Category Archives: Friday Night Fever

The tale of the Cotton Club: “The Aristocrat of Harlem”

PODCAST The musical story of the Cotton Club, the most famous (and infamous) nightclub of the Jazz Age.

 

The Cotton Club, Harlem’s most prominent nightclub during the Prohibiton era, delivered some of the greatest music legends of the Jazz Age — Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, the Nicolas Brothers.  Some of the most iconic songs in the American songbook made their debut at the Cotton Club or were popularized in performances here.

But the story of gangster Owney Madden‘s notorious supper club is hardly one to be celebrated.

That the Cotton Club was owned by Prohibition’s most ruthless mob boss was just the beginning. The club enshrined the segregationist policies of the day, placing black talent on the stage for the pleasure of white patrons alone. Even the club’s flamboyant décor — by Ziegfeld’s scenic designer, no less — made sure to remind people of these ugly admission practices.

This is the tale of Harlem late night — of hot jazz and illegal booze, of great music and very bad mobsters. Featuring some of the greatest tunes of the day by Ellington, Calloway, King Oliver and more.

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 #204: THE COTTON CLUB: THE ARISTOCRAT OF HARLEM

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The Cotton Club was spawned from an earlier nightspot called Club Deluxe, owned by boxer Jack Johnson. (Below: Johnson in 1910)

Courtesy Getty Images)
Courtesy Getty Images)

Club Deluxe was renamed The Cotton Club in 1923 by Owney Madden, the mob boss and supplier of illegal booze.

owney

The original Cotton Club at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. The Douglas Theater, on the ground floor, is doing much better here, photo taken sometime in 1927:

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Courtesy Getty Images

 

The entrance to the Harlem Cotton Club. Note the log decoration to make it appear like some old rugged shack.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A map from 1932 of the Harlem nightclub scene, featuring the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, Connie’s Inn, the Savoy Ballroom and more….

Courtesy Open Culture
Courtesy Open Culture

 

The Broadway Cotton Club as it looked one evening in 1938.

Courtesy Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives
Courtesy Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives

A look at the interior of the Broadway Cotton Club circa, during an New Year’s celebration, 1937, with Cab Calloway conducting.

Courtesy the Hi De Ho Blog, devoted to Cab Calloway
Courtesy the Hi De Ho Blog, devoted to Cab Calloway

 

An advertisement or program for The Cotton Club. The year 1925 is penciled in at the top, but it has to be from a later date. Calloway had just graduated from high school in 1925!

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

Maude Russel and her Ebony Steppers, performing in the 1929 Cotton Club show called ‘Just A Minute’.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A shot of Jimmy Lunceford and His Orchestra in 1934.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

An advertisement for the Nicolas Brothers, for a performance in 1938 at the Broadway Cotton Club.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

Lena Horne started out in the Cotton Club chorus line but eventually became a headlining star in her own right.

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The Dandridge Sisters were notable performers in the final years of the Cotton Club.

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The young and dashing Duke Ellington became a superstar in the years following his Cotton Club residency.

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Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Band, in a 1930 film appearance:

In 1934, Cab Calloway made this short film featuring his music:

 

Cab Calloway’s here too, in this clip from the film Stormy Weather, but the real stars are the Nicholas Brothers in a breathtaking dance number:

 

THIS PODCAST FEATURED MUSICAL SNIPPETS FROM THE FOLLOWING SONGS:

Black and Tan Fantasy – Duke Ellington

Drop Me Off In Harlem – Duke Ellington

Speak Easy Blues – King Oliver Jazz Band

Charleston – Paul Whiteman

Mood Indigo – Duke Ellington

Swing Session – Duke Ellington

If You Were In My Place – Duke Ellington

Minnie the Moocher – Cab Calloway

I’ve Got The World On A String – Duke Ellington

Stormy Weather – Ethel Waters

On The Sunny Side of the Street – Duke Ellington

 

NOTES ON THIS SHOW:

— I made two amusing flubs in this show 1) Duke Ellington’s nickname is probably inspired by the Duke of Wellington, not (obviously) the Duke of Ellington, 2) the name of the movie with Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers is obviously named Stormy Weather, not  Stormy Weathers (which must be the name of a drag queen somewhere)

Jack Johnson‘s story is so much more complex and I wish I had more time to talk about him.  For more information, check out the incredible documentary (and the book it’s based on by Geoffrey C Ward) called Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Podcast Rewind: Webster Hall Nights “I’ve Been To A Marvelous Party”

PODCAST REWIND  Webster Hall, as beautifully worn and rough-hewn as it was during its heyday in the 1910s and 20s, disguises a very surprising past. It’s a significant venue in the history of the labor movement, Greenwich Village bohemians, gay and lesbian life, and pop and rock music.

The Webster Hall ballroom has hosted the likes of Emma Goldman, Marcel Duchamp, Jefferson Airplane, Robert F Kennedy and Madonna. Listen in to find out how it got it’s reputation as ‘the devil’s playhouse’.  This was originally released on January 3, 2009.

NOW WITH BONUS CONTENT: Almost ten minutes of newly recorded material in 2015, adding a couple more interesting details from Webster Hall’s unique history.

A special illustrated version of the podcast on Webster Hall (Episode #73) 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-#72), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

A depiction of the baseball scoreboard that was installed by the New  York Evening World to ‘instantaneously’ update baseball scores from Boston in 1890. [The complete article is here.]

New York Evening World
New York Evening World

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The party rages at a Webster Hall costume ball, in a photo by the great Jessie Tarbox Beals. Just click into this photo for a closer view and observe the bizarre costumes.

Courtesy Schlesinger Library
Courtesy Schlesinger Library

 

Garment workers meet out in front of Webster Hall, between 1910-1915.  The venue was a pivotal meeting spot for union groups, political activists and anarchist leaders like Emma Goldman.

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

Greek immigrants gather in front of Webster Hall as they prepare to return to their country to engage in the first Balkan war (October 1912).

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

A 1933 poster advertising the annual Greenwich Village costume ball, designed by John Sloan

Courtesy Ephemeral New York
CourtesyLibrary of Congress

 

The cast of ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’ recording the cast album at Webster Hall, 1961.

cast

 

Jefferson Airplane’s first New York concert, January 8, 1967, at Webster Hall

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

 

Run DMC performing at The Ritz, May 15, 1984

Photograph by Josh Cheuse/updownsmilefrown
Photograph by Josh Cheuse/updownsmilefrown

The Slide and the Excise: NYC’s Most Notorious 19th Century Gay Bars

This article originally appeared in the 2015 NYC Pride Guide. You can check out the entire digital issue here or pick up pretty much anywhere in the West Village, Chelsea or Hell’s Kitchen this weekend!
Gay and lesbian life in 19th century America meant reading between the lines, latching on to known code words to locate a community buried deep under the mainstream. But you may not have had to look very far in the early 1890s to locate The Slide (at 157 Bleecker Street), once New York’s most notorious and flamboyant bars.

We know of its existence primarily due to the pearl-clutching reaction of moral-minded New Yorkers. While you can’t trust police blotters and morality crusaders to give an accurate depiction of what The Slide was truly like, an attempt to peel back the hyperbole provides a sight that would rival the bawdiest gay bars of Hell’s Kitchen.

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The Slide was a basement dive, packed every night with men who fancied “male degenerates” and the occasional female looking for something outrageous. Music, drinking and laughter prevailed until the early morning; female prostitutes mingled with the boys to create what must have been a dizzying stew of genders, the air filled with cheap booze, wild sex (“orgies beyond description”) and tunes banged out on an old piano.

Newspapers described it as a “fairy resort.” Men openly wore drag to the delight of patrons, of which there were many, according to one scandalized report, “one to three hundred people, most of whom are males, but are unworthy the name of men.” Rouged and powdered waiters “sang filthy ditties” into all hours of the morning. The Slide’s most notable patrons went by such names as Princess Toto, Madam Fisher, Maggie Vickers, Phoebe Pinafore and Queen of the Slide.

Homosexual behavior of any stripe would have been condemned in this era. Such flagrant and open displays would have been unthinkable then.

The urges displayed at The Slide were “inhuman and unnatural.” The New York Evening World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, was perhaps the most horrified, suggesting that “London, Paris or Berlin, with all their iniquity, have nothing to parallel this sink of vice and depravity.” A bar today might be honored to be strapped with such description!

Here’s the complete quote in all it’s scandalized glory:

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Such abandon could not be allowed to exist for very long. Pulitzer’s paper went on a vendetta against The Slide and other Bleecker Street dives, and soon it was permanently shuttered.

But you couldn’t simply extinguish a scene as lively as that of The Slide. Its crowd simply moved to a dive called the Excise Exchange (336 Bowery), a place “frequented by the same painted, abandoned men and women, the surroundings are the same and the conversation quite as low and vulgar.” [New York Evening World, Jan 7, 1892]

“The ‘attractions’ at the Excise Exchange are not the women, but the class of men who frequent it. They imitate the dress and manner of women — paint their faces and eyebrows, bleach their hair, wear bracelets and address each other with female names.” [source]

New York Evening World

The building which housed The Slide still stands today at 157 Bleecker, now home to a far more respectable establishment.  (The bathrooms are in the basement is you want to stand in the place of the old ‘degenerate’ bar.) The Bowery Hotel sits directly across the street from the location of the old Excise Exchange. But the spirit of these two bars live on, down the Bowery, down Bleecker, through the Village and all around late-night New York.

 

Illustrations on this page are directly from contemporary reports in the New York Evening World.

The Wildest Era In New York History: My New York Magazine Investigation

New York Magazine produces an annual buffet of New York City history each year called the Yesteryear Issue.  It’s probably the biggest celebration of the city’s past in print and usually corrals some of New York’s finest writers and celebrities.  Last year’s issue featured eight entertainers from New York’s past including Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and the Notorious B.I.G.

This year’s fabulous issue is no exception. The theme is After Midnight, a look at history through the years (from the 1850s to today) as it played out in the late-night hours.   You can read it all right here or go to your newsstand and pick up one of the three gorgeous covers.

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This issue features tales, interviews, reminiscences and asides by the likes of Jay McInerney, Bebe Buell, Sloane Crosley, Colin Quinn, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Laurie Anderson, J.B. Smooth, Sarah Silverman, Lydia Lunch, Isaac Mizrahi, Laurie Anderson — and the Bowery Boys!

That’s right, I have a fun little article in the issue, a thought experiment called “Which New  York Was the Wildest New York? An Inquiry.”

It’s an absurd argument — how do you really quantify debauchery? — but a wonderful thought experiment and a fine excuse to wallow in genuine New York wickedness.  It was fun to pour over the decades and identify four particular eras of rampant bacchanalian excess — the 1970s, the 1920s, the 1880s-90s and the 1850s.  You can read the article to discover which era I crown the wildest.

Disagree?  Have a favorite era you’d love to visit? Leave a comment and tell me about it!

And here are a few images of people and places that I mention in the article.

Harry Hill’s Concert Saloon 

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For more information on Harry Hill’s check out my Bowery Boys article Purging Evil: New York vs. the Concert Saloon.

 

 Kit Burns Rat Pit (or, in this case, Dog Pit)

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For more information on Kit Burn’s Water Street saloon, check our our podcast on the South Street Seaport.

 

McGurk’s Suicide Hall

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For more information on McGurk’s Suicide Hall check out my Bowery Boys profile on this sad and dangerous place on the Bowery. (The article was written all the way in 2007 so the neighborhood has changed greatly since then!)

 

“Parisian-style dance  halls”

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For more information on the Bleecker Street ‘distractions, check out my Bowery Boys article called Don’t Douse! The Glim! Four Infamous Dancehalls and Dives

And for particular information on The Slide, you can read my profile from back in 2007. (Kennys Castaways has since closed.)

 

Texas Guinan

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For more information on Guinan, read my profile of her notorious speakeasy The 300 Club.

 

Larry Fay and the El Fay nightclub

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History in the Making – July 14, 2014: Red Hot Summer Edition


Party time at Leon and Eddie’s nightclub at 33 West 52nd Street, photo from July 1948.  That’s the proprietor himself — Eddie Davis.    The nightlife impresario Toots Shor got his start here as a bouncer. [Library of Congress]


Demolition Is Hot Right Now: A disturbing report from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation of 20 recent buildings that were demolished before they could be landmarked. Do we ever need to hear the words “replaced with a parking lot”? A few of them are pictured here: [The Real Deal]

In Somewhat Better News: The oldest buildings in New York that are currently not demolished! [6SQFT]

The Most Interesting Burger King Ever: Some very fun old photographs of Governors Island. [Gothamist]

High Drama: The surprising history of the old Tammany Hall building in Union Square. [Daytonian In Manhattan]

Netflix Killed The Video Star: The final days of the very last Kim’s Video Store in the East Village.  [Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roseland dancers, 1941 (Library of Congress)

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

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

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

 Here’s a Henderson tribute to the venue, entitled “Rose Room (In Sunny Roseland)”:

 

Remnants of the Bull’s Head Tavern: Could this be the greatest New York archaeological find of the year?

The former Atlantic Gardens, revealed during a demolition. Underneath it lies evidence of an even greater historical discovery. Courtesy Adam Woodward/Lower East Side History Project

Big news on the urban archaeological front — remnants of the Colonial-era Bulls Head Tavern may have been discovered during an excavation for a new hotel.  The Bull’s Head was itself built over in the late 19th century for the grand Atlantic Gardens beer hall (mentioned in our Beer History podcast). then enjoyed a rather non-descript past century at 50-52 Bowery in various guises, most recently a drug store and restaurant.

Check out the story here (Unearthed: A Possible Stop Along the Revolution) and follow The Lo Down for all the latest developments in the coming days.  And take a few minutes to marvel at preservationist Adam Woodward’s photographs of the site here.  It might not look like much, but verification of its identity would prove to be a pretty big deal for lovers of American history.

Below, I’m re-posting my article from 2009 on the history of the Bull’s Head Tavern.
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The Bull’s Head Tavern was the gathering-place for farmers, drovers, and merchants in the 18th century, located well outside city boundaries just east of Collect Pond. (At the Bowery, right at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge.)

It soon became the center of Manhattan’s entire meat selling and rendering industry, with the area surrounding the nearby Collect overrun with tanneries and slaughterhouses.  As the Bull’s Head was also located right on the Boston Post Road (later the Bowery), situated at a crossroads of livestock yards and stables, it became an ideal place for both commerce and carousing.

The Bull’s Head was in operation as early as 1755, enjoying business as “the last halting-place for the stages before entering the city.”

Within the next few decades, industry enveloped the area, transforming the Bull’s Head into a cattle market, with pens adjoining the main building where farmers from the surrounding area herded their best specimens for sale.  Inside the tavern became a literal stock market, with transactions, news and gossip being shared over brew and a hot meal in “smoky, low-ceilinged rooms.

Those who lingered well into the night sometimes played a strange game called crack loo — often gambling away any profits they might have made earlier in the day. Out in the pen, dog fights and “bear baiting” sometimes occured as entertainment.

As Washington Irving describes, at the Bull’s Head he would “hear tales of travelers, watch the coaches and envy the more pretentious country gentlemen in Castor hat, cherry-derry jackets and doeskin breeches.”

On November 25, 1783, Evacuation Day, the Bull’s Head entered history.  As the British fled New York that day, George Washington and his entourage met at the Bull’s Head, preparing themselves for their triumphant entry into town. Governor George Clinton and over 800 uniformed troops and town people gathered right outside, preparing for the procession.

Henry Astor, the older brother of John Jacob, stepped in as owner of the Bull’s Head in 1785.  Already an accomplished butcher, Henry served his “celebrated cuts of meats” and often outpriced his own clientele when a particularly choice herd of cattle came travelling by.

Of course, New York was outgrowing its old boundaries by then.  By 1813, Collect Pond had been drained and high society eyed the Bowery, sweeping away the filthy stockyards and factories to construct homes, shops and theaters.  Moving with the changing times, some civic minded businessmen bought out Astor and moved the Bull’s Head somewhere safely outside the city — this time at 3rd Avenue and 24th Street!

In 1830, this new location fell into the hands of young rancher and entrepreneur Daniel Drew, who turned the tavern into a sort of bank, marketplace and social club for local cattlemen, upgrading the establishment and building his own reputation as a savvy financier.  The neighborhood was even sometimes referred to as Bull’s Head Village.

As this time, according to an old history, “various types of men mingled in the bar-room of the Bull’s Head, from the rough country man to the speculative citizen, butcher and horse-fancier. Plain apple-jack and brandy and water… were the principal liquors passed over the bar. Guests were so numerous that at the first peal of the dinner-bell. it was necessary to rush for the table or fail miserably.” And of course, after hearty meal and vigorous drink, came the gambling, “throwing dice for small stakes.”

Drew eventually went on to become a steamboat mogul.  The site of the old Bull’s Head eventually hosted the notorious Bowery Theatre (built upon its old cattleyards), then the sumptuous Atlantic Gardens by the mid-19th century.  Drew’s uptown location on 24th caved in to a growing residential neighborhood and soon moved again — this time to 42nd Street.  That location was famous torched during the Draft Riots.

However, near the 24th Street location, there is a new Bull’s Head Tavern that probably smells a lot better than the original.

And not to forget, there was also a Bull’s Head Tavern in Staten Island, at Victory Boulevard and Richmond Avenue. Built in 1741, this Bull’s Head was a popular destination for British-loving Tories before the days of the Revolutionary War.  Before it was destroyed in a fire, “people from all over the country made special trips to the old house, just to see the famous Tory headquarters,” according to one old history.

The neighborhood that sprouts around that intersection at Victory and Richmond is named Bulls Head in the old tavern’s honor.

The Incident at Healy’s: Wild nightlife in Columbus Circle, police brutality and spirited protests against ‘cafe curfew’

Columbus Circle in 1921, looking west. Healy’s was a few blocks north of this scene.

Many of New York’s most popular restaurants and cafes a century ago were located around Columbus Circle, lively hot spots that drew in the theater and burlesque patrons well into the late hours.  Crowds would exit the Park Theater and head over to Reisenweber’s Cafe to take in some champagne and cabaret, years before it would be associated with bawdy star Sophie Tucker.  Others might partake of the beefsteak at the Morgue on West 58th Street or Child’s Restaurant a block over.

One of the busiest spots was Healy’s (slightly north, at Broadway and 66th Street), a spacious dining and dancing spot,  featuring an indoor ice-skating rink and enormous ballroom, among its many indulgences. It was one of New York’s most trendy dining palaces in 1913, the site of a celebratory dinner by artists from the Armory Show just a few months before.

Below: An advertisement for Healy’s from 1914

But nobody was exactly celebrating at 1 a.m. on August 13, 1913, when the police burst into Healy’s and violently threw out all the patrons.  Men were grabbed by their collars and thrown to the sidewalk. Women screamed as they were separated from their tables, “shoved, pushed and dragged” to the doorway. Thousands of people had gathered outside, both curious and perturbed, shouting at the police and cheering on the discarded diners.

The drama made the front page of every newspaper the next morning. “Diners Thrown From Healy’s,” said the Sun. “Many Are Dragged Away Carrying Dishes and Table Cloths.”

So what was the problem exactly? Naturally, it had to do with liquor.

The fun began several days before, when Mayor William J. Gaynor instigated a new ‘cafe curfew’ for the wild lobster palaces and nightclubs that were turning Midtown into an all-night soiree.  Establishments holding proper liquor licenses must now close at 1 a.m. unless granted an exemption or extended license (often given to hotels).

This did not make Broadway proprietors happy, as it greatly cut into profits. However most restaurant and cafe owners along the White Light zone planned to comply with the order, fearing fines or police reprisals.

But Thomas Healy was ready to fight the law.  His lavish cafe at Broadway and 66th Street thrived on the after-theater, late-supper crowd, a party crew who liked their champagne.  Although Healy’s regularly closed at 2 a.m., that one lost hour would have greatly hurt business, Healy claimed.

He also contested the wording of the law. It stated that “any room which liquor is sold during lawful hours must be closed and the doors locked during the prescribed hours, whether for the sale of liquor and foods.” If his bar room was indeed locked up, why couldn’t his patrons stay and enjoy themselves in the dining room?

At left: An ad from 1915. Note the ‘Jungle Room, Log Cabin and Log Hut for famous Healy Beefsteak Dinner’

Healy stood ready to combat the mayor, keeping his place open while filing an injunction to keep the law at bay.

For several days, police entered the restaurant and asked patrons to leave at 1 a.m.  On Tuesday, August 12, police barricaded patrons in the restaurant, announcing that none of them could leave until 6 a.m.  But a defiant Healy removed his remaining diners out a back entrance, foiling the police.

This is certainly explains why the police were especially hostile the following day, August 13.  At 1 a.m, police officers mounted the orchestra stage and announced that everybody must leave the restaurant. Drunken patrons laughed and even booed the officer, many proclaiming they had no interest in leaving. Most likely, it was this stubbornness that ignited the rough-handling that followed.

“The recalcitrant guests found themselves enfolded in the uniformed arms, lifted into the air, rushed down the disordered aisles and literally thrown into Columbus Avenue,” reported the New York Times. “In the scramble, tables went over, chairs were smashed, electroliers were damaged, glasses and crockery were broken into fragments. There was pandemonium for a time.”

Violence returned the following night, Thursday, August 14, as rebellious New Yorkers were now insolently dining past the allotted time.  Promptly at 1 a.m., an increased force of fifty police officers rushed the restaurant. “Three hundred men and women were led, pushed, shoved, carried, clubbed and thrown out.” [source]

One of those patrons was New York District Attorney Charles S. Whitman (pictured above in 1910), a rumored candidate for mayor and one of the city’s most popular politicians. (In 1916, he would be elected governor of New York.) His appearance at Healy’s was clearly to draw attention. Thousands of people crowded the streets; the nearly elevated train station was filled with people trying to get a better look, and ‘automobile parties’ cruised by, desperate for a peek at the violence inside.

Whitman’s appearance had done the trick.  Gaynor backed down, allowing Healy’s to remain open if it wished. In fact, warrants were then issued for police detective John. F. Dwyer and two dozen police officers.

But Healy had created a bit of an unwieldy beast. Crowds gathered the next night and cars lined the street, anticipating more excitement, building uncontrollable mess that the proprietor actually called the police himself!  In the end, Healy did end up closing at 1 a.m., just for the protection of his own restaurant and staff.

Recollections of the Electric Circus: “If you remembered much of what happened, you weren’t really there.”

The interior of the Electric Circus on St. Mark’s Place. Pic courtesy Christian Montone/flickr

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC.  If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode.  But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all.  You can find other articles in this series here

Almost predictably, a couple characters from ‘Mad Men‘ finally interact with a psychedelic temple of Andy Warhol, in this case the nightclub Electric Circus at 19-25 St. Mark’s Place, today the site of a Chipotle and a Supercuts.

As I wrote back in an article from 2007: “It became the East Village fuse box for Warhol’s talents and those of his entourage, in particular the Velvet Underground and Nico.  The dazzling synthesis of psychedelica and glamour, of the Velvet’s strange atmospheric music and Warhol’s performance displays of lights and costumes, immediately attracted the scenesters to this odd little street — according to the New York Times, “everyone from hippies to Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton” — way before St. Marks would make its reputation in the 1970s with the punk scene.”

An original ad from the Electic Circus, summer of 1967 (courtesy butdoesitfloat)

Since I wrote that article, many people have chimed in within the comments section to relive their memories of Electric Circus.  Here are a few of my favorite comments from those who were actually there:

“What memories.  I started working at the E.C. as a ticket taker.  I say working, but in reality we didn’t get paid, we got let in for our work.  Like Woodstock, if you remembered much of what happened at the E.C. you weren’t really there.” – Being the Best

Below: Headline from the Village Voice, July 6, 1967

“I worked at the Electric Circus, 67-68-ish.  I was the fire-eater, and mime/clown, working with another mime named Michael Grando.  Larry Pizoni was the director of the circus show.  We had a trapeze artist named Sandy [Alexander], and security was a biker club called the Aliens (which worked, unlike Altamont).

Everytime I’m in New York, in the East Village, I stop on St Mark’s and bow my head.  I wanted to have someone put up a plaque, but nobody in the stores knew who to call.” – Richard Bluejay

“I was one of 5 or 6 people who worked at Limbo* for number of years across from the Electric Circus.  I was there at the opening night, and then on for a long time I remember we use to give discounts to the Circus employees so we get in free. Can not tell you how many times I was in there but it was a lot!!!!  It was great time back then.  Fillmore East was around the corner and Max’s Kansas City was not far away.  East Village was where it was at back then ” – Anonymous

A freakout-indusing video from Electric Circus, scored to the music of Frank Zappa: 

“I remember two things about the electric circus from my one visit in 1969. One was the fact that the walls were not at a right angle to the floor, which combined with the strobe lights and swirling crowd, made for a delightfully disorienting experience. The other was a dark room off to the side where couples — or even strangers I suppose — could sit and smooch. In addition to all kinds of nooks and crannies for this purpose there was a rotating upholstered carousel in the middle of the room, divided into sections, one per couple.” — Anonymous

Below: A typical crowd on the stairs outside the Electric Circus (pic courtesy Old New York)

“I’m so excited, after all these decades to hear from people who got to experience the the most amazing Electric Circus, as I did.  By far dancing myself into a dazed, psychedelic trance, while absorbing the magical energy of the Chambers Brothers sing ‘Time’, was right up there in my top ten of life altering experiences.  I was a runaway, living with new friends in the Village.

I used to panhandle on St. Marks Place, and spend all my money on clothes at the Limbo, pizza, and tickets to hear my fav bands, except for the times I used to get in for free.” — Sonny

Below: Sonny’s jam from the floor of the Electric Circus:

“I can’t remember exactly how I arrived at St. Marks Place that first night.  I had never been to St Marks Place and I certainly didn’t know about Electic Circus.  I was just following a friend of mine who was interested enough in the new culture to find out where to go and what to do.

There must have been some kind of happening that night because the streets were full of people.  People were hanging all over the stairs leading up to the Circus.  And, you didn’t have to pay.  We just walked in. I still remember it emotionally.

The big room was completely decorated with fabric amorphously draped on walls and spanning corners and cornices.  Projectors behind the fabric ran continuous short loops of films. Of course it was dimly lit so as not to wash out the films.  People were everywhere and moved mysteriously in the smoky dim light.  I was born in Brooklyn and had already lived a few years in Manhattan, but I never saw anything like this before.  The next time I saw EC the decor had changed. I never paid to get in because I was a member of the PABLO Light** show.” — Anonymous

* Limbo was a famed ‘hippie clothing’ boutique where today’s Trash & Vaudeville sits today.

** That would be Lights By Pablo, a leading ‘liquid light show’ exhibitor of the late 1960s, frequently here and at Fillmore East.

In good company: The local significance of Obama’s inaugural quote: “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall”

As many others today are ruminating on the symbolic and historic implications of yesterday’s presidential inaugural ceremony, allow me to dwell a little on a curious milestone of far lesser importance.

Until yesterday, no place in New York City has ever been mentioned in a presidential inaugural speech.  Not Ellis Island, not the Statue of Liberty, not Wall Street, not the World Trade Center, none of our fortresses or other towering landmarks.

In fact, New York as a city has actually been name-checked only once. (See below.)  But no individual place has ever been mentioned in what are considered to be the most memorable set of presidential speeches.

That is, until yesterday, when President Barack Obama referenced the name of a West Village gay bar — Stonewall Inn.

index

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

“Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” represent flashpoints of various American social movements.  With his mention of Stonewall — representing the Stonewall riots and subsequent street gatherings of June-July 1969, considered the birthplace of the gay-rights movement — the president has elevated the struggles of gay Americans to those of the women’s movement (the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848) and the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s (the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965).

The rhetorical flourish of alliteration unites these movements by the places in which they occurred.  Stonewall thus becomes shorthand for the gay rights movement.  But as it is the actual name of a bar — still very much in operation, right off Christopher Park — Stonewall Inn now holds another very special place in history.

The United Nations, of course, has been mentioned a few times, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. (Without surprise, mentions of the international body literally drop off to nothing after that.)  But all references relate only to the legislative body, not the actual place.  In fact, when it was first mentioned in 1949, by President Harry S. Truman — “We have constantly and vigorously supported the United Nations and related agencies as a means of applying democratic principles to international relations” — its headquarters in Manhattan had not even been completed.

Below: Federal Hall on Wall Street, site of the first American government and the inauguration of George Washington in 1789

When New York has been mentioned in inaugural addresses, it’s because it was the location of the first inaugural address in April 1789, when the seat of American government was in New York.

“This occasion derives peculiar interest from the fact that the Presidential term which begins this day is the twenty-sixth under our Constitution,” Benjamin Harrison remarked in his 1889 speech.  “The first inauguration of President Washington took place in New York, where Congress was then sitting, on the 30th day of April, 1789, having been deferred by reason of delays attending the organization of the Congress and the canvass of the electoral vote.”

George H.W. Bush makes specific mention of Washington’s inauguration in 1989, which happened to be the 200th anniversary of that event. “I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George Washington 200 years ago, and the Bible on which I placed my hand is the Bible on which he placed his.  It is right that the memory of Washington be with us today, not only because this is our Bicentennial Inauguration, but because Washington remains the Father of our Country.”

While this means very little in terms of the city’s historical stature, it means a great deal to the gay rights movement, and certainly to the bar itself. Or as Stonewall Inn owner Stacey Lentz recently said: “We’re not just a bar. We’re the Stonewall. It’s like owning Rosa Parks’s bus. We don’t own the movement, but we own the bus.”

For more information on Stonewall Inn, check out our podcast #48 The Stonewall Riots (download here or on iTunes.)  

Pics courtesy NYPL