THE FIRST PODCAST Imagine if we could hear the voices of Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria or Harriet Tubman?
Believe it or not, somebody was making audio recordings as far back as the 1850s. Had these techniques been widespread, we might have had the words of those famous people preserved, as well as recordings from the Civil War, the Crimean War and other tumultuous events.
The only catch — Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, the inventor of this audio recording process, never meant for his recordings to be played back! And yet today, thanks to modern technology, we can hear his work from the 1850s for the very first time.
This is the story of the first audio recordings ever made and the oldest song recording to ever be heard today, thanks to an intrepid group of tech-savvy historians.
This important musical piece may not sound like much — in fact, it sounds downright creepy! — but it marks the beginning of music as a cultural force. One that can be replicated, replayed and enjoyed by those who were not in the room when it was first made.
(Edouard) Leon Scott de Martinville’s invention went through several iterations. The image below illustrates one version from 1857. Tuning fork vibrated by bow or iron rod, and vibration traced on cylinder coated with lampblack (carbon). Engraving, 1872 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
A later version of the so-called phonautograph
The inventor himself Edouard Leon Scott de Martinsville. Also the singer of the first song!
From Scientific American 1877 — an illustration of what the inventor hoped to achieve with his device. The noted vibrations could be translated into words. Thus the first audio recording device was really a dictation of machine of sorts.
This is what First Sounds technicians were working with — a page from the inventor’s phonautograph. The vibrations proved too small to work with the human eye but a computer could identify the detailed ridges much more effectively.
The plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare, as the finest examples of the English written word, were also the first recorded sounds ever made. The first recording ever made at Alexander Graham Bell‘s Volta Laboratory in Washington DC in 1881 was that of Bell’s very own voice reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Here’s another recording of Bell’s voice from 1885, running through a series of numbers as a sort of ‘test pattern’ for Bell’s new Graphophone:
But Bell, visionary and genius, was no actor. The first audio of Shakespeare performance by an actor — the greatest actor, in fact — Edwin Booth, also known among the creative set in New York for The Players Club in Gramercy Park.
The recordings were made in Chicago in March 1890, of Hamlet and Othello (heard below):
Booth has a couple tie-ins to the subject of our last podcast,the Astor Place Riot. He was named for the early American tragedian Edwin Forrest whose rivalry with the British actor William Macready incited the bloody conflict at the crossroads of Broadway and the Bowery on May 10, 1849.
And, of course, Edwin Booth has a serious connection with another 19th century theater tragedy — the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edwin’s brother (and acting partner) John Wilkes Booth. The assassin was actually known for his own aggressive version of Othello; during one performance, he almost strangled the life out of the actress playing Desdemona!
Listen to Edwin Booth’s recorded performance. You’re listening to the world’s most well-regarded actor of the 19th century. He’s at the end of his career here. One year later, in 1891, he would give his last performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the role of Hamlet, naturally.
The recordings, using Thomas Edison’s equipment, were never meant for public performance, but rather at the behest of his daughter Edwina.
PODCAST The musical story of the Cotton Club, the most famous (and infamous) nightclub of the Jazz Age.
The Cotton Club, Harlem’s most prominent nightclub during the Prohibiton era, delivered some of the greatest music legends of the Jazz Age — Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, the Nicolas Brothers. Some of the most iconic songs in the American songbook made their debut at the Cotton Club or were popularized in performances here.
But the story of gangster Owney Madden‘s notorious supper club is hardly one to be celebrated.
That the Cotton Club was owned by Prohibition’s most ruthless mob boss was just the beginning. The club enshrined the segregationist policies of the day, placing black talent on the stage for the pleasure of white patrons alone. Even the club’s flamboyant décor — by Ziegfeld’s scenic designer, no less — made sure to remind people of these ugly admission practices.
This is the tale of Harlem late night — of hot jazz and illegal booze, of great music and very bad mobsters. Featuring some of the greatest tunes of the day by Ellington, Calloway, King Oliver and more.
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The Cotton Club was spawned from an earlier nightspot called Club Deluxe, owned by boxer Jack Johnson. (Below: Johnson in 1910)
Club Deluxe was renamed The Cotton Club in 1923 by Owney Madden, the mob boss and supplier of illegal booze.
The original Cotton Club at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. The Douglas Theater, on the ground floor, is doing much better here, photo taken sometime in 1927:
The entrance to the Harlem Cotton Club. Note the log decoration to make it appear like some old rugged shack.
A map from 1932 of the Harlem nightclub scene, featuring the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, Connie’s Inn, the Savoy Ballroom and more….
The Broadway Cotton Club as it looked one evening in 1938.
A look at the interior of the Broadway Cotton Club circa, during an New Year’s celebration, 1937, with Cab Calloway conducting.
An advertisement or program for The Cotton Club. The year 1925 is penciled in at the top, but it has to be from a later date. Calloway had just graduated from high school in 1925!
Maude Russel and her Ebony Steppers, performing in the 1929 Cotton Club show called ‘Just A Minute’.
A shot of Jimmy Lunceford and His Orchestra in 1934.
An advertisement for the Nicolas Brothers, for a performance in 1938 at the Broadway Cotton Club.
Lena Horne started out in the Cotton Club chorus line but eventually became a headlining star in her own right.
The Dandridge Sisters were notable performers in the final years of the Cotton Club.
The young and dashing Duke Ellington became a superstar in the years following his Cotton Club residency.
Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Band, in a 1930 film appearance:
In 1934, Cab Calloway made this short film featuring his music:
Cab Calloway’s here too, in this clip from the film Stormy Weather, but the real stars are the Nicholas Brothers in a breathtaking dance number:
THIS PODCAST FEATURED MUSICAL SNIPPETS FROM THE FOLLOWING SONGS:
Black and Tan Fantasy – Duke Ellington
Drop Me Off In Harlem – Duke Ellington
Speak Easy Blues – King Oliver Jazz Band
Charleston – Paul Whiteman
Mood Indigo – Duke Ellington
Swing Session – Duke Ellington
If You Were In My Place – Duke Ellington
Minnie the Moocher – Cab Calloway
I’ve Got The World On A String – Duke Ellington
Stormy Weather – Ethel Waters
On The Sunny Side of the Street – Duke Ellington
NOTES ON THIS SHOW:
— I made two amusing flubs in this show 1) Duke Ellington’s nickname is probably inspired by the Duke of Wellington, not (obviously) the Duke of Ellington, 2) the name of the movie with Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers is obviously named Stormy Weather, not Stormy Weathers (which must be the name of a drag queen somewhere)
— Jack Johnson‘s story is so much more complex and I wish I had more time to talk about him. For more information, check out the incredible documentary (and the book it’s based on by Geoffrey C Ward) called Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.
The music industry is the focus of Martin Scorsese’s new HBO show Vinyljust as the mob-run liquor business was the focus of his last show Boardwalk Empire, but in many ways, the two are pretty much the same.
Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) runs his record label American Century Records out of the Brill Building with the same amount of wild swagger that Nucky Thompson ran his Atlantic City operation. By the end of the first episode, there was even a bloody murder.
My interest, of course, is the history, and Vinyl compacts historical events in vivid, fairly unrealistic but very enjoyable way. (A glacially paced romp through 1970s New York City history wouldn’t make good television.) In the first episode alone, Finestra magically predicts the success of ABBA, stumbles into the first hip hop party in the Bronx, then witness the collapse of the Mercer Arts Centerfrom the inside.
If you happen to be watching live on Sunday nights (9pm EST), follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) where I’ll be watching alongside and throwing out some interesting trivia bits. It’s the 1970s in Times Square so the potential for some scandalous history is high!
On Sunday The Bowery Boys join up with The Ensemblist to present a special cabaret event at 54 Below — a tribute to the great St. James Theatre!
Perhaps some of you may be asking — why do a live show about a individual theater?
The St. James Theatre (246 West 44th Street) was prominently featured as the principal set in this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone.
The underlying theme of the film is that ‘serious’ theater was a reinvigorating, respectable medium that could renew the career of Riggan Thomson (Keaton) whose Hollywood successes have diminished his credibility.
Below: The exterior and entrance of the St. James in character for Birdman. More images at Eric Helmin / Design + Media who worked on the film’s terrific graphic design can be found at his website. He’s also worked on The Knick and Inside Llewyn Davis so we’re clearly fans of his work.
The St. James was one of a handful of stages which estabished the supremacy of the American theater. To film Birdman here was to set the bar near-impossibly high for the lead character. The history of the St. James runs parallel to Broadway’s own dramatic highs and lows. It was here that Hello Dolly!, Oklahoma, The King and I and The Producers all made their New York debuts.
Here’s a selection of other quirky facts about the St James Theatre, some big, some small, some weird:
1) The plot of land where the St. James Theater stands today — that’s 246 West 44th Street, between the Helen Hayes Theatre and John’s Pizzeria — was home to the first incarnation of Sardi’s Restaurant. Called the Little Restaurant (or Sardi’s Sidewalk Cafe), this first incarnation of the famous theatrical eatery opened in 1921. A frequent sight was that of proprietor Melchiore Pio Vincenzo Sardi Sr. standing in the doorway, flipping a twenty-dollar gold coin. In 1927, the restaurant moved to its present location – just a couple doors down from the St. James.
Below: The outdoor garden at Sardi’s original spot
2) What does the St. James Theatre have in common with the Chelsea Piers and Grand Central Terminal? They were all designed by the same architectural firm Warren and Wetmore. But when it opened with its first show — a George M. Cohan romp called The Merry Malones — it was called Erlanger’s Theater, named for one half of the theatrical production juggernaut of the 1920s — Klaw & Erlanger. (By the way, there was also a Klaw Theatre just a block away.)
Below: Anthony Dumas sketches from 1932 of the Erlanger Theatre and the Little Theatre (later the Helen Hayes). Later that year the name would switch to the St. James in tribute to a famous London theater of that same name.
3) In 1943 the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahomamade its debut here, changing the face of musical theater forever. But, many years before, the St. James very nearly celebrated the debut of another major epoch-making musical– Showboat. It was even considered for the inaugural performance at the St. James! However its producer Florenz Ziegfeld wasn’t ready in time, and it eventually debuted at Ziegfeld’s own theater on December 27, 1927.
Below: A dance-filled play presented by the Federal Theatre Project called Trojan Incident played for a limited run in 1938
4) The St. James was a vital component of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Broadway’, delivering debut musicals such as Pal Joey, Where’s Charley?, The King and I and The Pajama Game. Countless successful Shakespeare and Gilbert & Sullivan productions graced the stage as did original ballets and even the first play production of Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1941.
So the place has gotta be loaded, right? During the run of Oklahoma, burglars broke into the St. James to steal the evening’s hefty receipts, only to be foiled when they were unable to open the main safe. “They escaped with a small amount of change,” said the Times.
5) In 1958, the theater went through a massive renovation, almost a rebuilding really. Most of the interior was replaced with modern theatrical amenities like a state-of-the-art sound system and air conditioning unit. The lighting equipment was now “completely enclosed in Plexiglass” and “the asbestos curtain has a mural-like design on it.” [source]
6) A peculiar set of shows hit the St. James Theatre during the 1970s, most notably a Nashville-themed jamboree called Broadway Opry ’79 featuring a rotating roster of country music greats! Sadly it played only two shows after four previews — the first featuring Don Gibson, Floyd Cramer and Tanya Tucker, the second Waylon Jennings and the Crickets.
7) A lot of shows celebrating New York City history have played at the St. James, and in 1980 came a tribute to the city’s greatest showman — P. T. Barnum. The musical Barnum, with music by Cy Coleman, featured the subjects of real-life Barnum spectacles like Joice Heth, Jenny Lind and Tom Thumb. Barnum died in 1891, many years before any theater would have made an appearance above 42nd Street.
Below: Jim Dale in Barnum
8) In 2005 an extraordinary feedback loop occurred at the St James Theatre when the musical movie version ofThe Producers(itself based on a non-musical film) was filmed at the St. James on the very set of the Broadway theater version. Said one of the extras from the film, standing on stage that day “Basically, I’m supposed to applaud the play-within-the-play in a movie about a play that was based on a movie,” [source]
9) The past ten years at the St. James have been rewarding indeed — with musical versions of rock albums (American Idiot), children’s books (How The Grinch Stole Christmas), Woody Allen movies (Bullets Over Broadway), and even one Shakespearean comic farce (the current Something Rotten!)
A few lucky individuals even got to see Barry Manilow here in a one-man concert show in 2013. From one review: “The 1-hour-50-minute concert, performed without an intermission, revealed Mr. Manilow’s brand to be intact. That brand might be described as musical chicken soup for the soul.”
10) With Birdman‘s big win at the 2015 Academy Awards, the St. James Theatre becomes the second Broadway theater prominently featured in a Best Picture winner. All About Eve, Best Picture winner in 1951, features scenes from the John Golden Theatre on West 45th Street. The Great Ziegfeld also won Best Picture (in 1937) but it was all filmed in Hollywood.
Wanna know more about the history of the St. James Theatre with an overview of Times Square and Broadway history — all while festively dining and drinking in a superb cabaret setting? Come to our show this Sunday!
Tickets are still available for our two shows at 7pm and 9:30pm.
PODCAST REWINDWebster Hall, as beautifully worn and rough-hewn as it was during its heyday in the 1910s and 20s, disguises a very surprising past. It’s a significant venue in the history of the labor movement, Greenwich Village bohemians, gay and lesbian life, and pop and rock music.
The Webster Hall ballroom has hosted the likes of Emma Goldman, Marcel Duchamp, Jefferson Airplane, Robert F Kennedy and Madonna. Listen in to find out how it got it’s reputation as ‘the devil’s playhouse’. This was originally released on January 3, 2009.
NOW WITH BONUS CONTENT: Almost ten minutes of newly recorded material in 2015, adding a couple more interesting details from Webster Hall’s unique history.
A special illustrated version of the podcast on Webster Hall (Episode #73) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed, via iTunes or other podcast distribution services. Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up. The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)
Harlem River Speedway Course, looking south, towards the High Bridge. Picture from Port of New York Authority, courtesy Museum of the City of New York.
— A new Bowery Boys episode every Friday this summer. WHAT?! Well, sort of. On top of a brand new show every two weeks, we’ll be updating the Bowery Boys Archives feed every other two weeks with past shows that have been missing in action. To make sure you’re getting everything, make sure you are subscribed to both The Bowery Boys: New York City History and The Bowery Boys Archives podcasts on iTunes and other podcast services. The podcasts in the Archives will be enhanced shows, meaning that images of the things discussed will pop up on certain listening devices. So subscribe to both today!
— Biggest history news of the week — The High Bridge is open again for pedestrians! New York’s oldest bridge, built in 1848 as part of the Croton Aqueduct water supply system, reopened on Tuesday following restoration of its brick walkways and formerly rusty handrails. “Downtown may have the High Line, but uptown we have the High Bridge.” [New York Times]
— Help our friend Kyle Supley produce a new web series about life in New York City! You can find the pilot episode here and it looks terrific. He’s almost to his Kickstarter goal and will produce ten episodes about the history and culture of New York City. Plus you will be floored by his vintage shirt collection. [Kyle Supley’s Out There]
— RIP Ornette Coleman who died in New York today at age 85.The free jazz icon electrified (and possibly befuddled) the New York’s jazz circuit after a controversial stint at the Five Spot in Astor Place. [In 1959]
— Here’s the location in today’s Tribeca neighborhood where you bought all your whalebone corsets in the late 19th century. [Daytonian In Manhattan]
— Was it easier to get around Brooklyn in the 1930s than it is today? This terrific 1930s trolley map seems to suggest that. [Gothamist]
— A little story on the day that McSorley’s Old Ale House finally started letting in women patrons. [Ephemeral New York]
— New podcast out tomorrow! We started the Bowery Boys podcast eight years ago this month, and so we’re doing something a little special for our next two shows. Stay tuned……
And here’s a selection from Ornette Coleman’s pivotal 1959 album The Shape of Things To Come, one of the most important jazz albums in history.
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.
Nina Simone was born on this date in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. She came to New York as a student of the Julliard School, but her unique blend of genres came from her experiences in the nightclubs and cabarets of Harlem and Greenwich Village. She wowed audiences with a memorable New York debut at the Village Vanguard on July 20, 1959. “Miss Simone is a real talent who can go far,” said Billboard of her performance.
Less than three months later, she made a more formal debut to audiences on September 12, 1959, at Town Hall, an elegant stage in the heart of the theater district. The ironic thing about this show was that the regal, classically trained performer was used to singing in places where the patrons were drinking and smoking, venues with a bit of commotion and energy.
She brought a bit of everything to her performance that evening, confounding those who pegged her as a simple classical artist.
From Simone’s autobiography: “[C]ritics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that I included spirituals and children’s songs in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement.” At right: Nina from that same evening with Redd Foxx (Photo courtesy Ebony Magazine, G Marshall Wilson photographer)
The New York Times review was hesitant in its praise, but concluded “both her singing and playing are carried off with such consummate assurance, skillful pacing and attractive good nature that she proved an extremely winning performance.”
Although she had recorded two previous albums by this time (and a third was cobbled together without her knowledge), the Town Hall live album released in 1959 is notable as being the first to include one of her signature masterpieces — “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair.”
Simone would release three more live albums recorded in New York venues — one at Village Gate and two at Carnegie Hall.
The comely ladies of ‘The Black Crook’. The show originally debuted at Niblo’s Garden, although I believe the photo above is from a later revival. (NYPL) The Broadway Musical is one of New York City’s greatest inventions, 150 years in the making! It’s one of the truly American art forms, fueling one of the city’s most vibrant entertainment businesses and defining its most popular tourist attraction — Times Square.
But why Broadway, exactly? Why not the Bowery or Fifth Avenue? And how did our fair city go from simple vaudeville and minstrel shows to Shuffle Along, Irene and Show Boat, surely the most influential musical of the Jazz Age?
This podcast is an epic, a wild musical adventure in itself, full of musical interludes, zipping through the evolution of musical entertainment in New York City, as it races up the ‘main seam’ of Manhattan — the avenue of Broadway.
We are proud to present a tour up New York City’s most famous street, past some of the greatest theaters and shows that have ever won acclaim here, from the wacky (and highly copied) imports of Gilbert & Sullivan to the dancing girls and singing sensations of the Ziegfeld revue tradition.
CO-STARRING: Well, some of the biggest names in songwriting, composing and singing. And even a dog who talks in German! At right: Billie Burke from a latter-year Follies. (NYPL)
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The original grid plan from 1811. As you can see, Broadway was not meant to extend further than the Parade Ground, the largest planned plaza from the Commissioner’s Plan. Years later, the Parade Ground was reduced (becoming Madison Square) and Broadway was allowed to break the grid, creating plazas conducive for transportation and public gathering. (NYPL)
One of dozens of knock-off productions of HMS Pinafore, this one featuring children:
The facade of the Fifth Avenue Theater, once located at 1185 Broadway. Why was it called the Fifth Avenue Theater then? Possibly to just make the society ladies feel at home here! This was home to three Gilbert & Sullivan original productions, including the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance.
The Florodora girls, from the hugely successful 1900 musical comedy which debuted at the Casino Theater. (NYPL)
One of the more fantastic creatures from Victor Herbert’s Babes In Toyland, which made its debut in Columbus Circle’s Majectic Theater. You can read my article here on the musical which inspired Herbert’s show, the musical version of The Wizard of Oz. (NYPL)
George M Cohan in a rare film appearance from 1932.
Video of a Ziegfeld Follies from 1929, a bit past their heyday, actually. They would only last until 1931:
Sheet music from 1921 of one of the most famous songs from Shuffle Along (NYPL):
Dancing girls during the Actors Strike of 1919, which galvanized the industry and gave regular New Yorkers a window into the tough conditions faced by many background performers. (NYPL)
So the number ‘After The Ball’ — a huge hit song that made its stage debut in A Trip To Chinatown — made a return appearance to Broadway in 1927’s Show Boat!
Musical cues from this week’s show: Give My Regards To Broadway and After the Ball performed by Billy Murray Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Ol Man River, performed by Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson, respectively, from a 1932 cast recording, featuring Victor Young and His Orchestra Love Will Find A Way, from a 1921 recording by Eubie Blake Selection from HMS Pinafore, from a 1914 recording by the Victory Light Opera Chorus
Here’s an interesting version of “After the Ball” by the song’s composer, Charles K Harris!
And finally, a clip from the film version of ‘Show Boat’, featuring an iconic performance by Paul Robeson.
From the original 1927 production of Show Boat at the Ziegfeld Theatre: