Monday, March 31, 2014

Recalling the opening of Roseland Ballroom at the start of Prohibition, the 'phantasmal' atmosphere, the private dancer

The Roseland Ballroom closes its doors next month on April 7th after a round of Lady Gaga concerts.  The storied big band venue -- the 'world's foremost ballroom cafe' -- originally opened on December 31, 1919 at 1658 Broadway (at 50th/51st Street).  In the 1950s, it moved to its present location on 52nd Street, a former ice and roller-skating rink.

On the surface, opening a dance club a few weeks before the start of Prohibition doesn't seem to be especially wise.  But New Yorkers ate it up.  After all, there would eventually be hundreds of speakeasies surrounding it!"

From the January 17, 1920 edition of the New York Evening World, headlined 'Broadway Finds Joy In Roseland':

"The shadow of the camel, i.e. the presence of Prohibition, has not robbed Broadway of all its pleasures.  The dancers still find a way to have a good time, as may be attested by the thousands who attend the sessions at Roseland, the new dancing place at Broadway and 51st Street."

During the '20s, the Roseland was the scene of many dance marathons for prize money.  In 1923, when the city reminded him that state codes authorized only twelve-hour endurance contests, he arranged for competitors to be whisked away on a boat -- called the Roseland -- to complete the contest.

The Roseland took aim at dismissing the blues at the height of the Great Depression.   "At Roseland Ballroom, 'Old Man Depression' will be tried and found guilty of murdering Prosperity and sentenced to death.  A scaffold will be erected for him and his 'death' will be a signal for merry-making." [from the December 31, 1931, New York Times]

At right: Regular Roseland bandleader Fletcher Henderson (courtesy NYPL)

The Roseland was never the Rainbow Room.  During the 1940s it was nicknamed 'the poor man's nightclub' which apparently didn't stop it from being "the most famous dance hall in the world," according to the New Yorker in 1942.  (It was also, back when it opened, a whites-only establishment.)  Always popular, the Roseland of the 1940s was charming and sometimes mysterious, regimental and rarely lewd.  Its owner Louis Brecker always referred to it as "the home of refined dancing."

"People accustomed to night-club life often find the atmosphere slightly phantasmal. The ceiling is hung with dark-blue muslin studded with tiny electric bulbps give a night-sky effect. The roomis lit by neon lamps, graduating in shade from deep pink to lemon yellow. In their dim rays knots of patrons drift to and from the dance floor with a curiously delicate air, fluorescing a bit as they go." [New Yorker, 1942]

Roseland dancers, 1941 (Library of Congress)

The Roseland was also known for hostesses (or taxi dancers) who would dance with gentlemen for $1.50 per half hour.  They were beautiful and well behaved, never drinking alcohol if their patrons offered. And they never solicited business, sitting politely in a roped-off dias by the dance floor, waiting for an interested man to come along.

"Each hostess tried to build up a clientele by thoughtful attention to masculine interests and hobbies. Many hostesses read books in order to increase their conversational range," according to the New Yorker. "[E]lderly gentlemen who like to surround themselves with hostesses, sometimes  [bought] out the entire platoon for the evening."

The hostess/taxi dancer, hugely popular during the World War II era, had mostly faded out by the time the Roseland moved to its present location at 52nd Street.

 Here's a Henderson tribute to the venue, entitled "Rose Room (In Sunny Roseland)":


Friday, March 28, 2014

How the cliffhanger was born 100 years ago

What does the George Washington Bridge have to do with The Perils of Pauline, the classic film serial which debuted 100 years ago this week?  They're both cliffhangers of the literal sort -- and almost the same cliffs, it turns out.

Many consider the Pauline film series to be the first "movie blockbuster," filled with thrills and suspense.  Pauline (Pearl White) has an inheritance coming to her once she gets married, but as an adventurous single woman thirsting for some action, she puts off looking for a mate to explore the world.  The secretary in charge of the inheritance, hoping to keep it for himself, baits Pauline into various dangerous quests in hopes she will meet an unfortunate end.

Although the films are silent, a novelization from that same year fleshes out the melodrama and reveals a rather bold lead character:  "As an old, settled-down married woman, I couldn't really do what I want.  I must see life in its great moments.  I must have thrills, adventures, see people, do daring things, watch battles.  It might be best for me even to see someone killed, if that were possible."

Below: The first Perils of Pauline adventure, which debuted 100 years ago this week:

The serial was filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, adjoining with the production studios of New York City and Jersey City to become America's first film capital.  (Only a few movie studios had begun moving out to Los Angeles by this period.)  Pauline was the first American project for the French production company Pathe.

The Perils of Pauline was filmed along ragged cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades.  In fact, it is from one of Pauline's own adventures -- where she's literally hanging from a cliff -- that we get the phrase 'cliffhanger'.

Fifteen years after the success of Pauline, Fort Lee found itself almost completely without an industry, as most producers migrated out west to the flourishing Hollywood scene.  It was at this time that Othmar Ammann developed his strategy for a bridge spanning the Hudson River, one that took advantage of the Palisades' high elevation.

A Fort Lee historian recently studied a 1918 publicity shot of a later Pauline serial called The House of Hate (below) and discovered it was taken near Coytesville, NJ. Had the film been made a dozen years later, the George Washington Bridge would have been in the shot!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The horror of moving to Brooklyn -- from a 1905 comic strip

Above: Food can do strange things to you at night: an excerpt from McCay's January 7, 1905 strip, published two days after the one printed in full below.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was one of America's first great comic strips and easily one of the weirdest. Each eight-panel or nine-panel strip featured an individual trapped within a situation nightmarish for its day, only to be woken up in the final panel.  The cause for the dream was almost always the same -- a meal of rarebit the night before.

Written by Winsor McCay (of Little Nemo fame), this extraordinary oddity ran in various New York newspapers starting in 1904, with various spin-offs and revivals well into the 1920s.  McCay was a favorite of publisher William Randolph Hearst, who often stifled the illustrator's unrelated endeavors to keep the popular artist loyal to Hearst's publications.

You can find the entire collection of these fascinating little adventures here.

Rarebit -- a hot cheesy sauce poured over toasted bread -- seems to have had profound effects on the subconscious.  It was able to vividly extract the fears of New Yorkers at night.  While most were magnificently surreal, others touched on modern issues like crowded trains, uncontrollable automobiles and fast streetcars.

Another such fear, according an entry from January 5, 1905, was the disgrace of moving to Brooklyn.

You can read this particular strip below with the panels broken out.  Read the strip in its original form here.


I found this comic thanks to the guidance of Gawker commenter raincoaster. Thanks for the inspiration!

Friday, March 21, 2014

The real 'Muppets Take Manhattan': 21 wacky historical details from Jim Henson's Big Apple adventure

The Bowery Boys Obsessive Guides look very, very closely at a classic movie filmed in New York City, finding buried history, additional context and a few secrets within various scenes and plot points.  Check out my previous guides for Midnight Cowboy and Ghostbusters.

"We did our first film in Los Angeles and our second in London. I thought it would be nice to do the next one in our hometown." -- Jim Henson

In The Muppets Take Manhattan, our friendly assortment of animal and animal-esque protagonists arrive in New York City to put on a variety show.  But, of course, Jim Henson and his creations had been here for over a decade already, the critical ingredient of PBS's Sesame Street, which originally filmed on the Upper West Side.

By 1982, production on the children's show had moved to 55th Street and Ninth Avenue, but the Muppets had gone global -- with a successful syndicated variety show (The Muppet Show, from 1976 to 1981, produced in England) and two box office hits, The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper.  Given the theatrical nature of their own weekly show -- set in a theater, after all -- it made sense to return the Muppets to New York, to finally bring the beloved characters to a cinematic Broadway stage.

The Muppets Take Manhattan opened thirty years ago, on July 13, 1984.  This week comes the latest Muppets film, Muppets Most Wanted, sending our foam-formed friends to points around the globe.  But let's stay local, shall we?, and reminisce about their antics through early '80s New York.  Below are 21 often trivial, mostly historical points of interest from Henson's zany, most exuberant homecoming:

NOTE ON TIME AND SETTING:  The Muppets Take Manhattan, directed by Frank Oz, was released in the summer of 1984 and filmed the previous summer in a variety of New York and New Jersey locations, with interior shots at Empire Stages in Long Island City (today Paris Film Productions).  However it's set sometime in the summer of 1982, judging from flying calendar pages that set September 1 on a Wednesday.

"Broadway? But this show isn't good enough for Broooadway!"

1.  The film opens with some terrific overhead shots of Manhattan, before taking us over bridges to Poughkeepsie, NY, the home of the fictional Danhurst College (as played by Vassar College).  The Muppets are on stage, delighting an over-enthusiastic crowd with their new variety show 'Manhattan Melodies'.  With charming naivety, they decide to bring the show to New York City.

'Manhattan Melodies' was actually the name of a successful New York radio show in 1932, broadcast by WOR from Times Square.  History was made with a unique multi-location broadcast featuring The Do Re Mi Trio, three voices recorded from three different skyscrapers.  "'Do' was on the Empire State [Building], eighty-six stories in the air, 'Re' was on the seventy-first floor of the Chrysler Building, and 'Mi' was on the roof of the Manhattan Bank Building [aka 40 Wall Street]." [source]

Port Authority in 1980, photo by Jeremy Gilbert/Flickr

2. The Muppets arrive through the unglamorous hallways of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  In the early 1980s, this was considered one of the most crime infested areas of Midtown, a marketplace for prostitution and crack dealers. The bus terminal was "an ideal place for these illegal activities" during this period due to a recent expansion that left many corridors unguarded at night.  Crime here "escalated to an uncontrollable level."

Despite this, the Muppets decide to move into a wall of lockers. "I'll trade with anybody who has a Jacuzzi!" says the free-spirited Janice.

3. Animal wears an I HEART NEW YORK T-shirt throughout the film. This was a rather new emblem then, created in 1977 by graphic designer Milton Glaser.  The irony of loving a particular city that was in a serious social and financial crisis was not lost on the designer.

"It was the mid-seventies, a terrible moment in the city.  Morale was at the bottom of the pit," Glaser said in an interview with The Believer. "....[T]hen suddenly the city simultaneously got fed up and said, 'It's our city, we're going to take it back, we're not going to allow this stuff to happen."  And part of that was this campaign."

He gave away the rights to the design, so he gets paid nothing for the use  -- in the film, on tourist T-shirts, or anyplace else.

4.  With Variety Magazine in hand, the Muppets venture off to pitch the show to big Broadway producers.  The first, disreputable Martin Price (Dabney Coleman), has offices at the Paramount Building (1501 Broadway) in Times Square.

Originally built for the film company Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation in 1926, it rapidly became a key center for Broadway theater wheeling-and-dealing, "a hive of suites where ideas are hatched, partnerships forged, contracts signed, legends born," according the New York Times.  In the basement was a Walgreen's lunch counter, popular with struggling actors and writers, "a poor man's Sardi's".

 Between 1979 and 1982, there were over 7,000 reported murders in New York City. (In comparison, there were less than 2,000 between 2009-2012.).  This partially explains the dialogue exchange between Kermit and Price: "Well, it's all about life in the big city." "The big city? Cops, shootings, car chases -- that kind of stuff?"

5. With no luck finding a producer, the Muppets sullenly trudge down a street in the West Village -- Varick Street, between Downing and West Houston.  You can see the subway entrance in this scene as well as the green Graphic Arts Center Building. (Just out of view -- the Film Forum.)  They find solace at Pete's Luncheonette, which resides on the Downing Street corner.  Today it's a McDonalds (at left).

6. Rizzo the Rat delivers a hamburger with no patty to a customer.  He turns and shouts to Pete: "Hey Pete. Where's the beef?"  The first Wendy's commercial featuring the 'Where's The Beef' lady Clara Peller debuted in January 1984 -- after principal filming was completed -- so this is most likely a weird coincidence.

7. Hopeless that their musical will ever be produced, everyone decides to leave town except Kermit.  Scooter bikes away through New Jersey, Fozzie hops a train hobo-style, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem hitch a ride to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  But, no surprise, Miss Piggy's departure is the most glamorous, taking one of Thomas Edison's original 1930 electric traincars from Hoboken Terminal.

"You hear me, New York? We're going to be on Broadway. You hear that, New York? I'm staying here! The Frog is staying!"

8. A dejected Kermit the Frog finds some renewed encouragement when he visits the Empire State Building's observation deck, looking north over the darkened city.  To the right is the Pan Am Building which would remain branded with the airline's logo until 1992, when it would become the Met Life Building.

However, presuming this scene was filmed in 1983, Kermit would not have been the only animal superstar on the Empire State Building.  In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the movie King Kong, a 3,000 lb nylon King Kong balloon was attached to the top of the building. (Photo courtesy Hamburg News/New York Daily News)

9. Kermit meets up with Pete's daughter Jenny, a wanna-be fashion designer, in front of the Plaza Hotel, with everything in Grand Army Plaza looking almost the same as it does today.

For some reason, those grumpy curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf are sitting on a bench, sunning themselves.  The duo has a rather profound link to New York City history; they're both named for classic New York hotels -- the Statler (today's Hotel Pennsylvania) and the Waldorf Astoria.  And, yes, Waldorf's wife is actually named Astoria.  She appeared in this 1979 episode of The Muppet Show starring Dizzy Gillespie.

10.  Miss Piggy is spying on Kermit from under a scaffolding in front of Bergdorf Goodman. (Just as we missed out on a shot of the Film Forum earlier, so too is Bergdorf's neighbor The Paris Theater cut from view.)  It's later revealed she's working at a perfume and makeup counter with Joan Rivers.  This was not far-fetched casting; before making it big as a comic, Rivers worked as a fashion consultant for Bond Clothing Stores and even designed window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor.

11.  What are the rest of the Muppets up to?  Scooter works at a Cleveland movie theater, with the Swedish Chef manning concessions.  The film playing there is Attack of the Killer Fish in 3D, an obvious parody of 1978's Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Believe it or not, Killer Tomatoes owes a small New York film festival for some of its cult cred.  Two years after it was produced, the film piqued the curiosity of the media when it screened at the World's Worst Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre in 1980, co-hosted by movie critic Michael Medved.

The film festival was a de facto Woodstock for schlock cinema, with Killer Tomatoes a star attraction.  Said co-writer John DeBello, "The Wall Street Journal had the poster on its front page, the CBS Evening News used the song to close their credits.  When people heard the title, just like when I heard the title, people loved it."  At right: Killer Tomatoes at the Beacon Theatre.

12.  Sardi's Restaurant takes center stage of perhaps the film's most famous scene, as Kermit, disguised as an elegant producer, sends Rizzo's rat friends in to create a 'whisper campaign' about his new musical.

Sardi's has been inextricably linked to the Broadway industry since its opening in 1927, hosting hundreds of cast parties, business meetings and probably a few professional break-ups.  It even gave birth to the Tony Awards.  (You can listen to the whole fabulous tale of Sardi's in our 2011 podcast.)

Vincent Sardi Jr., who appears in the film (see below), hosted the glittering greats of Broadway for over a half-century. He was considered the unofficial "Mayor of Broadway."

Kermit also squeezes his own likeness onto Sardi's famous wall of caricatures. To do so, he must take down that of Liza Minelli, which does not please her.

In fact, not only does Liza's caricature still appear at Sardi's, Kermit's is still there too.  (At least last time I checked!)  Liza's is by Brooklyn artist Richard Baratz.  Look for his other likeness of Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Whoopi Goldberg and dozens more.  Kermit's?  No one knows who drew that.

13. Jenny consoles Kermit in Central Park, somewhere on Cherry Hill, next to Bethesda Fountain.  Near this spot was the site of New York City's first-ever frog jumping competition in 1935, inspired by Mark Twain's short story "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calavaras County."

Local children's organizations could sponsor one of 175 frogs shipped in from Louisiana.  But this was not a trivial event.  Ten thousand people took part, with former governor Al Smith presiding over the event and boxer Jack Dempsey serving as referee.  The winner was a female frog named Abbie Villaret. (You can see a picture here.)

14.  Central Park is depicted as a destination for people in exercise clothes and a place to ride through in carriages.  Oh, and the place you get mugged.  While Piggy is spying on Kermit, a mugger grabs her purse. (The mugger is played by Gary Tacon. Today he's an accomplished stuntman and was recently in The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Crime was a factor people assumed was a regular component of New York's most famous park.  In 1982, the year it set an attendance record of 14.2 million, there were 22 reported rapes and over 700 robberies.  [source] Although it would take several years to meaningfully reduce crime, the park's infrastructure steadily improved, thanks to the efforts of the Central Park Conservancy.

Oh, by the way, Piggy borrows roller-skates from Gregory Hines, chases down her assailant and retrieves her purse.  Here's a video of some fine roller-skating style exhibited in the park during the 1980s:

15. Of the many special guests who appear in the film, the hottest star of the moment was perhaps Brooke Shields.  The Blue Lagoon star filmed this cameo at Pete's Luncheonette a few months before entering Princeton:

Masterson the Rat:  Do you believe in interspecies dating?
Brooke:  Well, I've gone out with a few rats if that's what you mean.

In 1982, Shields briefly dated John F. Kennedy Jr. and took Ted McGinley to her prom.

16. Meanwhile where's Gonzo?  He's trying to make a living on the road, performing in an aquacade in Michigan.  But these acrobatic scenes were actually filmed closer to home -- Rye Playland, the historic amusement park overlooking the Long Island Sound.  Gonzo's fiery derring-do takes place by the Playland Lake (in the top right corner of the 1927 picture below, courtesy NYPL).

Four years after Gonzo conquers the park, a young boy consults an arcade fortune teller here at Rye Playland and becomes Tom Hanks in the movie Big.

"Just because the whole thing is crazy doesn't mean it won't make it on Broadway!"

17. Finally, somebody's interested in 'Manhattan Melodies'!  Playing esteemed producer Bernard Crawford is Art Carney, who had acted on Broadway for almost thirty years by this time, not to mention, of course, his performance as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners.

But it's Bernard's son Ronnie who takes on Kermit's script to produce and direct.  He's played by Lonny Price in a role that would almost precisely predict his future.

Price was an in-demand theater actor (best known for Broadway's "Master Harold"...and the Boys) before Muppets.  Afterwards, he became an in-demand theater director, recently helming 110 in the Shade with Audra McDonald and a new variation of Camelot with the New York Philharmonic.

18. Things are looking up for Kermit when he is suddenly hit by a cab in front of Madison Square Garden. And not just any cab, but a Checker Taxi, which had actually ceased manufacturing in 1982.  They stayed on city streets for several years after.  According to the New York Times, there were ten left in 1993.  The final one left service in 1999.  Photo above courtesy Inside New York.

19. Kermit's accident gave him amnesia, and confused about his identity, he gets a job at Mad Ave Advertising, a Madison Avenue advertising firm.  Decades before Mad Men, Kermit is immediately thrown into pitch meetings, displaying a Don Draper-like salesmanship.  Unlike the offices of Sterling Cooper, female frogs seem to be treated equally. (At least in name -- Bill, Gil and Jill.)

1982 was a turbulent year for New York advertising firms with dozens of buyouts and mergers, including one between Madison Avenue's two largest firms -- Saatchi and Saatchi and Compton Advertising -- worth over a billion and a half dollars.  Given that Mad Ave Advertising is seeking the assistance of an amnesia patient, it doesn't seem like this firm will be long for this world.

20. The Muppets tear through Manhattan, looking for Kermit.  Scooter races his bike by the Shubert Theater and its smash hit A Chorus Line.  In September 1983, the show became Broadway's longest-running show of its day.  By the time The Muppets Take Manhattan opened in movie theaters, a movie version of Chorus was already begun filming in New York.

Other Muppets search the New York Public Library, Central Park, even the sewer.

But it's Gonzo that gets the privilege of interrupting Mayor Ed Koch during a press conference at Gracie Mansion.

Gonzo: I'm looking for a frog that can sing and dance!

Koch: If he can also balance the budget, then I'll hire him.

Koch had a special affection for Gracie Mansion, throwing weekly dinner parties there and organizing press conferences on the porch.  Having the mayor of New York live elsewhere, said Koch, would be "like asking the president not to live at the White House." [source]

The mayor made several appearances with the Muppets throughout his tenure.  The mayor's itinerary from June 28, 1984 reads as follows:  "Courtesy call with Yasushi Oshima, Mayor of Osaka, Japan; views new uniforms for Taxi and Limousine Commission inspectors; accepts check for $500,000 donated by Mobil Corporation for the Summer Youth Employment Program's Clean Team; attends Financial Control Board meeting; drops in at reception celebrating the opening of The Muppets Take Manhattan."

The Biltmore Theater in 1944

21. Finally, Manhattan Melodies opens! And on a swanky stage too -- the Biltmore Theater.  A stage that unfortunately is on its last legs in the film.

The Biltmore opened in 1925 and hosted dozens of shows in Broadway's golden years.  After briefly becoming a CBS television studio, it reverted back to live theater and was most notably the home for the Broadway transfer of Hair in 1968.  The line-up of shows that appeared here in the early 1980s include Deathtrap with Victor Garber and the Garry Trudeau-written musical Doonesbury.

However, in 1987, the theater was ravaged by fire, most likely arson.  According to the New York Times report, "Hypodermic needles were found inside the theater, indicating that drug users may have been using it as a shooting gallery, and storage lockers had been rifled." 

The theater finally reopened in 2008 -- under the ownership of the Manhattan Theatre Club -- as the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, named for the renown Broadway publicist.  Opening there next month -- Casa Valentina written by Harvey Fierstein.  He happens to be a regular in the Muppets universe; Fierstein has starred on Sesame Street, in the film Elmo Saves Christmas, and even wrote a recipe for Miss Piggy's cookbook in 1996.

As quickly as the show begins, however we cut to a shot of a wedding chapel for the nuptials of Kermit and Piggy.  Nearly all the existing Muppets appear in this scene. (Muppets Wiki actually has a complete seating chart.)   Piggy's gown gives a subtle nod to that of Princess Diana's when she wed Charles in 1981.

AFTERWORD:  The Muppets Take Manhattan was a modest box office success when it opened in July 1984.  The film was up for the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song Score.  But the film lost the award to Prince for Purple Rain.

The artist took to the stage wearing a garment which Miss Piggy would have desperately coveted:

My thanks to the Muppets Wiki for the inspiration for this article..  All images are courtesy Tri-Star Pictures/Jim Henson

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

History in the Making 3/19 "Opulent Grandeur" Edition

Arriving at Madison Square Garden one century ago, you would find the Barnum & Bailey circus in town with their new spectacular, The Wizard Prince of Arabia. (Poster from the blog My Delineated Life)

All Nine Lives: The odd, little tale of Peter, the pole-sliding fire cat from Bushwick. [The Hatching Cat]

Prince Charles: What do Fiorello LaGuardia, Woody Guthrie, Diane Arbus and Goodnight Moon have in common? [Forgotten NY]

My Khaleesi:  An ominous fire-breathing dragon landed in front of Lincoln Center last night. No, really. [Gothamist]

A Classy Discovery: The horse-adorned remains of an Upper East Side riding school and former home of an illegal raffle racket. [Daytonian in Manhattan]

DINE WITH SLIM: A host of old New York neon signs from over 75 years ago. [New York Neon]

And finally, if you're looking to save money this summer, Bowery Boys co-host Tom Meyers gives some tips on budget travel for the podcast Amateur Traveler. [Listen here or download on iTunes]

Below: Advertisement for the Barnum and Bailey Circus, March 25, 1914. Featuring 'Fifty Famously Funny Clowns'.....

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

IT'S ALIVE! How the American teenager took over the world

College girls at Maryland State, 1923 (courtesy Shorpy)

The captivating tone-poem documentary Teenage makes a convincing case for one of the 20th century's most powerful organic inventions -- the teenager.  Like the telephone or Coca-Cola, the teenager was principally an American invention which took hold throughout the Western world, a product of modernity and modern wealth.

American adolescents, freed from responsibility (thanks to child labor laws) and shaped by world wars, developed habits and morals fashioned from pop culture.  The melodramas of a postpubescent life became heightened and iconized -- young love, emotional trauma, budding sexuality and physical awkwardness.

In Matt Wolf's Teenage, we see this alien lifeform evolve over the course of under 50 years, from the start of the century to the year 1945, a finish line marked by the creation of 'A Teen-Age Bill of Rights' which ran in the New York Times.  It mercifully stops before the monster fully emerges, the hyper-teenager (Annette Funicello, Elvis Presley, Catcher In The Rye) standing just beyond on the horizon.

This is not strictly an American story. We see champagne-swilling British adolescents and young Germans  listening to jazz too. Rebellion translates in different ways -- flappers, zoot suits, flirtatious dance moves. While American girls were crumbling in grief over the death of Rudolph Valentino, their English counterparts were filling the newspapers with scandalous behavior.  In Germany, the youth even took power before succumbing to exuberance, then becoming entrapped by its dangerous extremes.

Teenage is not a straight-forward story, but a spiritual rumination on youth.  The film uses an impressive collection of stock footage to create a feeling of inevitability to this curious generational shift -- from worn clips of war-torn battlefields to images of Harlem race riots and dance floors.  Nothing stops for long.  Young, beautiful faces cascade through various crises, some superfluous, many of their own design.  But most outside their control.

Woven through this dizzying black-and-white atmosphere are a few clever modern reenactments, illustrating a few individual stories, zeroing in on a few youths carried away by vice, radicalism or violence.

This is not a documentary that stops and stares.   It creates a flowing narrative that bleeds subjects into each other, like a watercolor made of newsreel,  perhaps a frustrating experience if you're looking for something more traditional.  Teenage is a meditation, not a Ken Burns movie.  You may leave the movie thinking less about the historical construct of adolescence and more with the emotional uncertainty of a certain Victor Frankenstein, moments after realizing what he's unleashed upon the universe.

Teenage is currently playing at Sunshine Cinema in New York City.  Visit their website for other dates and locations.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The 1867 St Patrick's Day riot: No peace in the Lower East Side

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper reported on a 'riot' which occurred on Saint Patrick's Day 1867 at the intersections of East Broadway, Grand and Pitt Streets, one block below Delancey Street and the Williamsburg Bridge (which was decades from being built by that date).

The parade began on East Broadway, with regiments assembling here ("slush and snowdrifts ... disregarded") to march throughout the city.

A bit after noon, a wagon driver, hemmed in by mounds of snow, got caught at Grand and Pitt street, blocking the parade route.  He was immediately set upon by angry marchers.  When a police officer interceded to protect the driver, he, too, was assaulted, "knocked down and severely injured by being trampled upon."

Other officers arrived, and soon Grand and Pitt was the scene of senseless violence.  "The Hibernians broke their staves of office and used the fragments as shillelaghs and clubs, with such effect, that the officers were the recipients of several ugly scalp wounds and bruises."  Another report lists the unique weaponry as "sword canes, society emblems and other missiles."  One officer was wounded with a sabre. Soon the street corner filled with policemen, and the violence subsided. [source]

The whole event seemed to last no more than thirty minutes.  But the New York Times, a fairly anti-Democrat, anti-Irish paper in the mid 19th century, was truly outraged: "We trust there is no Irishman or Irish American, outside of a small lawless minority, that does not feel keenly the disgrace brought upon such celebrations as that of yesterday, by the wanton and brutal assaults upon the Police."

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Alienist by Caleb Carr, released 20 years ago this week: Retracing the steps of this Gilded Age murder mystery

NOTE: This article has a few plot spoilers but no major twists are revealed or discussed.  I've tried to write the descriptions within the interactive map as vaguely as possible.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr was published 20 years ago this week, an instant best-seller in 1994 that has become a cult classic among history buffs.  Despite some creakiness uniquely inherent to early '90s fiction thrillers, it remains today a page-turning and utterly spellbinding adventure.

Although the Jack the Ripper murders were an obvious inspiration for Carr, perhaps The Alienist's biggest influence is The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.  Carr completed his tale of serial murders in the Gilded Age just as a slew of Silence knockoffs began hitting the bookshelves.  The Alienist stands far above the pack, of course, but you can't deny its success in 1994 was partially inspired by reader's cravings for murderers with perverted tastes and body parts in formaldehyde jars.

The Alienist follows a quirky team of investigators in 1896 as they follow the bloody trail of a killer with a peculiar penchant for boy prostitutes, often dressed as girls to the delight of their clientele.  Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is the alienist (or psychologist) in charge of the case, stitching together a profile of the loathsome figure, conveniently using soon-to-be standard analytic techniques.

At right: Alternate artwork for The Alienist (Courtesy Nerd Blerp)

As protagonist John Schuyler Moore, a reporter for the New York Times, explains it "[W]e start with the prominent features of the killings themselves, as well as the personality traits of the victims, and from those we determine what kind of man might be at work. Then, using evidence that would otherwise have seemed meaningless, we begin to close in."

Carr's book is finely detailed, perhaps overly detailed, which won't be a problem if you love New York City history.  There are over two dozen scenes at various notable landmarks throughout Manhattan, some in various states of construction.  Several real-life figures make appearances, although the most entertaining characters are Carr's own, including the intrepid proto-policewoman Sara Howard and scrappy errand boy Stevie 'Stovepipe' Taggart.

When I first read The Alienist back in 1994, I was struck by its preciseness, an expertly placed breadcrumb trail through old Gotham.  There is no romantic gloss, as in another history classic Time and Again. He makes it seem possible to retrace almost every step of our heroes. (In researching this article, I tried to do so.)  The original New York Times review noted that "[y]ou can practically hear the clip-clop of horses' hooves echoing down old Broadway."  They're still echoing.

The story begins in the early months of 1896 during a robust winter. Below, from the Illustrated American, a depiction of a snowy Madison Square that year (NYPL):

His depiction of old New York is still glorious.  The book's polite take on certain social issues, however, read a bit wobbly today.  To his credit, Carr tackles police corruption, gender discrimination, racial prejudice and the plight of homosexuals, all while elaborating on complicated psychological theories in service of an entertaining story.  He has stuffed a hidden epic of New York into the framework of a modern murder mystery.  That he chooses to handle hot-button social issues with kid gloves is not a misstep, but merely a symptom of its genre and day.

The Alienist is still greatly enjoyable, perhaps slightly more so now.  Thanks to renewed interest in New York City history, the details here are even more shimmering and vital.  This is not an old New York emerging from a mysterious fog, but a world that seems to exist alongside our own.

And to prove that -- below you will find a detailed, interactive map of the pivotal locations used in the book.  You can click into various points for further details.  A few of these pins have pictures and other links. Just zoom in and choose a location!  (NOTE: Some locations are approximate and a couple are speculation.)


A little elaboration on certain elements of the book's bigger places and themes:

Paresis Hall 
Most of the murder victims are boy prostitutes employed as several houses of ill repute throughout the city.  Paresis Hall, located steps from Cooper Union, sounds like it was both a place where gay men could congregate in private clubs and a place of sexual transaction, often (as in the book) with underage boys dressed up as girls.  This boy, Nathaniel ' The Kid' Cullen, may have worked there, or may have just a habitue of the club. (He appears in this collection of photographs from Paresis Hill.)

Madison Square 
This was still a thriving center for culture and dignified entertainments in 1896. Many theaters clustered around the park, although newer stages were making their way up Broadway to Herald Square.  If Delmonico's (on the northwest corner) is too crowded for you, head over to the tea room at Madison Square Garden on the northeast side.  Pictured here in 1893, three years before the events of the Alienist. (NYPL)

Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir
In 1896, New York still relied on this reservoir to provide most people with water.  But it was also a tourist destination in itself, with walking paths along the top.  Shortly after its appearance it the book, the Egyptian-inspired reservoir was torn down to make way for New York's new public library. (NYPL)

Bellevue Hospital and Morgue
Check out our podcast and blog posting on the history of Bellevue Hospital, as many of the details mentioned there appear in this book.  Below: Bellevue in 1879.

Isabella Goodwin
Sara Howard seems to be a little bit Nellie Bly, and a lot Isabella Goodwin, the first female office promoted to detective in 1896 (the year the book is set).  Below: A front-page case cracked by Goodwin from February 1912.

New York Aquarium
Carr's narrative features several New York landmarks in construction.  Two of those places take a morbid center stage in the book -- the Williamsburg Bridge and the nearly completed New York Aquarium (the former Castle Garden) (NYPL)

Theodore Roosevelt
Carr weaves several real life figures into the storyline, from J.P. Morgan (who comes off quite ominous) to Jacob Riis (not a flattering portrait of him either).  But future president Roosevelt gets a glowing supporting role as New York's police commissioner who directs Dr. Kreizler, Moore and Howard to investigate the murders using powers of psychological deduction.

In fact, the book is actually a flashback by our hero Moore, recalled when he visits the Oyster Bay funeral of his dear friend in 1919 (pictured below). (LOC)

True Crime
And there are a great many real-life figures from New York's criminal underworld as well.  In fact, most of the lecherous and notorious figures depicted in the book are real folks, from early gangsters like Paul Kelly to brothel owners such as Biff Ellison.  Carr also finds a few disturbing mental cases to bring into the story, including the young killer Jesse Pomeroy (pictured below), considered one of the most brutal of murderers at a ripe age of 14.

Grand Central Depot
The characters do venture to places outside the city for further clues, but they always come through Grand Central Depot, the most hectic place in New York.  (Pennsylvania Station had not yet been built.)  Within a few years, this too would be ripped down and replaced with the present Grand Central Terminal. (LOC)

And finally, there are three central locations from the book that are still around today:

Dr. Laszlo's residence at Stuyvesant Park. Actually the address in the book doesn't really exist.  But based on a couple descriptions -- and its proximity to St. George's Church, which is mentioned as close by -- this building at 237 East 17th Street may be what Carr had in mind:

Murder headquarters at 808 Broadway -- This exceptionally handsome building was constructed by James Renwick, playing nicely off its neighbor Grace Church.  It's actually called the Renwick!  The team was located on the sixth floor.  Today, on the first floor, is one of New York's most popular costume shops.

John Schuyler Moore's home at Washington Square Park North, facing the park:

(My thanks to Dixie Roberts for the story idea!)