The Radio City

The NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza have wowed visitors and performers alike for nearly 90 years. Today we look back at the remarkable foresight of the studios’ designers, who created spaces that would one day accommodate a new medium called television, which was still in its experimental stages.

Nov. 4, 1933 cover by Robert Day, who contributed a total of eight covers to The New Yorker.

However, before we jump in, let’s look at Robert Day’s cover for the Nov. 4 issue, which featured a familiar character who made his first appearance on the cover of issue #12 (May 9, 1925), and returned four years later looking much older in the dog days of August…

Cover of issue #12 (May 9, 1925) by Rea Irvin introduced our street sweeper, who returned Aug. 3, 1929 by the hand of Gardner Rea.

Day’s cover, however, was also a nod to the annual gathering of autumn leaves—an occasional cover theme that began with Peter Arno’s contribution to the Nov. 27, 1926 issue (below, left) and most recently expressed in Adrian Tomine’s cover for the Nov. 7, 2022 issue (with timely pandemic reference)…

Back to Radio City, Morris Markey recounted the technological wonders of the new NBC studios in his “A Reporter at Large” column, “Marconi Started It.” Markey noted the “fabulous quality” of the facilities, wired for the day when television would arrive. Excerpts:

GEE WHIZ…Morris Markey could be assured that some folks would be “goggled-eyed” by NBC studios, including the technophiles at Popular Mechanics. (westmb.org)
WHERE HISTORY WAS MADE…Studio 8H was the world’s largest radio studio when it opened in 1933. It would be converted for television in 1950. (westmb.org)

Markey marveled at NBC Studios’ various design innovations, including a revolving control room dubbed the “Clover Leaf”…

(Modern Mechanics, Jan. 1931)

Almost 90 years later, the studios continue to serve the broadcast needs of the 21st century, including Studio 8H…

LIVE FROM NEW YORK…Studio 8H was the world’s largest radio studio when it opened in 1933. Converted to television in 1950, it has been home to Saturday Night Live since 1975. Above, SNL stage manager Gena Rositano, in 2015. Below, longtime SNL director Don Roy King at the controls for Studio 8H, also in 2015. (Dana Edelson/NBC via Directors Guild of America)

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Leopold!

Conductor Leopold Stokowski was no stranger to Studio 8H. From 1941 to 1944 he led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in that venue. One of the leading conductors of the early and mid-20th century, Stokowski (1882–1977) began his musical career in New York City in 1905 as the organist and choir director at St. Bartholomew’s Church, but by 1915 he was conducting the famed Philadelphia Orchestra. Robert Simon reported on Stokowski’s return to New York for a performance at Carnegie Hall. A brief excerpt:

I GET AROUND…Portrait Of Leopold Stokowski by Edward Steichen, Dec. 1, 1933. Married three times and once romantically linked to Greta Garbo, he was married to wife #3, Gloria Vanderbilt, for ten years.(Condé Nast)

Stokowski had the distinct honor of being satirized in a 1949 Looney Tunes cartoon, “Long-Haired Hare,” in which Bugs Bunny disguised himself as the conductor and entered the stage to the astonished whispers of the orchestra…Leopold! Leopold!…

MAESTRO…Bugs Bunny as Stokowski in “Long-Haired Hare.”

Stokowski was no stranger to animation. The conductor appeared in silhouette in Disney’s Fantasia (1940), leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in the film’s score. He even shook hands with Mickey Mouse.

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Bigga Badda Wolfa

The New Yorker took a look at the popular records of the day, and in addition to tunes by Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée there was yet another release of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”…Ethel Shutta was the latest of seemingly dozens of artists to cash in on the Disney hit…

I’LL HUFF AND I’LL PUFF…Those who couldn’t get enough of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” could turn to Ethel Shutta’s rendition of the hit song on Columbia records. (discogs.com)

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Page-Turner

Writer Kay Boyle wasn’t afraid of wolves or any other subject for that matter, according to book reviewer Clifton Fadiman

TOSSING A SALACIOUS SALAD…Kay Boyle, photographed by George Platt Lynes, 1941. (The Kay Boyle Papers, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University)

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A Grapeful Nation

As New Yorkers counted the days until the end of Prohibition, The New Yorker did its part to get readers back up to speed by enlisting the talents of one of the world’s great wine experts, Frank Schoonmaker, who had the enviable job of filing a series of wine reports for the magazine. His first installment of “News From the Wine Country” featured the Champagne region. Excerpts:

THAT FIZZY FEELING…Bottling the good stuff in the Champagne region, circa 1930. (wineterroirs.com)

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Christmas was just around the corner, and F.A.O. Schwarz was READY with its 64-page catalog…

…White Rock anticipated the end of Prohibition with an ad featuring a miniature colonel who apparently needed a stiff drink to prepare for his wife’s return from abroad…

…Mrs. Hamilton Fish Jr, aka Grace Chapin, was married to the New York congressman from 1920 until her death in 1960, apparently enjoying many Camels along the way…her husband would go on living another 31 years and take three more brides before expiring at age 102…

…another cautionary tale from Chase & Sanborne about the perils of undated coffee…

…and with the holidays approaching, a jolly ditty from Jones Dairy Farm, home to little piggies who merrily dash toward their inevitable slaughter…

…and we jump to another back-page ad, this from the stately Plaza, where you could get a single room for five bucks a night…

…turning to the cartoons, we find George Price hitting his stride with multiple cartoons in consecutive issues…

…and taking a look at the recent elections…

…on to James Thurber, and continuing struggles on the domestic front…

…and that brings us to our next issue…

Nov. 11, 1933 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

…in which E.B. White had a thing or two to say about the latest edition of the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden.

HORSE SENSE AND SENSIBILITY…The National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden was a major event on New York’s social calendar; top and bottom right, scenes from the 1936 show; bottom left, undated scene circa 1960. (Stills from YouTube)

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Versatile Verse

Phyllis McGinley (1905–1978) was the author of children’s books and poetry, the latter genre most notably for The New Yorker. However, she attracted a wide audience for her light verse in other publications ranging from Ladies Home Journal to The Saturday Review.

LIGHT TOUCH…Phyllis McGinley in an undated photo. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her book Times Three—the first writer of light verse to receive the prize. (wnyc.org)

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Oil and Water

Art and architecture critic Lewis Mumford found two very different visions of America in the works of contemporaries John Marin and Edward Hopper. Marin’s watercolors were featured at An American Place, while Hopper’s oil paintings and etchings were shown down the street at the Museum of Modern Art.

SIDE BY SIDE…Lewis Mumford found different visions of New York and the world at An American Place and MoMA galleries. At left, John Marin’s watercolor From the Bridge, N.Y.C. (1933); at right, Edward Hopper’s Room in New York, also from 1933. (Artists Rights Society/Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery)

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More From Our Advertisers

Okay, so I’ll buy the part about PBR’s ability to soothe “jaded nerves,” but I doubt it gave this guy “fresh energy” and “a sound, healthy body”…

…After thirteen long years, winemakers emerged from their cellars to glimpse the light of a new day…

…and yes, after thirteen long years, some folks would be yearning for their DRY SACK Sherry…

…the name Elizabeth Hawes was synonymous with high fashion in the late 1920s and 1930s—she owned one of the most exclusive couture houses in New York…

…an outspoken advocate of dress reform, Hawes (1903–1971) was referred to by one historian as “the Dorothy Parker of fashion criticism.” After attacking the fashion industry with her 1938 book, Fashion Is Spinach (Hawes wrote: “I don’t know when the word fashion came into being, but it was an evil day…”), she closed her fashion house and in 1942 took a job as a machine operator at a wartime plant in New Jersey. She became a union organizer, a champion of gender equality, and a critic of American consumerism.

IN A LEAGUE OF HER OWN…Elizabeth Hawes — writer, fashion designer and political activist, poses for a photograph in 1941. (Mary Morris Lawrence)

…speaking of consumerism, ooooh look! A radio “you can slip in your pocket,” depending of course on the size of your pocket…

…transistors would not come along until the late 1950s, so the Kadette still depended on tubes, and you had to plug it in somewhere, so no running down the beach with headphones, at least for awhile…

The Kadette Junior. (radiolaguy.com)

…it must have been a rare treat to sail on a ship like the SS Santa Rosa—situated between the ship’s two funnels, the dining room had an atrium stretching up two-and-a-half decks and featured a retractable roof…

…on to more cartoons, and more George Price

…moving along, we received some big news from one of Helen Hokinson’s “girls”…

…an aside I’ve been meaning to include…in 1952, just three years after Helen Hokinson’s untimely death, a cartoonist for The Cincinnati Enquirer, Franklin Folger, debuted a cartoon called “The Girls.” The cartoon was eventually syndicated and appeared in more than 150 newspapers worldwide before Folger retired it in 1977. Perhaps I am missing something, but I cannot find a single reference to Folger’s obvious appropriation of Hokinson’s “girls”…some examples of Folger’s work from the early 1960s and another from H.H. for comparison:

…and onward to Peter Arno, and the trials of portrait artists…

…and we close with two by Barbara Shermund

…rendered in different styles…

Next Time: Arno’s Pep Talk…

Under the Boardwalk

Kay Boyle was thirty and still cutting her teeth as a writer and political activist when the New Yorker published her short story “Black Boy,” told through an unnamed narrator who recalls a childhood visit to the seaside.

May 14, 1930 cover by Bela Dankovsky.

The narrator remembers the days when she rode her horse along the beach while her grandfather watched from a rolling chair, pushed along the boardwalk by various young Black boys. In the following excerpts, the grandfather asks one of the boys for his name, but is it clear he doesn’t really want to get to know him, and through his teasing suggests he isn’t even worthy of an identity. Later in the story the girl befriends the boy, who dwells beneath the boardwalk and dreams of a better life. When the grandfather learns of this budding friendship, he warns about the possibility of harm coming from the boy (two excerpts):

THE LONG, CHAOTIC LIFE of writer and activist Kay Boyle (1902–1992) ranged from fights against racism and fascism in the 1930s to protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and against nuclear weapons into the 1990s. (1941 photograph by George Platt Lynes, courtesy The Kay Boyle Papers, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University)

The final paragraphs describe how the girl falls from her horse, and the shocking consequences of the boy coming to her aid.

SEPARATE AND NOT EQUAL…Kay Boyle employed a boardwalk setting in her 1932 short story “Black Boy” to underscore the stark divisions between races in American society. Clockwise, from top left, a 1914 postcard from Atlantic City; on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, circa 1905; sheet music for a popular 1905 song; a dour-looking group being pushed along the Atlantic City Boardwalk, circa 1905. (seesaw.typepad.com/bygonely.com/reddit.com)

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Potemkin Park

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White questioned the need, and appropriateness, of a wood and plaster Federal Hall replica in Bryant Park, which at the time was a neglected patch of land behind the New York Public Library and a favorite spot for the city’s homeless, their numbers rapidly growing during one of the worst years of the Depression (unemployment hovered near 25 percent).

To add insult to injury, the area around the replica was fenced off and required an admission fee of 25 cents. White commented:

ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION…This flimsy Federal Hall replica erected in Bryant Park in 1932 symbolized some of the problems that beset New York City in one of the worst years of the Depression. Under Mayor Jimmy Walker, the committee in charge of the replica was filled with corrupt Tammany cronies who quickly depleted the committee’s funds. It is no surprise that the replica was unpopular, especially with its admission fee of 25 cents, roughly equivalent to $5 today (consider that sales clerks in 1932, if they were lucky to have a job, earned perhaps $15 a week). (Museum of the City of New York)

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Intermural Murals

Art critic Murdock Pemberton approached the Museum of Modern Art’s newest exhibition of American muralists with a bit of suspicion, although he was correct in surmising that the Rockefeller Center was shopping for muralists, but as we now know it was not an American, but a Mexican artist (Diego Rivera) who would enter that scene and stir things up.

Among other works, MoMA visitors viewed Ben Shahn’s study for a three-part composition titled “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti”…

(MoMA)

…and a work by the New Yorker’s own Reginald Marsh titled “Post-War America”…

(MoMA)

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Boop’s Boo-Boo

We return to E.B. White and his musings regarding actress and singer Helen Kane (1904–1966), who filed a $250,000 (equivalent to nearly $5 million in 2021) infringement lawsuit against cartoonist Max Fleischer and Paramount Studios, claiming that the popular Betty Boop character was based on Kane’s personality and image.

BOOP SCOOP…Comparison between Helen Kane and the cartoon star Betty Boop was published in Photoplay’s April 1932 issue, one month before Kane’s lawsuit was filed. The suit was settled two years later, the court finding insufficient evidence to support Kane’s claim. (Wikipedia)

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From Rags to Rackets

Lois Long lived at the center of the 1920s speakeasy scene, but while she partied she also kept a critical eye on her surroundings, and when she later moved on to fashion criticism (“On And Off The Avenue”) she maintained the same combination of enthusiasm and shrewdness as she took aim at the “lusty fellows of the fashion rackets”…

JUST BROWSING, THANKS…Lois Long kept a skeptical eye on the New York fashion “racket” in the 1930s. Above, an unidentified model sporting a red velvet ensemble during a fashion show in 1933. (New York Daily News)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

We begin with yet another insecticide-themed cartoon from Dr. Seuss, this time using the experimental medium of television to get his point across…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to push their Camels on the growing market of women smokers, here mixing their product with a basket of fruit to suggest freshness and vitality…

…the folks at B. Altman touted their new outdoor furniture line, placing it in a setting available to a very select few New Yorkers…

…we kick off the cartoons with Peter Arno at his best…

Alice Harvey gave voice to one woman’s thoughts on children…

Leonard Dove found spirits dwelling among dusty bones…

James Thurber gave us his take on the housewife eating bonbons trope…I’m not suggesting that Thurber was the first to illustrate this stereotype, but I’m not finding any references to housewives and bonbons predating the 1950s…something for a dissertation out there, if it hasn’t already been done…

William Steig continued his exploration into the world of the Small Fry, offering up a rare image of baseball in the early New Yorker

…and we close the May 14 issue with I. Klein, and one sidewalk salesman looking for a bonafide endorsement…

…on to May 21, 1932…

May 21, 1932 cover by Helen Hokinson.

…where we find E.B. White sharing his thoughts on the Lindbergh kidnapping and its tragic result…

BAD NEWS ON THE DOORSTEP…News of the death of Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s kidnapped baby transfixed the country in the spring of 1932. (New York Times)

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No Immaculate Conception, This

It must have been hard to be Lewis Mumford, so knowledgable in the arts, architecture and city planning, and yet rather helpless in encouraging thoughtful growth in a place that spouted buildings like mushrooms and paved roads (thanks to Robert Moses) almost as fast as cars could drive across them. These excerpts offer some of Mumford’s thoughts on the matter:

For Mumford’s second point, he soundly denounced a plan to place an obelisk in Battery Park. The 1929 proposal called for an 800-foot obelisk at the junction of Broadway and Greenwich Street:

OVER COMPENSATING, PERHAPS…Designed by architect Eric Gugler, the proposed granite obelisk for Battery Park would have been windowless, 80 feet square at its base and rising to a height of 800 feet. Thankfully it was never, ahem, “erected.” (NYC Urbanism @nycurbanism) 

Mumford also addressed the matter of the Central Park Zoo, and its proposed relocation:

Happily for Mumford, and for former Gov. Al Smith (see caption), the zoo would be revitalized and remain in Central Park.

MIRACLES OF MOSES…Although Lewis Mumford would often be at odds with the powerful park commissioner Robert Moses, it was Moses who ensured that the Central Park Zoo would remain in the park. The remodeled zoo opened with great fanfare on December 2, 1934, and Moses’ old friend and political mentor Al Smith was designated honorary zookeeper. Smith, who lived just across from the zoo at 820 Fifth Avenue, visited almost daily. Structured as a quadrangle with a sea lion pool at its center, the Central Park Zoo is pictured above in August 1942. (nycgovparks.org)

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From Our Advertisers

Many advertisers played to the Anglophilic tendencies of New Yorker readers, particular ones selling garments to the sporting gentry who aped their British cousins in such pursuits as polo and dressage…here we have “play clothes” from the menswear company Rogers Peet…

…and this swell get-up (below) from Henri Bendel…both Peet and Bendel were well-known in the 1930s. Cole Porter even referred to both companies in his songs…here is the refrain from “I Introduced” (from the 1919 show Hitchy-Koo):

…”I presented Mister Peet to Mister Rogers”…

and even more famously Porter wrote these lines in his 1934 song “You’re the Top”:

…”You’re a Bendel Bonnet / a Shakespeare Sonnet”…

…Rogers Peet closed its doors in the 1980s, and Bendel folded in 2019…

…even during the Depression, almost anyone could spring for a ten-cent bar of Lux soap, and over the years it was famous for its splashy ads (two-page spreads in the New Yorker were common) and dozens of celebrity endorsements…Lux isn’t as dominant in the U.S. today, but it remains a major international brand, now sold and marketed by the British multinational Unilever, especially in Asia…back to 1932, the Lux ad below featured Lupe Velez — known as “The Mexican Spitfire,” she was a big star in the 30s but is perhaps best known today for her sad, tragic death in 1944…the Lux ad also displayed the Aber Twins — a Ziegfeld act that featured Arlene and Charlene Aber who weren’t really twins but sisters born 18 months apart…

…if you lived in New York in the 1920s and early 30s you probably would have known about the sometime artist/designer Don Dickerman and his themed Greenwich Village restaurants — especially The Pirate’s Den — which inspired this line of highball glasses (yeah, Prohibition was still around, but who cared?)…sadly these glasses didn’t help save The Pirate’s Den, which thanks to the Depression went bankrupt in 1932…

…speaking of Prohibition, Anheuser-Busch took advantage of laws that allowed for the production of near-beer containing one-half percent alcohol…

…if you couldn’t drink you could still eat to your heart’s content, that is if you were this fat cat and not some starving fellow in a bread line…

…on to our cartoons, Helen Hokinson took us pet shopping…

Garrett Price offered up a stereotype in a courtroom setting…

…and reminiscent of humor in the vein of Ralph Barton, Rea Irvin launched a series of the world’s “beauty spots”…

Next Time: A Visit to Minskyville…