Tag Archives: Niblo’s Garden

The Story of SoHo: The Iron-Clad History of ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres’

PODCAST The history of SoHo, New York’s 19th century warehouse district turned shopping mecca

Picture the neighborhood of SoHo (that’s right, South of Houston) in your head today, and you might get a headache. Crowded sidewalks on the weekend, filled with tourists, shoppers and vendors, could almost distract you from SoHo’s unique appeal as a place of extraordinary architecture and history.

On this podcast we present the story of how a portion of “Hell’s Hundred Acres” became one of the most famously trendy places in the world.

In the mid 19th century this area, centered along Broadway, became the heart of retail and entertainment, department stores and hotels setting up shop in grand palaces. (It also became New York’s most notorious brothel district). The streets between Houston and Canal became known as the Cast Iron District, thanks to an exciting construction innovation that transformed the Gilded Age.

Today SoHo contains the world’s greatest surviving collection of cast-iron architecture. But these gorgeous iron tributes to New York industry were nearly destroyed – first by rampant fires, then by Robert Moses. Community activists saved these buildings, and just in time for artists to move into their spacious loft spaces in the 1960s and 70s. The artists are still there of course but these once-desolate cobblestone streets have almost unrecognizably changed, perhaps a victim of its own success.

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The Bowery Boys #232: THE STORY OF SOHO


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A map of the Bayard farm and how it was broken up and carved into the streets we know today.

Niblo’s Garden, located at Broadway and Prince Streets, was one of the finest theaters along Broadway in the area of today’s SoHo.

Looking north along Broadway between Grand and Broome Street. The St. Nicholas Hotel is the white structure in the center of the photo.

Photo attributed to Silas A Holmes


An auction poster from 1872 advertising a property on Broome Street and “South Fifth Avenue or Laurens Street” — today’s West Broadway.


 Here is that corner at 504-506 Broome Street — in 1935 (photo by Berenice Abbott). Per Sean Sweeney on Facebook: “The two buildings were demolished and for years were a parking lot. Now a new 3-story retail building sits in their place.”




The house at 143 Spring Street — in 1932 (photograph by Charles Von Urban) and today (it’s a Crocs shop!)

Museum of City of New York/Charles Von Urban collection


491 Broadway at Broome Street — in 1905 (photograph by the Wurts Bros.) and today

James Bogardus, the man who helped give SoHo its distinctive appearance thanks to his vigorous marketing and promotion of cast-iron architecture.

The first cast-iron structure in New York, built in 1848, was further south at the corner of Centre and Duane Streets.



Robert Moses’ view of Broome Street via his project Lower Manhattan Expressway project. Broom Street would have had an elevated highway, enclosed within modern buildings. A view of surviving cast-iron architecture on the right.


SoHo would have been eliminated (or greatly reduced) by Moses’ project which was thankfully nixed.

Map produced by vanshnookenraggen

A map of the art galleries in the SoHo art scene during the 1970s.

SoHo Artists Association Records, 1968-1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

From a 1971 SoHo newsletter: The criteria for qualifying as an artist — and eventual resident — of a specially-zoned loft in SoHo. M1-5A and M1-5B were the newly created work-living zones.

SoHo Artists Association Records, 1968-1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution


We greatly encourage you to check out the SoHo Memory Project for a lot of fantastic and often deeply personal recollections about the SoHo days of yore.

For further listening, check out the following Bowery Boys podcasts which were referenced in this week’s show:

Before Harlem: New York’s Forgotten Black Communities (#230) for information on first farms of the city’s first black New Yorkers

Niblo’s Garden (#113) for the history of the district’s most famous entertainment center

Our podcasts on Robert Moses (#100) and Jane Jacobs (#200)


And we really hope our show inspires you to check out two films that features interesting views of SoHo during its chic gallery phase — The Eyes of Laura Mars and After Hours


The Devil and the First Broadway Musical (“The Black Crook”)

THE FIRST PODCAST The Black Crook is considered the first-ever Broadway musical, a dizzying, epic-length extravaganza of ballerinas, mechanical sets, lavish costumes and a storyline about the Devil straight out of a twisted hallucination.

The show took New York by storm when it debuted on September 12, 1866. This is the story of how this completely weird, virtually unstageable production came to pass. Modern musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, and Hamilton wouldn’t quite be what they are today without this curious little relic.

WARNING: You may leave this show humming a little tune called “You Naughty, Naughty Men.”

Featuring music by Adam Roberts and Libby Dees, courtesy the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

And the voice of Ben Rimalower reading the original reviews of the Black Crook

To get this episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services.

Subscribe to The First here so that you don’t miss future episodes!

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio from your mobile device.

Or listen to it straight from here:

With grateful thanks to Doug Reside whose online resources have been most invaluable with my research.

For more information, there’s an entire Bowery Boys podcast on the history of Niblo’s Garden:

The actress and dancer Pauline Markham, performing as Stalacta, Queen of the Golden Realm


“Celebrated dancer and composer, David Costa, wearing tights, trunks, shirt and long cape with a satin sheen, and a crown on his head featuring horns. He has one foot on the seat of a round-seat chair with heavy fringe, his thigh resting on the back of the chair as he rests his elbow on his knee and his chin on his hand.”

La Biche au Bois from which sprung the Black Crook

From an 1867 book of songs from the Black Crook (although many of the songs were likely never in the show!)



Versions of the show popped up across the country in almost every major city. There was no real consistency aside from Barras’ story.


Thomas Baker wrote many of the songs in The Black Crook. He was also a song writer for Laura Keene whose show The Seven Sisters is sometimes noted as an early proto-musical.


Each number was so elaborate that it would take several minutes to move scenery and get the cast into new costumes. This was one of the key reasons the show had so many unrelated songs which were sung as scenes were shifted.

Operetta Research Center


Illustrations from Charles Barras novel The Black Crook: A Most Wonderful History, published in 1866



The audio of Leonard Bernstein was taken from this episode of Omnibus:

“You Naughty, Naughty Men” performed by Adam Roberts and Libby Dees

“Les Grelots d’amour” performed by Adam Roberts

Some intrepid theater folk brought back a version of The Black Crook and performed it last year at Abrons Arts Center. Hopefully they will remount the show in the future!

Beyond Hamilton: A flurry of new stage shows take on Robert Moses, Black Crook, Wild Party and more

A string of New York City history related shows is hitting the stage this summer and fall, bringing interesting new interpretations to well-known historical events or revitalizing forgotten old shows in curious ways.  I’ve had so many recommended to me in the past couple weeks that I thought I’d share the list for those of you who prefer to see a historical tale brought to life at less than Hamilton: the Musical prices.  In fact, you can grab tickets to all these shows for half the price of one Broadway show ticket:




You can find a glimpse of New York’s old Yiddish theater world currently playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, courtesy the National Yiddish Theater.

“With music by famed Yiddish composer Joseph Rumshinsky, libretto by Frieda Freiman and lyrics by Louis Gilrod, this long-running popular romantic comedy premiered in 1923 and was revived consistently and presented internationally through the 1940’s, but was lost to time following the Second World War. In 1984, Dr. Michael Ochs, former head of the music library at Harvard unearthed an original vocal score and manuscript for Di Goldene Kale and spent a number of years translating, researching and reconstructing this nearly-forgotten treasure.”

Ticket details here. The show runs through August 28.




The Fringe Festival, beginning this Friday and now in its 20th year, always offers up a buffet of productions that are earnest, captivating, hilarious, head-scratching and oftentimes strange.  Fans of our podcast on the murder of Stanford White may want to explore Dementia Americana, a depiction of the tragic events which led to the tragedy in 1906.

“Sex! Murder! Insanity! John Philip Sousa! All this and more in a darkly comic and appallingly relevant play that explores the upsetting and true events surrounding Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K Thaw, and the 1906 murder of famed architect Stanford White.”

Get your tickets here. The show runs August 14, 19, 21, 24, and 26.




From Deaths Head Theatrical — the folks who brought you seances at the Morris-Jamel Mansion (!) — comes a truly mysterious experience:

“The year is 1936, the country is in the throes of the Great Depression.  Times are hard and people are desperate.  Though illegal, secret traveling sideshows were ever popular distractions.  These exclusive gatherings would take place in secret locations all over the country, often in rented houses to avoid the eye of the police.  Professor Mysterium invites you to join him for an night you will never forget at a secret location in Manhattan.

The exclusive event will only welcome 50 patrons per night to the secret sideshow.  Tickets are $50 and include 2 drinks at the bar before and during the event.  Audience members are encouraged to come in 1930’s attire.  Doors open promptly at 7:30pm and the event begins at 8pm.”

TWO NIGHTS ONLY — August 21 and 22! Book your tickets now.





I’m shocked that the story of Mary A. Shanley, New York city police detective, has not been turned into a movie or a television show by now. (You can read my blog post from 2010 about her dramatic exploits.) A new off-Broadway play Dead Shot Mary seeks to rectify her egregious absence from pop culture.

DEAD SHOT MARY about the NYPD’s pioneering female detective runs Off Broadway, September 9 – October 15

 “A pioneer for women in law enforcement, Mary Shanley joined the NYPD in 1931, quickly becoming a Gotham all-star and tabloid sensation. During her 30-year career, she worked undercover to achieve a staggering 1000 career arrests, became the fourth woman in history to make detective 1st grade, and then nearly lost it all. Capturing her at a major crossroads of career, identity, and love — her most elusive culprit of all — DEAD SHOT MARY grapples with the legend of this trail blazer, a maverick, and a true New York original.”

The show debuts on September 9th and runs through October. Visit their website for more details or here to order tickets.



A boozy revival from B-Side Productions (the terrific Jasper Grant was our musical director at last year’s 54 Below event with The Ensemblist), luxuriating in a 1920s decadent Manhattan party. Based on a 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh with the line: “Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still/And she danced twice a day in vaudeville. ”

From September 6 to the 17. More information here.




The Black Crook, considered the very first Broadway musical, is a strange curiosity of the Gilded Age, a show from 1866 that seems hard to imagine today.   Back in 2007, I wrote the following description:  “Young Rodolphe is enslaved by a sorceror Hertzog, who must grant the Devil the soul of one innocent every New Years Eve. Rodolphe saves a white dove from peril which just happens to be a good witch in disguise — Stalacta, Fairy Queen of the Golden Realm — who rescues him and sends all the bad guys straight to Hell. Damn it, why hasnt this thing been revived?”

Nine years later, it is indeed being revived! If you are a history AND a musical nut, I’m assuming your head just exploded right now.

“On September 12, 2016, The Black Crook will celebrate its 150th anniversary, marking 150 years of the American Musical. From the rubble of the Civil War, The Black Crook emerged taking an entire country by storm; an unprecedented commercial juggernaut that contributed, whether first musical or no, to a popular melting-pot entertainment that blended art both high and low. The Black Crook is an origin story for the spectacle that is America, and 150 years after the fact, it will be exhumed once again.

The show pulls a little bit of a Shuffle Along! trick, blending the original music with a “behind the scenes” about the show’s playwright Charles M. Barras. Performances begin September 19 at the Abrons Art Center in the Lower East Side, and runs through October 7th. More information here.




The Robert Moses rock musical is almost here. I’ll just let the show speak for itself. It begins in October. Details here.

New York’s amusement palace Niblo’s Garden returns (sort of)

It’s the return of Niblo’s Garden, the 19th century pleasure garden and entertainment palace once on Broadway and Prince Street!  Except this time around, it’s in a cemetery.

Niblo’s is perhaps most famous as being the site of the first Broadway musical (at least, some form of it).  The venue’s impresario William Niblo is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, and it will be here this Saturday that Niblo’s vaudevillian spirit comes alive.  In fact, his mausoleum here was meant to host entertainment!

From Green-wood’s event site:

“Imagine an outdoor pleasure dome, strung with lights, adorned with fountains and featuring the top musicians, dancers and entertainers of the time. That was the scene at Niblo’s Garden – the premier entertainment house of the 19th century.

Niblo himself had a habit of turning his Green-Wood mausoleum – built years before his death – into a pleasure garden of its own, with friends, picnics and goldfish-stocked ponds.

Join author, historian, and Niblo expert Ben Feldman to bring the glory of Niblo’s Garden to Green-Wood! Enjoy an evening picnic around the beautiful glacial pond Crescent Water, and take in an evening of showmanship in front of the grand Niblo mausoleum.

Bring a blanket, some snacks and drinks, and you’ll be dazzled by fire jugglers, singers, even famed knife thrower Throwdini! – all under paper lanterns and a starry sky.”

Saturday, July 12, 7:00 pm – 10:00 pm 
Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street, Brooklyn
Cosponsored by The Victorian Society New York.
$30 for members of Green-Wood and Brooklyn Historical Society/$35 for nonmembers

Not quite familiar with the legend of Niblo’s Garden?  The pleasure garden was the subject of one my favorite solo podcasts from a few years back.  Give this a listen to


Photos courtesy Library of Congress

The Broadway Musical: A trip through NYC’s musical history, from HMS Pinafore to Show Boat, along its most famous street

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)

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 #159 The Broadway Musical: Setting the Stage

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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:

Ten cool facts about ice cream and New York City history PLUS: where was New York’s first frozen yogurt shop?

Lewis Wickes’ photograph of a few children enjoying a bit of ice cream on a hot day, 1910. (NYPL)

1. America’s first ice cream shop was located on Dock Street** (roughly today’s Pearl Street) in 1774.  The British confectioner Philip Lenzi advertised ice cream of “any sort”, along with a host of treats, including sugar plums, jams and sweetmeats.

2.  Hanover Square (near Stone and Pearl streets) was the center of commerce in colonial New York, and apparently of confections as well.  In 1777, in the midst of British-occupied New York during the Revolutionary War, Lenzi moved his shop up into Hanover Square next to another ice cream shop owned by Joseph Corree at 120 Hanover Square. [source]

3. George Washington and his wife Martha were huge fans of ice cream.  During the first year of Washington’s presidency, back in 1789, when the seat of government resided in New York, Martha would make several batches of it from the Washington’s home at One Cherry Street She sometimes complained of the lack of fresh cream, sometimes serving “unusually stale and rancid” desserts at her weekly tea parties.  One well-repeated legend states that the Washington’s spent over $700 on ice cream desserts in the summer of 1789.

Above: A 1803 map of Vauxhall Garden, at Broome Street between the Bowery and Broadway, a lovely place to enjoy a bowl of ice cream in early New York

4. Manhattan’s pleasure gardens — early precursors to the modern park — became instrumental in spreading the joy of ice cream.  The aforementioned Joseph Corree opened the Mount Vernon Garden at Broadway and Leonard Street in 1800, a few months after ice cream-lovin’ Washington died at his estate in Mount Vernon.

On top of the many festive entertainments at the garden — fireworks, theatricals, topiary, tableaux vivant — Corree also offered ice cream for sale.  Other popular pleasure gardens of the day, such Vauxhall Garden and Niblo’s Garden, would follow suit.

5. Delmonico’s, before it became the finest name in restaurant dining in New York in the 19th century, got its start as a small confectionery shop on 23 William Street in 1827 which featured ice cream on its menu. (Learn more about Delmonico’s from my podcast on its history.)

6. Ice cream vendors were on the streets of New York as early as the 1820s, the best way for less affluent people to enjoy the dessert.  Within a couple decades, of course, the ‘pleasure gardens’ would lose their patina of class and become playgrounds for poorer New Yorkers.  In 1852, one garden near the Bowery was described as “a sort of ice-creamery, and general rendezvous for the Bowery fashionables.” [source]

At right: A Century Magazine illustration from 1901 of a New York ice cream vendor or ‘hokey pokey man’ (NYPL)

7. Ice cream saloons, by mid-19th century, were aplenty along the main thoroughfares of New York, experimenting with different kinds of production.  One saloon, Parkinson’s on Broadway, claims to have invented pistachio ice cream.  Another, the Patent Steam Ice Cream Saloon, named for its steam-operated freezing unit, catered to the women of the middle class, “the wives and daughters of the substantial tradesmen, mechanics and artisans of the day,” according to New York by Gas-Light.

A Brooklyn confectioner ad from 1876:

8. The hokey pokey men, the nickname for one-cent ice cream street vendors, were briefly hindered by the Ice Cream Strike of 1913, a walkout by all 2,500 members of the Ice Cream Workers Union in New York, effectively shutting down the production of ice cream, especially in the Lower East Side.  The strike lasted several weeks.

Below: A Macy’s ad in 1913 for a home ice-cream maker:

9. Ice Cream Profiteering or Newspaper Self-Promotion?  After the war, many merchants continued to sell massively overpriced ice cream.  The Evening World reported in 1921 that “profits from ice cream range from 500 to 1,000 percent” at a survey of local ice cream vendors.  “In few articles of food has there been found any greater evidence of extortion from the consumer.” [source]

A few days later, the newspaper extolled upon its own crack reporting, claiming that ice cream prices were going down because of their investigations.  “Hundreds of manufacturers and retails have already cut prices,” the World boasted.

10. Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream was not created anywhere near Scandinavia, but rather in the Bronx, the product of two Polish-Jewish confectioners Reuben and Rose Mattus.  The official reason for the name was “to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship to which he remained dedicated.” Reuben later admitted, “We wanted people to take a second look and say, ‘Is this imported?'”

The first Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop, which opened in 1976, is located at 120 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. The store is still going strong.

EXTRA: Frozen yogurt was the original cronut The trendy dessert was first sold over the counter in New York at Bloomingdale’s Department Store in the early 1970s.  As far as I can tell, the first actual yogurt store in the city — the first of many — was the Dannon Yogurt Store at 207 East 86th Street, opening in February 1975.

That was the year that New Yorkers first went WILD for frozen yogurt, well at least according to the New York Times (but you know how they are with trend stories!)

Yogurt: “It’s the biggest thing since hamburgers and chicken,” according to one fast-food executive in 1976.

**There were two Dock Streets back in old New York, so it’s possible (although more unlikely) the original shop could have been on the other one, which is near today’s Water Street and Coenties Slip.

For more sweet New York City history, check out my prior articles on:
New York and the history of soda fountains
New York, World War I and the history of the doughnut

Welcome to 1864! A 24-karat gold hoax, New York’s first theme restaurant, and a Confederate plot to torch the city

Barnum’s American Museum at left (the building with the flag) and the Astor House at right, from the vantage of City Hall Park, circa 1850. Both buildings were victims of the Confederate plot of 1864 to burn the city.

PODCAST We’re officially subtitling this ‘Strange Tales of 1864’, presenting you with a series of odd, fascinating stories from one pivotal year in New York City history. With the city both fatigued by the length of the Civil War and energized by Union victories, New Yorkers were often at their best — and their worst.

The city unites around an unusual parade — the first regiment of African-American troops — even as it elects a pacifist mayor sympathetic to the Southern cause. A grand and flamboyant fair, uniting the community, offers up a surprising New York tradition — the theme restaurant. Meanwhile, a local newspaper editor devises an elaborate hoax to get rich quick off the gold market.

But with the November re-election of Abraham Lincoln also comes a deadly threat — a Confederate conspiracy aimed at New York’s luxury hotels. Tune in as we recount the botched plot to destroy New York in an conflagration of ‘Greek fire’.

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: Hoaxes and Conspiracies of 1864

The Knickerbocker Kitchen, a featured restaurant at New York’s Metropolitan Fair. Women dressed in traditional Dutch and Colonial garb and served items believed to be popular with the residents of old New Amsterdam. [NYPL]

Pavilions were specially constructed around Union Square for the Metropolitan Fair, which raised money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

The ‘Indian Department’ at the Metropolitan Fair. [Library of Congress]

A nighttime ‘torchlight’ rally for presidential candidate George McClellan, the clear choice for New Yorkers in 1864. For a Democratic stronghold like New York, the former general was an especially appealing alternative to Abraham Lincoln. [NYPL]

A scene from the New York Gold Room, epicenter of American gold speculation. During the Civil War, traders would buy and sell based upon Union victories and defeats. The trade was also susceptible to false information, such as the events of the Gold Hoax of 1864. (NYPL)

Robert Cobb Kennedy, the only one of the Confederate conspirators to be caught. He was executed at Fort Lafayette in 1865, a couple weeks before the end of the Civil War.

Burton’s faux nude follies: NYC’s first ‘legit’ flesh shows

An exotic tableau from the Ziegfeld Follies. The presentations by Burton in the mid-19th century would have been less ornate, but certainly more tantalizing. (photo source)

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, on occasional Fridays we’ll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION: Palmo’s Opera House/Burton’s Chamber Street Theater
39-41 Chambers Street, Manhattan
In operation 1844-1870s

The sexual appetites of New Yorkers in the pre-Victorian era would sometimes manifest themselves in peculiar ways. Let me take you back to the 1840s, when raunch and salacious behavior infiltrated the Bowery theater scene, and even respectable downtown playhouses like the Park Theater cordoned off the third tier for encounters with prostitutes. A statesman of the time, Francis Grund, complained: “[F]ew ladies….are ever seen at the theater; and the frequenting of them, even by gentlemen, is not considered a recommendation to their character.”

Public sexual practice become distorted under conflicting cultural movements that smashed together like tectonic plates. On the one hand, New York’s growing international prominence combined with new American religious fervor to create a chaste facade of propriety, a population that seemingly had no sexual life. On the other, growing immigration filled the streets with single men and women, restless and crammed together. The ‘sporting man’ culture — erudite, rich men of well-tweezed masculinity — created New York bachelorhood; a couple social classes below, the Bowery b’hoy, did the same, and had more fun doing it.

It’s under these conditions that a strange new craze erupted — the artist-model tableau, New York’s first unofficial flesh show. I call it the Era of the Nude Body Stocking.

Before the days of burlesque and striptease, New Yorkers could enjoy all the nude flesh they desired. It just pretended to be art. And often, it pretended to be nude.

In the early 1830s, legitimate stages began presenting tableaux of the human form, ‘living statues’ as they were called, stationary figures in nude or white body stockings, in classical poses. Assumably there would be some musical accompaniment or a reading of poetry, with tasteful lighting illuminating the heavenly contours of the human form. Very tasteful, right?

Down-market stages ran with the idea, eventually contorting it for a more tittilated crowd. Early instances of the ‘artist model’ presentations had men dressed as women. Quickly, women joined them on stage. And then, sometimes, the body stockings came off entirely.

One of the most famous stages for this skimpy sort of tableau vivant began with less prurient intentions. Palmo’s Opera House (pictured above, 39-41 Chambers Street), opened in 1844 by an Italian immigrant Ferdinand Palmo. Italian opera had debuted in New York in 1825 at the Park Theatre, and instantly meshed with the upper class notions of acting more European. But working class New Yorkers didn’t quite warm to it; according to Mark Caldwell, “[o]pera was the ambrosia to a self-professed elite but chloroform to the masses.”

Palmo, owner of the Cafe des Mille Collones right around the corner, threw his money into the new opera house in an effort to bridge the gap. His first production was Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’, launched in February 3, 1844. The masses stayed away, in droves. Palmo kept the opera house open for two years, fending off mounting debts. At one point, performers went on strike — in the middle of a performance — because they had not yet been paid.

The restaurateur lost all his money in the endeavor and promptly lost his opera house as well. The stage then passed through various hands, some taking a crack at legit amusements, with ballet and even Greek tragedy.

A showman William Burton (at right) took over the lease in 1848 and threw out those high-falutin acts. Burton was concerned with mainstream entertainment, not art per se. And it was during Burton’s variety programs — which notably featured the best minstrel acts in Manhattan — that this unusual, shall we say, indiscreet tableaux made its debut, a presentation of lilywhite, illuminated flesh decorating an evening of song and dance.

In most cases, it was presented as a straight-up art lesson, with such mythology themed dioramas as ‘Psyche Going To The Bath’ and ‘Venus Rising From the Sea’. But, as I said, Burton didn’t care to sell art. He sold a view to nude bodies — or bodies that at least appeared nude — and soldout crowds raced to have a look.

But what if you wanted to see all this solitary nudity but the damned horse carriage had made you late? No worries, for at the newly named Burton’s Chamber Street Theater, you were provided with a New York first — numbered reserved seats.

Burton’s stage wasn’t the only place displaying ‘artist models’; it soon became so common on New York stages that it soon became incorporated into productions, such as the extravagant ‘The Black Crook’ at Niblo’s Garden in 1866, considered the first Broadway musical.

Obviously, the degree to which onstage nudity appeared scandalized proper New Yorkers. In fact, in 1848, police raided several establishments, including Barton’s. According to a contemporary account by Foster Rhea Dulles, a “beautifully formed creature, just drawing on her tights for the Greek Slave, and some of the others, were so dreadfully alarmed at the sight of the police with their clubs in hand that they seized up a portion of their garments in order to hide their faces, forgetting their lower extremities, thus making a scene mixed up with the sublime and the ridiculous.”

While prudish tastes frowned upon such displays, they never quite went away. Even as late as the 1920s, Florenz Ziegfeld frequently paid homage to the craze during his famous Follies.

As for the old opera house, it would continue featuring minstrel shows and comedy pieces well into the 1860s. For a short time it even served as federal courthouse before its demolition in 1876.

And here’s the final kicker — Palmo’s Opera House and its later incarnation as Burton’s Chamber Street Theatre was sat on top of — you guessed it — the African Burial Ground!

Niblo’s Garden: New York’s entertainment complex and home to the first (bizarre) Broadway musical

Show-stopping: The interior of Niblo’s Garden Theatre. Illustration by Thomas Addis Emmet, courtesy NYPL

PODCAST It’s the 1820s and welcome to the era of the pleasure garden, an outdoor entertainment complex delighting wealthy New Yorkers in the years before public parks. Wandering gravel paths wind past candle-lit sculptures, songbirds in gilded cages, and string quartets in gazebos, while high above, nightly fireworks spray the sky.

Niblo’s Garden, at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, was the greatest of them all, with an exhibit room for panoramas and refreshment hall consider by some to be one of New York’s very first restuarants. But it was Niblo’s grand theater, seating 3,000 people, that would make Niblo’s reputation as the venue for both high- and low-brow events. And in 1866, a production debuted there that would change everything — the gaudy, much-too-long spectacle The Black Crook, considered by most as the very first Broadway musical.

Music in the episode is Enigma Variation VI. Ysobel by Elgar. It’s actually from after the time period of Niblo’s, but it’s so very strolling-the-garden, isn’t it? And I had a cold this week, so please forgive my scratchy voice!

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The Bowery Boys: Niblo’s Garden

Before Niblo’s, the premier pleasure garden was Vauxhall Garden, derived from a British garden of the same name. The one picture below is from the incarnation before it moved in 1807 to the area just below Astor Place, in what would become Lafayette Street. (NYPL)

The first theater on the Niblo property was a small stage he called ‘Sans Souci’. Demand soon dictated that a larger venue be built. [NYPL]

From another illustration detailing the block just a few years later. The theater looks the same, but other buildings (possibly the saloon or a greenhouse?) have been built up around it. (from Merrycoz)

The garden was soon overtaken by a great hotel, the Metropolitan, which opened in 1852. This image is looking east, down Prince Street, with Broadway stretching to the left. NOTE: The original caption on this illustration says 1850, but the hotel would not be open for a couple years later. (NYPL)

This is one of the only photographs of Niblo’s Theater, certainly from its last years, judging from the fashion of the day. The theater and the hotel were demolished in 1895. [Pic from here]

This poster is from a Boston production of ‘The Black Crook’, but it illustrates nicely the scope and theatricality of the production. The show was cobbled together using a poorly written German fantasia, a troupe of out-of-work Parisian dancers, and some original music. The show ran five and a half hours nightly and was a runaway hit. [Image from Kirafly Bros]

A costumed damsel (in photographic negative) from an early production of The Black Crook. [source]

An early program from Niblo’s, from 1877, featuring stage rendition of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days. I can only imagine the sets for this one! Also featuring the ‘Greatest Terpsichordean Ensemble’ and ‘250 Danseuses and a Superb Cast’.[Courtesy Jules Verne]

Broadway’s first musical: The Black Crook

The Broadway theater season begins again with another new batch of musicals hitting the boards — from an unusual adaptation of War And Peace to a stage version of a Robert DeNiro drama.  Some believe that this musical tradition begins all the way back in September 12, 1866, back when musicals based on movies and popular Founding Fathers weren’t much of a consideration.

At a time when the largest theaters in Manhattan were all below 14th Street, the 3,200-seat Niblo’s Garden on Prince and Broadway was one of the largest and most popular. In fact, it wasn’t merely a theater but an entertainment park of mid-19th century fancies. William Niblo, an upper class PT Barnum of sorts, opened his version of a showy Las Vegas hotel in 1828, with elaborate gardens, gaslight illumination shows, vivid dioramas, traveling circuses, fireworks displays, and plenty of open saloons to keep his patrons happy. A theater was included in this complex, for many years one of the most popular amusements in the city.

In 1866, a variation on the usual theatrical spectacle debuted at Niblo’s that soon proved to be his most popular offering. Plays had featured popular songs in the past, and variants of operas (or rather, sung plays or ‘ballad-operas’) were popular. But in September, The Black Crook debuted, with odd traits at the time that have now come to typify the modern musical.

It’s considered the first American musical by many scholars for three reasons: 1) it included newly written songs with previously adapted music; 2) it included a flashy chorus of leggy dancers; 3) its success spawned a slew of ‘extravaganzas’ that evolve right into today’s modern musical productions. By most accounts, it was also, from our perspective, really, really awful.

Evokative of German melodrama, Crook was really just a terrible play by Charles M. Barras that Niblo manager William Wheatley had refitted with a troupe of recently unemployed French dancers from another show that had the fortune (in William’s eyes) of being booked in a theater that had just burned down.

The plot was all fainting spells and sulfur smoke. Young Rodolphe is enslaved by a sorceror Hertzog, who must grant the Devil the soul of one innocent every New Years Eve. Rodolphe saves a white dove from peril which just happens to be a good witch in disguise — Stalacta, Fairy Queen of the Golden Realm — who rescues him and sends all the bad guys straight to Hell. Damn it, why hasnt this thing been revived? I smell Tonys! [2016 Ed: Guess what? It is being revived!]

Well, for one, if you can believe it, the musical ran five and a half hours long each night. Despite this, it was a huge success, running 263 performances and, in a proud American tradition, spawning a sequel, The White Fawn.

The key to its success wasn’t the drama, but all those sexy girls in flesh colored garments and a bevy of dazzling light and shadow effects that were lavish and magical. From a review from the New York Tribune: “One by one curtains of mist ascend and drift away. Silver couches, on which fairies loll in negligent grace, ascend and descend amid a silver rain.” Although I’m sure they’re nothing compared to the scandalous vamps of Chicago, they must have been spectacular at the time.

And, in keeping with perspective of our current strike, according to Mark Caldwell’s New York Night, the show employed 80 carpenters and “twenty gasmen” just to run the elaborate mechanics.