A Visit to Minskyville

During the 1930s few people could afford the luxury of a Broadway show, but a trip to “Minskyville” was in reach of nearly anyone looking to escape the gloom of the Depression, at least for a few hours.

May 28, 1930 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

The Minsky family — brothers Billy, Herbert, Morton and Abe — built the beginnings of a New York burlesque empire, writes actress, author and documentarian Leslie Zemeckis: “Abe, the eldest, started showing racy films in a nickelodeon theater on the Lower East Side. His father — believing that if his son was gonna be a perv, he might as well make real money at it — bought the National Winter Garden theater on Houston Street near Second Avenue (where a Whole Foods stands today), and gave Abe the sixth floor to run his burlesque shows.” Alva Johnson paid a visit to Houston Street and environs for the “A Reporter at Large” column:

LITTLE EGYPT, aka Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, top left, both titillated and scandalized crowds at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (really?); clockwise, from center top, three of Minsky Brothers – Billy, Morton and Herbert; the Minsky Brothers owned several burlesque theaters in New York, including Minsky’s Oriental on 51st Street and Broadway, where ‘stripper  Julie Bryan was a top draw in 1936; Billy Minsky brought the Minsky brand to Broadway when he leased the Republic Theater on 42nd Street in 1931; the last two images are by Margaret Bourke-White, backstage at the Republic Theater in 1936. (Wikipedia/Daily News/Estate of Margaret Bourke-White)
NEED A CAREER?…Well, in the 1930s an aspiring dancer or comedian could earn some chops on the burlesque stage. Gypsy Rose Lee (aka Rose Louise Hovick), left,who became the world’s most famous stripper (as well as an actress, author and playwright), was one of the biggest stars of Minsky’s Burlesque; breaks between burlesque performances were commonly filled by comedians, including Abbott and Costello (pictured above in their 1930s burlesque days), who first worked together in 1935 at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater on 42nd Street, at right.

According to Zemeckis, “burlesque caught on among the recent immigrants of the Lower East Side. The shows were cheap, the humor broad, and the allure of beautiful, barely-clothed women transcended language barriers.” But if striptease wasn’t your thing, Minskyville offered plenty of other diversions:

ONE LUMP OR TWO?…Minskyville’s entrepreneurs (top images) added a modern twist to the study of head bumps and cranium size — called Phrenology — with the electronic “Psycograph” (sic); at bottom, Prof. William Heckler’s Trained Flea Circus at Hubert’s Museum on West 42nd Street attracted some gents itching to see Heckler’s fleas in action; according to Alva Johnston, Minskyville’s penny arcade peepshows (such as the one at bottom right) would take your penny or nickel in exchange for photos of a woman old enough to give your grandpa the glad eye. (Museum of Questionable Medical Devices/sideshowworld.com)
LET’S SEE THAT AGAIN…Folks who didn’t want to look at forty-year-old photos of bathing beauties could check out the most popular attraction at Minskyville’s penny arcades — a clip from the famed Long Count Fight, a 1927 rematch between world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champ Jack Dempsey, which Tunney won in a unanimous decision despite being knocked down in the seventh round. It was, and is, the subject of endless debate. (www.wbaboxing.com )

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Not a Gearhead

“The Talk of the Town” noted that young Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. preferred arts and literature over things that went zoom:

SOMEDAY THIS WILL ALL BE YOURS, RIGHT?…Walter P. Chrysler Sr. and Walter P. Chrysler Jr. share a father-son moment in 1930. Junior Chrysler devoted much of his life to building a multimillion-dollar collection of paintings (some of which were later found to be forgeries) and made substantial forays into collecting stamps, rare books and glassworks. He also produced a movie, The Joe Louis Story, released in 1953. (chrysler.org)

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Today most movie lovers associate Scarface with the 1983 Brian DePalma film (starring Al Pacino), but the original Scarface in 1932 was far more influential in that it helped define the American gangster film genre. Directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Hawks and Howard Hughes, the screenplay was penned by early New Yorker contributor Ben Hecht. Mild by today’s standards, the film’s violent scenes caused it to be banned by many theaters around the country. Along with 1931’s Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, Scarface is regarded as among the most significant gangster films. Here is what critic John Mosher thought of it:

JUST IN CASE YOU GET THE WRONG IDEA…Also known as Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, this 1932 gangster film opened with some cautionary words (top left). Clockwise, from top right, gangster “Tony” Camonte (Paul Muni) is flanked by his cronies during a hit on a rival; Tony (Muni) shows his softer side with his dear sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak). United Artists promotional poster (note how Boris Karloff was billed with a reference to his 1931 Frankenstein role). (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water, out comes another line of wool swimsuits. I honestly can’t imagine how they must have felt, especially when wet and clinging to your skin after you left the water…

…the ad below from DuPont was just the sort of thing that drove New Yorker fashion critic Lois Long nuts…a couple of downscale royals shilling their fashion lines to an unsuspecting public…the paychecks from DuPont must have been substantial enough for these bluebloods to publicly embrace synthetics…

TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE…Here is the real Countess Borea de Buzzaccarini Regoli, left, and the Princess de Rohan, who played to America’s insatiable thirst for nobility while shilling for a chemical company. (Wikimedia)

…if you had the money and the steady nerves, you could have hopped aboard an almost 32-hour flight to the West Coast assured that a “coordinated mechanism” of men and machine would get you there in one piece…

…perhaps you could have steadied your nerves by dragging on a Tally-Ho — for some weird reason the Lorillard Tobacco Company (who also made Old Gold) thought some folks might prefer an oval-shaped cigarette (I include the remainder of the back-page ads for context)…

…despite the Depression, the New Yorker was holding its own in sales and subscriptions, but it never hurt to place a house ad every now and then to convince a few who might be holding out…

…on to our cartoons, Garrett Price showed us the result of a bad hand…

James Thurber offered up this spot illustration in the opening pages…

…and this terrific cartoon…

Gardner Rea demonstrated the perils of summoning the dead…

…the departed soul mentioned in Rea’s cartoon was prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright Edgar Wallace (1875-1932), who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals in his relatively short life. He is most famous today as the co-creator of the film King Kong…

…and we end with this gem from Kemp Starrett, and some high-jinks…

Next Time: Jimmy’s Jam…













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.

One thought on “A Visit to Minskyville”

  1. Once bought a pack of English Ovals cigarettes in 1970.Delightfully mild yet full flavored.And the price was right even though it was an import.


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