Strike Up the Band!

Before we launch into the Jan. 25 issue, the rendering of the old New York Aquarium in this Sue Williams cover bears some consideration.

Jan. 25, 1930 cover by Sue Williams.

The aquarium was housed within the historic walls the South West Battery, constructed off the tip of Manhattan between 1808 and 1811 as a defense against the British. Renamed Castle Clinton in 1817 (in honor of former Mayor/Governor Dewitt Clinton), it was deeded to the city in 1823 to be used as an entertainment center. From 1855 to 1890 it served as an immigrant landing depot, then remodeled in 1896 (by the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White) to become the popular New York City Aquarium.

FISH OUT OF WATER…Postcard image of the New York City Aquarium from the early 1900s; aerial view of the aquarium circa 1934; postcard image of aquarium interior; demolition of the aquarium in 1941, on orders from city planner Robert Moses. (thebattery.org/nycgovparks.org)

Although the aquarium proved to be a cultural and educational magnet, it stood in the way of master planner Robert Moses’s designs to build a bridge from The Battery to Brooklyn. After residents, preservationists and even Eleanor and President Franklin Roosevelt protested, the city opted instead to construct a tunnel under the East River. Nevertheless, Moses managed to get the aquarium knocked down before demolition was halted by the outbreak of World War II. After the war, Congress passed a bill declaring the site a National Monument, and preserved the walls of Castle Clinton.

HIGH AND DRY…Until it was demolished in 1941, the New York City Aquarium occupied the space in the center of Castle Clinton, which was added to National Register of Historic Places in 1966. (nps.gov)

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Now, About That Band…

A play that satirized America’s enthusiasm for war — Strike Up the Band — was loved by critics but spurned by audiences when it opened in Philadelphia in 1927. Written by George S. Kaufman, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, the play had the pedigree for success, but audiences weren’t quite ready for a show that poked fun at the U.S. military just nine years after the end of World War I (in the original play, America is goaded into declaring war on Switzerland by an American cheese tycoon).

Enter lyricist Morrie Ryskind, who reworked the script, softening its political message and remaking the war plot into a dream sequence. The revised play proved to a be hit, running for 191 performances at the Times Square Theatre. It also introduced a number of popular songs, including “The Man I Love” and “Strike Up the Band.” Robert Benchley was on hand for opening night:

TEAMWORK…Clockwise, from top, Ira (left) and George Gershwin at work circa 1930; lyricist Morrie Ryskind, who softened the tone of George S. Kaufman’s original script. (U of Michigan/Wikipedia)

Benchley noted that the antics of comedian Bobby Clark caused him to laugh so loud that his guffaws were even noted in the Herald Tribune’s review:

MAKE ‘EM LAUGH…The comedy team of Paul McCullough (left) and Bobby Clark were one of the play’s big draws. At right, Herald-Tribune illustration by Al Hirschfeld announcing the Broadway opening of Strike Up the Band. (aaronneathery.org)

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Duncan Yo-Yos

We’ve seen the Duncan Sisters (Rosetta and Vivian) before in this blog, the sister vaudeville act that became famous with the 1923 hit musical Topsy and Eva, which inspired a silent 1927 film starring the duo. They were back on the screen in late 1929 with It’s a Great Life, which the New Yorker’s John Mosher found to be “pretty dreary”…

NOT SO GREAT, THIS…Clockwise from top, promotional poster for It’s a Great Life; a scene from a dance number in the film; Rosetta (in blackface) and Vivian Duncan as Topsy and Eva (characters derived from the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin). It’s a Great Life flopped at the box office, along with the Duncan’s brief movie careers. In the years to follow the duo would became popular nightclub entertainers and would continue to perform their Topsy and Eva routine even though appearing in blackface was increasingly considered offensive. (Wikipedia/freewebs.com)

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Miracle Worker

The New Yorker profile, written by Robert Coates, featured Helen Keller (with illustration by Hugo Gellert). A brief excerpt:

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From Our Advertisers

Advertisers in the Jan. 25 issue included the new Fortune magazine, which announced its first issue with this full-page ad:

…the table of contents is fascinating, spare in descriptions of everything from “Hogs” to “Orchids”…

From left, issue No. 1, February 1930; table contents for the issue; a prototype of the magazine, September 1929. (Fortune) please click to enlarge

…also listed in the new magazine’s table of contents was the name of a 24-year-old photographer, Margaret Bourke-White

A photo of coal piles by Margaret Bourke-White in the first issue of Fortune magazine. At right, Bourke-White photographing atop a skyscraper circa 1930. (Fortune)

…on to our other advertisements, we have this entry from Elizabeth Arden…ads from this salon chain in the 1920s and 30s featured this ubiquitous image of a woman with a distant stare, her head tightly bound — mummy-like — as part of a firming treatment called “muscle-strapping”…

…in contrast to the rather cold, clinical look of Elizabeth Arden ad, the Primrose House appealed more to social climbing than skin toning…

…while the makers of Pond’s cold cream continued to draw from their stable of debutantes and society ladies to move their product…

…long before there was Joe Camel, R.J. Reynolds also appealed to social climbers with a series of ads beautifully illustrated by fashion artist Carl Erickson

…society’s smokers were advised to pack a tube of Bost toothpaste, or have their French maid do it for them…

…and once again we have an ad by Dr. Seuss for Flit insecticide that is very much of its time…

…as is this cartoon by I. Klein, perhaps the first in the New Yorker that depicted African Americans as something other than minstrel show stereotypes. Nevertheless, the rendering is still a bit crude — especially the boy’s face — as is the idea behind the “joke” —  that a black boy could actually aspire to be a great violinist like Jascha Heifetz

John Reynolds explored a less troubling juxtaposition among the bohemian set…

…and we end with this peek into society life courtesy Barbara Shermund… 

Next Time: The Wild Kingdom…

 

 

 

 

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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