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…













Times Square’s Freaks and Fleas

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Feb. 6, 1926 cover by Victor Bobritsky

Coney Island was famous for its side-show freak exhibits, but from 1925 to 1969 Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in Times Square brought the show to the heart of Manhattan.

In addition to sword swallowers, tattooed ladies and other human oddities (the famous Zip the Pinhead did a short stint there), there was also Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus, which operated in the basement. It indeed featured real fleas attached by very thin wires to miniature chariots, merry-go-rounds and the like.

The New Yorker mentioned Hubert’s in this brief “Talk of the Town” item:

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These days it seems a bit strange that women covered in tattoos were once considered sideshow oddities. Among the more famous was Stella Grassman, who worked as a “Tattooed Lady” in the late 1920’s in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and also appeared at Hubert’s. Stella and her husband, Deafy (pictured below) owned a tattoo shop on the Bowery.

Stella Grassman and her husband, Deafy (Tattoo Archive)

And then there was Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus, depicted below (the “fleas” enlarged 700 times, and obviously embellished) in a feature on Prof. Heckler in the March 1930 issue of Modern Mechanics:

(Sideshow World)

The entrance to Hubert’s, photo undated, but probably from the early 1950’s:

Entrance to Hubert’s Museum (Ephemeral New York)

After Hubert’s closed it became just another porno peep show, a ubiquitous sight on Times Square until the city began a “clean up” of the area in the 1990s.

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Profiles examined the life and work of playwright Eugene O’Neil, and in the “Critique” section Gilbert W. Gabriel (who sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Golly-Wogg) gave a strong review of O’Neill’s The Great God Brown, writing that the play represented “some of the finest writing of his lifetime.”

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Peter Arno’s rendering of Eugene O’Neill for “Profile.”

I should note here that Gabriel had replaced Herman J. Mankiewicz as drama critic following HJM’s firing by editor Harold Ross in January of 1926. Ross, miffed by Mankiewicz’s interest in Hollywood, famously fired “Mank” by telegram (Mankiewicz would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter on such films as Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz).

Finally, an interesting take in “Talk of the Town” on book censorship of the day:

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Hard to believe that many of these books were considered lurid in their day, and were much sought after. Now you can buy practically anything, but then again, so few people read anymore these days.

“Talk” ended with this helpful advice on current cocktail recipes (remember we are in the midst of Prohibition). The “Titantic,” with six parts gin, seems deadly indeed:

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What is “Nuxated Iron” you ask? It was sold as a performing enhancing iron supplement in the early 20th century, endorsed by such athletes as boxer Jack Dempsey and baseball’s Ty Cobb. The blog Peterboriana explains it thus:

“Nuxated Iron” pills, as endorsed by Dempsey, were, obviously, iron supplements.  As for the “nuxated” part of it, that refers to nux vomica, a deadly substance better known as strychnine (i.e. rat poison).  Fortunately, the stuff being hawked…actually contained very little strychnine, and not much iron either.  It was comparatively useless as a performance-enhancing drug, but would not kill you unless you took a lot of it.

So if the Titanic’s six parts gin don’t get you first, maybe the Nuxated Iron will.

Next Time: Stop and Go

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