Category Archives: Amusements and Thrills

Diva in Danger: A Manhattan movie studio burns 100 years ago today

Over one hundred years ago, the New York City area (its five boroughs, along with areas in New Jersey and Westchester County) was the undisputed center of the American film industry.

The invention of the movie camera and celluloid film processing — revolutionized by Thomas Edison and many others — seamlessly collided with the city’s thriving vaudeville and burlesque circuits. By 1910 audiences were enjoying short films at nickelodeons, vaudeville theaters and film parlors, most of them filmed in studios scattered throughout the area.

(We break it all down in our 2011 show New York City and the Birth of the Film Industry.)

There are a few vestiges of this old industry that still remain in New York City, most notably Kaufman Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens.

But many of these old spaces have vanished for more terrifying reasons — fire. Film companies were always burning down a century ago due to the flammability of film stock and chemicals then.

One such fire occurred one hundred years ago today, endangering dozens of people including one of the leading film actresses of the era.

Popular Plays and Players Film Company was a production arm of Metro Pictures, formed in February 1915, filming both in New York and Hollywood. Among its employees was Louis B. Meyer, a film icon to be who would later head a revamped version of the company under the name Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (or MGM).

Popular Plays had a film production studio in New York at 226-230 West 35th Street set up in a former brick churchjust a block north of Pennsylvania Station. “It is one of the most complete laboratories in a New York studio,” claimed a movie magazine the prior year.

 On the third floor, actors were busily at work making a movie called A Waiting Soul, including its star Olga Petrova, an English actress who had made a handful of films positioning her a true cinematic femme fatale, including The Vampire and, prophetically, Playing With Fire.

On the floor below was a film cutting and storage room. According to the Evening World, a fire suddenly erupted “supposedly from spontaneous combustion.” (That’s probably the case as unwashed nitrocellulose “may spontaneously ignite and explode at room temperature.”  Yikes.)

Immediately at risk were two young women who were working in the room as film editors. The newspapers later praised the two women, who were slightly burned in the blaze, for their quick thinking in closing the fireproof doors on their way out of the burning room.

The actors on the third floor heard the explosions and screams of the young film editors, now in the stairway. The film’s director ordered the cast and crew to follow them down the stairs.

Petrova, instead, raced to her dressing room to rescue “a leopard skin coat valued at $15,000 and a string of pigeon blood rubies worth $12,000.”

As absurd as this quick detour sounds, Petrova later claimed that she lost $25,000 in costumes and jewelry to the fire including a variety of fur coats. Fortunately her maid rescued Petrova’s canary Richard.

“[Petrova] reached the street hatless,” remarked the New York Tribune under the headline ‘ACTRESS STARS IN STUDIO BLAZE‘, “in a Palm Beach suit and a leopard skin coat.”

Below: Petrova from January 1922 Photoplay magazine wearing her signature outer wear. 

The firemen had a dramatic battle in store for them.  According to the World, “A big galvanized iron ventilator on the peak of the roof was dislodged from its fastenings by a stream of water and rolled down among the firemen.  But [they] saw the ventilator coming. Those in the way grabbed hold of the hose line and hung on like acrobats, dangling over the fiery pit.”

Producers later claimed that over a quarter of a million dollars worth of equipment and work went up in the blaze, including several completed film.

Sadly all of Petrova’s film work would be lost to these sorts of tragedies. None of her movies are known to survive. But perhaps those pigeon blood rubies are sitting around somewhere…..

 

Picture at top:  Olga Petrova in The Light Within,  made a couple years later after the fire.

 

Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball: The Absurd Story of a Marvelous Party

PODCAST Your ticket to Truman Capote’s celebrity-filled party at the Plaza.

Truman Capote is a true New York character, a Southern boy who wielded his immense writing talents to secure a place within Manhattan high society. Elegant, witty, compact, gay — Capote was a fixture of swanky nightclubs and arm candy to wealthy, well-connected women.

One project would entirely change his life — the completion of the classic In Cold Blood, a ‘non-fiction novel’ about a horrible murder in Kansas. Retreating from his many years of research, Truman decided to throw a party.

But this wasn’t ANY party. This soiree — a masquerade ball at the Plaza Hotel — would have the greatest assemblage of famous folks ever gathered for something so entirely frivolous. An invite to the ball was the true golden ticket, coveted by every celebrity and social climber in America.

Come with us as we give you a tour of the planning of the Black and White Ball and a few glamorous details from that strange, glorious evening.

FEATURING: Harper Lee, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Robert Frost, Lillian Hellman, Halston, Katherine Graham and a cast of thousands (well, or just 540)

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #217: TRUMAN CAPOTE’S BLACK AND WHITE BALL

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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Truman Capote in 1945

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From the unusual book jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1948

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Babe Paley with Truman Capote in Capri, early 1960s

Courtesy the Red List
Courtesy the Red List

Capote in Kansas, at the grave of the Clutter family, their murder being the inspiration for his book In Cold Blood.

1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA --- Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film . --- Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis
1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA — Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film . — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

 

Just a few days before the party, this is what New York City looked like — draped in a toxic smog.

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Truman Capote with his guest of honor — Katherine Graham

 BETTMANN/CORBIS
BETTMANN/CORBIS

Graham is on the left and Capote is front and center, but the real action is Lauren Bacall and Jerome Robbins at right.

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Mrs. Jason Robards Jr. dancing with Jerome Robbins at Truman Capote's party *** Local Caption *** Lauren Bacall;Jerome Robbins;

Supermodel Penelope Tree looks a little bit like Batgirl here.

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Andy Warhol came to the party without a mask.

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Norman Mailer and an unidentified guest.

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One of the most talked about couples of the evening — Frank Sinatra and his new bride (with a new haircut) Mia Farrow.

Conde Nast Archive / Corbis / East News.
Photo courtesy Conde Nast Archive / Corbis- East News.

 

Photo by Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos - East News.
Photo by Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos – East News.

The Bronx World’s Fair of 1918: the failure which became a magical park

Nobody remembers the Bronx World’s Fair of 1918 or, more precisely, the Bronx International Exposition of Science, Arts and Industries. Nor should they really. Modest in scale and only partially completed, the exposition failed to bring the world marvels on the scale of the elevator (from the 1853 Crystal Palace exposition) or the television set (from the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Flushing-Meadows).

It was, in most aspects, a flop. But something very magical — and very nostalgic — arose in its place.

The fair was twenty years in the making, opening on June 29, 1918, two decades after the Bronx had become an official borough of New York. While many areas of the Bronx (as the Annexed District) were already part of New York as early as 1874, it wasn’t until consolidation that Bronx leaders began shaping a new character for this former section of Westchester County.

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But in a sense, the fair was 300 years in the making. It was initially planned as a commemoration of the first European settlement in the Bronx. (NOTE: The park was supposed to open in 1917, although I’m still not sure which measure they’re using to get 1617 as a date of settlement; Jonas Bronck, considered the ‘first’ settler, arrived in 1638.)

The fair was developed on the old grounds of the William Waldorf Astor estate in the neighborhood of West Farms, just to the south of Bronx Park.

From the caption: “Bird’s-Eye View of the Bronx International Exposition Grounds showing the wonderful location in the heart of the great city, and transportation facilities, with railroads, subway and elevated lines, surfactelines and automobile boulevard at the very door.  The Bronx River, providing anchorage for small craft, forms the western boundary  of the exposition grounds.”

Courtesy OutdoorAfro.com
Courtesy OutdoorAfro.com

The fair was meant to “attract foreign trade to this country after the war.”  It was to be a Bronx show-and-tell. “The exposition will bring hundreds of thousands of visitors, who will have the chance to see the Bronx at its very best. There is no reason, it is said, why a certain percentage of those newcomers might not become interested in real estate.” [source]

From a 1917 advertisement in Billboard Maazine attempting to drum up exhibitors.

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Below: Grand plans indeed. What the Bronx fair was supposed to look like.

Courtesy New York Tribune
Courtesy New York Tribune

 

The fair opened almost one month late, having already been delayed a year due to the war. Even still, when it did open, most of its buildings were yet to be completed. Most would never be finished.   “[T]here are only a dozen buildings and a number of concessions including a restaurant, a roller coaster, a centrifugal swing and a nonsense house,” giving it “the impression of a mini-Coney Island.” [source] [source]

Perhaps the most notable structures at the opening were the bathing pavilion, a private club called Circle de Papellon, and “what is said to be the largest salt water surf swimming pool in the world.”

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Over the coming weeks, fair attendees would attend such free attractions as Madame Torelli’s Comedy Circus, the Lunette Sisters aka “the whirling Geisha Girls,” and performances by the world’s greatest high-diver Kearney P. Speedy.  And there was some kind of “monkey cabaret” as well.

One of the Exposition’s most popular attractions was a small submarine called the Holland, the very first commissioned by the United States Navy.

From the Private Collection Of Ric Hedma
From the Private Collection Of Ric Hedman

 

The fair was ‘international’ in the sense that only one country (Brazil) actually showed up to exhibit anything.  After all, it was entirely unrealistic to expect exhibitors while a war was raging in Europe.  By August, the only headlines coming out of the International Exposition were related to swimming and diving. (“HAWAIIANS REPEAT TRIUMPHS IN TANK.”)

Most the fair’s more serious fare took a backseat to the amusements, as this advertisement from September 1918 indicates. The Exhibition Hall was eventually turned into a skating rink. Although one could enjoy cooking demonstrations and a fine exhibition of hardware:

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By the following year, it was decided to just dispense with the serious stuff entirely.  Well before the fair, there had been much talk of turning the Astor property into an amusement park. After the Exposition ended, that finally came to fruition — as Starlight Park.

Thousands of children descended upon Starlight Park during the summer, one of the popular attractions in the Bronx in the 1920s.

Starlight_Park

One of the park’s centerpieces was a giant stadium called the Coliseum which held up to 15,000 people, often there to cheer on New York’s premier soccer team, the New York Giants, who made Starlight their home from 1923 to 1930.

By the 1930s, most of the rides had closed, but the pool was still a popular draw. The park became a magnet for the area’s working class families, who enjoyed sunbathing, picnicking and, if they stayed after dark, moonlight dancing to live big band music. One of the very first Bronx radio stations WKBQ also made Starlight its broadcasting home in 1931.

Sadly, Starlight met with a rather ungracious fate. The park was slowly demolished over the years and by 1940 it was permanently closed, transformed into a city truck facility. A fire in the late 1940s destroyed any remaining vestiges of the park, and its memory was completely wiped away by expanses of the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Today there’s a children’s playground at around the spot of the old exposition called Starlight Park.

Below: Strike up the band! Conductor V. Bavetta provides musical accompaniment to the visitors of Starlight Park

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

 

NOTE: Clips of this article originally appeared in my old 2009 post about Starlight Park.

 

 

Digital City: New York and the World of Video Games

PODCAST The history of video games and arcades in New York City.

New York has an interesting, complex and downright weird relationship with the video game, from the digital sewers below Manhattan to the neon-lit arcades of Times Square.  It’s not all nostalgia and nerviness; video games in the Big Apple have helped create communities and  have been exalted as artistry.

First — the relationship between the city and the arcade itself, once filled with shooting galleries and see ball. When pinball machines were introduced in the 1930s, many saw them as a gateway into gambling.  Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally saw to it that they were taken off the streets.

The era of Space Invaders, Pac Man and Donkey Kong descends in New York during its grittiest period – the late 70s/early 80s – and arrives, like an alien presence, into many neighborhood arcades including one of the most famous in Chinatown – an arcade that is still open and the subject of a new documentary The Lost Arcade.

While the video game industry is not something New York City is particularly associated with, the city does in fact set the stage for this revolution of blips and joysticks at the start of the 20th century and from such unconventional places as the West Village and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

In Queens you’ll find one of America’s great tributes to the video game, in the spectacular arcade collection at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Finally — A look inside the games themselves to explore New York as a digital landscape that continues to be of fascination to game developers and players alike.

So are you ready Player One? Grab your quarters and log in to this New York adventure through the world of video games.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

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

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #208: DIGITAL CITY: NEW YORK AND THE WORLD OF VIDEO GAMES

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

The trailer for The Lost Arcade. It opens today in San Francisco at the Roxie and Friday, August 12, in New York at the Metrograph. Check out their Facebook page for more information about upcoming events and screenings.

The current exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image — ARCADE CLASSICS: VIDEO GAMES FROM THE COLLECTION — continues until mid-September.

Courtesy Museum of the Moving Image
Courtesy Museum of the Moving Image

 

Children at a penny arcade in Schenectady, NY, in 1910

Photo by Lewis Hine, courtesy US National Archives
Photo by Lewis Hine, courtesy US National Archives

 

Mayor La Guardia was not a fan of pinball. Here, in a 1942, he rounds up the pinball balls. Read more in Seth Porges’ article for Popular Mechanics:

laguardiapinball.banner.AP.jpg

 

In a photo taken in 1948 by Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine, prizefighter Walter Cartier plays an arcade game with a young woman.

Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY

And another by Kubrick, from 1946, at Palisades Amusement Park.

MCNY
MCNY

A couple images of a penny arcade and shooting gallery in 1950, photo by Robert Offergeld.

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Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY

 

Playland on 42nd Street, courtesy the film Taxi Driver

Courtesy Scouting NY
Courtesy Scouting NY

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The other Playland at Broadway and 47th Street, pictured here in the 1950s. GIANT MALTED 15 CENTS!

Office for Metropolitan History
Office for Metropolitan History

And later from the 1970s….

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New York City arcade, 1981.

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Courtesy Twin Galaxies
Courtesy Twin Galaxies

 

The original Chinatown Fair sign, near its closure in 2011. It reopened the following year, perhaps a bit more family friendly than its precursor.

Courtesy Giant Bomb
Courtesy Giant Bomb

 

Screenshot from Mario Bros. (1983)

Courtesy GamesDBase
Courtesy GamesDBase

 

Screenshot from Amnesia (1986)

Courtesy Hazlift
Courtesy Hazlift

 

 

Images from Manhunter: New York (1988)

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Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto‘s Liberty City

From GTA Wikia
From GTA Wikia

The area of Bowling Green, after the Great Fire of 1776, as depicted in Assassin’s Creed III.

Courtesy Assassin's Creed Wikia
Courtesy Assassin’s Creed Wikia

From ‘Hot Circuits’ to ‘Arcade Classics’: A Museum’s Quest to Preserve Video Games

ARCADE CLASSICS, the latest show at the Museum of the Moving Image, pulling from the museum’s regular collection of video arcade games, is indeed an all-star line-up of classics. But without the fussiness of an actual arcade. (For one, the experience is at pleasant decibels.)

The machines will mostly be familiar to anybody who identifies as Generation X, devices of digital merriment released mostly between 1979 and 1984. Asteroids, Pole Position, Defender, Missile Command, Dragon’s Lair, Tron — they stand as sentinels in a Hall of Justice, evenly spaced throughout the third floor. The idea is to remove the machines from the arcade environment just enough so that you become appreciative of their whole artistry, the unity — from the sleek digital landscapes to the cabinet design. On that point, the show is a complete success.

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Luckily, you can play most of the games — you get a few complimentary tokens and there’s even a token machine if you want to play more  —  and the echoes through the chamber will certainly bring back childhood memories, even if the presentation is far more austere.

Today a gallery exhibit on video games hardly seems risky. After all these machines are precursors to an entire universe of modern digital images and were themselves influential to later art and fashion.

But the exhibit recalls the Museum’s first attempt at a major retrospective on video game design — 1989’s Hot Circuits, A Video Arcade, considered to be the first-ever video game museum exhibition.

A rare Star Wars game at the current Arcade Classics exhibit.

Sam Branan / Museum of the Moving Image.
Sam Branan / Museum of the Moving Image.

At the time, the ‘video game craze’ — fueled by Space Invaders beginning in 1978 — was a decade old. Most of the consumer focus on video games was on home consoles. The Game Boy, the portable gaming device that would revolutionize game portability,  debuted on the market a couple months before the exhibit opened.

The New York Times write-up on the exhibition focuses mostly on the difficulty curators had in locating games that were intact.  “[A]ssembling the exhibition became a yearlong detective story that drew museum curators to arcade warehouses, motel storage areas and basement recreation rooms.

A video game retrospective for a population obsessed with Pokemon Go and Call of Duty seems like an obvious notion. But the idea seemed less obvious in 1989. The Museum’s founding director Rochelle Slovin confessed, “On a general level, I knew that video games were not, as many dismissed them, a trend or fad, but on the contrary, the beginning of something significant. Exactly what, I wasn’t sure.”

Slovan’s original remarks on the show focus on early video games’ similarities to silent film and an appreciation for the elegantly observed artistic choices of the early games.

While stodgier museum goers might have been downright confused by Hot Circuits, it did broaden the Museum’s focus almost immediately into further exploration into digital media. Indeed, in 2016, as you pass the admissions desk into the museum, you will pass a flamboyant wall display on the The Reaction GIF: Moving Image As Gesture. Michael Jackson will eternally eat popcorn and Homer Simpson will continue to sink into the bushes as you enjoy yourself with the digital delights upstairs.

ARCADE CLASSICS, at the Museum of the Moving Image (in Astoria, Queens) runs until September 18. Visit the museum website for more information on the exhibit and visiting hours.

 

The Mystique of Josephine Baker, born 110 years ago today

Josephine Baker is a spellbinding icon. Her persona is magnetic, mysterious, intangible, taking inspiration from Sophie Tucker and Bessie Smith, the divas of the silent screen and the flappers of Harlem and Greenwich Village.

And yet this most alluring figure of the Jazz Age was born 110 years ago today in St. Louis, Missouri.

Barely 15 years old, Baker made a quick impression upon her arrival to New York, notably appearing in the original touring production of Shuffle Along.  Her first appearance in 1924 in the New York Times was as part of the show The Chocolate Dandies playing ‘That Comedy Chorus Girl’: “As a freak Terpsachorian artist, Josephine Baker, with her imitation of Ben Turpin’s eyes, made quite a hit.”

New York Public Library

Baker’s career would only really take off after appearing in shows in France. She would accentuate her unique talent and beauty with extravagent style. Baker was famous for her animal companions — a cheetah named Chiquita and a chimpanzee named Ethel.

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But the most powerful story about Josephine Baker would transpire back in New York City, many years later, in a incident which blew open the absurd, racist nightclub practices of the 1940s and 50s.  Baker took aim at the segregationist policies of Stork Club, the hotspot frequented by the world’s biggest celebrities.

On October 16, 1951, Baker attempted to have dinner there after a sold-out performance at the Roxy Theatre. While her white dinner companions got their food, she and a fellow black guest were never served. If you think perhaps this was just an oversight, keep in mind that Baker was a prominent civil-rights activist, openly critical of such policies. This was no mistake.

Baker in 1932:

New York Public Library

Yet she was eventually excoriated in the press by none other than Walter Winchell, the powerful gossip columnist.  “The Josephine Baker affair at the Stork Club made Winchell look like a self-serving hypocrite, if not racist; and his weekly radio show fell out of the top ten for the first time.” [source]

But Baker was permanently shaken by the whole affair.  “After that…there was nothing left for me in America. What little there was left, he ruined for me.” [source]

Below: Baker at the 1963 March on Washington where she was the only woman who gave a speech that day. “I am not a young woman now, friends.  My life is behind me.  There is not too much fire burning inside me.  And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you.”  [source]

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Her final New York performances were in June of 1973 — at Carnegie Hall and at the Victoria Theater in Harlem.

US-born dancer Josephine Baker, nicknamed Black Venus, performs 26 March 1975 at a Paris'stage Bobino, two weeks before her death 10 April 1975. Baker, born 03 June 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, first danced for the public on the streets of St. Louis and in the Booker T. Washington Theater, a black vaudeville house in her native town. Later she became a chorus girl. Her first job in Paris was in La Revue Negre at Folies Bergeres in 1925, where she first performed her famous banana dance. In 1937 she renounced her American citizenship and became a citizen of France. During WWII, Josephine Baker worked as a spy for the French resistance and became sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary of the French Air Force. Baker was back in France in 1954, with the intention of raising a family o ethnically diverse children that she had brought to France from her tours around the world. In her last years, Baker suffered struggles, financial difficulties, and poor health. (Photo credit should read PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images)

“Josephine Baker knows how to make an entrance. The American-born singer and dancer, who celebrated her 67th birthday on Sunday, brought a full house at Carnegie Hall to its feet cheering and applauding Tuesday evening merely by stepping into a spotlight wearing a spangled body-stocking that left no doubt about the slim, trim, youthful lines of her figure, topped by an outrageously towering headdress of flamingo-colored plumes that was as tall as she was herself.” [source]

Here’s a little number from that very performance, her take on a Bob Dylan number.  And happy birthday Josephine!

 

Images courtesy New York Public Library

 

PODCAST REWIND: Return to Freedomland U.S.A.!

What is Freedomland U.S.A.? An unusual theme park in the Bronx, only in existence for less than five years, Freedomland has become the object of fascination for New York nostalgia lovers everywhere. Created by an outcast of Walt Disney’s inner circle, Freedomland practically defines 60s kitsch, with dozens of rides and amusements related to saccharine views of American history. Along the way, we’ll take a visit to the Blast-Off Bunker, Casa Loca, and, yes, Borden’s Barn Boudoir!

NOW WITH BONUS CONTENT:  Listen all the way to the end of this show for a special ORIGINAL tour of Freedomland U.S.A.

This was originally released on February 26, 2009. It’s so old that I make a Jonas Brothers joke!

A special illustrated version of the podcast on Freedomland U.S.A. (Episode #77) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed, via  iTunes or other podcast distribution services.  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #5-#75), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

A map of Freedomland U.S.A., its United States-shaped space divided up into sections like Little Old New York and the Great Plains.

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Sections of the theme park included

Little Old New York

Courtesy Freedomland USA/narratively
Courtesy Freedomland USA/narratively

 

Old Chicago

Courtesy Arcadia Publishing
Courtesy Arcadia Publishing

 

The Great Plains

Courtesy the blog Gorillas Don't Blog
Courtesy the blog Gorillas Don’t Blog

San Francisco

Untitled

The Old Southwest

Courtesy Gorillas Don't Blog
Courtesy Gorillas Don’t Blog

New Orleans

Courtesy Gorillas Don't Blog
Courtesy Gorillas Don’t Blog

And Satellite City, a futuristic place situated in the South:

Courtesy Bill Cotter
Courtesy Bill Cotter

You could visit Elsie the Cow at Borden Barn Boudior.

Courtesy Mike Virgintino/Examiner
Courtesy Mike Virgintino/Examiner

The park, constructed in the Baychester area of the Bronx, was not quite completed when it opened its doors in the summer of 1960.

Courtesy Freedomland USA/Narratively
Courtesy Freedomland USA/Narratively

 

“The thrill as big as America itself!”

 

History in the Making (9/9): So Many Vices Edition

In this blog roundup, a Bowery Boys appearance in Vice, a threat to preservation, a classic restaurant closes, the story of two hotels with very different histories and more!

In the photo above and below — From the Museum of the City of New York collection, some images of the so-called Prize Fighters Saloon (at Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street) owned by boxer James J. Corbett.

LINKS OF INTEREST

— Vice Magazine’s John Surico wrote a great piece called ‘Why New Yorkers Love New York” and interviewed the Bowery Boys for it! Also — if you want to see us dressed in ridiculous Mermaid Parade costumes, you should definitely check this out. [Vice Magazine]

— An inconceivable and dangerous threat to New York landmark preservation is being debated at City Hall today.  “Intro. 775 would for the first time impose ‘do-or-die’ timeframes for buildings and neighborhoods being considered for landmark designation. If the deadlines are not met, buildings and neighborhoods, no matter how worthy or endangered, would automatically be disqualified for designation.” [Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation]

—  Destruction update! The beloved original location of The Palm restaurant — with its quirky wall of murals — has been closed for good. “The beloved hand painted caricatures were housed on walls made of plaster, which made it impossible to remove the caricatures for preservation purposes.” [Vanishing New York]

Below: The exterior of Corbett’s Prize Fighters Saloon:

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

— The spectacular tale of the Pierrepont Hotel in Herald Square, built in 1898 as a rare residential hotel for unmarried men.   “It is not so very long ago that the bachelor was not considered to be entitled much consideration; any old thing was good enough for him….” [Daytonian In Manhattan]

— That rather strange, kinda seedy, little-Flatiron hotel in Chelsea called the Liberty Hotel?  That building has actually been standing there for well over one hundred years. Oh if only those walls could speak! [Ephemeral New York]

— Some rather sweet and amusing images pop up in this New York Times photo essay on the first day of school through the years. [New York Times]

— “The coolest place to eat is outside a smallpox hospital.[New York Post]

TICKETS ARE GOING FAST for our live event with The Ensemblist this Sunday, September 13th, at 54 Below.  Click here for more information or go directly to 54 Below’s website to get your tickets!

Below: Another look at the interior of Corbett’s fancy saloon.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The fire at Barnum’s American Museum 150 years ago

One hundred and fifty years ago this week (July 13, 1865), New York City lost one of its most famous, most imaginative and most politically incorrect attractions.

When P.T. Barnum opened his museum in 1841, the kooky curiosities contained within the building at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street — at the foot of Park Row — were simply reconstituted properties from other museums.  But he soon expanded the collection to include living spectacles, both human and animal, become both the greatest show and the greatest side-show on earth.

From his lilliputian stars Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt to the unfortunate white whales contained in water tanks in the basement, Barnum’s American Museum was New York’s destination for the fascinating and the weird.  Millions would visit its corridors during its two and a half decades of operation.  It was so renown that it was even a target of attempted sabotage during the Civil War. 

Below: A rare photo of Barnum’s American Museum, taken in 1858

Taken 1858
Taken 1858

At around noon on July 13, 1865, the building quickly succumbed to  “the fierce tooth of fire,” causing the greatest pandemonium that New York City had ever seen.  I must give way to some of the press reports of the day, as they best capture the drama:

New York Times: “Probably no building in New-York was better known, inside and out, to our citizens than the ill-looking ungainly, rambling structure on the corner of Broadway and Ann-streets, known as the American Museum, where for more than twenty years Mr. Barnum has furnished the public with a wonderful variety of amusements.”

Below: The street scene at the cross-section of Broadway and Ann Street, in 1860. A sign advertising Barnum’s snake collection can be seen on the museum.

Courtesy Internet Book Archive
Courtesy Internet Book Archive

New York Sun: “About half past twelve o’clock yesterday … the Engineer rushed up from below announcing that his room was on fire, and about the same time immense volumes of smoke permeated the Ann Street end of the building.  [K]nowing that the immense whale tank was directly over the spot where the fire had begun to make headway, attempted to knock a hole in the huge reservoir.”

Christopher Pearse Cranch. Burning of Barnum's Museum, July 13th, 1865, 1865. Chromolithograph. Eno Collection Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library
Christopher Pearse Cranch. Burning of Barnum’s Museum, July 13th, 1865, 1865. Chromolithograph. Eno Collection Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library

 

The occupants of the tanks were doomed.  “‘[T]wo whales, imported, at a cost of $7,000, from the coast of Labrador,’ whose sportive plunges and animated contests of affection afforded constant amusement to hundreds of spectators, [was] a pregnant contrast to the fearful death by roasting which they so soon thereafter met.”

The fire spread rapidly, quickly filling the upper floors with smoke.  Firemen burst in from the Ann Street side and quickly attended to patrons who had collapsed or were too confused in the immense labyrinth of bizarre objects to escape.

1

A fireman named William McNamara is credited with single-handedly evacuating many patrons of the museum, not to mention some of the performers who regularly lived there.  From the New York Sun: “Knowing that [some performers] occupied apartments on the third floor, he rushed thither and burst open the doors.   Finding the rooms empty he ascended to the next floor  and succeeded in bringing down the ladies assembled in the dressing rooms there – Miss Swan, the Giantess, and Miss Zuruby Hannus, the Circassian girl.”

Below: Anna Swan, ‘the Giantess’ who lived at the museum, was successfully rescued

swan

Many of the wax figures from the third floor were hurled out the windows. One peculiar item captured the imagination of the crowd — the wax depiction of Jefferson Davis, dressed in a woman’s petticoat.  (It was rumored that the former president of the Confederacy has attempted to escape dressed as a lady.)

NYT:  “One [rescuer] had Jefferson Davis’ effigy in his arms and fought vigorously to preserve the worthless thing, as though it were a gem of rare value. On reaching the balcony the man, perceiving that either the inanimate Jefferson or himself must go by the board, hurled the scarecrow to the iconoclasts in the street. As Jefferson made his perilous descent, his petticoats again played him false, and as the wind blow them about, the imposture of the figure was exposed.”

NYS: “When the Jefferson Davis petticoated figure was recognized by the crowd, it was seized, kicked, knocked and finally hanged to an awning frame [in front of St. Paul’s Church], amid the derisive and contumelious epithets of the persons engaged in this pastime.”

More seriously a great number of artifacts from the Revolutionary War were incinerated in the fire. “Valuable mementos of Washington, Putnam, Greene, Marion, Andre, Cornwallis, Howe, Burr, Clinton, Jefferson, Adams, and other eminent men which should have been carefully stored in a fire-proof vault, yesterday smoldered in the heat….” [NYT]

barnum's museum burns 1865

The museum’s impressive collection of taxidermy — monkeys, lions, elephants, zebras — were swallowed up by smoke and collapsed into the inferno.

But the museum also had a great many living animals — snakes, pigs, dogs, and even a kangaroo and an alligator. And, of course, a great many monkeys — “big monkeys, little monkeys, monkeys of every degree of tail, old, grave, gray monkeys, young, rascally, mischievous monkeys, middle-aged, scheming monkeys, and a great many miserable, mangry monkeys.” Most perished in the flames although some escaped into the streets, some never to be found again.

Below: This is Harpers Weekly’s illustration of Barnum’s second fire — see below — but could have tragically captured the events on July 13, 1865.

Harpers Weekly
Harpers Weekly

Remarkably, nobody humans died in the blaze. In fact, few wax depictions of humans perished as many took to rescuing wax figures thinking they were alive.  The fire spread to several surrounding buildings, and soon the entire block was engulfed in flame.

NYT:  “The roof of the Museum had now fallen, and the interior of the building was like the crater of a volcano. A stream of heated air issued from the top, and was borne eastward by the breeze directly over the block, carrying with it light articles, pieces of burning wood, shingles ….

At 1:30 came a crash resounding like the explosion of a powder magazine. The whole wall on the Ann-street side had fallen. A cloud of dust and smoke filled the air, making it dark as twilight, and rendering it impossible to descry objects at short distance.”

 

Harpers Weely
Harpers Weely

 

 

Notable among the surrounding buildings that were damaged was the famous Knox the Hatter at 212 Broadway. Fortunately for the fate of New York,  the Croton Aqueduct water system had been installed two decades earlier, allowing the blaze to be put out with some speed, preventing a repeat of the Great Fire of 1835.

There was a bit a looting, including “two men dressed as soldiers [who] were seen coming out of the shoe-store in Ann Street, each with five or six pairs of shoes under their coats.” And there were false reports that the lion has escaped and was running through the streets.

For years after, people mourned the loss of Barnum’s collection, truly among the greatest in New York City up until that time.  Barnum attempted to relaunch the museum at 539-541 Broadway. but it, too, was destroyed in a fire (pictured below). Then, in 1871, he leased a train depot and called it Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.  (It would later morph into the first Madison Square Garden.)

Finally he just decided to take his collection of acts on the road forming a traveling circus in 1881 with ringmaster James Anthony Bailey.  While the world of entertainment would be changed by their collaboration — Barnum and Bailey’s Circus — most would consider the old American Museum as Barnum’s greatest achievement.

Below: Barnum’s second museum destroyed by fire, which gutted the building on a cold day

Harpers Weekly
Harpers Weekly

 

 

Hey gang, let’s go down to the Recreation Pier!

The end of the 19th century saw many new ways to get people out of New York City’s over-crowded tenement districts, with trains to beach havens like Coney Island and Rockaway Beach and steamers making day-trips up the Hudson River and to spots in Long Island.

For those who didn’t have the luxury of a free afternoon,  some relief was provided in the form of new community parks such as Columbus Park (1897), Seward Park (1903) and DeWitt Clinton Park (1906).

But what if you wanted some fresh ocean breezes? The piers of the East River and the Hudson River were clotted with industry and hardly suitable for relaxation.   But the city did attempt to make the waterfront available with the introduction of so-called ‘recreation piers’.

There were a great many industrial piers redesigned in the 1890s for public use. By 1905, the New York Times reports recreation piers on the East River side (at Market Street, 3rd Street, 24th Street and 112th Street) and a couple facing the Hudson River (Christopher/Barrow Street and 50th Street).

Below: Mothers and their children on the Harlem pier, 1901

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

By noon, during the summer months, the piers were packed with mothers and their babies, groups of young women off work, and scores of children darting through the crowds.

From the Times article: “The average for the pier at the East River and 24th Street alone is 10,000 persons a day. Almost directly across town, at 50th Street and the North River, which the police call the ‘mad dog’ pier, the daily attendance is nearly as large.”

An illustration from the New York Times, June 25, 1905:

times

 

The piers provided a well-policed safe space for poor families, abundant cross breezes, and floating pools and swimming holes for those looking to escape the heat. Many of them regularly provided food vendors, musicians and even street performers, allowing city dwellers to enjoy the illusion of a short vacation getaway.

While no liquor was sold at the pier, many did their best to smuggle it past the watchful eye of the police officers.  “Flirting and open love making are prohibited,” warned the Times, “Smoking is not. A youth may puff away on his cigarettes, and a man may smoke as vile a cigar as he pleases, anywhere he pleases.”

Below: Children on the Hell’s Kitchen pier, 1903

Courtesy Harvard Libraries
Courtesy Harvard Libraries

 

The Third Street pier provided immediate relief for residents of the Lower East Side.

“That long, low building jutting out into the water changed the ending of Third Street from a sandy, ugly refuge for crap playing boys into a breathing place for thousands of dwellers in the tall tenements all around.  It is still sandy and ugly, away from the pier itelf, but there is lots of fun going on, and when you are tired of looking shoreward there is the river, with its endless excitement.” [New  York Tribune, 1901]

Below: The Third Street pier. According to the signs over the door: “Dancing on this Pier for Children from 3 to 5pm Daily Except Sunday”

Department of Records
Department of Records

 

The piers were also popular spots for young lovers at night, the open air and the river traffic providing a bit of romance and mystery. The Harlem pier at 129th Street seems particularly enchanting as it was far from the center of the city and its bright, distracting lights.

“When the moon is shining the scene along this garden spot of the Hudson is not to be equaled anywhere around New York. There is nothing of the bustle of the city up here.” [source]

The city took advantage of the piers’ popularity with tenement dwellers in order to provide medical and social services. In 1912 ‘clean milk dispensaries’ provided mothers with free milk for their babies.  Below: a doctor inspects a young baby at the East 24th Street pier.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Not to be a buzzkill, however, but most of the piers were hardly secluded from the regular activities of the busy city. The Hell’s Kitchen pier, which opened in 1900, was perfumed with smells from the trash dump two piers away, not to mention flecks of filth from the neighboring ash dump. And crossing the busy avenue just to get to the pier was somewhat of a task.

Today’s network of waterfront spaces in New York City are certainly more accommodating and convenient than these old piers, but I can’t help but wish one or two were still around, especially if they looked like this:

Courtesy the Museum of the city of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the city of New York