Tag Archives: midtown

Jimmy Walker, Mayor of the Jazz Age (NYC and the Roaring ’20s Part One)

PODCAST For the first part in our New York City in the Roaring Twenties summer mini-series, we’re hitting the town with “Beau James,” New York’s lively and fun-loving mayor Jimmy Walker.

The 1920s were a transformational decade for New York, evolving from a Gilded Age capital to the ideal of the modern international city. Art deco skyscrapers reinvented the skyline, reorienting the center of gravity from downtown to a newly invigorated Midtown Manhattan. Cultural influences, projected to the world via radio and the silent screen, helped create a new American style.

And the king of it all was Jimmy Walker, elected mayor of New York City just as its prospects were at their highest. The Tin Pan Alley songwriter-turned-Tammany Hall politician was always known more for his grace and style than his accomplishments. His wit and character embodied the spirit (and the spirits) of the Roaring ’20s.

Join us for an after-midnight romp with the Night Mayor of New York as he ascends to the most powerful seat in the city and spends his first term in the lap of luxury. What could possibly go wrong?

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 Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #233: JIMMY WALKER, MAYOR OF THE JAZZ AGE

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Walker having his morning coffee at his home on 6 St. Lukes Place (pictured below)

Courtesy MCNY

Jimmy Walker with Charles Lindbergh in 1927, in the midst of a ticker tape parade after his non-stop ride from Long Island to Paris.

Courtesy New York Social Diary

 

Walker so enjoyed throwing public events for famous people that he was frequently parodied for it. In 1932 Vanity Fair pictured him giving a lavish welcome — to himself.

Conde Nast

Harry McDonough with The Elysian Singers from 1905, singing Walker’s big hit “Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May.”

The dashing fashion plate, pictured here most certainly on his way to yet another vacation…..

….perhaps his European vacation! He’s pictured here in 1927, strolling the streets of Venice with a few hundred people behind him.

A picture of Jimmy, actually at work! He’s swearing in the new fire commissioner James J. Dorman in 1926.

Mayor Jimmy Walker with British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald at yet another welcoming ceremony, broadcast on the radio.

MCNY

Another British visit, this time from Mrs Foster Welch, Mayor of Southampton.

In another Pathe video, Jimmy Walker visits Ireland and the former home of his father.

During Walker’s extraordinary rise, New York was becoming an entirely new city in the 1920s with construction projects on virtually on every block. Even in front of the Hotel Commodore (pictured here in 1927), which was, for a time, the home of Jimmy Walker.

Park Avenue (at 50th Street) in 1922.

MCNY

Park Avenue at 61st Street in 1922. The rich flocked to this newly developed street of apartment complexes, making it the new center of wealth.

And now, for a little glamour, a few shots of Yvonne Shelton, then Betty Compton, Walker’s two most famous girlfriends (who he wooed while married to wife Janet).

wikiart
Courtesy Historial Ziegfeld
Photographs above by Alfred Cheney Johnston.

 

She most famously starred in 1927’s Broadway production of Oh Kay! starring Gertrude Lawrence. Here’s Lawrence singing a famous song from that show:

 

IN TWO WEEKS: Chapter Two of our series on the Roaring ’20s, rewinding back to the beginning of the decade and introducing you to another icon of the Jazz Age. Who will it be?

Supreme City: The ascent of Midtown Manhattan in the 1920s


A view of Midtown Manhattan, looking southeast, by the Wurts Brothers (NYPL)

Supreme City
How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America
by Donald L. Miller
Simon & Schuster

Supreme City, by Donald L. Miller, certainly one of the most entertaining books on New York City history I’ve read in the past couple years, is also one of the strangest.  Almost as an obligation, New York’s Prohibition-fueled nightlife and the rowdy administration of Jimmy Walker are conjured up front, and colorfully so, only to then be placed aside.

This is not a book about the standard subjects of the 1920s.  This is indeed an epic about New York City in the Jazz Age, but it’s a wildly different tune than the one in which you’re familiar.

This is a tale of architecture and invention, of a boldness and proportion that New Yorkers take for granted today.  Supreme City recounts the invention of Midtown Manhattan, but it’s also about a spiritual shift in urban life.  This is the story of how New York City became not only a supreme city, but a supersized one.

Miller, a professor of history at Lafayette College perhaps better known for his works on World War II, approaches the sprawl of New York’s most ambitious decade almost like a mathematician. He ties this epic — a swirl of large personalities and impossible ideas — into a specific intersection of time and place.

It’s as though a slew of particles (comprised of ambitions and personalities) just slammed into each other one day, creating a new form of urban environment.

Industrial visions and personal journeys alike culminate in the year 1927, a watershed date for New York history, and arrive within the Manhattan grid system, mostly along 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the nucleus of a new urban vision.  The story ventures out through the entire city of course but always to the beat of this new Midtown.

From here, Miller brings in the components of growth, the great innovators and personalities, plotted in relation to each other and to the great city blossoming under their feet.

These aren’t just the standard innovators, the expected cast — David Sarnoff, Duke Ellington, Charles Lindburgh. Sure, you get a bit Texas Guinan‘s drunken swagger, a little of Jack Dempsey‘s scrappiness.  But Miller gives equal prominence to perhaps less colorful real estate gurus and planners whose contributions created the playing field of modern New York. While it’s always nice to relive the 1920s through a lens of champagne and The Great Gatsby, Miller’s concern is with the players who actually built the city.

The engineer William Wilgus receives deserved placement in Supreme City for his innovations of covering the unpleasant tracks of Grand Central to create acres of new land, “taking wealth from the air” and inventing New York’s ultimate canyon of wealth — Park Avenue.

Architect Emery Roth brought the apartment skyscraper to Midtown and practically invented the allure of the penthouse.  The almost faceless Fred French — his section is actually called “Who on Earth was Fred French?” — turned the apartment complex into a swanky, thematic thrill with such Midtown projects as Tudor City (a 1928 illustration pictured at left).

Of course, it took the wealthiest New Yorkers to fuel these changes. New money sparked the new playing field.  The old families hastened their migration up Fifth Avenue, their mansions abandoned, torn down and replaced with the high-end shops in which they would later shop.

While department store masters like Edwin Goodman swept out the socialites to build his Fifth Avenue temple of commerce Bergdorf-Goodman, the pleasant rivalry between Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden helped generate the avenue’s reputation of social perfection and high glamour.

Sensing the upward surge of Midtown — its almost-amoral infinite rise — impresarios like Samuel “Roxy” Rothefeld, Florenz Ziegfeld and George “Tex” Rickard rose to create venues to corral the masses.  Midtown became home in the 1920s to the industries of entertainment — publishing, radio, television.  Even Seventh Avenue below Times Square found purpose in the swell as America’s Garment District.

As Midtown grew in the 1920s, the instruments of getting there also rose to the challenge, finally conquering the Hudson River, from the Holland Tunnel to the George Washington Bridge.

The story is so big that Miller can’t contain all of it. Supreme City captures that place before the Great Depression, perhaps New York’s single most decadent moment. He does not venture out into the other boroughs and rarely even ventures below 42nd Street. From the vantage of the Chrysler Building — the treasure most indicative of the age — those places are hazy and distant.  By the last page of this heavy tome, Midtown Manhattan creates everything, drives everything, almost entirely is everything.  That energy is certainly infectious, making Supreme City is an rich, propelling read.

New York City in the Golden Age of Television: Behind the scenes with nine classic TV shows filmed in the city


The Beatles in one of their many appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. [source]

PODCAST This is the second part of the Bowery Boys TV Mini-Series, covering the years of New York City television production from the late 1940s to the 1960s.  Some of the most classic television shows ever made — and many still around today — were filmed from various locations in midtown Manhattan.

The insatiable appetite for television programming in the United States after the war created a new industry out of the roots of radio, with the television networks NBC, CBS, Dumont and ABC trying out almost every conceivable form of entertainment.  Their efforts in the late 40s and 1950s created many standard forms of programming — the morning show, the late show, the situation comedy and the game show.

This podcast is arranged a little bit like a leisurely Midtown walking tour, taking you past four of the greatest locations in NYC television history.  We give you the back story behind nine television shows that were filmed in New York City in this period — Howdy Doody, Texaco Star Theater, the Today Show, the Tonight Show, What’s My Line?, The $64,000 Question, Life Is Worth Living, The Honeymooners and the Ed Sullivan Show.

This show definitely features the strangest cast of characters we have ever discussed — television’s most influential chimpanzee, a regal bishop superstar, a freckled marionette, a buxom blonde, and the father of Sigourney Weaver!

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: New York City in the Golden Age of Television 1947-65

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  CORRECTION: In this week’s show, I say that the Blizzard of 1947 occurred on the exact date as the debut of Howdy Doody (December 27, 1957). The storm actually hit in the two days before that date — December 25-25. But the city was a total mess for days after.
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J. Fred Muggs, Dave Garroway and Phoebe B. Beebe on the Today Show. Courtesy NBC Television

The glorious Dagmar from ‘Broadway Open House’! [source]

A few episodes of some of the show’s we talked about in the podcast:

 The $64,000 Question

 Life Is Worth Living with the Bishop Fulton Sheen

 Texaco Star Theater from November 1949

What’s My Line? — a collection of clips

The Honeymooners — the episode called “The Bensonhurst Bomber”

‘New York Neon’: A history of the city’s most mythical lights

A sizzling 52nd Street in July 1948 (courtesy LOC)

BOWERY BOYS BOOK OF THE MONTH Each month I’ll pick a book — either brand new or old, fiction or non-fiction — that offers an intriguing take on New York City history, something that uses history in a way that’s uniquely unconventional or exposes a previously unseen corner of our city’s complicated past.  Then over the next month, I’ll run an article or two about some of historical themes that are brought up in the selection. 

New York Neon
by Thomas E. Rinaldi
W.W. Norton

Neon has been a most attractive tool for pop American graffiti for well over one hundred years, glowing tubes of foggy color alighting the simple and the sublime, from jagged old signs along Route 66 roadsides to those lining the most flamboyant casinos of Las Vegas.  In Los Angeles, stand-alone neon signs along Sunset Strip typify the glamour of old Hollywood, the buzz of Mildred Pierce‘s restaurant and the cocktails at the Brown Derby.

New York City also has its share of iconic neon signs — some of the greatest, in fact — but amid the blinding lights of an ever-changing modern metropolis, they frequently recede into the background. But no longer. In Thomas Rinaldi’s excellent ‘New York Neon’, these representatives of an elusive, nostalgic past finally receive a warranted inspection.  And I guarantee you that after reading this book, you’ll see neon popping up all around you on the city streets. It’s always been here.

No city has a more complicated relationship with the neon glow than New York City. Once the material of great advertisements and tony nightclubs, neon became associated with the seedier parts of town by the 1940s and 50s.  Their singular appeal — handcrafted works, often one-of-a-kind — initially threatened their existence in a city of heightened sensation.  Fortunately, detective novels, film noir and the embrace of nostalgia saved the idea of neon from total oblivion;  more than any other visual queue, warm neon evokes a sense of a faded city, its melancholy and mystery.

Rinaldi gives a one-stop primer on all things neon, from its early history and development to its present creation by local craftsmen.  He identifies possible moments in time when neon became ‘cool’ again and speculates on why it may never completely disappear. He writes: “For its sheer charisma, neon will likely live on as a specialty item.”

Indeed, New York’s romance with neon signage mostly veers from the mainstream today.  The neon spectaculars of Times Square have given way to explosive LED high-definition displays, washing thousands of color gradients over the eyes of stunned tourists.  As Rinaldi illustrates, the survival of neon has depended on small, private businesses; it glows above the doorways of New York’s most famous delis, pharmacies and bars.

Above: The nexus of neon was probably at Broadway and 47th Street in its heyday. Here, the 1947 sign of the Latin Quarter nightclub joins the party. (LOC)

And here’s where the book comes in most handy, going through every borough to locate some of the finest examples of neon currently existing in the city. The author even finds the origin stories to a few of these treasures, from the pastel silliness of the Papaya King to the haunting glow of a neon crucifix on East 2nd Street.

The great, old taverns of New York are often defined by their neon. Sometimes whole neighborhoods are too, as in the case of Long Island City and its 1936 Pepsi-Cola sign.  But collect it all together into one resource like ‘New York Neon’, and you’ll come to realize that neon has had a lasting effect on the entire city.  Your dreams of New York are likely illuminated in neon.

Times Square will always glow with the latest in lighting technologies. Subway signs and chain stores signage may render everything into a dulling uniformity. But nothing will speak for New York more than the signs of Katz’s Deli, or the Chelsea Hotel, or the Odeon Restaurant, or Loew’s Paradise.

Later this week: An interview with the author Thomas Rinaldi who also maintains a great blog on the subject.

PAST BOWERY BOYS FEATURED BOOKS:

Motor hotels: Manhattan’s most luxurious parking garage “Your car never touched by human hands!”

If you don’t already check in to the marvelous Modern Mechanix blog from time to time, then you’re missing out on some retro-futuristic genius. The blog usually highlights visionary drawings from the Modern Mechanics archives. But in the case of one illustration from May 1929, one particular wacky, wondrous dream was actually carried out — and promptly fizzled.

Automobiles had been a part of midtown Manhattan since the beginning of the 20th century, with dealerships lining the streets of the plaza that would soon take the name Times Square. But it wouldn’t be until the 1920s that the city recognized a crisis that would bedevil New Yorkers into today — where do you park your car?

Some cities outright banned curb parking during the decade. Chicago became the first city to charge motorists to park along city streets. But in New York, some private endeavors tried to solve the problem.

Perhaps seeing a bit of cross promotion, Packard Motors sold an area of property on Ninth Avenue and 61st Street (today’s 43-45 W. 61st Street) to the Kent Garage Investing Corporation in 1928. the brainchild by Westchester insurance salesman Milton A. Kent, the ambitious company opened a dizzying 25-floor* mechanical parking garage in a ‘flamboyant brick and terra-cotta’ art deco tower,  that could accomodate 1,000 cars, using an automatic elevator system that stored cars in upper floors. The cars were rolled into and out of elevators to desired slots in the structure, in theory using few human operators.  (See the clipping from the December 1928 issue of Popular Science at the bottom of this article.)

Advertisements touted the garage as a ‘motor hotel’. “Your car never touched by human hands!” went the Kent Garage slogan.

At right: The glamorous garage at West 61st Street, harkening a bit in appearance to the RCA Building, which would be completed in 1933. [source]

Kent Garages opened another location at 44th Street and 3rd Avenue and seemed to be the solution to the coming automobile boom that would fuel the ambitions of city planners like Robert Moses in the coming decade. Unfortunately, the Kent Garages were extremely inflexible, not suitable for cars of certain sizes, and employed highly defective machinery. And as you can probably gather, these were hardly swift forms of storage. It might take almost 30 minutes to retrieve your automobile during rush hour!

The garages were done in before they really got started thanks to the Great Depression. The Kents sold the 61st Street garage in 1931, although the building remained as a more conventional parking garage until 1943, when the building was refitted as a warehouse. (It’s an apartment building today.)

*Advertisements of the day tout a 25 floor structure, while the building’s landmark designation report lists a 24-floor building.

Top image courtesy of Modern Mechanix

Bridge Whist Club: The worst booze your taxes can buy!


Just a barrel of laughs: Prohibition agents dump illegal containers of wine into the streets.

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, on occasional Fridays we’ll be featuring an historic New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of the old Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION: The Bridge Whist Club
44th Street between Madison and Fifth avenues, Manhattan
In operation: 1925-1926

Prohibition in the United States didn’t extinguish the taste for liquor. The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, outlawing the sale and transportation of alcohol, merely inspired those who sold it to become more creative.

In New York, prohibition even redefined midtown. Where once nightlife gathered around supper clubs and cabarets in major plazas like Times Square and Columbus Circle, speakeasies now slithered down the side streets and into previously unremarkable buildings. Some of the most famous of these illicit 1920s booze joints were housed in old tenements and small storefronts, down numbered streets off of Times Square and further downtown in Greenwich Village.

Outside the spotlight, a new regime of proprietors, building newfound nightlife empires with mob ties, quenched the thirsts of a populace thirsty for that which they weren’t legally allowed to partake. A great many vied for this business, with a reported “30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs” formed by 1925.

That is an absurd number, reflecting the diversity in establishments — from the gentlemen’s clubs behind secret doors and the high-kicking lounges owned by Larry Fay and Texas Guinan to rundown tenements hastily fashioned with a bar and a few bottles. With no liquor sold there were no liquor licenses required. Everybody could get in the game.

How could the federal government even try and combat such widespread and diverse abuses of a virtually unenforceable law? One tactic manifested in 1925 when, in certainly one of the strangest undercover operation in the history of U.S. law enforcement, the feds got into the speakeasy business themselves. If you can’t beat ’em, drink up and join them.

In the fall of 1925, the United States Bureau of Prohibition sunk a few thousand dollars ($5,576.50, according to official documentation, almost $70,000 today)
to rent a building at 14 East 44th Street to construct its own speakeasy, called the Bridge Whist Club. The dive, called a “plush booze joint” by Herbert Asbury in his history of the Prohibition years, was named for a card game, and it is likely men gathered there to partake in this diversion.

But most were there for the liquor. The undercover agents, meanwhile, used the joint to gather “information concerning the activity of liquor smugglers.” Rubbing elbows with drinkers, agents could theoretically get names of other speakeasies and establish connections to leaders in New York’s underworld. Tables were even equipped with recording devices to pick up incriminating details.

Below: From the jacket of a 1926 book by author Martha Bensley Bruere (courtesy NYPL)

In essence, they were feeding the small fish to draw out the larger ones. The Treasury Department, tasked with enforcing Prohibition by 1925, was well aware of the shifty nature of the enterprise. But an ethical distortion in the philosophy of the Bridge Whist actually put its patrons at risk.

As Wayne Wheeler, head of the Anti-Saloon League, put it, “The government is under no obligation to furnish people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it.” So the Bridge Whist served up a mixture containing wood alcohol, also known as Methanol, linked today with causing blindness.

This is not the first time that the U.S. government introduced dangerous substances into illegal drink. Realizing that many bootleggers stole industrial alcohol to make their product, enforcers directed that the industrial stuff be polluted with Methanol, hoping the foul taste and physical illnesses would deter consumption. (Slate Magazine ran an eye-opening article about this last year.)

Some of this toxic mix was sold at the Bridge Whist; other batches infiltrated through speakeasies throughout New York. According to author Deborah Blum, “In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700.”

Still, the Bureau claimed such tainted booze was “the most effective denaturant which the government could use, since it was the most difficult denaturant to remove” by bootleggers with their own chemists, tasked with cleaning up the toxic stew.

Having the government in the speakeasy business did not settle well with many in Congress. Anti-Prohibition members equated it to entrapment. Indeed, many arrested due to information gleaned from the Bridge Whist were later set free. Only one “mid-level bootlegger” was ever caught from information gleaned from the speakeasy operation.

New York congressmen Fiorello LaGuardia, ardently against Prohibition, petitioned against the use of ‘under-cover funds’ and extreme measures of enforcement. Ultimately, the Bridge Whist could not weather the scrutiny, and thanks to the efforts of the future mayor of New York, the experiment was officially shut down in May 1926.

The Trans-Lux experience: Madison Avenue’s ‘modern’ mini-movie house

I’m a sucker for severe electric-laden art-deco theaters like the Trans-Lux Modern Theater, once located on the corner of 58th Street and Madison Avenue.

Most every midtown theater in the 1920s dabbled into electric signage to grab attention. But Trans-Lux worked in the opposite direction. To underscore the importance of illuminated billboards in New York, Trans-Lux was actually a sign company who then dabbled into theater ownership.

Their separate film branch, Trans-Lux Movies Corporation, was a collaboration with RKO Pictures. This screen at 58th and Madison, opening in March 1931 as the first of Trans-Lux’s theater ventures, was a unique venue that played newsreels and shorts.

It was an ‘upgraded’ film-going experience, in a miniature theatrical environment. According to a Time Magazine article from 1931, “[t]his theatre, about the size of a small drugstore, has 158 comfortable arm-seats, a turnstile in front and a svelte modernistic interior in which newsreels now flicker from 10 a. m. till midnight. There are no ushers; a ticket girl, two operators (union requirement) and a manager run the house.”

Customers would pay a quarter to see about an hour of newsreel and short films, in a brightened environment to allow them to read their programs and newspapers without squinting.

Trans-Lux opened several ‘newsreel’ theaters throughout the city, although by the late 1930s, those that survived the Great Depression switched to conventional feature films.

This Library of Congress image from April 1931 shows the building from the corner. That glorious neon lettering would have brightened a bustling Manhattan corner.

Trans-Lux is actually still in the film business today as a conventional theater chain Storyteller Theatres, located in a few western states.

Below: She’s waiting to take your ticket! (source)

Supernatural Stories of New York: spooky seances, violent Jazz Age ghosts and an island of despair

PODCAST It’s our fourth annual Halloween history special, and we’ve got four bloodcurdling stories for the season. The first three are spooky ghost tales — a haunted boardinghouse on 14th street with violent, vain spirits; a short history of New York’s seance craze and a man tormented by the spirit of a dead painter; and a glamorous pair of Jazz Age lovers whose angry spats in their midtown Manhattan penthouse kept up the neighbors, even beyond the grave.

ALSO: A tale with no ghosts at all, but a story with truly spine-tingling facts, featuring the eeriest island in New York and the final resting place for over 850,000 souls. If you ever make it to Hart Island, it means that things have gone very badly for you.

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Supernatural Stories of New York

Home to the American Society of Psychical Research on W. 73rd Street, the organization headed by James Hyslop in the early 1900s. Hyslop led the investigation of dozens of reported cases of paranormal and supernatural activity.

Hyslop, pictured below, believed that he spoke with famous philosopher William James through a medium, and he himself spoke to his secretary via this technique many months after he died.

A bizarre image depicting medium Etta De Camp being visited by author Frank Stockton. Ms. De Camp believed her hand was being controlled by Stockton and even wrote a entire book under the control of Stockton.

Looking up at the former penthouses of 57 W. 57th Street, where Edna Champion and her lover Charlie argued their way into the grave, then tormented the unfortunate tenants for many years later. Today, these formerly haunted floors are slated to be occupied by Ford Models.

An abandoned records room on Hart Island. This and many other wonderful photographs of Hart Island can be found at Kingston Lounge, bravely venturing to the island in 2008 to witness the strange and forlorn island in person.

The Hart Island Project has been drawing needed attention the island for years, obtaining lists of people buried there and assisting in families looking for loved ones there. It’s also features a fantastic collection of photographs, such as the one below (of a lonely grave marker) by Joel Sternfeld.

And finally, a fascinating and priceless local news report from 1978 on Hart Island, looking a bit more populated than it is today. Unbelievably, there was talk of actually developing Hart Island for more than just the city’s potter’s field.

If you’re looking to craft your own personal ‘haunted’ walking tour, this map lists all the places we’ve talked about in prior ghost stories podcasts. Simply look up a location and download that particular episode:

View Bowery Boys Ghost Stories in a larger map

1 Ghost Stories of New York
2 Spooky Stories of New York
3 Haunted Tales of New York
4 Supernatural Stories of New York