ziegfeld revue tradition.

CO-STARRING: Well, some of the biggest names in songwriting, composing and singing. And even a dog who talks in German!  At right: Billie Burke from a latter-year Follies. (NYPL)

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 it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #159 The Broadway Musical: Setting the Stage

And we would like to welcome our new sponsor Squarespace!

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The original grid plan from 1811. As you can see, Broadway was not meant to extend further than the Parade Ground, the largest planned plaza from the Commissioner's Plan. Years later, the Parade Ground was reduced (becoming Madison Square) and Broadway was allowed to break the grid, creating plazas conducive for transportation and public gathering. (NYPL)

One of dozens of knock-off productions of HMS Pinafore, this one featuring children:

The facade of the Fifth Avenue Theater, once located at 1185 Broadway. Why was it called the Fifth Avenue Theater then? Possibly to just make the society ladies feel at home here!  This was home to three Gilbert & Sullivan original productions, including the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance.

The Florodora girls, from the hugely successful 1900 musical comedy which debuted at the Casino Theater. (NYPL)

One of the more fantastic creatures from Victor Herbert's Babes In Toyland, which made its debut in Columbus Circle's Majectic Theater. You can read my article here on the musical which inspired Herbert's show, the musical version of The Wizard of Oz. (NYPL)

George M Cohan in a rare film appearance from 1932.


Video of a Ziegfeld Follies from 1929, a bit past their heyday, actually. They would only last until 1931:

Sheet music from 1921 of one of the most famous songs from Shuffle Along (NYPL):

Dancing girls during the Actors Strike of 1919, which galvanized the industry and gave regular New Yorkers a window into the tough conditions faced by many background performers. (NYPL)

So the number 'After The Ball' -- a huge hit song that made its stage debut in A Trip To Chinatown -- made a return appearance to Broadway in 1927's Show Boat!

Musical cues from this week's show:
Give My Regards To Broadway and After the Ball performed by Billy Murray
Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man and Ol Man River, performed by Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson, respectively, from a 1932 cast recording, featuring Victor Young and His Orchestra
Love Will Find A Way, from a 1921 recording by Eubie Blake
Selection from HMS Pinafore, from a 1914 recording by the Victory Light Opera Chorus

 Here's an interesting version of "After the Ball" by the song's composer, Charles K Harris!

 And finally, a clip from the film version of 'Show Boat', featuring an iconic performance by Paul Robeson.

 From the original 1927 production of Show Boat at the Ziegfeld Theatre: