Tag Archives: Friday Night Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Hill’s Concert Saloon 

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

 

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

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

 

McGurk’s Suicide Hall

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

 

“Parisian-style dance  halls”

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

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

 

Texas Guinan

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

 

Larry Fay and the El Fay nightclub

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Billie Holiday’s New York: Here’s to Swing Street, Harlem’s 133rd Street and other landmarks of jazz

Courtesy Columbia Records

 

PODCAST Grab your fedora and take a trip with the Bowery Boys into the heart of New York City’s jazz scene — late nights, smoky bars, neon signs — through the eyes of one of the greatest American vocalists who ever lived here — Billie Holiday.

Eleanora Fagan walked out of Pennsylvania Station in 1929 and into the city that would help make her a superstar. Her early years were bleak, arrested for prostitution and thrown into the Welfare Island workhouse. But music would be her savior, breaking out in Harlem first in the nightclubs on 133rd Street, then in the basement clubs of ‘Swing Street’ on 52nd Street.

Her recordings make her an international star, but the venues of New York helped solidify her talents — from the Apollo Theater to Carnegie Hall. But one particular club in the West Village would provide her with a signature song, one that reflected the horrible realities of racism in the mid 20th century.

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 #176: Billie Holiday’s New York

Billie Holiday at Club Downbeat, 1947

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Locations featured in this episode:

1) Pennsylvania Station (circa 1930s-40s)

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

2) Jefferson Market Courthouse, pictured here in 1935

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Photographed by Berenice Abbott, courtesy New York Public Library

 

3) Welfare Island, pictured here in 1931

Photographed by Samuel H Gottscho, courtesy Museum of City of New York

 

4) 133rd Street — “Jungle Alley” or The Street — outside Connie’s Inn

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

 

5) Apollo Theater, pictured here in the mid 1940s

Courtesy Library of Congress, photographer William Gottlieb
Courtesy Library of Congress, photographer William Gottlieb

 

6) Lincoln Hotel

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

7) Billie Holiday at Cafe Society 1939

Photo by Charles B. Nadell
Photo by Charles B. Nadell

8) 52nd Street aka Swing Street

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Billie at Club Downbeat (with her dog Mister) — June 1946

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

9) Town Hall, sometime in the 1940s

Exterior view of The Town Hall, courtesy New York Public Library
Exterior view of The Town Hall, courtesy New York Public Library

10) Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall for her rave 1948 concert

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

An extraordinary performance of ‘Strange Fruit’, performed in February 1959, months before she died. This was recorded for a British television show called ‘Chelsea At Nine’.

 

Billie Holiday — playing a maid — in the 1947 film New Orleans

 

And a live performance of one of her greatest songs — well, really, one of the greatest songs — “God Bless The Child”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roseland dancers, 1941 (Library of Congress)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Below: An advertisement for Healy’s from 1914

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The many lives of the Limelight, aka the facade formerly known as the Church of the Holy Communion


Above: The Church of the Holy Communion — and once the quite infamous nightclub Limelight — as the less lauded follow-up, called Avalon.  Within a couple years, the club would be transformed again — into a high-end retail experience.  Below: Michael Alig, one of its more notorious nightly residents. (source)

PODCAST If you had told 1840s religious leader William Augustus Muhlenberg that his innovative new Church of the Holy Communion, designed by renown architect Richard Upjohn, would become the glittering seat of drugs and debauchery 150 years later, he might have burned it down then and there.

But thankfully, this lovely building is still with us, proving to be one of the most flexible examples of building use in New York City history. 

This unusual tale begins with the captivating relationship between Muhlenberg (the grandson of America’s first Speaker of the House) and Anne Ayres, the First Sister in charge of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion. The two of them helped create one of New York’s great hospital centers. But was something else going on between them? 

The Church of the Holy Communion survives the elevated railroad and the fashionable stores of Ladies Mile, and weathers the various fortunes of the neighborhood.  When it is finally sold and deconsecrated, it briefly houses an intellectual collective and a drug rehabilitation center before being bought by Canadian club impresario Peter Gatien, who turns it into the Limelight, an iconic and sacrilegious symbol of New York nightlife.  And in recent years, the old church has morphed into a rather unique retail experience — shopping mall and department store!
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.

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The Bowery Boys: The Limelight — Church, Nightclub and Mall

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The Church of the Holy Communion in 1846, from an illustration by TD Booth.  The asymmetrical shape of the church was innovative for the time, as was the irregular position of the brownstone bricks along its walls. It had every indication of being a medieval country church, but for the fact of it being on a street corner at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street! (NYPL)

William Augustus Muhlenberg, grandson of Frederick Muhlenberg (America’s first Speaker of the House), was a visionary religious leader.  He opened Church of the Holy Communion as a way to further his progressive religious views.  Pictured below in a carte de visite, probably in the 1860s. (Courtesy NYPL)

Muhlenberg’s reputation was greatly bolstered by Anne Ayres, who became the leading sister as the Reverend’s  Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, the first Anglican convent of its kind in America.  Ayres helped Muhlenberg with most of the church’s major projects and penned an ecstatic biography after his death.  You can read Ayres’ biography of Muhlenberg here.

Muhlenberg and Ayres founded a small infirmary near the church, then later expanded it at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, becoming the first location of St. Luke’s Hospital.  As you can tell from the original hospital building, it seems to reflect a bit of the architecture of the Church of the Holy Communion. (Pic courtesy NYPL)

A view from 1895, possibly of a Sunday crowd leaving the church. Vendors like this pretzel seller gathered on the street below, selling treats to shoppers of Ladies Mile.  The church would have been in the heart of New York’s major shopping district during the Gilded Age, with grand department stores stretching on either  side of the street. (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

The Church of the Holy Communion, enveloped in thick ivy, as it looked in September 1907.  It also appears this photo was taken in the early afternoon, as the shadow of the elevated railroad begins to creep across the street. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

Peter Gatien, pictured here in a 1993 issue of New York Magazine. The Canadian club owner bought the old church and transformed it into a nightclub in 1983.

The Limelight was a celebrity hotspot from the very opening in 1983.  When William Burroughs had his 70th birthday at the club in 1984, the young new superstar Madonna came by to wish him well. (Photo by Wolfgang Wesener, courtesy here)

But why conjure real celebrities when you could make some yourself!  By the early 1990s, the club kid set the tone for the Limelight, further turning the old church of Muhlenberg into a surreal playground of music and drugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mad Men’ notes: New York becomes an LSD playground



A mind-twisting exhibit at the Riverside Museum, formerly at 310 Riverside Drive/103rd Street, makes it on the cover of a national magazine. But not everybody would enjoy the trip.


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

Sure, it’s 1966. I thought maybe Peggy Olsen might be the one to trip the light fantastic. (She was otherwise engaged this week.) But I never expected hallucinogenics to materialize as they did on last night’s ‘Mad Men’. After a staggeringly serious dinner party narrated with empty philosophical conversation, Roger Sterling and his wife are invited to take the drug LSD by their host. Far from the dorm rooms and basement clubs of Greenwich Village where one might expect such experimentation, this evening of psychedelia was presented as a drawing-room intellectual exercise, with serene music unspooling from a reel-to-reel and no object more trippy than a mantel mirror.

Lysergic acid diethylamide, which I doubt can actually be said while experiencing its effects, was considered a mind-opening tool for some early psychiatrists, laying bare subconscious feelings and forcing the user to confront difficult issues in a surreal environment. By the mid ’60s, its leading advocate was Timothy Leary (below), a psychologist who had studied the benefits of psychedelic drugs to explore the mental capacities. Today we might naturally lump him with the trappings of ’60s counter-culture, but in 1966, with the parameters of psychiatry still in flux, his experiments also appealed to intelligentsia.

The depiction of ‘Mad Men’s after-dinner drug soiree seem to follow Leary’s instruction quite explicitly. In 1966, he advised, “Don’t take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don’t take it unless you have someone that’s very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don’t take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you’re gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility.”

An article in March 25, 1966, LIFE Magazine laid out the details of the drugs in almost an introductory fashion. “A black market dose costs only $3 to $5. But that’s enough to send a person on a 10-hour ‘trip’.”

The same article also underscored a growing fear: “A few pounds of it dumped into the water supply of a major city would be enough to disorient millions.”

The federal government had been concerned of this supposed conspiracy as early as the 1950s, fearful that Russians might pollute New York’s water and “turn drug-addled American citizens against their own government.” [source] Of course, the CIA itself experimented with LSD during this period with its covert Project MKULTRA, which conducted experiments in New York during the mid-50s, using prostitutes and junkies they found in local bars in Greenwich Village. An experiment performed on CIA operatives themselves led one agent in 1953 to leap from a window at the Statler Hilton, today’s Hotel Pennsylvania. (Or was it murder?)

By the 1960s, the drug had become a virtual entrance exam for New York’s blossoming counter-culture music scene, or so the more hysterical believed. “In New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, a girl just off the bus from Boise can find it quicker than the YWCA merely by asking around for ‘a trip’,” warned Life Magazine.

The fear of an unwitting populace overtaken with LSD only grew with the 1960s, and this time, some thought it was New York’s counter-culture rebels itself who may be wielding it.  A 1967 journal opined on the urban legend with all seriousness. “[A] single ounce will provide fuel for 300,000 trips, reported one periodical, and it is believed that a few pounds dumped into the water supply of New York City would disorient the nearly 8,000,000 residents.”

Perceptions of LSD were slowly divorced from its supposed therapeutic qualities, especially as the drug soon found itself as the subject of films like Roger Corman‘s The Trip and ‘Enormous Midnight‘, where town water supply is poisoned with LSD and turns its citizens into orgiastic zombies. In New York, LSD entered the club world; hallucinogenic mid-60s destinations like Cerebrum and the Electric Circus (which became Andy Warhol‘s preferred spot in 1966) seem almost conceivable without it.

New York legislators quickly vowed to outlaw the new drug. Bellevue Hospital reported over 200 new patients affected by the drug. In April 1966, two local crimes energized the press: a Brooklyn girl accidentally ingested a sugarcube coated with LSD, and a week later, a ex-mental patient killed his mother-in-law, allegedly under the influence of the drug. With the Stagger-Dodd bill in 1968, the possession of LSD became illegal in the United States.

While that effectively ended the living-room therapy sessions such as the one experienced by Roger Sterling, the drug, now underground, would increasingly influence all aspects of New York bohemian culture.

From the Cerebrum club mentioned above:






Pictures courtesy Newsweek and Life Google Images. For more information on the CIA’s LSD experiments, you might be interested in watching this video.


If you’re watching ‘Mad Men’ when it broadcasts at 10 PM EST, then follow along with me on Twitter at @boweryboys. I’ll be giving a live fact-Tweeting, dropping little factoids about the events being depicted on the show

Rays of light: Madonna and the music video club, 1984

Girl gone wild: Madonna enjoys the video opulence of Private Eyes with former boyfriend and producer Jellybean Benitez, July 17, 1984

It’s 1984, and the hottest trend in American pop culture is the music video . MTV had debuted a channel of non-stop music videos in 1981, and just three years later, most new pop superstars were being defined by them– Michael Jackson, Prince, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Wham, Culture Club.

One of the more notable New York club opening in the summer of 1984 was Private Eyes, a trendy gay lounge at 12 W. 21st Street, poised to meet the video future with full-on glittery radness. With MTV revolutionizing pop music by the early 80s, nightclubs rushed to incorporate the new trend into their aesthetic. At Private Eyes, clubgoers needn’t have worried about a frenetic disco floor; they were literally invited to be mesmerized. “There is no defined dance area — it’s like a living room with the coffee table pushed aside.” the owner told Billboard magazine in November 1984.

The club was state-of-the-art for its day, with almost three dozen television sets, an immense library of 3/4th inch VHS cassettes and the technology to make “beat-for-beat transitions between videos, as well as wipes, fades and full mix effects for the club’s six tape decks.” New York Magazine listed it among their ‘environment clubs‘ of 1984, “like a department-store television section, except at Private Eyes you can have a beer and you can’t change the channel.”

In its opening months, Private Eyes scored a few appearances by music video’s biggest female star of the day — Madonna.

As a friend of owner Robert Shalom, Madge allegedly swore by the club, sometimes popping in after a day of recording her album Like A Virgin over at the Power Station studios on W. 53th Street*. “I don’t have MTV,” she remarked. “I do see videos, I go to Private Eyes.”  Her record label hosted a party in celebration of her new album, released in November that year. Several months later, Madonna was photographed at the club with her rowdy companion Sean Penn on their first date.

Below: Madonna, inside Private Eyes with Grace Jones, sometime in 1984, perhaps both having difficulty watching music videos with sunglasses on

The strict notion of a ‘video club’ in New York faded when it became cheaper for smaller clubs to install multiple screens and access video material. And, of course, as more common clubs joined the video revolution, the swankier ones eschewed it. Dance clubs that did opt for visual entertainment embraced ambient sets of computer animation by the early 90s, often leaving standard music videos for MTV and other cable networks. (Eventually even MTV left music videos.)

Private Eyes morphed with the times, eventually becoming the Sound Factory Bar in the 1990s, a spin off of sorts to the renown but troubled all-hours club on W. 27th Street, in the shadow of the West Chelsea’s elevated tracks. It refreshed its image a few years later under the name Cheetah.

Madonna, who had starred in five music videos by the time she first stepped foot in Private Eyes in the summer of ’84, has gone on to make a total of sixty-nine of them, including one that was just released this week.

*The year before, Bruce Springsteen recorded portions of ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ in the same studios.


Top picture courtesy Life Google images. Second image courtesy Madonna Scrapbook

J. Edgar Hoover parties at New York’s hottest nightclub

Work hard, play hard: The FBI director in his early days

There are at least three scenes in the new Clint Eastwood-directed J. Edgar Hoover biopic ‘J. Edgar’ set in New York, one of which might surprise you.

The first features Hoover on Ellis Island, but he’s hardly there to greet new arrivals. The FBI director’s early career was spent ferreting out and deporting anarchists, and his biggest target was Emma Goldman. On October 27, 1919, Goldman was put on trial at Ellis — in the film, the Statue of Liberty stands at odds in the background — and she was eventually expelled from the United Statues using a tenuous interpretation of the status of her American citizenship.

The second scene, depicting the rural Bronx of 1933, typified Hoover’s career in the 1930s as a stiffly facaded embodiment of law enforcement. Here the movie envisions the arrest of Bruno Hauptmann, accused kidnapper of the child of Charles Lindburgh. Hoover’s interest in the case represented an expansion of federal powers for the agency, even if Hoover’s actual involvement is questionable.

But it’s the third view of old New York that I found more intriguing. Hoover was a teetotaler early in life and demanded his agents aspire to clean, moral living. So its interesting that he — and his companion Clyde Tolson — were regular habitues at New York’s hottest nightclub of the 1930s — the Stork Club.

Sherman Billingsley, a former bootlegger, would have been made Hoover’s enemy list during Prohibition. Instead, he regularly hosted the FBI director as his swanky club at 3 East 53rd Street (at Fifth Avenue).

Hoover schmoozed here with people who were useful to him, journalists like Walter Winchell who assisted with the capture of most-wanted criminals from his banquette in the Cub Room. The unscrupulous columnist was instrumental in the surrender of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, leader of the mob’s assassination unit Murder Inc., and helped play up the image of Hoover’s G-Men to his millions of readers. In return, Hoover sometimes provided Winchell with FBI employees as bodyguards or drivers.

Winchell and others considered the Stork Club an invaluable nexus of social connections, and Hoover too made it his hangout when he was in town, often downing champagne and chatting with glitterati. The director was so associated with the nightclub in the 1930s, Tolson at his side, that adversaries sometimes called him ‘the Stork Club detective’.

In a telling incident a few years later, in 1951, iconic entertainer Josephine Baker was denied service at the Stork Club. She filed a complaint with the police department, and supporters organized a protest outside the nightclub (pictured at right). When it was recommended that Hoover intervene on the behalf of Baker, he replied, “I don’t consider this to be any of my business.” [source]

Here’s a collection of photos of the Stork Club with musical accompaniment. Mr. Hoover appears in one image around minute 2:40:

Stork Club logo courtesy Daddy O’s Martini blog

A swanky, hip hop to New York’s provocative Playboy Club


Manhattan’s Playboy Club, at 5 East 59th Street

NBC’s saucy new series ‘The Playboy Club’ starts this Monday. I believe it’s set in Chicago, however I thought this was a fine time to revise and reprint an article I wrote last year on the Manhattan branch of the Hugh Hefner club, which was featured in an episode of ‘Mad Men’ last year. The original article is here.

In 1964, a salacious pulp novel was published with the title ‘I Was A Negro Playboy Bunny,” billed with the tagline “The beautiful woman you see on this cover was once a Playboy bunny….read the startling story (in her owns words) of what goes on behind the doors of the wildest sex palace in the world – the New York Playboy club – and behind her own doors!”

The author, Anna English, worked at the New York Playboy Club, a Manhattan branch of the successful swanky lounge franchise started by Hugh Hefner in Chicago in 1960. The Manhattan venue was located at 5 East 59th Street (between Fifth and Madison), and, like those in Chicago, Miami and New Orleans, was famously a members-only club; you gained admittance by possession of an exclusive key decorated with the Playboy logo, described by comedian Dick Gregory as “a status symbol, like a Mercedes is now.”

You would think Manhattan would have gotten its own Playboy Club earlier than December 1963, but Hefner had troubles getting his liquor license. “It is a shame that the biggest city in the country should have this sort of problem,” Hef lamented. Due to the political content of the magazine (yes, this was back when people read Playboy), Hefner also had problems with the FBI, which he faced with aplomb, sending J. Edgar Hoover the following letter:

“Dear Mr. Hoover,
Hugh Hefner, Editor-Publisher of Playboy Magazine and President of the Playboy Clubs, has asked me to welcome you back to New York, and to make certain that whenever you wish, the facilities of the New York Playboy Club will be made available to you and your guests.

Therefore, at Mr. Hefner’s request, we are enclosing a special Celebrity Key which will make it possible for you and your friends to visit the Club anytime during your stay. . . .”

(No word on whether Hoover used his gift.)

When the $4 million club finally opened, even some naysayers fell prey to the club’s charming opulence. “The skeptics came to scoff and left singing the praises of the most singularly successful night club operation of our time,” Hefner wrote, rather immodestly.

After checking in their coats, businessmen were greeted by sexy cocktail waitresses, dressed in the trademark Playboy bunny ears and cottontail. A young Gloria Steinem went ‘undercover’ at the New York location for a magazine expose*, revealing some of the more unsavory requirements in the ‘Playboy Club Bunny Manual’. (‘Bunnies are reminded that there are many pleasing means they can employ to stimulate club’s liquor volume’.) You can read the sad, hilarious, thoroughly bizarre article here, featuring the excerpt: “‘My tail droops,’ she said, pushing it into position with one finger. ‘Those damn customers always yank it.'”

Another notable employee of the Manhattan club? Deborah Harry, making ends meet in a bunny outfit in the late 1960s. Believe it or not, that’s her in the picture, at right.

Yet the women who played the Bunnies often used the seemingly demeaning roles to their advantage. According to one New York employee, Kathryn Lee Scott,: “These were college girls and girls trying to launch careers and work their way through school … These girls loved what they were doing and that came across. They weren’t bad girls. They were having a walk on the wild side in a very safe environment.”

The upscale club also featured live performances, often male comedians whose schtick fit snugly alongside the club’s racy dynamic (Bill Cosby) or ran hilariously counter to it (Woody Allen and Bob Newhart). The clientele was sometimes more famous than the talent; Tony Bennett, God bless him, was a regular here, and later one, one might see a Beatle or two.

The shimmery glitz and respectability of the Playboy Clubs (and the misogyny it embodied) faded with the 1970s, and by the following decade, New York’s tattered hotspot was a joke that even People Magazine took a moment to poke fun of: “A large illuminated rabbit’s head glows over the door. It seems impossible now to look at the logo without thinking of an automobile air freshener.”

A revamped version of the club moved to Lexington Avenue and renamed itself the Empire Club, discarding the antiquated Playboy brand and its relevant costume accessories. Most shockingly, the enterprise hired both male and female wait staff! The club closed in 1986.

However, the coney-inspired erotic brand has made a comeback of sorts, recently re-opening in London, Las Vegas and other locations.

*Steinem’s article was called ‘I Was A Playboy Bunny’. I believe Ms. English’s book was most likely a play off this title. A 1963 issue of Jet Magazine ran a picture of Anna with a blurb about the club.

Top photo courtesy Life Google images; bottom photo from Marlene44