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…

The Banqueting Wars

“The Talk of the Town” opened with musings on the “banqueting” ritual practiced by various celebrities in Manhattan, in this case the silent film stars Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, and Tom Mix.

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April 25, 1925 cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The magazine noted that “Banquets are given upon a star’s departure and upon return, and each succeeding one must be bigger and better than ever.” Even the star of silent Westerns, Tom Mix, had a dinner in his honor when he visited the city with his fourth wife, Victoria Forde. “Talk” made this observation:

True, this cowpuncher, who sets fashion by wearing wine-colored evening clothes and with overcoats rimmed with brown leather for morning wear, did not elect to outdo Pola Negri. His was a modest affair held in the Hotel Astor, at which, however, Mrs. Mix was able to display the discomforts of being wealthy by having such an armful of glistening bracelets as made necessary treatment by a masseuse of muscles lamed by bearing such weight of jewels.

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Tom Mix and Victoria Forde (listal.com)
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Pola Negri

In Pola Negri’s case, a bon voyage banquet was given at the Ritz-Carlton (she was headed to Europe) and among the guests were the familiar faces of writer Michael Arlen and movie producer Jesse Lasky, who announced that Arlen would be writing “special stories” to be used as screen vehicles for Negri.

As for Gloria Swanson (returned from France, more on that below) she was “in the happy position of having a contract for one more year with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, whose officials are greatly concerned lest Cecil B. DeMille wean from them their popular actress.” To ensure Swanson’s happiness, Lasky and Adolph Zukor hosted a banquet and dance in her honor at Park Lane. It was reported that Swanson “was signally honored” when she entered the room to greet her 300 guests:

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Gloria Swanson (United Artists)

The lights were turned off as she took her seat; a spotlight was thrown on her shingled head, and the orchestra struck up her new national anthem, “La Marseillaise”…Girls in Marie Antoinette costumes wended their way among the tables, passing around Napoleonic paper hats, singularly appropriate for the gentlemen who wore them.

“Talk” also offered the latest observations from the magazine’s “Prohibition Authority” regarding the Coast Guard’s inability to stem the flow of Scotch whisky into the city: “Human nature is frail and large operators can afford to offer rewards far above Government pay, all for a little blindness.” Despite a Coast Guard effort to stop smugglers, Scotch remained “plentiful and reasonably priced.”

April 8, 1925 NYT
April 8, 1925, New York Times

Other “Talk” items of note: “King” Babe Ruth, after eating his “fourth breakfast porterhouse and a rough train ride,” fell ill in Asheville, N.C. (he was taken to the hotel on a stretcher, clad in pink pajamas he insisted on wearing)…The Bronxville Golf Club “decided to go stag,” and bar women from membership…Noting that New Yorkers treat their city’s landmarks with amazing indifference, it was announced that the Brevoort Mansion was to be torn down. It was described as “a huge brownstone pile, of stern aspect. It looks like a mausoleum.”

When Henry Breevort Jr. built the mansion at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1834, it marked the beginning of the transformation of Fifth Avenue from a rutted road into the destination for old and new money alike. According to the excellent blog No Place For Normal: New York, in the 1860s Fifth Avenue’s growing renown as the “axis of elegance” was enhanced by the opening of Central Park in 1859 and by fortunes fattened by Civil War contracts.

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Cornelius Vanderbilt II House on “Millionaires Row” (nyc-architecture.com)

Then during the last several decades of the 19th century, known as the “Gilded Age,” brownstone mansions like Breevort’s were supplanted by ornate French chateau-style mansions, and “a flocking of Old and New Money alike to the Upper Avenue,” which came to be known as “Millionaires Row” (and famously known for the social wars between the Astors and Vanderbilts among others).

The early 20th century saw Fifth Avenue transformed from a place of elegant mansions to a place of elegant hotels and stores. The first years of The New Yorker would witness this transformation as one mansion after another fell to the commercial interests of the booming 1920s.

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“Profile” illustration

“Profile” examined the life of Samuel Goldwyn, “The Celluloid Prince,” whose rule of life was that “in order to live, is not to let live…(this) means outstripping the other fellow by any means possible that does not land one in jail.” His rise from a glove maker to fame and fortune began around 1915 after he “saw a picture show and saw himself a millionaire simultaneously. He took his vision to Jesse Lasky, his brother-in-law, who was a vaudeville man at the time.” In ten years time “a man without background, without education…by sheer urge of some divine spark within him, he was able to build up that colossal enterprise at Culver City.”

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Adele and Fred Astaire in Lady Be Good (nickelinthemachine)

Listings in the “Goings On” section (subtitled The New Yorker’s conscientious calendar of events worth while) included George Gershwin’s Lady Be Good at the Liberty Theatre, with the brother-sister dancing team Fred and Adele Astaire. Movies playing included Grass at the Criterion (“Remarkable film panorama of a primitive Persian tribe on its migration in search of food”).

And in continuing Gloria Swanson news, it was noted that Swanson was appearing in a new moving picture, Madame Sans-Gêne, playing the role of  “the Napoleonic lady of historical romance. Color—and real Parisian backgrounds.”

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Swanson and Émile Drain (as Napoleon) in Madame Sans-Gêne (1925)

According to the site A Lost Film, Swanson took the role to “get away from Hollywood’s frivolous roles in which she felt her talent was under-used and she was little else than a clothes horse.” The lavish production, filmed at various French locations including Fontainebleau and Compiègne, was said to be Swanson’s favorite film. Although the film was released in both the U.S. and France, it is now lost, save for a snippet from the film’s trailer.

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Sports” offered this observation about the pantomime routine of Altrock and Schacht at a baseball game between Washington and New York (see clip at right).

Al Schacht’s ability to mimic other players from the coaching lines, and his comedy routines with fellow Washington coach Nick Altrock, earned him the nickname of “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”

If only the writer knew the extent to which his absurd suggestions would one day come true (and then some) in today’s jumbotron-dominated ballparks.

Ruth, as we know, did not play. By the Babe’s standards, it would prove to be a bad year for him, appearing in fewer than 100 games and batting .290. Somehow, though, this overweight wreck of a man still managed to score 25 home runs that year.

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Al Schacht and Nick Altrock in 1925 (Library of Congress)