Good Vibrations

A decidedly new sound reverberated in the ears of New Yorkers who attended a Feb. 1928 performance of the New York Philharmonic that featured guest artist Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor who played music by moving his hands through the air, or more accurately, a magnetic field.

February 4, 1928 cover by Gardner Rea.

Theremin’s eponymous instrument had neither keys nor strings, but rather two metal antennas attached to an electronic oscillator. Music was produced by moving one’s hands between the antennas, which sensed the relative position of the players hands—one antenna controlled for pitch while the other adjusted the instrument’s volume. The sound produced is best described as “otherworldly.” The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” found Theremin’s performance intriguing, but of even greater interest was the great Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff—who was in attendance—and his reaction to the strange instrument:

HMMMM…At left, Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921, as photographed by Kubey Rembrandt. At right, Leon Theremin plays his eponymous instrument at a demonstration concert in Paris on December 8, 1927. (Wikimedia)

The New Yorker’s voyeuristic account of Rachmaninoff continued, with the great man now becoming more engaged in the performance…

The Theremin would grow in popularity, however more as a novelty than a serious instrument:

ON THE AIR…Alexandra Stepanoff playing the Theremin on NBC Radio in 1930. A Russian immigrant to the U.S., the former concert singer was Theremin’s first student in the United States. (Wikimedia)
VIRTUOSO…The Russian-born Clara (Reisenberg) Rockmore holds a unique place in music history as the virtuoso performer of the Theremin. Leon Theremin built a custom version of his instrument for Clara, which added greater range and sensitivity. Clara would sometimes perform concerts with her sister, accomplished pianist Nadia Reisenberg. Photo circa 1930. (YouTube)

Theremin would be granted a U.S. patent for the instrument in 1928, which was marketed and distributed in the U.S. by RCA during the 1930’s in either DIY kit form or as a finished instrument:

(120years.net)

Interest in the instrument as a novelty continued into the 40’s and 50’s in the DIY market…

(120years.net)

Robert Moog, pioneer of modern electronic music and inventor of the Moog synthesizer, made and sold a transistorized version of the Theremin in the 1950s.

The Theremin would become best known to mass culture through its use in producing “eerie” sound effects in 1940s and 50s films, including Bernard Herrmann’s use of the instrument for the soundtrack to the 1951 sci-fi thriller, The Day The Earth Stood Still. And nearly everyone on the planet has heard the Theremin-inspired sound of the Beach Boy’s song Good Vibrations, created by an electro-Theremin that was developed in the late 1950s to mimic the sound of the original Theremin.

As for Leon Theremin himself, he would also gain notoriety as the inventor of The Thing, a listening device most famously used by the Soviets to bug the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The device was hidden behind a wood carving of the U.S. Great Seal, which in 1945 was presented by Soviet schoolchildren to the U.S. ambassador, who subsequently hung it in his office.

GOTCHA…American Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge displays The Thing before the UN Security Council in 1960. At right, the device which was hidden behind the seal. The Americans discovered the bug in 1952, but didn’t reveal its existence until 1960 in the wake of the U-2 spy plane incident. The Soviet Union had convened the meeting of the United Nations Security Council to accuse the Americans of spying with the U2; in response Cabot displayed The Thing as proof spying between the two countries was a mutual endeavor. (crytomuseum.com/Wikimedia)

The reasons why Theremin developed The Thing for the KGB are a mystery. When he suddenly disappeared from New York in 1938 it was rumored that he had been kidnapped and possibly executed by the KGB. What we do know is that Soviet spooks put him to work in a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system, where he developed The Thing.

In 1991, filmmaker Steven Martin brought Leon Theremin back to New York to film a documentary about his life. Theremin gave one last performance in 1993, and died that year at age 97.

Wild Kingdom

The New Yorker’s review of the hit film Simba showed a very different approach to the natural world 89 years ago, when the wilds of Africa were exploited purely for adventure and thrills rather than for any real understanding of natural systems and the animals and humans that inhabited them. Martin and Osa Johnson were celebrated for their filmed exploits in the wilds, including Simba; they touted their movie—shot in Kenya—as being made under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, although much of the film was staged or edited in ways to maximize the thrills.

The New Yorker found the film to be “darn good fun”…

Despite its flaws, the film does offer us a glimpse of Africa when wildlife hadn’t been hunted to near extinction, although the Johnsons didn’t hesitate to gun down animals left and right in the course of their movie-making.

According to a 2011 review from Wild Film History, “in stark contrast to the conservation-themed wildlife films of today, the Johnsons approached their subjects armed with both camera and rifle, with the production including provoked behaviour, staged confrontations and animals shot to death on film. Relying heavily on cutting in kills from professional marksmen, numerous hunting scenes culminate in a heart-stopping sequence where, with the use of clever editing, the adventurous Mrs Johnson appears to bring down a charging rhinoceros with one well-aimed shot.

NO DAVID ATTENBOROUGH…The Johnsons pose with local tribesman who appeared in Simba. (Corbis)
FUN WITH NATURE…Osa Johnson saddles up a hapless zebra. (Daily Mail)
BALI HAI…Osa shares a smoke with a local during one of the Johnsons’ filming excursions in the South Pacific. (Getty Images)

From the Advertising Department

There were three automobile ads in the Feb. 4 issue, all from long-gone companies—Pierce-Arrow, Hudson-Essex, and Nash, which featured this endorsement by the brother-sister dancing duo Fred and Adele Astaire:

This ad for Dynamique showcased the art deco stylings of its furniture line…

And finally, a Peter Arno cartoon of an upper class faux pas

Next Time: Literary Rotarians…

Distant Rumblings

As I’ve previously noted, reading back issues of periodicals often gives one a feeling of omniscience; as I thumb through week after week of late 1920s New Yorkers, I realize that for all their cleverness and worldly wisdom, even that magazine’s writers and editors could not see with any clarity into the future. But neither can any of us…one wonders what readers 89 years hence will surmise from today’s magazines, that is, if our civilization lasts that long.

January 28, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Howard Brubaker (in his column “Of All Things”) might have spotted something brewing on the horizon, even if it wouldn’t become perfectly clear until Dec. 7, 1941. Here is a clip from his Jan. 28, 1928 column in the New Yorker:

Two other major events in U.S. history, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that would follow, were less than two years away. But this was the Roaring Twenties, and some thought the fun would never end…except perhaps Equitable Trust, which placed this advertisement in the Jan. 28 issue:

Apparently the folks at Equitable Trust weren’t assured of their own financial freedom—after the Crash they would be acquired by Chase National Bank, making Chase the largest bank in the world at that time.

Despite the overheated economy of the 1920s, there still were plenty of poor and unemployed people in the city. One man, Urbain Ledoux (known as Mr. Zero in order to hide his identity), often arranged protests and demonstrations to bring attention to the poor and unemployed, and opened a number of bread lines and soup kitchens to feed the hungry, including the “Tub,” depicted in this two-page illustration by Constantin Alajalov along the bottom of the “Talk” section of the Jan. 28 issue (click image to enlarge).

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Not All Gloom and Doom

Hindsight also reveals the trajectory of the 20th century’s great accomplishments. Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927, for example, fueled the imaginations of those who would usher in the jet age and space travel. Just 31 years after Lindbergh’s flight, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) would begin operation of its first transatlantic passenger jet service. And only 42 years would separate Lindbergh’s flight from Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk.

JUST 31 YEARS would separate Lindbergh’s flight from the first transatlantic jet service. At left, the DeHavilland Comet 4 (1958), and at right, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis (1927). (warthunder.com/howstuffworks.com)

Like the rest of America, the New Yorker was an enthusiastic follower of developments in aviation after Lindbergh (the “aerial ambassador” referred to below). The January 28 “Talk of the Town” led with this item about pilots soaring to ever greater heights.

Consider that a mere 41 years separated this…

YETI, SET, GO!…A pilot in high altitude flying gear next to a Wright Apache biplane,  January 1, 1928. In September 1926 the Apache set the world altitude record for seaplanes (38,500 ft) and in April 1930 it set the landplane altitude record of 43,166 ft. (NASA)

…from this…

LEAVE THE FUR COAT AT HOME…The second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, prepares to step onto the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (Neil Armstrong/NASA)

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While Back on Earth…

Big events in America always seem to involve the appearance of showgirls, whether it is the introduction of a new car or some techno gadget. As this “Talk” item indicates, much was the same 89 years ago…

READY FOR THE NEXT SHINDIG…Florenz Ziegfeld posing with the Follies Girls at a rehearsal in 1931. (ruthetting.com)

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A Silent Giant

German film actor Emil Jannings was lauded for his performances on the screen in both Germany and America in films, and he was particularly adept at portraying of the pathos of middle-aged men. The New Yorker disliked most of Hollywood’s output (and usually praised the much-artier German films), so when Jannings landed on these shores he was lauded by the magazine, which dedicated a profile (written by Elsie McCormick) to him in the Jan. 28 issue, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration. Some excerpts:

LIFE IS HARD…Evelyn Brent and Emil Jannings star in The Last Command. In the first Academy Awards, Jannings would win best actor for two films, The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. (silentfilm.org)

At the first Academy Awards in 1929, Jannings would win a Best Actor Oscar for two of his 1928 films, The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. An interesting side note from writer Susan Orlean: In her 2011 book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend, Jannings was not actually the winner of the first best actor vote, but the runner-up. The famous dog actor Rin Tin Tin actually won the vote. The Academy, worried about not being taken seriously, gave the award to the human instead.

Janning’s thick German accent would bring his Hollywood career to an end with sound pictures. He would return to Germany, and during the Third Reich he would star in several films that promoted the Nazis. According to Wikipedia, the shooting of his last film, Wo ist Herr Belling? was aborted when Allied troops entered Germany in Spring 1945. Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar statuette with him as proof of his former association with Hollywood.

From the Advertising Department

This advertisement from the Jan. 28 issue caught my eye because Bergdorf Goodman is one of the few stores in Manhattan still operating at its original site:

Bergdorf Goodman today.

And here we have perhaps the iMac of its day, standing  apart from the competition with its colorful, bold new look…

And finally, this early cartoon from longtime New Yorker cartoonist Perry Barlow having some fun at the expense of New York’s working class…

Next Time: Good Vibrations…