Category Archives: Christmas

Holiday Trivia From the Bowery Boys’ book Adventures In Old New York

Looking for an easy gift idea this holiday season? Our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York would make a pretty amazing present for the holidays. Give it to loved ones who like history or New York City or to those who simply enjoy books with lots and lots of old pictures. (We lost count at some point of the number of pictures. Well over 400 at least.)

Here are a few short excerpts from the book pointing out a few holiday themed moments in New York City history.  You can buy the book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or at your local bookstore. (In New York, among many throughout the city, you can try the Strand, McNally Jackson Books and Three Lives & Company — where we went in and signed a few!)

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The First Christmas Tree Stand

Today’s cute little Washington Market Park sits on the spot of New York’s most important outdoor market of the nineteenth century. In the days before mass refrigeration and chain grocery stores, Washington Market was the place where New Yorkers came to buy their meats and fresh produce.

First opened in 1812, the market offered many residents their first encounter with exotic food items from across the country and around the world. (Today a Whole Foods one block away provides much the same function, albeit with higher prices and gluten-free options.)

But this market wasn’t just for edibles. In 1851 a woodsman named Mark Carr, living in the Catskill Mountains, chopped down a selection of fir and spruce trees, shoved them into two ox sleds, carted them over to Manhattan on a ferry, and set up shop in the market, paying one dollar for the privilege of selling his rather prickly merchandise.

Holiday revelers were thrilled to be spared the journey out of town, and Carr’s entire stock of evergreens sold out within the day. No surprise then that other farmers jumped on this evergreen opportunity, and within a few years the open-air Christmas tree market was born. (Chambers and Greenwich Streets)

Photo by Joel Raskin
Photo by Joel Raskin

A Present for the Lower East Side

 “Little Flower” was the nickname of Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s short but forceful mayor, who during his tenure (1934–1945) introduced many vital housing reforms. The sprawling thirteen-building housing development known as LaGuardia Houses was completed in 1957, ten years after his death. A bust of La Guardia sits in the adjoining park—Little Flower Playground.

But the treasure here is the extraordinary relic located next to it. This is the former public bathhouse, called the Whitehouse, which opened on December 23, 1909, and was one of thirteen public bath facilities in New York.

It was built for the poor residents of Corlears Hook who lacked adequate water facilities, a function reminiscent of the ancient bathhouses of Rome. By the 1940s indoor plumbing had rendered the public bath obsolete, and so it was converted into a public swimming pool and gymnasium. Today it sits unused, a ruin from another time. (Madison Street between Clinton and Rutgers Streets)

chelsea_mansion_house_crop

Clement’s Gift 

As the story goes, on Christmas Eve in 1822, Clement Clarke Moore completed a seasonal poem to read to his young children. He penned the whimsical little tale—a throwaway, really, in comparison with his great and respected academic writings on Greek and biblical literature—from a desk at his comfortable, snow-covered mansion, which the family called Chelsea.

The home sat atop an old hill (near today’s modern addresses of 422–424 West 23rd Street), which looked out over Moore’s vast estate, stretching to the south from here.

According to legend, Moore had been inspired that day during an outing to Washington Market to purchase a Christmas turkey.

The poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and often referred to as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” would eventually help shape the story of Santa Claus. His verses practically spelled out the jovial North Pole gift-giver’s physical appearance, which was then illustrated by New York–based newspaper and magazine illustrators like Thomas Nast and, in the twentieth century, the Coca- Cola advertising of Haddon Sundblom. Moore even named all eight reindeer.

Moore’s poem was published anonymously the following year, and he’d only take credit for penning it—at his children’s insistence—in 1844.

The real ‘Miracle On 34th Street’: 21 great historical details from New York City’s most famous Christmas movie



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. Filled with film spoilers so read this after you’ve seen the movie — or use it to follow along as you watch it!  Check out my previous guides for Midnight CowboyGhostbusters and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

“Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind… and that’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it.” 

— Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwynn)

Miracle on 34th Street is the most famous New York City Christmas movie ever made, a celebration of post-war prosperity that happily substitutes Herald Square for the North Pole.

The movie is a complete inventory of the commercial Christmas experience. It treats the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade like a starting gate — Thanksgiving? What’s that? — and, like many Americans, spends much of its entire running time in department stores.

The central question posed by this 1947 classic is whether Macy’s newly hired Santa Claus (played by Edmund Gwenn) is actually the Santa Claus or just some crazy person. At stake is not only the entire world’s celebration of Christmas, but the heart of young Susan (played by Natalie Wood) who never believed in Santa, thanks to her mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara).

Manhattan is perpetually bustling, from the Upper West Side down to Foley Square. Despite its reputation as a saccharine sweet take on the materialistic component of the holiday, the film is really quite cynical, even dark, at times.  Throwing an old man into the Bellevue Hospital psychiatric ward in the 1940s is hardly what I call a warm and fuzzy image.

I recently dug deep into the film and found a great many fascinating details, many involving people and places that lived in New York City at that time.  Here’s my obsessive guide to what normally stuffy critic Bosley Crowther originally called “the freshest little picture in a long time and maybe even the best comedy of the year.”

1) Arranging Reindeer  The film opens with Kris Kringle walking south down Madison Avenue. Get it? He’s Santa. He’s from the north! Along the way he passes several long-vanished New York businesses — Rosenberg & Grief furrier, Janice Carol salon, Liszt jeweler (or possibly pawn shop?)

He stops to chastise a store clerk on 19 East 61st Street about the placement of reindeer in the shop windows. That shop belonged to the interior designer Lillian Schary Waldman, often employed by high society and responsible for the homes of a few celebrities including Danny Kaye.  

By the way, you’ll notice there’s no Rudolph in the Christmas display.  The red nosed reindeer was created in 1939, within a coloring book produced by Montgomery Ward (at right), but not popularly considered part of Santa’s team until the 1964 Rankin-Bass animated special. (EDIT: Thanks to the commenter for reminding me of Rudolph’s real coming out –the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” recorded by Gene Autry and Bing Crosby in successive years.)

2) Old Newsprint  The film occasionally uses the technique of turning newspaper pages as a way of setting the scene.  Notice the first time this is used, before the parade.  The prop designer constructed a phony newspaper but used real news articles from the New York Times.  Here’s the catch — most of the stories are well over a decade old! Some examples:  “NEW FRENCH CABINET UPHELD BY DEPUTIES” – Dec 23, 1932, “OUR SPEED PRAISED IN CHILD LABOR BAN” – July 20, 1933, and “EARTHS FORCES LAID TO COSMIC IMPULSE” – July 24, 1933

The curious Deitrich Knickerbocker balloon from the 1936 parade. (Courtesy Smithsonian)

3) The Real Parade  Santa Claus has appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since the very first parade in 1924. One detail that did not quite make it into the modern era — knights in shining armor.  Santa arrived in Herald Square “in state. The float upon which he rode was in the form of a sled driven by reindeer over a mountain of ice.  Preceding him were men dressed like the knights of old, their spears shining in the sunlight.” [source]

The scenes of the Thanksgiving Day parade in Miracle are real, taken from the 1946 parade.  This mixing of live events and fictional set pieces (filmed in Hollywood) was rather unusual for the day.  “Scenes shot in actual New York settings add credibility to the film,” said Crowther.  Gwenn was even the parade’s real Santa!  “A somewhat frostbitten Santa Claus, in the person of Edmund Gwenn, the actor, gingerly climbed off his high perch and unveiled Macy’s mechanical windows….” [source]

4) Bad Santas  “These pants are gonna fall off in the midst of Columbus Circle,” said the unfortunately inebriated Santa, who is relieved of his duties and replaced by Gwenn’s Santa.  Several decades before Santacon, newspapers would occasionally make note of a Santa who would come to work “with liquor on his breath.”  It seems there were all sorts of lecherous Santas! In 1948, the year after Miracle, the New York Times Magazine notes a Santa who “grabbed a trim young mother, set her on his knee and suggested that they both go out and have a drink.”

5) Behind The Beard  Edmund Gwenn, the film’s jovial Kris Kringle, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (Unfortunately, he beat Richard Widmark‘s work in the film Kiss of Death, widely considered to be one of the greatest film noir performances.)

Although he had made dozens of films, the British actor was known for his work on the stage.  In fact, right before starting work on Miracle, he gave what would be his last performance on the New York stage — the play You Touched Me with upcoming young star Montgomery Clift.

At right: Clift and Gwenn from their Broadway production of You Touched Me (Courtesy WalterFilm)

6) D-I-V-O-R-C-E  Miracle is unique in that its heroine is a divorced woman, but she’s badly treated by the film’s screenplay.  Note the look of shock on the face of Fred Galley (John Payne) when little Susan casually mentions that her mother and father are divorced.

After World War II, divorce rates skyrocketed in America as servicemen returned from war to changed domestic situations. Divorces were only “fault-based” at the time; “typical grounds were adultery, desertion, habitual drunkenness, conviction of a felony, impotence … and, most used by divorcing parties, ‘cruel and inhuman treatment’.” [source]

The film makes some unsubtle commentary — Doris (which even sounds like divorce) is depicted as a cold, cynical woman, lacking little joy. I mean, she’s the director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and she doesn’t even bother to stay and watch it?

7) Locker Room Talk  We’re granted many scenes of Macy’s work spaces that customers don’t get to see, such as the locker room, where Kringle meets Alfred, the sometimes store Santa “with extra padding” and a thick Brooklyn accent — “just troo ’em on the floor!”

Macy’s was actually once renown for its locker room! From a report in 1913:  “At Macy’s there are vast locker rooms containing expanded individual metal lockers for the majority of the employees and some smaller ones for certain groups.  Never are two required to use one locker, except during Christmas rush. This is an exceedingly liberal policy, considering the size of the establishment, and a most desirable one.”

8) Toy Stores  We get to the crux of the tale when Kringle, now hired as Macy’s Santa, begins sending customers to other department stores in the city.  Most notably he sends a thankful mother (played by Thelma Ritter, in her debut film role) to Macy’s big rival Gimbels and another to a toy store called Schoenfeld’s, in Yorkville, at 1254 Lexington Avenue.

Here’s an ad for a toy submarine that was sold at Schoenfeld’s in 1927.

9) Cutthroat Business  Macy’s and Gimbel’s were the two biggest department stores in Herald Square and one of New York’s best known rivalries. “Would Macy’s tell Gimbels?” was a popular expression of the time, expressing the fierce secrecy in sales and marketing practices.  In Miracle, after Macy’s embraces Kringle’s policy of recommending items for sale at other stores, Gimbals tries to one-up their rival by adhering to the same policy and spread it to their stores across the country.

According to Gimbels lore, the company chairman Bernard Gimbel was asked to take the role of Kringle in Miracle. (I personally find this very hard to believe.)  Such a request would not have been made of Macy’s founder Rowland Hussey Macy as he had died almost 70 years before.

Below: Gimbels Department Store in Harold Square, taken in 1915, from the vantage of the Marbridge Building (Photo by the Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of City of New York)

10) Home Away From Home  When not at the North Pole, Kris Kringle resides at Brooks Memorial Home for the Aged at 126 Maplewood Dr, Great Neck, Long Island.  That’s a real address although you won’t find the grand exterior that was used in the film. Why would they put Kringle in a nursing home in Great Neck?  Perhaps it was a literary illusion to another great New York City fictional tale — Great Neck is called West Egg in The Great Gatsby, written only twenty-two years previous.

11) Santa Gets It Wrong Kringle is taken in for a psychological evaluation to prove his competence.  He’s fully prepared, of course, seeing as he’s frequently accused of being crazy.

He rattles off a list of questions that might be thrown his direction during the mental examination.  The trickiest?  “Who was the vice president under John Quincy Adams? Daniel D Tompkins. And I’ll bet your Mr Sawyer doesn’t know that!”

Tompkins was a great many things in his day.  Today he’s the namesake of Tompkins Square Park and Tompkinsville, Staten Island. But one thing he was not — he was never vice president under John Quincy Adams.  That was John C. Calhoun. Tompkins served under President James Monroe.

So what accounts for this obvious error? Is it a true gaffe or an insight into Kringle’s character? Maybe he was crazy! Or just in need of an encyclopedia.

By the way, the psychiatrist Sawyer is taking his examination cues from a 1946 book called Mastering Your Nerves: How To Relax Through Action.

12) Working Delusion  The handsome Doctor Pierce from the Brooks Memorial Home is sure the old man is suffering from a deeply held delusion.  But so what?

“Why there are thousands of people walking around with similar delusions, living perfectly normal lives in every other respect. A famous example is that fellow — I cant think of his name — but for years he’s insisted he’s a Russian prince. He owns a famous restaurant in Hollywood and is a highly respected citizen.”

Pierce is referencing an actual person named Michael Romanoff (at right), a noted ‘professional imposter’, who once walked the streets of New York City claiming he was Prince Michael Dimitri Alexandrovich Obolensky-Romanoff, nephew of Tsar Nicholas II.

In 1941 he opened the restaurant Romanoff’s in Los Angeles on North Rodeo Drive, enjoying newly found success in a town noted for its impostors.  The famous photograph of Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield is taken at Romanoff’s.

13) Martini Time! In a delightfully throw-away scene, Shellhammer, the head of Macy’s toy department, tries to convince his wife to let Kringle stay at their home.  In order to get her to agree, he gets her wasted on martinis.  “We always have martinis before dinner.  I’ll make them double-strength tonight.”

We have Prohibition to thank for martini hour in many American homes.  Driving alcohol consumption into private dwellings, the cocktail hour was firmly entrenched by the 1930s.  It was properly solidified by the world’s most famous martini drinker after James Bond — Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Before dinner we usually had martini cocktails made by the President’s own hands,” said one cabinet member.  Many remembered that Roosevelt made very, very bad martinis, preferring to enhance them with a few drops of absinthe.

At right: A festive Gimbels ad which ran in the New York Times in 1946

14) Advertising Blitz Macy’s fully embraces the altruistic policy of directing shoppers to other stores if they are looking for an item that is not stocked. In a montage, we get to see some of the other department stores benefiting from Macy’s new rules — Bloomingdales, Hearn’s, Gimbels, Stern’s and McCreery’s. 

These stores were situated very close to one another during the 1940s and had followed each other up the island of Manhattan, beginning their existence in lower Manhattan, then moving to Ladies Mile in the late 19th century, then to Midtown by the new century.  For instance, Hearn’s went from Broadway and 8th Street, then to 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue (very near Macy’s old home).

McCreery’s made its Ladies Mile home at Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street.  Today it’s occupied by another building with a Best Buy on the bottom floor.  It later moved to 34th Street and Fifth Avenue.

For more information about the department store scene, check out our podcast on Ladies Mile.

15) Vintage Lunch  We see Alfred and Kris Kringle in another space for Macy’s employee’s — the cafeteria.  This was obviously filmed on location as evidenced by this picture of the cafeteria from 1948 (photo by Nina Leen):

16) The Nut House  Kris Kringle purposefully fails a mental exam — heartbroken by what he believes is a betrayal by Doris — and gets thrown into Bellevue Hospital for a few days. Kringle is seen in a relatively safe environment although the hospital’s reputation was less than rosy during this period. This is the era of shock therapy and other controversial treatments. In one experiment at Bellevue from the mid-1940s, almost one hundred children with diagnosed schizophrenia were given shock treatments six days a week.

 Bellevue was also famous during this period for its alcohol rehabilitation center.  In 1945, the film The Lost Weekend detailed one alcoholic’s “staggering ugly treatment” here.

17) Kooky Headlines In another swirl of headlines, we’re alerted to Kringle’s upcoming court trial to determine his true status.  Among the many headlines we see is one that makes a total assault upon the English language — KRIS KRINGLE KRAZY? KOURT KASE KOMNG “KALAMITY” KRY KIDDIES

This is a gag directed squarely at Daily Variety, who specialized in absurdist headlines as early as the 1930s.  In 1935 they went with the mind-boggling STICKS NIX HICK PIX, a headline later made famous in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy.

18) Historical Spot  The climax of the film arrives at a peculiar place — Foley Square and the New York County Courthouse, one of the pillars of this civic district. The building was a little over 20 years old at the time of this film, and it looks pretty much the same as it does today.  Along the top of the structure you can make out a carving of a 1789 quotation by George Washington — “The True Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good Government.”

This building sets near the infamous intersection of Five Points and almost exactly on the spot were old Collect Pond once sat!

Below: New York County Courthouse, where Kringle’s fate is decided. (Photo from 1927, Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

19) Kids Court  In an effort to prove the existence of Santa Claus, the son of the prosecutor is called to the stand.  His name is Tom Marrah (you know, because he’s the future — tomorrow) and he is questioned about his beliefs on Old Saint Nick. “He gave me a brand-new flexible flyer sled last year,” he proclaims, then proceeds to point out Kringle from the stand.

The scene is an amusing twist on the great tale of “Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus,” the famous confirmation of Santa’s existence that was published in the New York Sun fifty years earlier. The Virginia in question was also the child of a city employee — the coroner’s assistant — whose letter was answered by Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church.  In the case of Miracle, it is a more assured child that confirms his identity.  Judge Henry X Harper — a Democrat, we learn — affirms Kringle’s existence to curry favor from the electorate.

20) Dear Santa  The final proof arrives, deus ex machina style, in the form of thousands of letters, re-routed from New York’s mail processing center to Foley Square.  Kringle’s lawyer Galley then proceeds to regale the hall with a brief history of the U.S. post office.  Galley informs the judge that the mail service was created in 1776 — technically it was 1775 — by the Second Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin was indeed the first postmaster general.

So how many letters does Santa really get a year? In 2013 — even in the era of emails —  there were over one million letters from American children alone. [source]  Back in 1940, the postmaster’s office was inundated with correspondence. Letters address to Santa were “opened and read so that ‘the real worthy ones’  can be set aside from those which were childish requests.” Because how dare a child ask Santa a childish request.

The film may have played a hand into an increase of Dear Santa letters in 1947 — “up 25% over 1946,” according to reports.

From the 1940s article:

21) Christmas In June Miracle on 34th Street may be set during Christmastime, but it was originally released in the late spring, June 2, 1947. The film made its New York debut at the Roxy Theatre in a program that also featured comedian Jerry Lester, singer Art Lund, a puppet show and “the Gae Foster Roxyettes,” which replaced the original Roxyettes after they moved to Radio City Music Hall.

As part of the promotion for the film, Macy’s sent an undercover shopper into Gimbel’s to report for Macy’s-owned radio station WOR.  It’s doubtful that either department store took Santa’s advice and recommended visiting their competitor.

History In the Making 12/16: Miss Average Rockette Edition

Hmmm. The ludicrous graphic above ran in the New York Times Magazine, November 12, 1967. Keep in mind the word ‘topographically’ is most often used when describing places.  When I mentioned this graphic to a friend, he said, “They probably ran it so that admirers would know what size jewelry and furs to buy their favorite Rockettes.”  That is literally the best case scenario for a graphic like this.

Some links of interest:

“Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded”: In my column for A24 Films and A Most Violent Year, I look at the New York Native, the newspaper which first reported on a mysterious affliction killing gay men in early 1981. And a rather startling article in New York Magazine which ran the very same day. [1981]

Troubled Wealth:  The lost Upper West Side mansion of Dom Eugenie Faria Ganzales de Teixeira, Marquis of Aguila Branca. [Daytonian In Manhattan]

The Crossroads:  Why has Union Square so important to protest movements throughout the centuries? [Off the Grid]

Stalled: An abandoned construction site on the Williamsburg/Greenpoint border becomes a haven for cats and chaos.  [New York Times]

Traces of Opulence: Wandering around Lyndhurst, the mysterious old castle of Jay Gould. [Scouting New York]

Steampunk or Stupid:  What’s going on with the advertising campaign behind an unusual condominium in lower Manhattan? [Gordon’s Urban Morphology]

Frozen:  Did you know there was a Petrified Sea Garden in upstate New York? [Atlas Obscura]

That Bites:  A classic Greenwich Village bar has become a place to buy boutique hot dogs. [Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York]

PLUS: Fifty years ago this week, the Rockettes were profiled in a cover story in Life Magazine.   The lead image in the prior post is from that photo spread. How about some more of their rehearsals? Photos are by Arthur Rickerby You can read the article online here.

American Kicks: A History of the Rockettes

Lifted spirits: The Rockettes practice for a 1964 productions. (Life/Arthur Rickerby)

PODCAST The Rockettes are America’s best known dance troupe — and a staple of the holiday season — but you may not know the origin of this iconic New York City symbol. For one, they’re not even from the Big Apple!

Formerly the Missouri Rockets, the dancers and their famed choreographer Russell Markert were noticed by theater impresario Samuel Rothafel, who installed them first as his theater The Roxy, then at one of the largest theaters in the world — Radio City Music Hall.

The life of a Rockettes dancer was glamorous, but grueling; for many decades dancing not in isolated shows, but before the screenings of movies, several times a day, a different program each week.  There was a very, very specific look to the Rockettes, a look that changed — and that was forced to change by cultural shifts — over the decades.

This show is dedicated to the many thousands of women who have shuffled and kicked with the Rockettes over their many decades of entertainment, on the stage, the picket line or the Super Bowl halftime show.

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 #174: American Kicks: A History of the Rockettes
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The first New York home of the Rockettes (as the Roxyettes) was the Roxy Theatre, almost as large as Radio City Music Hall and located just nearby. (MCNY)

Radio City Music Hall, which opened in 1932, was quickly transformed into the world’s largest movie house after a notorious opening night.  It would be here that the Rockettes would perform a few times a day, seven days a week, for over fifty years. (NYPL)

The Rockettes, 1935, in a ‘Cavalcade of Color’, choreographed and directed by Leon Leonidoff. The constant high-kicking routines required great athleticism, precision and balance. (MCNY)

The Rockettes in 1937, beauty in duplication. (Courtesy the Rockettes)

In 1939, the Rockettes gave salute to the Gay Nineties in these extravagant costumes. (Courtesy the Rockettes)

Faces of the Rockettes: A few of the dancers from the 1935 configuration.. These photos are by the Wurts Brothers, from the Museum of the City of New York Collection. You can see the complete group here. Unfortunately there are no names attached to the portraits but if any of these women look familiar, drop me their names in the comments section!

The Rockettes in the 1950s

In 1967, many Rockettes went on strike for a month to demand better wages to compensate for their vigorous schedule and unpaid rehearsal time. Needless to say, they got everybody’s attention. (Courtes Kheel Center).

Pam Palmer and Kim Heil, two Rockettes from the late 1970s. (Photo by Jay Heiser)

The Rockettes at a Fleet Week event in 2006. (Photo by Gabriela Hurtado)

Various newsreel footage of the Rockettes, including images of the troupe rehearsing on the roof of Radio City!

The Rockettes at the 1988 Super Bowl halftime show:

And Now … Two Christmas Poems By Robert Moses

My new column for A24 Films is up over on their 1981 site (in support of the film A Most Violent Year). 1981 was the year that Robert Moses died, and his death sparked new discussions into what his legacy to the New York City area truly was.  In a word: automobiles.  You can read my article here.

But that’s a little depressing. How about I tell you about the time that the New York Times published a couple Christmas poems written by Moses?

That’s right, the Santa Claus of Long Island, bearing gifts of bridges and highways, did occasionally get into the Christmas spirit, albeit dripping in vitriol and sass.


Moses in 1934 during his failed campaign for governor. (Courtesy New York Daily News Archive)

POEM ONE – ‘TIS THE NIGHT BEFORE ELECTION

This loosely poetic speech first manifested in print during the last gasps of Moses’ failed bid for New York governor in 1934.

As the Republican candidate running against incumbent Herbert H. Lehman, young Moses failed to connect with voters, and the experience soured him on elected positions. He was soundly defeated by Lehman, the investment banker-turned-politician aligned with new president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who had preceded Lehman as governor).

His final words as a candidate were spoken on radio station WEAF and printed the following day.  Those words paid an awkward homage to the great Christmas poem written by Clement Clarke Moore. Despite the fact that the election was in early November, his point in conjuring the visage of Old St. Nick would become clear.  It’s hardly rhythmic. Imagine this read in his gruff, determined voice:

“‘Tis the night before election, and nothing much is stirring throughout the state.

The stockings in Democratic homes are hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Jim Farley soon will be there.

The Big Bag Man is dressing himself up as Santa. He doesn’t really look the part, but that’s not important.

Neither is the fact that all the presents were bought on credit, and that Santa Claus is running up a tremendous bill.   

The important question is:  Has he plenty of presents to go around for the boys and girls who have been good?

Governor Smith expressed the fondest hopes of the Democratic party, and summed up the strategy of the whole Democratic campaign when he said that he thought the people would not shoot Santa Claus before a hard Christmas.”

Jim Farley (pictured at right, 1938) was considered a ‘kingmaker’ in Democratic politics, responsible for the election of FDR.  He would become Roosevelt’s U.S. Postmaster General.  The James A. Farley Post Office across from Madison Square Garden is named in his honor.

Using the Santa analogy, Moses was taking a dig at Democratic programs that would soon shape FDR’s New Deal.  Of course, as New York’s power builder, Moses would later benefit greatly from these programs so perhaps he shouldn’t have been complaining.

In 1948, Robert Moses received the very first honorary degree from Hofstra University, along with Robert Gannon, the president of Fordham University.  However, that year it would be a phony university that would inspire Moses to pen a sassy Christmas verse. (Courtesy Hofstra University)

POEM TWO: CHRISTMAS GREETINGS (LETTER TO THE CHANCELLOR)

Perhaps more unusual was the poem which ran the day after Christmas in 1948, an inside joke between men of influence.

By the late 1930s, Moses had amassed several positions of responsibility and power and had pushed through a great number of vast, expensive projects, including the Triborough Bridge. Moses had to routinely pitch these projects to the New York Board of Estimate — the men who held the purse strings — which included Henry M. Curran (Deputy Mayor), Newbold Morris (City Council President), and James Lyons (Bronx Borough President).

Curran was a bit of a grammar nerd — the kind who cringes at improper usage of words — and recoiled during debates when Moses (at right) and the others misused the English language.

According to the Times, Curran organized among the men a hierarchy of language correction, (jokingly?) referred to as Curran University.  One could only ‘graduate’ from this phony university by excelling in their verbal and written debates with grammatical aplomb.

During a board meeting where the fate of the old Claremont Inn was discussed, Moses used the phrase ‘coign of vantage’ which scandalized Curran but suggested that Moses’ verbal skills were improving.

Then, one day, Moses wrote a memorandum to Lyons using the phrase ‘high-falutin‘ as well an apparent mis-use of the word Aurignacian.  This threw his superiors into a light-hearted conniption.

“We tried to help.  But Moses has failed, flunked.  Up with the bars!  Let Mose wail — without — not within,” wrote Curran.

Moses, who would become more powerful than all three men combined, responded in an unusual way — he wrote a biting Christmas poem.  The following verse, penned by Moses, was delivered to Lyon, who “promptly converted it into a Christmas card — with embellishments — and passed it along to his superior officer.”  The poem, as published in the Times:

CHRISTMAS GREETINGS
To Chancellor Henry H. Curran
Great Chancellor of Curran U
Greetings from Borough Hall and Zoo.
 
Assorted barks and roars and honks
From the four corners of the Bronx.
 
Gannon, Osborn, Robbins and Moses
Greet you with laurel, rhinos and roses.
 
Cheerios and loud hosannas
From Pelham Bay and the Bronx savannas.
 
Great critic of the spoken word,
Greetings with the proverbial bird.
 
From every coign and height definitive
We greet you with a split infinitive.
 
Signed, 
James J Lyons, Dean
Robert Moses, Sophomore Cheer Leader

So remember: the next time you have a friend correct your grammar, remind yourself, “Hey, I have something in common with the Power Broker!”

Below: A New Yorker cartoon from 1960, the year when his grammar pal Morris took the job of Parks Commissioner from Moses.

 





Santa Insanity: How a self-proclaimed Messiah and cult leader became a popular Santa Claus model

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.

Below — 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)

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“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 MCNYFinally, 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.

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



The craziest Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree ever, in 1949, caused an equally crazy Fifth Avenue traffic jam

For the 1949 season, the caretakers of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree decided to go fantastically over the top.

Just a few years earlier, New Yorkers were served up a plainly adorned tree with no electric lights, a reminder of the war in Europe and a nod to energy preservation.  But the war was over now; it was time to get delightfully gaudy.

Perhaps knowing the mild temperatures that awaited that season — it would only snow two inches between November 1949 and January 1950 — the Rockefeller Center holiday designers decided to spray paint the gigantic 75-foot tree in hundreds of gallons of whimsical silver paint.  It was then engulfed in 7,500 electric lights in pastel colors — pink, blue, yellow, green and orange, described as “plucked from a sky in fairyland.”

This Easter-like hue, bouncing off the silver-painted branches, reflected out from behind dozens of glass ornaments, leading up to the brilliant white star on top, which, according to the New York Times, “seemed to send glints of fire almost to the top of the seventy-seventh floor RCA Building in back of the tree.”

As if that didn’t grab your attention, the promenade leading up to the tree and the skating rink was adorned with a most dizzying decoration — rapidly whirling plastic snowflakes, 576 of them, illuminated for hypnotic effect.

At right: An ad for the Rockefeller Center ice skating pond, from a December 1949 issue of the New Yorker

Is it any surprise then that this insane display would later create, on December 19, 1949, “one of the worst traffic jams Fifth Avenue traffic jams in recent years“?

Due to shocked motorists trying to catch a glimpse at this electric wonderland, Fifth Avenue became a rush hour nightmare for several hours. “Cars were pinned bumper to bumper from 72nd south to 41st Street along Fifth Avenue, making cross-traffic an impossibility and imprisoning automobiles in side streets.”

Even through police were called out to enforce emergency traffic rules, Midtown was essentially in a state of vehicular trauma until 10 pm that evening.

Below: During the day, the silver-painted branches, adorned with heavy glass ornaments, cast a particular glow upon the ice skating pond below. Picture courtesy Flickr/lighthousenewsus

Picture courtesy Life Magazine/Andreas Feninger

Pre-Scrooged: The Ghost of New York Christmas specials


A Bill Murray holiday classic is closely linked to a forgotten 1955 teleplay

Tracing itself back to one of America’s first television broadcast station, New York’s local WCBS-TV can claim a host of significant achievements, including the first regular broadcasts in color and the first baseball game in color (with the Brooklyn Dodgers, naturally).

Their early news documentary series ‘Eye on New York’, hosted and produced by future CBS president Bill Leonard, took a break from serious reporting on the evening of Christmas 1955 to broadcast a live version of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.  I don’t believe a version of this classic exists to view today, but holiday television lovers benefit from one odd quirk of this fleeting program.

At right: Bill Leonard with CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite.

This version of ‘Carol’ starred the extraordinary Bronx-born character actor Jonathan Harris (best known as the flamboyant Dr. Smith from ‘Lost In Space’) as Ebenezer Scrooge and Tony Award nominee Biff McGuire as Bob Cratchit.

But far from constructing a dour Victorian London set upon their midtown Manhattan soundstage, Leonard (who wrote the teleplay) decided to change the setting of the story, to modern day New York City. According to author Fred Guida, “this clever conversion preserved the spirit of the original but in the milieu of lower Park Avenue and big industry.”

Harris’ Scrooge was transformed into the bitter old CEO of Metropolitan Plastics, with Cratchit his elevator man. Scrooge was visited by the various ghosts via “a TV receiver as an up-to-date medium for his unearthly visions,” according to Variety.

Leonard’s ‘Carol’ was the very first version of the tale set in New York, and with a modern twist. While this original program has been lost, its cheeky trope has been used in a great many modern shows (especially those of the 1970s and 80s) in ‘very special Christmas episodes’, to bring holiday realizations to jaded characters from Alex P. Keaton of ‘Family Ties’ to even the title character of ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’.

But the greatest beneficiary of Leonard’s holiday twist is the 1988 Bill Murray classicScrooged, where a grumpy New York television producer — filming his own version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ — finds epiphany after an evening with three illuminating spirits, including a cab driver played by former New York Dolls singer David Johansen.

And since we’re on the subject, here’s some more New York holiday themed cheer from Johansen, under the name of his alter ego, Buster Poindexter. Happy holidays from the Bowery Boys!