All That Jazz

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” editors were always in search of something to amuse, and in the Jan. 29, 1927 issue they found it in one Maurine Watkins, who wrote the Broadway hit musical Chicago (yes, THAT one) while still enrolled in her drama class at Yale:

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Maurine Watkins (Chicago Tribune)

Watkins transformed a brief career as a Chicago Tribune crime reporter into her Broadway success, thanks to her fondness for writing about murderers:

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Chicago opened on Broadway in late December 1926 at the Sam Harris Theatre, where it ran for 172 performances. Watkins wrote the play as “homework” for her Yale drama class:

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It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling, with Cecil B. DeMille producing a silent film version (directed by Frank Urson) in 1927.

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Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart from the 1927 film, Chicago. Ginger Rogers would play the role in the 1942 movie Roxie Hart, and Renée Zellweger would play the part in the 2002 film, Chicago. (chicagology)

Watkins would go on to write about 20 plays, moving on to Hollywood to write screenplays including the 1936 comedy Libeled Lady. She left Hollywood in the 1940s to be close to her parents in Florida. A lifelong Christian, Watkins spent much of her fortune funding the study of Greek and the Bible at some 20 universities, including Princeton. Following her death in 1969, her estate sold the rights to Chicago to famed choreographer and director Bob Fosse. Fosse would go on to develop Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville in 1975, which was revived in 1997 and turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 2002.

*   *   *

Winter doldrums had set into city, which was digging out of the latest snowstorm and leaving the “Talk” editors pining for spring.

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January 29, 1927 cover by Ilona Karasz.

So it was unwelcome news that the green lawns along Cottage Row were to become the latest casualties of the booming city:

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According to the excellent blog Daytonian in Manhattan, around 1848 William Rhinelander filled the 7th Avenue block between 12th and 13th Streets with eleven three-story homes above “English basements.” The simple residences were intended for middle-class families and sat more than twenty feet back from the street, providing grassy lawns and garden space. During summer weather each floor had a deep veranda that provided shade and caught cooling breezes.

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This 1936 photograph by Berenice Abbot shows the abandoned “Cottage Row.” (Library of Congress)

As it turned out, the green lawns won a brief reprieve: By the time developers got around to building an apartment on the site, the Depression hit and left Cottage Row standing for another ten years. It was demolished in 1937, replaced not by an apartment building but rather by a gas station and used car lot, which were replaced in 1964 by the Joseph Curran Building (now the Lenox Hill Healthplex):

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Today the Cottage Row site is occupied by the Joseph Curran Building (now the Lenox Hill Healthplex). Albert C. Ledner, a New Orleans architect, fancifully evoked seafaring themes in his design of the Curran Building, which originally housed the headquarters of the National Maritime Union. (MCD Magazine)

* * *

The winter drear was further compounded by the sooty smog that lingered over the city, fed by so many coal-fired furnaces. The “Talk” editors noted:

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A PERENNIAL NUISANCE…This Al Frueh drawing originally appeared in the Feb. 27, 1926 issue of the magazine.

To read more about “soft coal days,” see my previous post, “A Fine Mess.”

* * *

Elsewhere in the magazine, the New Yorker featured this ditty by P.G. Wodehouse:

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Columnist Lois Long (“Tables for Two”) was contemplating dance lessons to learn the “Black Bottom,” the dance craze that supplanted “The Charleston” in 1926.

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Apparently the dance called for special shoes, per this advertisement from the same issue:

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Up to now I’ve been posting images of often lavish ads featured mostly in the first sections of the magazine and on the front and back inside covers, but there were other, less expensive (and less artful) ads sprinkled in the back pages of the magazine, a tradition that continues to this day:

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Next time: Spring Fever…

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Upstairs, Downstairs

As the New Yorker was a magazine of the city’s new money smart set, it poked fun at their faddish tastes and patronizing attitudes while at the same time feeding their Anglophilia and WASPish sense of superiority.

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January 22, 1927 cover by Andre De Schaub.

The magazine’s pages were filled with ads for English-style clothes, French perfumes and expensive cars. And in the Jan. 22 issue there were many ads for the motorboats that had displaced the automobile show at Grand Central Palace:

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It is important to note that this ad is an appeal to new money; old money would have found this motorized vessel quite vulgar.

As it were, the new money needed some guidance if they hoped to live a lifestyle of ease and sophistication. And thus the issue’s “On and Off the Avenue” column, guest-written by Gretta Palmer (Lois Long took the week off), offered advice on how to hire and clothe the help:

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Perhaps you wanted a proper English butler. Lida Seely had your man:

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Or a Scotch maid, or choose from a selection of “any color or race”…

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In case you found that last sentence a bit callous, Gretta reassured:

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The issue also featured a cartoon by Rea Irvin (displayed full-page, sideways in the original magazine) that would be offensive to 21st century sensibilities. The cartoon depicted the “lower orders” aping the lifestyle of the upper classes. Note that of all the racial and ethnic types shown here–“Orientals,” Eastern Europeans and the Irish–only blacks remain in the servant class.

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As I noted in a previous post, “Race Matters,” the New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in engaging in casual bigotry common in those days, including treating blacks as racial “others.” There is, perhaps, a subtle jab here by Irvin at the pretensions of the uppers, but he’s not around anymore to clarify this.

The issue also featured the first of a series of articles (“Profiles”) on the 87-year-old John D. Rockefeller. A brief excerpt, with illustration by Cyrus Baldridge:

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Rockefeller

The writer’s prediction wasn’t too far off: John D. Rockefeller would live another ten years, and die at age 97 in 1937. His grandson, David Rockefeller, apparently inherited both his money and his genes: he recently celebrated his 101st birthday.

Finally, a cartoon by Peter Arno, famed for his drawings of women, usually scantily clad. Here we see an early example in one of his “Whoops Sisters” panels:

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By comparison, here is a cartoon by Arno 33 years later, from the September 10, 1960 issue of the New Yorker:

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Caption: “Makes you kind of proud to be an American, doesn’t it?”

Next Time: All That Jazz…

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Bad Hootch

Despite Prohibition, perhaps a few champagne corks were popped for the January 15, 1927, edition of the New Yorker. This is Issue # 100.

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January 15, 1927–Issue # 100. The cover art by Constantin Alajalov.

Prohibition was on the minds of the editors of the issue, which featured a highly critical piece by Morris Markey (“A Reporter at Large”) on the hysteria surrounding the government’s attempt to poison supplies of bootleg alcohol. The editors of “The Talk of the Town” also made this observation:

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Before we get more into Markey’s piece, a little background is in order. In an article for Time magazine (Jan. 14, 2015) Lily Rothman writes that for years prior to Prohibition industrial alcohol had been “denatured” by adding toxic or unappetizing chemicals to it. This was done so folks couldn’t escape beverage taxes by drinking commercial-use alcohol instead — but it was still possible to re-purify the liquid so that it could be consumed.

HOME CHEMISTRY…A bootlegger at work in the 1920s. (oldmagazinearticles.com)

Rothman cites a Time article from Jan. 10, 1927, which reported that Prohibition forces in the government were introducing a new formula that year for denaturing industrial-grade alcohol that doubled the poisonous content: “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol.” The article noted that “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness.”

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Warning label from the 1920s (vickyloebel.com)

Although some opposed the practice as legalized murder, Rothman cites Seymour M. Lowman, who as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (1927-33) was in charge of Prohibition enforcement. Lowman told citizens that those on the fringes of society who continued to drink were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’” and that if the result was a sober America, “a good job will have been done.”

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DRINK AT YOUR OWN RISK…1920s label for bootleg moonshine. (googleuk)

Thousands died from consuming poisoned alcohol. Rothman writes that 33 people died in Manhattan alone in a three-day period in 1928, mostly from drinking wood alcohol.

Markey’s stance in his New Yorker article is somewhat unique, if not cold-hearted. Instead of taking the government to task for the practice, he assured his well-heeled readers that they had nothing to fear as long as they procured their alcohol from reputable bootleggers at top prices. Markey seemed to care not at all for the poor “slum-dwellers” who died from consuming the cheap stuff:

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If anything, Markey’s sympathies seemed to lie with those who had to drink the safe, albeit diluted hootch. He explained how four bottles of bootleg Scotch could be fashioned from a single bottle of the real deal:

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And if you had money, there was no need to fear death from drink…

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…that is, unless you were careless:

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* * *

Helena Huntington Smith wrote a profile on the actor Adolphe Menjou, described by IMDB as Hollywood’s epitome of suave and debonair style: “Known for his knavish, continental charm and sartorial opulence, Menjou, complete with trademark waxy black mustache, evolved into one of Hollywood’s most distinguished of artists and fashion plates, a tailor-made scene-stealer.” Interestingly, Menjou was born in Pittsburgh, and not in France as many a fan assumed (his father, however, was a French émigré).

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Glass lantern advertising slide for Menjou’s 1927 silent film A Gentleman of Paris.

In other items, New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka T-Square) once again set his sights on the city’s changing skyline. He began with the new General Motors building at Columbus Circle:

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He was thrilled by the push-button automation of the building’s elevators:

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The General Motors building, left, as it originally appeared on Columbus Circle. It was designed by Shreve & Lamb, who would soon go on to design the Empire State Building. At right, the building became known as the Newsweek Building. (Drawing by J. W. Golinkin in Towers of Manhattan, 1928, and photo by David W. Dunlap/The New York Times)

If George Chappell thought the General Motors building had some issues in 1927, he should see it today, wrapped in tacky reflecting glass and renamed 3 Columbus Circle:

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WHY? WHY ON EARTH?

Elsewhere, Chappell was agog at Sloan & Robertson’s massive Graybar Building:

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Sloan & Robertson’s Graybar Building at 420 Lexington. (history.graybar.com)

And to close, this ad on the back page for Chesterfield cigarettes, featuring the company’s famous Atlantic City sign. Note the point of pride: There are 13,000 lamps in the sign, but four times that many Chesterfields are smoked every minute…koff…koff…

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Next Time…Upstairs, Downstairs…

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Those Jaunty Jalopies

The January 8, 1927 issue of the New Yorker was all over the 27th Annual Motor Show at the Grand Central Palace, both in its lengthy review of the show and the many automobile ads throughout its pages.

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January 8, 1927 (Issue # 99) cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Auto manufacturers discovered early on that cars didn’t need to advance technologically from year to year as long as there were superficial changes–trimmings and such–to dazzle the consumer:

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Artist Helen Hokinson added this touch to the issue devoted to the auto show.
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A 1927 Gardner Model 90 Roadster on display at the 27th Annual New York Motor Show at Grand Central Palace. (gardnermotorcars.com)

Advertisements in the New Yorker ranged from snobbish appeals to Francophiles…

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 3.32.48 PM…to those who might be concerned about safety. Although cars weren’t very fast, they were fast enough to kill, and their plentiful numbers often overwhelmed a city with rudimentary traffic control.

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In his book, One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson writes that New York in 1927 was the most congested city on earth. It contained more cars than the whole country of Germany, while at the same 50,000 horses (and wagons) still clogged the streets. More than a thousand people died in traffic accidents in the city in 1927, four times the number today.

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THE DEATH-O-METER … was a 20-foot sign installed near Grand Army Plaza in 1927. It tallied traffic accidents and fatalities in the borough and reminded motorists to slow down at the traffic circle. (Ephemeral New York)

Traffic control was still in its infancy in the 1920s. Seven ornate bronze towers, 23 feet high, were placed at intersections along Fifth Avenue from 14th to 57th Streets starting in 1922. By 1927 smaller, simpler lights were mounted on street corners and the system of green, yellow and red was generally adopted.

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Bronze traffic signal tower designed by Joseph H. Freedlander at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, 1922. (New York Times)

Keeping with the motorcar theme, the issue also featured a profile (written by Lurton Blassingame) of Walter P. Chrysler, founder of the new car company that bore his name (Chrysler founded his company in June 1925 after acquiring and reorganizing the old Maxwell Motor Company). In just three years a famous New York City landmark bearing his name would pierce the skyline.

I recently noted that the fall 1926 editions of the New Yorker barely mentioned baseball, even though the Yankees made it to the World Series that year. No doubt the Black Sox scandal of 1919 still lingered in the minds of many fans. Morris Markey’s “Reporter at Large” column in the Jan. 8, 1927 issue suggested that the game was still dishonest, thanks in part to its collusion with the newspapers:

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Baseball might have been down and out, but actress Pola Negri still maintained her place in the spotlight with her latest film, Hotel Imperial.

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Actress Pola Negri consults on a script with director Mauritz Stiller (left) on the set of Hotel Imperial. (MOMA)

Next Time: Bad Hootch

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The Last Impressionist

The death of artist Claude Monet prompted the editors of the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” to speculate on the true origins of the “Impressionist” movement of the late 19th century.

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December 18, 1926 cover by Ottar Gaul. Once again, the theme of the doddering sugar daddy out on the town with his young mistress.

Note how the “Talk” editors lightly regarded the artist’s late period, during which he painted his famous “Water Lilies” series:

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The editors also used the occasion to clear up the confusion (in the lay mind) between Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, identifying them not only as two distinct persons but also crediting the former with the founding of the Impressionism technique while giving Claude his due for actually giving it a name:

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Water Lilies, a late period painting by Claude Monet, circa 1915-26. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
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Monet, right, in his garden at Giverny, 1922. (New York Times)

Another much younger notable of the age, Ernest Hemingway, was the talk of literary society on both sides of the Atlantic with the publication of his latest novel, The Sun Also Rises. According to the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner, the novel was creating a buzz in Montparnasse over the origins of the book’s colorful characters:

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Keeping in mind that the Christmas shopping season was still in full swing, Frigidaire thought it the perfect time for New Yorker readers to buy a newfangled electric refrigerator:

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And we ring out the year with the final issue of 1926:

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December 25, 1926 cover by Rea Irvin.

It was a tough year for New Yorker film critic “OC”, who summed up his  disappointment with the movies by offering a Top Ten list that included only two films:

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The 1925 German film Variety (released in the U.S. in 1926) was one of only two films worth watching in 1926, according to the New Yorker’s film critic. (Wikipedia)

And to close, this cartoon by Helen Hokinson, which in the original magazine filled all of page 14 and therefore had to be printed sideways:

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Next Time: 1927-A Year to Remember…

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Holiday Shopping

With Christmas fast approaching, The New Yorker was getting into the spirit of holidays, especially with all of the advertising revenue it gained from merchants who targeted its well-heeled readership.

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November 27, 1926 — Peter Arno’s first cover for the New Yorker. He would go to do 98 more.

Lois Long continued to write both of her weekly columns for the magazine–her observations on fashion along with ideas for Christmas shoppers in “On and Off the Avenue” (“Saks’ toy department has some of the loveliest French notepaper for tiny children…”) and her musings on nightlife in “Tables for Two.”

In contrast to her rather light mood expressed in the fashion column, Long was feeling far from jolly in her “Tables” observations of New York’s nightlife:

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As you might recall, in a previous column Long tossed a “ho-hum” in the direction of the famed Cotton Club. Perhaps Prohibition was taking its toll on the hard-partying columnist.

Nevertheless, the holiday spirit was upon with The New Yorker, in the cartoons (this one by Helen Hokinson)…

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…and in various advertisements.

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Note this advertisement (below) from Russeks. The comics in The New Yorker famously poked fun at the comic pairings of rich old men and their young mistresses, but this ad seemed to glorify such a pairing while suggesting that an older man of means must invest in fine furs if he is going to hang on to his trophy wife or mistress, in this case a young woman who appears to be nearly eight feet tall…

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I liked this ad from Nat Lewis for the simple line drawing…
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…but the ads for Elizabeth Arden, which for years featured this “Vienna Youth Mask” image, always creep me out.

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The mask was made of papier-mâché lined with tinfoil. Although not pictured in the ad, it was also fitted to the client’s face. The Vienna Youth Mask used diathermy to warm up the facial tissues and stimulate blood circulation.

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SLEEP TIGHT…The full “Youth Mask”applied to an Elizabeth Arden client in the mid 1930s. (cosmeticsandskin.com)

In a 1930 advertisement, Elizabeth Arden claimed that “The Vienna Youth Mask stimulates the circulation, producing health as Nature herself does, through a constantly renewed blood supply. The amazing value of this treatment lies in the depth to which it penetrates, causing the blood to flow in a rich purifying stream to underlying tissues and muscles…charging them with new youth and vigor. It stirs the circulation as no external friction or massage can possible do.”

I don’t believe this claim was backed up by medical research, but as we all know, Elizabeth Arden made a bundle from these treatments and the various creams and potions that came with it.

Next Time: Race Matters…

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The Cotton Club & Other Distractions

Of all the nightclubs made famous in the Roaring Twenties, none were quite so famous as Harlem’s Cotton Club. Frequented by many celebrities, the club was a whites-only establishment even though it featured many of the most popular black entertainers of the day including Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

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November 13, 1926, Issue # 91, cover by Julian de Miskey.

So leave it to The New Yorker, and specifically its nightlife correspondent, Lois Long, to take a blasé view of the famed hot spot. Perhaps she was just tired, having already visited three other nightclubs that evening–the Montmartre, the Yacht Club, and Connie’s Inn–before seeking out the Cotton Club:

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Performers on stage at Connie’s Inn, Harlem, 1920s. (New York Public Library)
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Duke Ellington and dancers at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s. (Untapped-Cities)
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Program from the 1920s designed to attract white patrons to the Cotton Club. (Women of the Harlem Renaissance)

* * *

“The Talk of the Town” noted the passing of rodeo star and sharp-shooter Annie Oakley. Next time you get a free ticket with a hole punched in it, you’ll know what to call it:

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If nightclubs weren’t your thing, there were plenty of movie theatres screening the latest offerings from Tinseltown. The opening pages of the magazine featured this advertisement for the new 3,664-seat Paramount Theatre, located at 43rd Street and Broadway in the Times Square.

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It’s a reminder that Paramount, a venerable old Hollywood studio (which these days is owned by Viacom) had its origins in New York as the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Founded in 1916, Famous Players-Lasky was primarily located at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens (after 1920). It would eventually become Paramount Pictures and relocate to Hollywood in 1932.

The Paramount Theatre was closed in 1964. Sadly, the interior was gutted and converted to office and retail use. Here are a couple of interior shots of the theatre’s Grand Hall as it appeared following its opening:

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NOT YOUR LOCAL CINEPLEX…Grand Hall of the Paramount Theatre, featuring imported Italian marble columns. (American Theatre Architecture Archive)

The theatre’s huge pipe organ, one of the largest and most admired theatre organs ever built by the Wurlitzer company, was removed and later installed in a convention hall in Wichita, Kansas.

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Keyboard array of the Paramount Theatre’s huge pipe organ, one of the largest theatre organs ever built by the Wurlitzer company. (nycago)

Paramount would open theatres around the country (in the chain of Publix Theatres), and a number of them survive today. The original Paramount Building in New York is still there, but all that’s left of the theatre is the marquee.

The marquee in 1927:

Copy of New York's Paramount Theater - 1930s

And today:

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Next Time: The Sporting Life…

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