Tag Archives: Broadway

‘War Paint’ and ‘Indecent’: Two views of New York City history on Broadway

History has always been a critical component of theater, especially in musicals, where period sets and costumes assist in creating other worlds on stage quite unlike our normal one. But last year, with Hamilton: The Musical, the stage phenomenon which won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and a million other awards), history became a rock star.

Or rather, historical figures, even those with seemingly little contemporary vigor, had the ability to inspire a new generation, if reinterpreted by the right talents.

The musical categories for the 71st Annual Tony Awards, announced on Tuesday, are a bit more competitive this year than last, when Hamilton took home eleven awards.  The Best Musical category is an especially diverse cross-section of subjects in terms of time and place — one contemporary tale (Dear Evan Hansen), one from recent history (Come From Away, set right after September 11, 2001), a European historical fable (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, based on Tolstoy) and, of course, a musical that is literally about not having any history (Groundhog Day, based on the movie).

Joan Marcus/Polk & Co

The new musical War Paint is this year’s musical representative of New York City history, replaying the story of Fifth Avenue’s most famous retail rivalry between cosmetics icons Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. While War Paint didn’t make the Best Musical cut, its two main stars (Christine Ebersole as Arden, Patti Lupone as Rubinstein) are competing for Best Performance By An Actress In A Musical. Just as Arden and Rubinstein themselves would have wanted!

Arden, arriving from Canada, and Rubinstein, from Poland by way of Australia, set up their companies in New York in the 1910s. But the musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, actually starts in the 1930s with their careers firmly established on Fifth Avenue, their competing salons bustling with society women.

Why skip past their origin stories? War Paint is more of a showcase than a show, designed to do something very rare, providing an opportunity for two great female musical stars to take the stage at the same time.  (Quick: Name another musical with two female leads where they are not playing witches.)  Because, practically speaking, you want established stars in your musical, the story must start with Arden and Rubinstein already at the top of their game.

Joan Marcus/Polk and Co

The musical escorts the pair through the mid-century — past the changing roles of women in World War II, past the television revolution — as their once-chic brand names struggle to change with the times. On occasion the story pauses to infuse the grand, sweeping narrative with small biographical details.

If you heard our recent podcast on the subject, you’ll know that Arden and Rubinstein never actually met (at least, as the legend goes). This too works to the musical’s benefit, giving each star separate storylines that veer into each other just enough, never letting one upstage the other.

Lupone and Ebersole are tremendous. How could they not be? Lupone playfully transitions Rubinstein from a slinking figure of sophisticated grace to an irascible curmudgeon whose body language aches with history (and several dozen pounds of jewelry). Ebersole, with superbly fading cheer, slowly transformed Arden’s legendary confidence to wistfulness and then — in a fantasy coda where the two women actually do meet — into a graceful humility.

If you want to hear more about the story of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, listen to our podcast The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue. Most of our show takes place before the events of the musical, so consider it a prequel of sorts.

There’s also a bit of New York City history in contention for the Tony Award for Best Play. Joining Oslo, Sweat and A Doll’s House, Part 2 in the category is an intriguing and unconventional transfer from the Off-Broadway stage — Indecent written by Paula Vogel.

Carol Rosegg/Indedent

This very musical play recounts the drama surrounding the 1923 Broadway production of God of Vengeance, a controversial Yiddish play that had been well received in downtown New York theaters, but scandalized audiences when it moved uptown. Its cast and crew were charged with obscenity — the show features lesbian protagonists — and its playwright Sholem Asch ostracized. (He spends his time cloistered in Staten Island.)

This artful production feels like a graphic novel brought to life, with projected text hovering over a barren stage and its players sometimes disintegrating into dust. (It’s a weird and spooky stage trick.) Despite feeling very abstract and removed from circumstances at times, Indecent makes a point to root God of Vengeance within Broadway history, vibrantly repeating a couple offending scenes from the play.

Below: A letter from the playwright which ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 11, 1923


Hopefully the point isn’t lost on its audience; the original production was shut down on a similar stage at the old Apollo Theater (at 223 West 42nd Street), just a few blocks south of the Cort Theatre, Indecent‘s present home.  The cast, brilliantly directed by Rebecca Taichman (who scored a Tony nomination for Best Director), flaunts those very moments from Vengeance that proper society once thought offensive.

If you’re in the mood to hear more about scandalous Broadway shows from the 1920s, listen to our podcast Diamond Girl: Mae West — Sex on Broadway. West and the cast of Sex was arrested just a few years after God of Vengeance on similar charges.





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

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

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

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

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


The 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.


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:

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.


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


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



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:



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



— 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.

Stage Magic: Oh-What-A-Beautiful History of the St. James Theatre

On Sunday The Bowery Boys join up with The Ensemblist to present a special cabaret event at 54 Below — a tribute to the great St. James Theatre!

Perhaps some of you may be asking — why do a live show about a individual theater?

The St. James Theatre (246 West 44th Street) was prominently featured as the principal set in this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone.

The underlying theme of the film is that ‘serious’ theater was a reinvigorating, respectable medium that could renew the career of Riggan Thomson (Keaton) whose Hollywood successes have diminished his credibility.

Below:  The exterior and entrance of the St. James in character for Birdman.  More images at Eric Helmin / Design + Media who worked on the film’s terrific graphic design can be found at his website. He’s also worked on The Knick and Inside Llewyn Davis so we’re clearly fans of his work.

Courtesy Eric Helmin / Design + Media
Courtesy Eric Helmin / Design + Media
Courtesy Eric Helmin / Design + Media
Courtesy Eric Helmin / Design + Media


The St. James was one of a handful of stages which estabished the supremacy of the American theater. To film Birdman here was to set the bar near-impossibly high for the lead character.  The history of the St. James runs parallel to Broadway’s own dramatic highs and lows. It was here that Hello Dolly!, Oklahoma, The King and I and The Producers all made their New York debuts.

Here’s a selection of other quirky facts about the St James Theatre, some big, some small, some weird:

1) The plot of land where the St. James Theater stands today — that’s 246 West 44th Street, between the Helen Hayes Theatre and John’s Pizzeria —  was home to the first incarnation of Sardi’s Restaurant. Called the Little Restaurant (or Sardi’s Sidewalk Cafe), this first incarnation of the famous theatrical eatery opened in 1921.  A frequent sight was that of proprietor Melchiore Pio Vincenzo Sardi Sr. standing in the doorway, flipping a twenty-dollar gold coin.  In 1927, the restaurant moved to its present location – just a couple doors down from the St. James.

Below: The outdoor garden at Sardi’s original spot



2) What does the St. James Theatre have in common with the Chelsea Piers and Grand Central Terminal? They were all designed by the same architectural firm Warren and Wetmore. But when it opened with its first show — a George M. Cohan romp called The Merry Malones — it was called Erlanger’s Theater, named for one half of the theatrical production juggernaut of the 1920s — Klaw & Erlanger. (By the way, there was also a Klaw Theatre just a block away.)

Below: Anthony Dumas sketches from 1932 of the Erlanger Theatre and the Little Theatre (later the Helen Hayes). Later that year the name would switch to the St. James in tribute to a famous London theater of that same name.

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


3) In 1943 the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma made its debut here, changing the face of musical theater forever. But, many years before, the St. James very nearly celebrated the debut of another major epoch-making musical– Showboat. It was even considered for the inaugural performance at the St. James! However its producer Florenz Ziegfeld wasn’t ready in time, and it eventually debuted at Ziegfeld’s own theater on December 27, 1927.

Below: A dance-filled play presented by the Federal Theatre Project called Trojan Incident played for a limited run in 1938

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

4) The St. James was a vital component of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Broadway’, delivering debut musicals such as Pal Joey, Where’s Charley?, The King and I and The Pajama Game. Countless successful Shakespeare and Gilbert & Sullivan productions graced the stage as did original ballets and even the first play production of Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1941.

So the place has gotta be loaded, right? During the run of Oklahoma, burglars broke into the St. James to steal the evening’s hefty receipts, only to be foiled when they were unable to open the main safe. “They escaped with a small amount of change,” said the Times.

5) In 1958, the theater went through a massive renovation, almost a rebuilding really.  Most of the interior was replaced with modern theatrical amenities like a state-of-the-art sound system and air conditioning unit.  The lighting equipment was now “completely enclosed in Plexiglass” and “the asbestos curtain has a mural-like design on it.” [source]

Courtesy NYC Architecture
Courtesy NYC Architecture


6) A peculiar set of shows hit the St. James Theatre during the 1970s, most notably a Nashville-themed jamboree called Broadway Opry ’79 featuring a rotating roster of country music greats! Sadly it played only two shows after four previews — the first featuring Don Gibson, Floyd Cramer and Tanya Tucker, the second Waylon Jennings and the Crickets.

7) A lot of shows celebrating New York City history have played at the St. James, and in  1980  came a tribute to the city’s greatest showman — P. T. Barnum. The musical Barnum, with music by Cy Coleman, featured the subjects of real-life Barnum spectacles like Joice Heth, Jenny Lind and Tom Thumb.  Barnum died in 1891, many years before any theater would have made an appearance above 42nd Street.

Below: Jim Dale in Barnum


8) In 2005 an extraordinary feedback loop occurred at the St James Theatre when the musical movie version of The Producers (itself based on a non-musical film) was filmed at the St. James on the very set of the Broadway theater version.  Said one of the extras from the film, standing on stage that day  “Basically, I’m supposed to applaud the play-within-the-play in a movie about a play that was based on a movie,” [source]

9) The past ten years at the St. James have been rewarding indeed — with musical versions of rock albums (American Idiot), children’s books (How The Grinch Stole Christmas), Woody Allen movies (Bullets Over Broadway), and even one Shakespearean comic farce (the current Something Rotten!)

A few lucky individuals even got to see Barry Manilow here in a one-man concert show in 2013. From one review:  “The 1-hour-50-minute concert, performed without an intermission, revealed Mr. Manilow’s brand to be intact. That brand might be described as musical chicken soup for the soul.”

 (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
(Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)


10) With Birdman‘s big win at the 2015 Academy Awards, the St. James Theatre becomes the second Broadway theater prominently featured in a Best Picture winner.   All About Eve, Best Picture winner in 1951, features scenes from the John Golden Theatre on West 45th Street.  The Great Ziegfeld also won Best Picture (in 1937) but it was all filmed in Hollywood.



Wanna know more about the history of the St. James Theatre with an overview of Times Square and Broadway history — all while festively dining and drinking in a superb cabaret setting? Come to our show this Sunday!

Tickets are still available for our two shows at 7pm and 9:30pm. 

To get your tickets, please visit the 54 Below site here or click on the links below

Sun, Sep 13 7:00pm Doors: 5:15pm $30/35/40/70 Tickets
Sun, Sep 13 9:30pm Doors: 8:45pm $25/30/35/60 Tickets


The good folks over at the Broadway musical Something Rotten! are kindly offering a discount code for tickets.



Fantasy’s weirdest writer brings ‘Tomorrowland’ to New York City

The new Disney film Tomorrowland which opens tomorrow will feature scenes set at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, one of the most popular historical destinations for blockbuster films in recent years. 

But this is only the latest show called Tomorrowland to present a flashy, futuristic vision of America. The first actually arrived in New York City in 1905, courtesy one of the greatest humorists — and strangest writers — of the day.

John Kendrick Bangs (pictured below, 1910) is not very well known today, but over one hundred years ago, he was one of America’s great literary satirists. The Yonkers native and Columbia graduate worked his way through a series of magazines which still endure today, including Life Magazine in 1884 and Harper’s Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar in 1888.

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

In 1904 he became editor of Puck Magazine, the colorful German satire magazine with its headquarters on Houston Street.  By then, Bangs had become a successful writer of fantasy and humor novels, very much in the spirit of his contemporary L Frank Baum, author of the Oz books.

He has undoubtedly one of the most unique collection of book titles in Gilded Age literary history — The House Boat on the StyxGhosts I Have Met And Some Others, Bikey the Skicycle and Other Tales of Jimmieboy, his Lewis Carroll-inspired tale Rollo in Emblemland.

Below: Another of his bizarre tales — Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica — written in 1895

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

In fact, Bangs is responsible for an entire sub-genre of writing called ‘Bangsian fantasy’, a very Dante-esque conceit involving famous literary or historical figures having adventures in the afterlife.  He played upon the Gilded Age interest in spiritualism in a playful and absurd manner. His stories were often no more than silly novelties, an assemblage of witty remarks and sight gags placed within fantastic worlds.

Mr. Bangs also created works for the stage. And so it was in April of 1905 that his ‘musical fantasy’ 2905 or Tomorrow-land (later shortened to simply Tomorrow-land) debuted in New York City, featuring music by Manuel Kind, the music director at the famed Hippodrome theater.


According to a vague description by the New York Times, the comic opera “solves for the thirtieth century the servant question and other vexed problems of to-day with automatic lackeys, liquid air police and other wonderful creations.  Money has lost its value and the billionaire is anxious to turn back time.”

From another production of the show in Chicago: “A large crowd enjoyed a glimpse of the fantastic and humorous side of the future as cleverly presented by John Kendrick Bangs and Manuel Klein In time musical comedy Tomorrow-land …. Strides In electricity are exhibited In various ways notably In the electric ballet in which the dresses are electric bulbs.”

By the fall, Bangs shed part of his play’s title and called it only Tomorrow-land, scheduled for Madison Square Garden according to the advertisement below:


Still not happy with the reception, Bangs changed the name again in 1906 to The Man From Now, bringing in new songs written by Vincent Bryan.  I wasn’t exaggerating about that L Frank Baum influence; Bryan has actually written songs for the Wizard of Oz musical which had debuted in 1903.  Bryan would later work closely with Charlie Chaplin in the burgeoning medium of moving pictures.

Below: Bangs took a break from play writing to attend the 70th birthday party of Mark Twain, held at Delmonico’s Restaurant on December 5, 1905. 

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

This new version of the futuristic farce made its debut at the New Amsterdam Theater in September 3, 1906.

The settings for the play include “Usona College in 1906, Gassar College in 2906, and the National Amusement Park in 2906.”  It’s from a review of this revised show that we get a fuller sense of the wacky plot. From the New York Tribune:

“The prologue is set in 1906, when Professor Forecasta discovers a tonic, a drink of which will project one into 2906.  The professor tries the tonic, as does Jack Raleigh, a student at the college; old Pennypacker, the rich banker of the university; Eli Beasly, the constable in the college, and Steve Waffles, a tramp impersonated by Harry Bulger.  These five are whisked into 2906 and the fun begins.

They find that only beautiful chorus girls live a thousand years from now, and it can be truthfully said of them that they are younger than those usually seen in our day.  These girls give themselves over entirely to athletics and the study of astronomy and love.”


This recipe of sex and the future was not apparently interesting enough for New Amsterdam audiences, and the show closed a week later.

Critics would later wonder why Bangs, a hugely successful novelist, could never find his footing on Broadway.  “‘Tis a strange thing that his contributions to stage literature should have fallen by the wayside, principally owing to their lack of that commodity upon which his fame rests.  Possibly the knowledge that a comic opera libretto must contain laughs above all else was what led Mr. Bangs astray.” [source]

Bangs, of course would continue his delightful romp through the trippy fantasias of children’s literature, penning the parody Alice In Blunderland: An Iridescent Dream in 1907.


Pictured at top: The Hippodrome in 1920 (picture courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)





Diamond Girl: How Mae West Brought ‘Sex’ and Scandal to Broadway

PODCAST Mae West (star of I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong) would come to revolutionize the idea of American sexuality, challenging and lampooning ideas of femininity while wielding a suggestive and vicious wit. But before she was America’s diamond girl, she was the pride of Brooklyn!  In this podcast, we bring you the origin story of this icon and the wacky events of 1927 that brought her brand of swagger to the attention of the world.

1The Brooklyn girl started on the vaudeville stage early, inspired by the influences of performers like Eva Tanguay. She soon proved too smart for the small stuff and set her aim towards Broadway — but on her terms.

West’s play Sex introduced her devastating allure in the service of a shocking tale of prostitution.  It immediately found an audience in 1926 even if the critics were less than enamored. But it’s when she devised an even more shocking play — The Drag — that city leaders became morally outraged and vowed to shut her down forever.

From Bushwick to Midtown, from the boards of Broadway to the workhouse of Welfare Island — this is the story of New York’s ultimate Sex scandal.

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 Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #182: Mae West: ‘Sex’ on Broadway

Picture at top:  Mae West in a publicity still for her Broadway hit Diamond Lil. (Courtesy Museum of City of New York)

Inset: The poster for Sex by Jane Mast (aka Mae West)

Special thanks to Esther Belle from The West (a Mae West-inspired coffeehouse and bar in Williamsburg). We recorded an interview with her about the legacy of Mae West but weren’t able to use it. But it will be available for Patreon supporters!


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

Starting this month, we are doubling our number of episodes per month. Now you’ll hear a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

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

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

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


A young Mae West, already a seasoned performer by her teenage years.

Courtesy Notes On The Road
Courtesy Notes On The Road


From Mae West’s vaudeville days, a piece of Tin Pan Alley sheet-music she performed n the stage:

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A saucy promotional still from Sex


From the original program for Sex:

Courtesy Playbill Vault
Courtesy Playbill Vault


Mae West at the Jefferson Market courthouse:

Original caption: Cast of  Tried By Jury.  New York, New York:  Photo shows scene in courtroom of general sessions part II at start of members of  company.  Mae West and Barry O'Niel, in productions leading roles, can be seen at extreme left. March 28, 1927 New York, New York, USA
Original caption: Cast of Tried By Jury. New York, New York: Photo shows scene in courtroom of general sessions part II at start of members of company. Mae West and Barry O’Niel, in productions leading roles, can be seen at extreme left. March 28, 1927 New York, New York, USA


Mae West in the original photography for the 1928 production of Diamond Lil.  She attempted during this period to open the controversial show The Pleasure Man but it was shut down after two days. (Courtesy New York Public Library)


Another odd shot from Diamond Lil, of Mae reclining in a golden swan bed. (source)

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library



Mae West in the 1949 Broadway revival of Diamond Lil.  Once a provocateur of the stage, she settled into her larger-than-life personae in later years, formed mostly from her successes in this role (and its film version She Done Him Wrong). (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

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

Members of the cast of The Pleasure Man being arrested by police, 1928.

Courtesy Queer Music Heritage -- http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-arts6.html
Courtesy Queer Music Heritage — http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-arts6.html
Courtesy New York Daily News
Courtesy New York Daily News

Mae West (and a young Cary Grant) in She Done Him Wrong

In the hilarious I’m No Angel:

Ladies and gentlemen, Mae West and Mr. Ed:

And her last film — the camp classic Sextette

Ten Images of Bowling Green and Ten Facts about its Marvelous History

Bowling Green, at the very tip of Manhattan island, is a small oval park so calm in comparison to its surroundings that it’s hard to believe this is one of the oldest sections of the city of New York.   Here are ten facts about Bowling Green, accompanied by ten images and photographs from various periods in this tiny park’s extraordinary history:

"The Plaine" -- where the trees are to the left -- is where Bowling Green would eventually be constructed. This depicts the early Dutch years. (Courtesy the Internet Book Archive)
“The Plaine” — where the trees are to the left — is where Bowling Green would eventually be constructed. This depicts the early Dutch years. (Courtesy the Internet Book Archive)

1) The land comprising Bowling Green was situated next to Fort Amsterdam.  During the days of New Amsterdam, this was the site of the first public well, dug in 1658 and would remain the only well within the city until 1677, long after the Dutch were replaced by the British.

Ship On A Parade Float Drawn By Horses Past Bowling Green, New York, 18th Century. (Courtesy New York Public Library)
Ship On A Parade Float Drawn By Horses Past Bowling Green, New York, 18th Century. (Courtesy New York Public Library)

2) Since it was next to the fort, it’s not surprising to discover that the area was a parade ground during the early 18th century.  In 1733, it was leased to three local landlords — Peter Jay, John Chambers, and Peter Bayard — to develop an English-style park. It quickly became the destination of lavish homes of the wealthy.

Charcoal drawing of Bowling Green, New York, 1845. (New York Public Library)
Charcoal drawing of Bowling Green, New York, 1845. (New York Public Library)

3) Yes there was actually bowling here. Or rather, the traditional form of lawn bowling, enjoyed by the residents that lived around the park.  This required perpetual maintenance of the lawn. Before the invention of the lawnmower, this was usually accomplished by sheep. I’m not sure whether sheep were employed into service here at Bowling Green. But there were pigs in the street so you never know.

Pulling down the King George statue 1776
Pulling down the King George statue 1776

4) In 1770, loyalists to the crown erected an equestrian statue of King George III in the center of the park.  Six years later, it was ingraciously torn down by New Yorkers after hearing George Washington read the newly crafted Declaration of Independence.  Parts of that statue still exist in the city.


5) George Washington lived here. No really. He had two residences here during the time when New York was briefly the nation’s capital.  The first, over on Cherry Street, provided him and his wife Martha with breathtaking views of the East River, but they soon found it quite unsuitable.  So in 1790 they moved to a home at 39-41 Broadway, at the northern tip of Bowling Green, residing here until the capital was finally moved to Philadelphia.

Bowling Green, how the vacinity looked in 1850 whnen Jenny Lind sang in New York.  (Courtesy Museum of the City of New  York)
Bowling Green, how the vacinity looked in 1850 whnen Jenny Lind sang in New York. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

6) Bowling Green was still the destination for the New York’s oldest, snootiest families at the start of the 19th century.  In fact, it was given a rather inappropriate nickname — Nobs Row. As the town moved northward, the wealthy left their houses around Bowling Green.

Bowling Green 1900 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1900 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

7) In the 1820s, the first velodrome was situated near Bowling Green featuring a precursor to the bicycle called the draisine.  New Yorkers loved this curious device. “Near Bowling Green these vehicles were first exhibited.  Around City Hall Park and the Bowery, at all times of the days, riders might be seen.

Bowling Green 1915 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1915 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

8) Bowling Green soon became known as a transportation terminus for coaches and omnibuses which strode up and down Broadway. In the 1820s, when the entertainment venue Castle Garden opened, the streets around Bowling Green became clogged with busy street life.  By the 1850s, Castle Garden became the principal immigration station, filling the once elite neighborhood with a bustling cross-section of classes. In the 1890s, New York’s short-lived cable-car line terminated here.

Bowling Green, 1939, Wurts Brothers photography (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green, 1939, Wurts Brothers photography (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

9) The park was much abused and generally unimpressive during the 1950s and ’60s but was rebuilt during the 1970s to approximately resemble  how it once looked.  The fence which surrounds the park is the original which was first placed around the park in 1773.  This makes it one of the oldest free-standing artifacts in all of Manhattan.

Bowling Green 1975, photo by Edmund V Gillon (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1975, photo by Edmund V Gillon (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

10) During the late 1980s the park met its weirdest neighbor yet — the Charging Bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica.  Arguably better known and more beloved by tourists, the bull was originally planted illegally in front of the New York Stock Exchange.  By the time the city removed the statue, New Yorkers had come to love it.  They eventually placed it next to Bowling Green in 1989.


Maude Adams: Fashion icon and America’s first Peter Pan

Tonight NBC’s unveils its live theatrical experiment Peter Pan with Girls star Alison Williams in the cross-dressing role of the boy who never grows up.

We can all have our debates about who’s been the greatest stage Peter Pan in history.  Most will say Mary Martin, a sizable minority will claim Sandy Duncan, and a few smaller voices may even cry the name Cathy Rigby. However the first and most popular woman to ever play the role was most likely the actress who originated the role on the American stage — Maude Adams.  

Her rendition was so popular that it inspired one enduring fashion trend.

Peter Pan made its New York debut on November 6, 1905 at the Empire Theatre at Broadway and 41st Street.  The theater was owned by one of New York’s most powerful producers Charles Frohman. Adams was one of his greatest finds, casting her in several productions when she was just a teenager.

Adams had played a boy on stage and had even starred in a prior play by Peter Pan’s author J. M Barrie (Quality Street).  Barrie himself came to New York to witness rehearsals with Adams and the show 70-odd cast members.

At right: The bizarre visage of Maude Adams as illustrated in the New York World, November 1905

The audiences loved Adams, but not the critics. From the New York Tribune the following day:  “As an actress Miss Adams is incarnate mediocrity — for she possesses neither imagination, passion, power, depth of feeling or formidable intellect and her faculty of expressive impersonation is extremely limited” — OUCH — “but as a personality, she is piquant, interesting and agreeable … she has shown to advantage and she causes the effect of commingled merriment, sentiment and momentary thought.”

Others criticized her physical size, calling her “plump and prancing.” “She was a trifle overweight for a fairy, but she carried herself lightly and gracefully and didn’t scare the children in the least.”

Audiences loved her, however, Adams proceeded to play the role of Peter Pan, off and on, for over a decade. In fact, Maude Adams was the actress most associated with the part for fifty years.  Mary Martin then took the role to Broadway in 1954, won the Tony Award for Best Actress the following year and then became the model for which all subsequent actors have looked to.

More important, Adams inspired a popular fashion trend — the Peter Pan collar.  Her costume, by John White Alexander, took great liberties with Barrie’s descriptions of Peter’s garments.  Women soon clamored for dresses with a similar floppy collar.  The play was still running at the Empire when the collars soon appeared at department stores.  This ad is from April 1906:

Her belted waist also took the fashion world by storm.  The “Peter Pain waist,” a traditional shirtwaist bound with a thick black belt, was called “decidedly chic,” “particularly becoming and stunning in effect.”

The front of the Empire Theatre, where Peter Pan made its New York debut:

Pic courtesy New York Public Library

Wacky, windy and weird: 1964 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Linus the Lion-Hearted at the 1964 Macy’s Parade

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of 1963 had been a downer of a parade.

President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated a few days before but, deciding that cancelling the event would be “a disappointment to millions of children,” the parade went on as planned.  Leading the parade that year was a 38-foot rubber Unisphere to promote the upcoming World’s Fair. Further back in the line was young television star Michael Landon.

Flash forward to the following year — the World’s Fair out at Flushing-Meadows had celebrated a rocky first year. Landon’s Bonanza was about to become the most popular show on television, a distinction it would hold throughout the mid-1960s. New York City was, generally speaking, in a cautiously more festive mood.

Not that the specter of the previous year’s tragedy was far from people’s minds. “Americans plan to savor the traditional cheer of Thanksgiving today in an atmosphere that contrasts with the numbing experience of last year,” said the New York Times. [source]

Below: Macy’s in 1964 (courtesy The Paper Collector)

For their part, Macy’s was trying to whip New Yorkers back up into a holiday shopping frenzy. Among the hottest items advertised by the department store during Thanksgiving week were Hitachi record players, Consolette hair dryers and mink coats for $99.99.

The 1964 Thanksgiving Day parade (November 27) held a certain campier flair than normal, loaded with family-friendly cheerfulness slightly more heightened than normal, with a few assorted mishaps and lots of goofiness mixed in. Why? For the same reason the 1964 is among the most memorable in parade history — television:

First in Color:  NBC has been broadcasting the parade since 1952.  By 1964 coverage had expanded to 90 minutes — in 2014, it’s three hours — and now, for the first time ever, it would be broadcast in color. Several NBC shows had gone to a color broadcast previously, but Americans didn’t yet have affordable color sets at home. But by 1964 sets were finally being mass produced and sold as luxury items in department stores.

There were a little over one million color televisions in American homes with the potential to tune in to a color broadcast in 1964. Ten years later, that number would rise to almost 45 million.

The Official Debut of Lip-Syncing:  But some lamented the attention to the television audience. At one point, the parade was held up for eight minutes while waiting for a television signal.  “Near Herald Square television took over the parade …. and some of the spontaneity went out of it.”  [source]

Performances were pantomimed while songs were pumped in for the television audience. The Times notes that cameras zoomed in on “performers who were only feigning a performance.” Today, of course, this is a regular feature of the parade and almost none of the performances (outside of the marching bands) feature live singing.

At right: The hosts at the 1968 parade

Lorne and Betty:  The hosts of NBC’s 1964 broadcast were Lorne Greene — Landon’s Bonanza co-star — and the effervescent Betty White, celebrated star of a 1950s show called Life With Elizabeth.  Greene was perhaps one of NBC’s hottest actors at the time, while White was busy as a television spokeswoman. She was also a regular host of the Tournament of Roses parade.  Almost every role you’ve ever loved Betty White in lay far in the future for her at this time.

First Men In the Moon: Being a special televised event meant more promotion of film and television properties.  Among the most unusual was the space-themed float promoting the new film First Men In The Moon, a British sci-fi romp featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The float did its best to simulate Harryhausen’s unique creations — ‘Moon Cows’, gigantic bugs who poked their heads out of craters upon a floating moonscape. Lorne Greene is reported to have said, “Wow look at those big grasshoppers!” [source]

The Sound of Puppets:  A few stars of the upcoming film The Sound of Music would appear in the parade. No, not Julie Andrews, bur rather the colorful marionettes of Bil Baird, featured in the ‘goatherd’ scene of the film.  I’m not sure how they were presented, and I assume most of the spectators were unable to see them perform.

The Fate of Dino the Dinosaur:  A great danger threatened the 1964 parade — horrible winds. Fortunately no spectators were injured by the gusts, some up to 21 miles an hour.

The balloons did not emerge unscathed.  Dino the Dinosaur (not to be confused with Dino, the dog from the Flintstones) would grow to become a favorite site in the 1960s and 70s. (He’s pictured at right, from the 1963 parade.)

But at the 1964 parade, a sudden gust blew the dinosaur into a lamppost at Columbus Circle, tearing a hole in its side.  Its handlers along the avenue continued to pull the beast down the street, but by the time they got to Macy’s, the dinosaur was partially deflated and dragging the ground.

Popeye The Limp Sailor: Dino wasn’t the only balloon with performance mishaps. The impressively sized Popeye balloon failed to properly inflate the night before; or as the papers note, “there was not enough spinach in the pumps, and Popeye wouldn’t expand at all.”

He was unceremoniously replaced in the parade by a dragon balloon that Macy’s just had lying around.

Donald Duck (pictured below from 1964) had fewer troubles that year.

Linus the Lion-Hearted: Pictured at top, this balloon with excellent posture debuted at the 1964 parade. It was based upon a Crispy Critters breakfast cereal spokesman who had his own television show which debuted just a couple months earlier.  However, when the FCC determined in 1969 that advertising mascots could not also have children’s show, Linus was abruptly cancelled. He would still make frequent appearances in the parade until 1991.

The Soupiest Star: New to NBC, New York City and to the parade itself was children’s comedian Soupy Sales (pictured at left), whose daily show Lunch with Soupy was a local hit that year. He was probably one of the biggest hits in the parade, riding atop a rocking horse, as his trademark beaming grin was as noticeable as the floats themselves.

The Drunk Munster: And then there was Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis, the stars of NBC’s monster comedy The Munsters.

From a prior article — because this incident has fascinated me for years — “[The] stars of The Munsters, appeared in the 1964 parade in their ghoulish costumes, riding along in their ‘Munster Koach’ car. Neither star was very amused. Gwynne was high on ‘nerve medicine‘ and began cursing at the crowd.”

According to their makeup man (pictured below, in the front seat): “I was in the Koach handling the loudspeaker and radio system that was playing the Munsters song.  Fred had brought along a bottle with him, wrapped in a paper bag, and he got fractured [drunk]. And Al was mad at him. Fred was cussin’ at people. I just kept the music up so nobody could hear him.” [source]

Passing the hosts Greene and White in the media box, Herman Munster fired off a rude expletive in their direction as well

Here are some video highlights from the parade, with the Munsters stars prominently featured:

“Peacock NBC presentation in RCA color” Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of NBC via Wikipedia – 

Lauren Bacall’s Guide on How To Become A Successful Model in New York City, 1941

Lauren Bacall, the cinema and stage legend who died yesterday at age 89, was once the less enigmatic Betty Joan Perske, a New York girl with a lot of moxie.  As a sixteen year old, she ventured downtown from her home on the Upper West Side (84th Street, under the elevated train) to look for work as a model and actress.

In her great autobiography By Myself, she recounts her experiences as a teen model.  Go back in time and take her valuable advice on how to make it in the cutthroat world of the Garment District in 1941!

Know the finer places: “I asked a couple other girls how to find work modeling clothes on Seventh Avenue.  They said I should … go down to certain Seventh Avenue buildings — nothing really below 500 Seventh Avenue. The best houses were in 550 or 530 and you could squeeze in 495, but that was it — anything below that was tacky.”

Lie a little: At 498 Seventh Avenue, “[a] woman came out, looked at me, asked me about my experience — I told her I had been a photographic model for several years (a white lie), that I was an actress, that I knew how to move and would certainly be a very good model.”

Play act: “I kept telling myself, ‘It’s a part — play it….’  Finally the woman asked me if I would try on one of the model dresses….I walked through the curtains.  Mr. Crystal asked me to turn — I did, without falling down or getting dizzy…”

Dress the part:  “I spent the next week going through my scant wardrobe to make certain I had enough to wear to work.  Then a trip to Loehmann’s in Brooklyn.  Loehmann’s was a large store that stocked clothes from all the Seventh Avenue houses — lower-priced clothes of unknown designers as well as the most expensive…. There were no dressing rooms in the store.  Women ran around in their slips, girdles and bras — all shapes and sizes — grabbing things from saleswomen as they brought them down. A madhouse.”

Watch and learn:  At Crystal’s, her first modeling house, “you undressed and either sat in a slip or put on a cotton smock.  There was a long make-up table with a chair for each of us….I watched [the older models] as they applied their make-up — a base, then full eye make-up.  It didn’t look heavy, but it was there. I did the best I could do with the face confronting me in the mirror.”

Composure: “When I showed a dress and a buyer would ask to see it close to, I’d be motioned forward.  The buyer, male or female, would then feel the fabric, discuss it — I’d stand there until I was dismissed.  An occasional male buyer would feel the goods a bit more than necessary and I never knew what to do.  I was petrified, though no one ever was really fresh, just suggestive — just enough to make me aware that I’d better keep on my toes, protect myself.”

Build from rejection:  She was laid off at Crystal’s for being too thin (can you imagine?) but promptly got a job modeling evening gowns.  “I was much happier at Friedlander’s than at Crystal’s.  He laughed at all my little jokes, the other models were good girls (there were only two of them), the feeling was much cozier.”

Plan your escape route: “The other girls seemed fairly uncomplicated to me — they would keep on modeling until Mr. Right came along and then they’d get married and be all set.”  But Betty wanted to be an actress.  On her lunch breaks, she would go up to Walgreen’s at 44th and Broadway. Then this happened.

After six months she quit — “I was not getting any closer to the stage in the Garment District” — and eventually moved with her mother to 77 Bank Street in the West Village.  This allowed her a full time foray into theater work, first as an usher, then as a extra and bit part player.

But she still modeled for extra money, including a stint as a Montgomery Ward catalog model.   Although would soon move on to full-time acting, her experience as a model was invaluable once she was put in front of a movie camera.  Her cover work for Harper’s Bazaar even got her noticed by director Howard Hawks.

Her debut in To Have And Have Not with future husband Humphrey Bogart electrified audiences.  Now as Lauren Bacall, she seemed to instantly generate magnetism. “Slumberous of eye and softly reedy along the lines of Veronica Lake,” wrote Bosley Crowther for the New York Times, in her first film review,” she acts in the quiet way of catnip and sings a song from deep down in her throat.”

Or, Bacall might have said, she did the best she could do with the face confronting her in the mirror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Broadway? But this show isn’t good enough for Broooadway!”

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

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

Port Authority in 1980, photo by Jeremy Gilbert/Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just because the whole thing is crazy doesn’t mean it won’t make it on Broadway!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biltmore Theater in 1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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