Tag Archives: Classic Film

An ode to the early Bronx film industry

In 1910, D.W. Griffith made one of first films ever produced in Hollywood, CA, appropriately called In Old California. Before then, film production companies were scattered throughout the United States, with two of the most successful based here in New York City.

The American Vitagraph Company, originally located at the Morse Building on 140 Nassau Street, made film shorts on the roof before moving to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood in 1906. Vitagraph is best known for producing a five-part serial on The Life of Moses strung together to make what some call the first ever feature length motion picture.

More influential, however, was probably Edison Studios, the film company owned by inventor Thomas Edison. With principal studios in the New Jersey town West Orange — and original laboratories in Menlo Park (now Edison, NJ) — Edison eventually set his sights on a Manhattan studio.

He initially moved into the heart of the city in 1901, in a studio at 41 East 21st Street. Such a move made sense at the time; movies were only a few minutes long, essentially just filmed sequences of activities, and had no sound. A small studio smack in the center of New York would not have been disturbed by the bustle of the city.

With the growth into narrative films — longer movies with elaborate sets and casts — Edison needed to expand into a larger space and in 1908 moved production to a warehouse in the Bronx, at Decatur Avenue and Oliver Place, sandwiched between the Grand Concourse and the New York Botanical Garden.

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“The Edison Studio is said to be one of the finest and largest of its kind in the world,” reported [the theatrical trade paper] The Dramatic Mirror. “The building itself is 60 by 100 feet, built of concrete, iron and glass. The scenic end of the studio, corresponding to the stage in a theatre, except that it is not raised is 60 by 60 feet and 40 feet high. Here the scenes for film productions that cannot be made with natural outdoor backgrounds are painted and set.”

Its glass enclosure was especially revolutionary for the day, allowing for a diversity of film presentations.  Of a film called While John Bolt Slept, the clearly-not-unbiased Edison Kinetogram journal said in 1913: “The scene in the tenement alley is a wonderful example of the realistic effect which can be obtained in the Studio. Even the ‘fan’ of long standing would hardly believe that the scene was done under the great glass of the Bronx Studio.”

Inside the Bronx Edison Studios:

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It was at this new Bronx studio in 1910 that Edison’s company produced one of its greatest works, the very first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shot in a week — rather lengthy for a film shoot in those days — the loose adaptation featured Charles Ogle as the famed monster.

Believe it or not, the film began production on January 17, 1910, and was released by March of that year! Since there just weren’t that many movies houses in 1910, a film release constituted about 40 copies which were distributed around the country, then returned several months later.

The film was reportedly lost forever before a single negative was found and restored in the 1970s. I present to you the Bronx-made psycho-horror masterpiece in all its glory:

 

Unfortunately this glorious studio was destroyed long before the film industry moved out to California, gutted by fire on March 28, 1914. The glass ceiling, shattered during the blaze, proved quite a danger to fire fighters.  Two men were cut by flying glass though no one was seriously injured, a miracle considering that over a hundred actors had been working there the previous night.

Cringe as you read the damage report from the New York Evening World:

Thousands of dollars worth of cameras, scenery, costumes and properties were burned, as was all the film so far used in the making of a spectacle to be called The Battle of Mobile Bay.” Other films worth $100,000 including original films of Mayor Gaynor and Andrew Carnegie, stored in fireproof vaults, were saved.”

Edison was not alone in finding inspiration in the Bronx.  Biograph Studios briefly (from 1913 to 1915) opened a studio at East 175th Street and Marmion Avenue just north of Crotona Park.

The building would later claim a greater connection to Hollywood int the 1935s when it was transformed into Gold Medal Studios, an early film and television production company. (Below: The unspectacular exterior)

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Truly exciting for residents of the Bronx was that these studios often plucked random people off the street to serve as extras in their films.

 

This article reprinted from a blog posting on January 10 2011.

Ghostbusters 2: Twenty-five historical details from the supreme slimy sequel

The Bowery Boys Obsessive Guides look very, very closely at a classic movie filmed in New York City, finding buried history, additional context and a few secrets within various scenes and plot points. Filled with film spoilers so read this after you’ve seen the movie — or use it to follow along as you watch it! Check out my previous guides for Miracle on 34th Street, Midnight Cowboy, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

In 1989 the ghosts returned to New York City streets. Both above and beneath them.

The 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters holds a unique place in Hollywood cinema, the rare sci-fi comedy to become a genuine classic, due mostly to its terrific cast (Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Ackroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, among others) and to the unique alchemy of theme and location.

The characters run through New York City like kids in a haunted house. In 1984, New York’s reputation was still greatly tarnished by the economic and social crises of the previous decade. Ghostbusters plays upon those perceptions, its heroes battling metaphorical ghosts and demons in historic locations.

(For a deep dive into Ghostbusters‘ relationship with New York City, read my long post from 2013: The Real ‘Ghostbusters’: 25 Spooky, Historical New York Facts about 1984’s Slimiest Supernatural Comedy)

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The 1989 sequel Ghostbusters 2 takes place in the same city but at the end of an era.  Ed Koch is in his final year as mayor of New York. He had been unseated in the primaries by David Dinkins who, in November, would then defeat  Rudy Giuliani for the office.

Many elements of the city have been ‘cleaned up’ by this time (the once ubiquitous subway graffiti being one casualty) but the high crime rate was still very much the pivotal concern. New Yorkers didn’t need to go to the movies to find terrors in their backyard. The sequel opened less than two months after a jogger was beaten, raped and left for dead in Central Park. According to the New York Daily News, “On a typical day in 1989, New Yorkers reported nine rapes, five murders, 255 robberies and 194 aggravated assaults. Fear wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction; it was a matter of self-preservation. ”

It’s easy to watch Ghostbusters 2 today, disengaged from its historical context. But watch with a close eye and you’ll see bits of a familiar city in the background and hints of the era embedded into the story. Here’s a list of New York historical facts and trivia to watch out for:

CLEARLY THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS. WATCH THIS FILM BEFORE READING OR, BETTER YET, READ ALONG AS YOU’RE WATCHING IT:

1) The opening scene works as a pastiche of New York City life — arguing neighbors, jogger on the sidewalk, a cop giving a parking ticket — along East 77th Street. Dana, played by Weaver, has arrived with a gigantic baby carriage and her bundle of joy Oscar. Her place, at 325 East 77th Street, built in 1940, is your typical co-op of the neighborhood, a far cry from her last home on 55 Central Park West, which became a demonic portal in the last film.

Interestingly, at Dana’s apartment building, Google Map lists one business — Psychic Works — which would have come in handy had it been there in 1989.

Screen capture courtesy The Raffon
Screen capture courtesy The Raffon

2) Baby Oscar is whisked away by a spiritual presence and hurled into traffic at the corner of East 77th Street and First Avenue. While that corner has been much transformed today — note the placement of the diner in the movie, today’s Green Kitchen  — one business is exactly the same — the signage for the cleaners on the northwest corner.

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FirstAvenue

3) Why would this particular corner be haunted? Well, we’ll see what lies beneath in a second. But this particular corner would have been part of old Jones Wood, a 90-acre forest which attracted picnickers and day trippers (including many early German immigrants) long before Central Park was invented.  It was the sight of early ghost stories as the forest contained crypts of prominent families.

Below: The so-called ‘Smuggler’s Tomb’ located at the spot of today’s First Avenue and 71st Street.

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Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

In fact, there’s a bar called Jones Wood Foundry on First and 76th Street today.

4) Ghost busting has died down in New York City, and our old friends Ray and Winston must demean themselves by entertaining at children’s birthday parties. All the children greet their guests with “I thought it was gonna be He Man!” and a chant “He-Man! He-Man! He-Man!”

The reference in the film is a bit odd. He-Man and the Masters Of the Universe debuted on television in 1983 and had been the subject of a feature film in 1987 starring Dolph Lungren. But the film was a flop, and the animated series had been off the air by then. Perhaps these were young hipsters, already reveling in their childhood past.

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“Ungrateful little yuppie larva!”

Incidentally, Ghostbusters 2 did spawn a toy line, albeit less successful than He-Man and might have been greeted by children with similar enthusiasm.

 

 

5) Venkman has moved on to his own television chat show called World of the Psychic, broadcast on the fictional WKRR-TV Studio.  While this seems like a legitimate television station in the Ghostbusters world, Venkman’s show is very much influenced by ’80s public access television. The zany underground medium started in the early 1970s and reached a sort of ‘golden age‘ by the 1980s. Shows like Telepsychic certainly inspired this. The Saturday Night Live’s send-up of Telepsychic — starring Dan Ackroyd — most certainly did.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 8 -- Pictured: Dan Aykroyd as Ray during the "Telepsychic" skit on December 9, 1978 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — Episode 8 — Pictured: Dan Aykroyd as Ray during the “Telepsychic” skit on December 9, 1978 — (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

 Just two years after Ghostbusters 2, Dionne Warwick debuted her Psychic Friends Network.

6) On Venkman’s program, there are two guests who predict the end of the world.  The first predicts the end of the world “at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve.

Well, New York survived. Here’s the actual stroke of midnight, ringing in 1990 in Times Square. Many would certainly consider this hellish, if not apocalyptic. “Goodbye to the ’80s!”

Venkman’s second guest believes the end of the world will be on February 14, 2016!

“Valentine’s Day, bummer.”

She received the information from an alien at the Paramus, New Jersey, Holiday Inn which is a real place.

7) Ghostbusters New York is still led by Mayor Lenny Clotch (played by David Margulies), an obvious stand-in for Mayor Ed Koch.  In Ghostbusters 2, Clotch is running for governor of New York. Koch did indeed attempt that very feat in 1982, but lost in the primary to Mario Cuomo.  Sadly, Margulies, a regular on the New York stage, died earlier this year.

Courtesy Ghostbusters Wikia
Courtesy Ghostbusters Wikia

8)  One of New York’s finest works of architecture appears in Ghostbusters 2 — but moved uptown.  The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House stands in for the Metropolitan Museum of Art who apparently didn’t give them permission to use their facade — or their name.  The faux museum is called the Manhattan Museum of Art, and both the Custom House and nearby Bowling Green are magically shifted to Central Park.

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

The Custom House had just gone through some truly thorough preservation work in 1987. It had already become a gallery for traveling exhibitions, such as in 1988 with “Paris Grands Projets 1979-1989.” Several months after the opening of Ghostbusters 2, plans were underway to move a museum to Native Americans (today’s Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian) into the building.

The Custom House was renamed for Alexander Hamilton in 1990, a year after the structure’s triumphant and central appearance in Ghostbusters 2.

Courtesy The Reffon
Courtesy The Reffon

9) What have the Ghostbusters been up to since business has been down? Well, Ray has his occult book store on St. Mark’s Place, still a place of vibrant counter-culture in 1989.  Perhaps this a nod to New York’s most famous occult book store owned by Samuel Weisner which originally opened on ‘Book Row’ at 117 4th Avenue. (By the time of the film, it had moved to 132 East 24th Street. It’s been closed for many years.)

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At the right of the screen, you can see Manic Panic, the original boutique which spawned the flamboyant hair-color company. (More information in our St. Mark’s Place podcast.)

 

10) The Ghostbusters regroup to investigate the mysterious street corner on the Upper East Side. While the daytime scenes are clearly filmed at the corner of First Avenue and 77th, the nighttime scenes — as they’re drilling into the street — are clearly not even in New York City at all. (Note the red subway poles).

Residents of the Upper East Side have become quite familiar with nighttime drilling in the street due to the construction of the Second Avenue Subway.  The project began back in the 1970s but had been placed on a (what seemed like a) permanent hold by the 1980s.

Quoting from the September 1989 New York Times: “There are curiously empty spaces in this cluttered city. The Second Avenue Subway tunnel, dug at great expense and never to be finished.”

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11) Ah but there is a completed tunnel under the street, now filled with a pink, ghostly ooze — at least in the world of the Ghostbusters. Or, as Ray declares, “It’s the old pneumatic tube tunnel!”

As we spoke about in our recent podcast on Alfred Ely Beach’s Pneumatic Tube, the original tunnel was only carved underground for a single block — near City Hall — in 1870. There were plans to send the pneumatic tube up the entire length of the island (albeit under Madison Avenue, not First Avenue). This is my favorite bit of history from the film and displays a loving nod by the writers to Old New York:

NewYorkPneumaticRailroadbio

 

Our gang accidentally takes out some wires which manages to cause a blackout throughout all of New York. The Blackout of 1977 had only occurred a dozen years before, so many audience members might have flinched a bit at that scene.

12) The Ghostbusters are hastily taken to court. Venkman’s defense for the hole in the street: “Well, there are so many holes in First Avenue, we really didn’t think anyone would notice.”

Potholes in the street were a potent symbol for the city’s deterioration and also a way to appease the neighborhood when they were eventually fixed. In 1990, the Times reported in an article ‘Gaining in the Battle on Potholes: “The Department of Transportation claims that the number of potholes in New York City streets dropped 23 percent this year, and the new Commissioner, Lucius J. Riccio, suggested yesterday that potholes ”might have to be put on the endangered-species list.”

The city even opened a phone line for New Yorkers to call in about potholes. From the article: “The pothole hot line – 212-POT-HOLE – expects its 25,000th call this week. The caller will receive a Highway Bureau T-shirt and the dubious honor of filling the pothole of his or her choice.”

13) The sequel features a new version of the Ray Parker Jr. theme song, this time recorded by New York City icons Run-DMC. The rap trio formed in 1981 in Hollis, Queens, and quickly helped develop the basis for modern hip hop music.  In 1989, they were coming off the success of their massive and mainstream Tougher Than Leather album, produced by Rick Rubin (much later to win a Grammy for producing Adele’s 21).

Another song from the film actually became a minor hit — “On Our Own” by Bobby Brown (who makes a terribly awkward appearance in the film).

14) In a montage of scenes demonstrating the Ghostbusters’ return, we see one ghost running around the Central Park reservoir and another haunting Orrefors fine glassware boutique at  58 E. 57th Street.  Orrefors is no longer there today, but the building sits next to New York’s tallest residential tower — the infamous ‘needle’ building 432 Park Avenue. To quote Wikipedia here: “The building has been much maligned by many city denizens who find it an eyesore and believe it represents New York’s increasing cost of living and ostentatious wealth.”

15) Look closely during the ‘haunted toaster’ scene and you will see a marvelous and obscure site on the wall — a vintage poster for the Hotel Lincoln, a glamorous midtown destination which opened in 1928.  This was the hotel mentioned in our Billie Holiday’s New York podcast as the place she began a (controversial) residency with Artie Shaw in 1938. She was forced to enter through the kitchen as a black woman couldn’t be seen coming in the front door.

Hotel Lincoln, 44th to 45th Street at 8th Avenue New York City
Hotel Lincoln, 44th to 45th Street at 8th Avenue New York City

 

 

 

16) This has nothing to do with New York City history, but you must read this extraordinary Deadspin article on Norbert Grupe, the actor depicted in the Prince Vigo painting. Keep in mind Venkman’s words while you read it — “Vigo? He’s a bit of a sissy isn’t he?”

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17) Venkman wraps little Oscar in one of his prized possessions — a New York Jets sweatshirt, #12.  This number, now retired, belonged to Joe Namath, who played with the Jets from 1965 to 1976.

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18) Dana and Oscar take shelter in Venkman’s apartment, which just happens to be one of the most glorious apartment buildings north of Houston.  Built in 1891 for the Manhattan Savings Institution Bank Building, 644 Broadway formerly featured the Atrium clothing store on the ground floor. (Read more about this lovely building at Daytonian In Manhattan.)

Photo courtesy Wired NYC
Photo courtesy Wired NYC

Catch this line: “I’ve got some Laura Antonelli tapes you can watch.” Laura Antonelli was a beautiful Italian sex symbol of the 1970s.

19) As Louis (Rick Moranis) and Janine (Annie Potts) leave Ghostbusters headquarters — the old fire station on North Moore Street — observe the unusual business that sits across the street: Hongkong Kowloon Docks Import Inc., a typical example of the sort of business that used to reside in Tribeca during the 1970s and 80s.  Coincidentally, in China, there was a program called Hong Kong Ghostbusters which took place in a housing development called Kowloon.

20) The Ghostbusters investigate an abandoned subway track whose “lines have been abandoned for 50 years.” They are immediately beset by ghostly figures of all types, from severed heads on sticks to a phantom stream train, the supposed haunted visage of the “New York Central to Albany” which derailed in 1920, killing hundreds.

That disaster, of course, didn’t exist. However they could have chosen to use another tragedy from around that same time period — and much closer to  home.  The Malbone Street Wreck in Brooklyn involved two trains colliding underground, killing 93 people.

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21) Our heroes are thrown into the Parkview Psychiatric Hospital in order to get them out of the way. This fictional institution is most likely based upon Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward’s Island. Timely news the very summer of Ghostbusters 2? New York City’s psychiatric wards were too crowded.

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During a thrilling montage of ghost attacks throughout the city,  three particular things of historical interest pop out:

22) Massive Ghost in Washington Square Park — The park is notoriously the site of an old potter’s field, and bodies to this day are often discovered during excavations. “Where now are asphalt walks, flowers, fountains, the Washington arch, and aristocratic homes, the poor were once buried by the thousands in nameless graves.” (Kings Handbook of New York, 1893) Read more on Washington Square’s unusual backstory here.

23) Titanic Finally Arrives —  The Titanic was originally supposed to have docked at the White Star Pier 59 (parallel to West 18th Street); instead, the survivors of the shipwreck disembarked from the Carpathia at Pier 54. The framework of the pier still existed today (pictured in 1912 below)

Carpathia-54

The ghostly passengers actually let out at Pier 34 in the film, to the horror of Cheech Marin in a cameo appearance.

24) The Spirit of Fiorello La Guardia (off screen) — The mayor claims he’s been seeing the ghost of the former mayor “and he’s been dead for 40 years.” Since the events of this scene take place on December 31, 1989, La Guardia would have been gone over 42 years.  He died in his Bronx home of Riverdale. Here’s how the New York Times broke the announcement.

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25) The grand finale features the Statue of Liberty pulling a Stay Puft Marshmallow Men, delivering the Ghostbusters to a goo-covered Custom House, er, I mean art museum and saving the day.

This marks the first time that the entire statue has made it to Manhattan. However her arm spent many, many years in New York, well before it was ever attached to the rest of herself.

From a Bowery Boys 2014 article: “….the arm and torch would be displayed in the northwest corner of Madison Square Park, from 1876 to 1882.  On July 4th, 1876, a gigantic painting by Jean-Baptiste Lavastre of the completed statue was displayed on a building across the street from the arm.”

(Read the rest of the article here.)

Courtesy Ghostbusters Wiki
Courtesy Ghostbusters Wiki

And here’s the triumphant scene of Lady Liberty strolling through New York City. How many landmarks can you recognize?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I amuse you? I make you laugh?” Bowery Boys on GoodFellas Minute

If you’re a fan of classic movies, you should definitely check out the strange but marvelous podcast GoodFellas Minute, which specializes in analyzing the classic 1990 Martin Scorsese movie starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesce, Lorraine Bracco and Ray Liotta.

As the title suggests, each episode of the podcast — featuring Ron Richards, Josh Flanagan, and Conor Kilpatrick — inspects one minute of the movie, drilling down into both the real events depicted in the film and some trivia about the actors and the production. It’s about so much more than GoodFellas; it’s about New York City history, Italian-American culture, mob stories and film nostalgia in general.

And for this week of shows — Episode 91 through 95 — I’m a guest-star on the program!  In specific, we all talk about the 1978 Lufthansa heist, Debi Mazar, and pink Cadillacs.

ALSO — You get to hear about my strange connection to John Gotti.

You can listen to the show directly at their website or you can download it from iTunes. Thanks to Ron, Josh and Conor for having me on the show!

Greg Young

Upcoming history: New York City in new films and miniseries

Tired of superhero movies? An abundance of new period films and television mini-series are on the horizon, presenting unique aspects of New York City history (and the surrounding metropolitan area, as in the first example below).  Which ones are you excited for?

 

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SHOW ME A HERO
HBO, six-part mini-series, Sunday, August 16
From the creators of The Wire, this is the tale of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko and the complicated tale of desegregated public housing, a struggle which almost shut down the city.
Time and place: Yonkers in the late 1980s
Why see it? This is Oscar Isaac’s third period piece after A Most Violent Year (set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn) and Inside Llewyn Davis (set in Greenwich Village).

 

Courtesy Stonewall 45
Courtesy Stonewall 45

STONEWALL
In theaters, September 25
Roland Emmerich is better known for earth-shattering blockbusters like Independence Day, so imagine what his take on the Stonewall Riots of 1969 will feel like?
Time and place: Greenwich Village in the late 1960s
Why see it? A document of important history and, hey, maybe with explosions!

 

 

wtc

THE WALK
In theaters, September 30
Not to be outdone, Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Forrest Gump) brings an IMAX, vertigo-inducing take on the story of Phillippe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the high-wire artist who walked between the Twin Towers.
Time and place: Manhattan in 1974
Why see it?  I’m interested to see how history translates in glorious 3D. This film seems as ambitious and high-risk as Petit’s original walk.

 

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Above: From the Brooklyn Heights film shoot of Bridge of Spies (Courtesy Wikimedia/Autopilot)

BRIDGE OF SPIES
In theaters, October 16
The last time Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaborated on a war-themed film, it was Saving Private Ryan. This cold-war thriller, inspired by true events, takes a Brooklyn lawyer (played by Hanks) behind enemy lines to negotiate the release of an American pilot.
Time and place: All of the world, it seems, but 1960s Brooklyn Heights plays a pivotal role.
Why see it? I’m looking forward to the on-location shots which temporarily placed the streets of Brooklyn into a kinder, cheaper era.

 

Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

BROOKLYN
In theaters, November 6
A wistful romance about a young Irish woman (Saoisie Ronan) who moves to Brooklyn for a better life.
Time and place: Brooklyn in the 1950s (although none of the film was made here)
Why see it?  One of the best recent books about New  York, in the hands of some great talent.

 

Courtesy the Weinstein Company
Courtesy the Weinstein Company

CAROL
In theaters, November 20
Patricia Highsmith’s controversial novel (The Price of Salt) about an intriguing lesbian attraction between an older and younger woman is given the lush treatment by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).
Time and place: Manhattan in 1952 (although this too was mostly filmed elsewhere)
Why see it? A beautiful tale, in the hands of the perfect director and cast (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara)

 

And although these two films are not set in New  York City, they depict two uniquely important moments of historical relevance that might interest you:

This 1953 Boston police booking photo shows James "Whitey" Bulger after an arrest.. (AP Photo/Boston Police)
This 1953 Boston police booking photo shows James “Whitey” Bulger after an arrest.. (AP Photo/Boston Police)

BLACK MASS
In theaters, September 18
The wicked Whitey Bulger, the bloody gangster, who controversially becomes an FBI informant.
Time and place: Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s
Why see it? This year’s submission in the crowded field of period gangster films, with Johnny Depp finally in a juicy role.

 

Sufferagette Emily Pankhurst addressing a meeting in London's Trafalgar Square, 1908.
Sufferagette Emily Pankhurst addressing a meeting in London’s Trafalgar Square, 1908.

SUFFRAGETTE
In theaters, October 23
The struggle for women’s right to vote in Great Britain, depicting many of the great crusaders of the day, including Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep)
Time and place: Great Britain in the late 19th century and early 20th century
Why see it?  Maybe this will inspire an equally exciting American version of the same tale! (NOTE: A reader notes that there is an American version — and a fine one at that — called Iron Jawed Angels, although I hope somebody makes another attempt at this subject in time for the 100 anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment.)

 

And that’s not even counting these other 2015 releases with historical themes and settings —  The Revenant (1820s North American Dakota Territory), The Hateful Eight (1860s Wyoming), In the Heart of the Sea (1820’s American seafaring) and Trumbo (1950s Hollywood).

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



The Bowery Boys Obsessive Guides look very, very closely at a classic movie filmed in New York City, finding buried history, additional context and a few secrets within various scenes and plot points. Filled with film spoilers so read this after you’ve seen the movie — or use it to follow along as you watch it!  Check out my previous guides for Midnight CowboyGhostbusters and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

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

— Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwynn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the 1940s article:

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

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

Rudolph Valentino, the seductive, tragic idol of the Jazz Age

PODCAST  Rudolph Valentino was an star from the early years of Hollywood, but his elegant, randy years in New York City should not be forgotten.  They helped make him a premier dancer and a glamorous actor. And on August 23, 1926, this is where the silent film icon died.

Valentino arrived in Ellis Island in 1913, one of millions of Italians heading to America to begin a new life.  In his case, he was escaping a restless life in Italy and a set of mounting debts! But he quickly distinguished himself in New York thanks to his job as a taxi dancer at the glamorous club Maxim’s, where he mingled with one particular Chilean femme fatale.

He headed to Hollywood and became a huge film star in 1921, thanks to the film The Sheik, which set his reputation as the consummate Latin Lover.  Throughout his career, he returned to New York to make features (in particular, those as his Astoria movie studio), and he once even judged a very curious beauty pageant at Madison Square Garden.

In 1926, he headed here not only to promote his sequel Son Of The Sheik, but to display his masculinity after a scathing article blamed him for the effeminacy of the American male!
Sadly, however, he tragically and suddenly (and, some would say, mysteriously) died at a Midtown hospital.  People were so shocked by his demise that the funeral chapel (in the area of today’s Lincoln Center) was mobbed for almost a week, its windows smashed and the streets paralyzed by mourners — or where those people paid by the film studio?Here are the details of the tragedy that many consider one of the most important cultural events of the 1920s.

ALSO: We are proud to introduce to you — POLA! 

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

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

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #170: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino

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The young dancer was employed at Maxims on 110 West 38th Street.  From a 1916 guidebook: “A famous ‘smart’ restaurant. A la carte. Music, dancing, cabaret, from 6:30 to close. High prices. Special ladies luncheon at noon.”  Valentino would use his skills as a struggling actor in Los Angeles and incorporate it into his film work.  Below: Valentino with Alice Terry

Valentino’s breakthrough film — The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  “He paints the town red!” “Each kiss flamed with danger!”  Like many of his movies, the plot seems taken from his life.  Valentino spent some time as a youth in Paris, dancing and dining his way through the city (and into debt). (NYPL)

The Sheik, the film that made his reputation:

From Blood and Sand (1922) — In this one, the Italian Valentino plays a Spanish toreador. (NYPL)

Mineralava Beauty Clay, the sponsor of Valentino and Rambova’s cross-country tango trip:

Newsreel footage of Valentino at Madison Square Garden judging the Mineralava Beauty Clay competition:

The Hotel Ambassador at Park Avenue and 51 Street.  This is where Valentino boxed the reporter (on the rooftop) to defend his masculinity and where he was staying on August 15, 1926, when he collapsed.

Most people are familiar with the Ambassador due to another iconic film star and her memorable photo shoot (by Ed Feingersh) on the rooftop:

Rudolph in Monsieur Beaucaire, filmed at the Famous Players (later Paramount) studio in Astoria, Queens:

Downstairs, in the studio commissary, with Valentino (at left) and the cast of the film.  Today this room is a restaurant named The Astor Room, which features cocktails named for silent film stars. There’s even a Valentino-themed cocktail called Blood and Sand!

Polyclinic Hospital at 345 West 50th Street, where Valentino died on August 23, 1926.  The building still exists today as an apartment complex. (Picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

West 50th Street. Polyclinic Hospital.

Pictures of the mad, chaotic crowds outside Frank Campbell’s Funeral Church during the week of August 23-30, 1926:

Pola Negri, who made quite a scene at the funeral of Valentino (NYPL):

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 30, 1926

Newsreel footage of his funeral in Midtown Manhattan — from Frank Campbell’s (in today’s Lincoln Center area) to St Malachy’s on West 49th Street:

SOURCES AND SUGGESTED READING:
Note: Don’t say we didn’t warn you! There’s a lot of material that seems to be based on speculation.  Thoughts of possible sexual adventures have sent many authors into wild fits of imagination. (  Enter the back catalog of Valentino at your own risk:

Rudolph Valentino: A Wife’s Memories of an Icon by Natacha Rambova and Hala Pickford
The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of a Silent Film Idol by Allen R Ellenberger and Edoardo Ballerini
Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider
The Valentino Affair: The Jazz Age Murder Scandal That Shocked New York Society and Gripped The World by Colin Evans
The Intimate Life of Rudolph Valentino by Jack Scagnetti
Falcon Lair — an indispensable online resource for all things Valentino
Publications sited:  New York Times, New Yorker, Newark News, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York Sun

Almost his entire film catalog is available to watch for free on YouTube.  These include The Sheik, Blood And Sand, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Son of the Sheik and his Astoria-made film Monsieur Beaucaire.  Another film he made in Astoria — A Sainted Devil — has been lost with no extant copies available.

Come to the Airdome! Over 100 years of outdoor movies in NYC

[Outdoor movie theater.]

An outdoor movie theater in Brighton Beach, 1920. (MCNY)

It’s outdoor movie time again in New York City!  The tradition of screening films in city parks at dusk has become more popular than ever. (Just check out this complete list of this year’s offerings.)  As you prepare to spread your blanket on the lawn of Bryant Park to await a Hollywood classic, just realize that you are part of a grand tradition in the city that traces back almost one hundred years.

Yes, there were outdoor (or open air) theaters showing films almost as soon as the medium became popular.  This is not terribly surprising.  There were already outdoor playhouses for theater and vaudeville, and, in an era of over-crowded tenements and no air conditioning, any reason to sit outside on a nice summer’s night seemed practically luxurious.

One drawback outdoor movie lovers deal with today is the loud city interfering with the sound of the movie.  Not so then; the city might have been loud, but the movies had no sound.  It was a purely visual sensation, a thrilling entertainment light show under the moonlight.

At right: An advertisement for a rare Midtown open-air theater.  The lights of Broadway and street noise would have been a serious impediment. 

Early outdoor theaters in New York, sometimes called airdomes, were not usually in city parks, but in abandoned lots or open spaces in upper Manhattan.  Here’s a description of an airdome from a 1914 exhibition guide:  “An airdome is simply an outside moving picture show that is run on practically the same lines as the old summer garden, and is therefore essentially a fair-weather show, although a few airdomes are equipped with pavilions.”

Airdomes were designed to be temporary although you did need a permit from the city to operate one. Other than that, anybody could do it! “Nothing elaborate …is necessary for a successful airdome,” said the guide. “The chairs and tables may be of the ordinary kitchen variety.”

Below: An advertisement for two Brooklyn airdomes — in Coney Island and Prospect Heights (Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

From surveying various newspapers from the 1910s, it appears most airdomes were located either in upper Manhattan and the Bronx (where there were more open lots) or in Coney Island (where the masses went for recreation).

Before 1915, movies were one-reelers, quite short, and often featured alongside live acts as part of a vaudeville routine.  This airdome (listed in the July 1909 New York Sun) was typical of the day:

Outdoor movie theaters were so prevalent in the 1910s that, during planned war time electrical blackouts in 1918, they were specifically mentioned as a “bonafide food and entertainment establishment” alongside “roof gardens and outdoor restaurants.”  [source]

As with modern outdoor theaters, sometimes reality elbows its way into picture.  One of the Bronx’s most prominent open air moving picture theatres was the Nickelet (at Tremont and Prospect avenues), presumably named for the admission price.  One evening in June 1913, audiences witnessed a terrifying sight — a woman burning to death in a building adjacent to the theater lot.  Audience members scrambled to her rescue to no avail.

The transient nature of the airdome — and the ability for anybody with a license to have one — did cause friction at times. During the spring of 1909, in the Long Island town of Freeport, a Brooklyn man enraged the town when he set up an airdome there even though he was not a town resident.

The airdome never went away of course.  But the experience paled in comparison to the grand delights of the movie palaces, especially when air conditioning technology came along.  They eventually died out, along with the rooftop garden, in the 1920s, only to return later in the century when sound and projection technologies allowed for a more enjoyable evening at the movies.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’re reading this outside! Create your own airdome experience and watch this film — Charlie Chaplin’s Sunnyside — enjoyed by Brooklynites over 90 years ago in an outdoor moving picture theater:

 

How the cliffhanger was born 100 years ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first-ever film of a New York City blizzard

What storm is this? The horrific blizzard that hit New York on February 17, 1902.  It would be considered the worst snowstorm to hit the metropolitan area since the Great Blizzard of 1888. (Read all about it here.)  I assume we’re actually in the aftermath of the blizzard here, as the snow shovels are out, and the kids are playing.

What area is being filmed?  Madison Square Park (near 23rd Street), with the Worth Memorial in the background of some angles

Who made this?  Edison Manufacturing Company. Their Manhattan studio was nearby, at 41 East 21st Street.

Who’s the director? The head of Edison’s film division Edwin S. Porter, considered by most to be the first real movie director, inventing basic techniques used by subsequent filmmakers.

What are we seeing?  Trolleys, cabs, carriages and other unusual vehicles, braving the icy conditions and dodging pedestrians at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.  At one point, you almost see a team of horses slide off the road!

Below: An illustration from 1899, showing cabs parked along Madison Square (courtesy NYPL)

Why aren’t they showing the Flatiron Building?  It’s not completed yet!  The Daniel Burnham-designed office building would be opened by the summer, to great fanfare.  But as an open construction site, it would have been dangerous to linger anywhere around it.  I believe the slanted beams you see at the very end are part of the construction site.

It would have looked something like this (picture courtesy the New York Public Library):

This is the first film of a New York blizzard?  This is probably the first film of any American blizzard. Primitive film technology had only recently allowed for outdoor filming.  Porter and his crew would have been brave indeed dragging Edison’s equipment even two blocks through these conditions.

What’s that statue at the 1:15 mark?  The seated, snow-covered figure of William Seward.  The statue has sat at that corner since 1876. (More about that here.)

What’s that big building at the end?  The Fifth Avenue Hotel, once considered the greatest accommodation in New York City and a headquarters for backroom politics in the 1870s and 1880s.  Its glory days are long passed by the time of the blizzard.  Six years later, it would be torn down and replaced with the building that stands at that corner today — the International Toy Center.

As the camera pans around, you can see the Fifth Avenue Hotel street clock, a replica of which still sits in that very spot.

Is this the first movie ever filmed in Madison Square?  No.  That distinction goes to a boxing match filmed seven years earlier at the top of Madison Square Garden between ‘Battling’ Charles Barnett and Young Griffo.