Strike Up the Band!

Before we launch into the Jan. 25 issue, the rendering of the old New York Aquarium in this Sue Williams cover bears some consideration.

Jan. 25, 1930 cover by Sue Williams.

The aquarium was housed within the historic walls the South West Battery, constructed off the tip of Manhattan between 1808 and 1811 as a defense against the British. Renamed Castle Clinton in 1817 (in honor of former Mayor/Governor Dewitt Clinton), it was deeded to the city in 1823 to be used as an entertainment center. From 1855 to 1890 it served as an immigrant landing depot, then remodeled in 1896 (by the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White) to become the popular New York City Aquarium.

FISH OUT OF WATER…Postcard image of the New York City Aquarium from the early 1900s; aerial view of the aquarium circa 1934; postcard image of aquarium interior; demolition of the aquarium in 1941, on orders from city planner Robert Moses. (thebattery.org/nycgovparks.org)

Although the aquarium proved to be a cultural and educational magnet, it stood in the way of master planner Robert Moses’s designs to build a bridge from The Battery to Brooklyn. After residents, preservationists and even Eleanor and President Franklin Roosevelt protested, the city opted instead to construct a tunnel under the East River. Nevertheless, Moses managed to get the aquarium knocked down before demolition was halted by the outbreak of World War II. After the war, Congress passed a bill declaring the site a National Monument, and preserved the walls of Castle Clinton.

HIGH AND DRY…Until it was demolished in 1941, the New York City Aquarium occupied the space in the center of Castle Clinton, which was added to National Register of Historic Places in 1966. (nps.gov)

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Now, About That Band…

A play that satirized America’s enthusiasm for war — Strike Up the Band — was loved by critics but spurned by audiences when it opened in Philadelphia in 1927. Written by George S. Kaufman, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, the play had the pedigree for success, but audiences weren’t quite ready for a show that poked fun at the U.S. military just nine years after the end of World War I (in the original play, America is goaded into declaring war on Switzerland by an American cheese tycoon).

Enter lyricist Morrie Ryskind, who reworked the script, softening its political message and remaking the war plot into a dream sequence. The revised play proved to a be hit, running for 191 performances at the Times Square Theatre. It also introduced a number of popular songs, including “The Man I Love” and “Strike Up the Band.” Robert Benchley was on hand for opening night:

TEAMWORK…Clockwise, from top, Ira (left) and George Gershwin at work circa 1930; lyricist Morrie Ryskind, who softened the tone of George S. Kaufman’s original script. (U of Michigan/Wikipedia)

Benchley noted that the antics of comedian Bobby Clark caused him to laugh so loud that his guffaws were even noted in the Herald Tribune’s review:

MAKE ‘EM LAUGH…The comedy team of Paul McCullough (left) and Bobby Clark were one of the play’s big draws. At right, Herald-Tribune illustration by Al Hirschfeld announcing the Broadway opening of Strike Up the Band. (aaronneathery.org)

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Duncan Yo-Yos

We’ve seen the Duncan Sisters (Rosetta and Vivian) before in this blog, the sister vaudeville act that became famous with the 1923 hit musical Topsy and Eva, which inspired a silent 1927 film starring the duo. They were back on the screen in late 1929 with It’s a Great Life, which the New Yorker’s John Mosher found to be “pretty dreary”…

NOT SO GREAT, THIS…Clockwise from top, promotional poster for It’s a Great Life; a scene from a dance number in the film; Rosetta (in blackface) and Vivian Duncan as Topsy and Eva (characters derived from the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin). It’s a Great Life flopped at the box office, along with the Duncan’s brief movie careers. In the years to follow the duo would became popular nightclub entertainers and would continue to perform their Topsy and Eva routine even though appearing in blackface was increasingly considered offensive. (Wikipedia/freewebs.com)

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Miracle Worker

The New Yorker profile, written by Robert Coates, featured Helen Keller (with illustration by Hugo Gellert). A brief excerpt:

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From Our Advertisers

Advertisers in the Jan. 25 issue included the new Fortune magazine, which announced its first issue with this full-page ad:

…the table of contents is fascinating, spare in descriptions of everything from “Hogs” to “Orchids”…

From left, issue No. 1, February 1930; table contents for the issue; a prototype of the magazine, September 1929. (Fortune) please click to enlarge

…also listed in the new magazine’s table of contents was the name of a 24-year-old photographer, Margaret Bourke-White

A photo of coal piles by Margaret Bourke-White in the first issue of Fortune magazine. At right, Bourke-White photographing atop a skyscraper circa 1930. (Fortune)

…on to our other advertisements, we have this entry from Elizabeth Arden…ads from this salon chain in the 1920s and 30s featured this ubiquitous image of a woman with a distant stare, her head tightly bound — mummy-like — as part of a firming treatment called “muscle-strapping”…

…in contrast to the rather cold, clinical look of Elizabeth Arden ad, the Primrose House appealed more to social climbing than skin toning…

…while the makers of Pond’s cold cream continued to draw from their stable of debutantes and society ladies to move their product…

…long before there was Joe Camel, R.J. Reynolds also appealed to social climbers with a series of ads beautifully illustrated by fashion artist Carl Erickson

…society’s smokers were advised to pack a tube of Bost toothpaste, or have their French maid do it for them…

…and once again we have an ad by Dr. Seuss for Flit insecticide that is very much of its time…

…as is this cartoon by I. Klein, perhaps the first in the New Yorker that depicted African Americans as something other than minstrel show stereotypes. Nevertheless, the rendering is still a bit crude — especially the boy’s face — as is the idea behind the “joke” —  that a black boy could actually aspire to be a great violinist like Jascha Heifetz

John Reynolds explored a less troubling juxtaposition among the bohemian set…

…and we end with this peek into society life courtesy Barbara Shermund… 

Next Time: The Wild Kingdom…

 

 

 

 

Let Them Eat Cake

The re-opening of New York’s Central Park Casino in 1929 was in many ways the city’s last big party before the economy came crashing down, along with the exhuberance and frivolity of the Jazz Age.

May 25, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The Casino itself wasn’t new–it opened in 1864 as the Ladies’ Refreshment Salon (sometimes spelled “saloon”), a two-room stone cottage designed by Calvert Vaux. As Susannah Broyles writes in her excellent blog post for the Museum of the City of New York, the Victorian cottage was a place where “unaccompanied ladies could relax during their excursions around the park and enjoy refreshments at decent prices, free of any threat to their propriety.”

Central Park’s Ladies’ Refreshment Saloon opened in 1864. (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

Broyles writes that by the 1880s the salon had morphed into a far pricier destination, a restaurant called The Casino, open to both sexes. With the rare attraction of outdoor seating, “it was the place to see and be seen.”

By the 1920s the restaurant had grown a bit shabby. Then along came the city’s flamboyant mayor, Jimmy Walker (1881-1946), who saw the potential of the property as a place where he could hob-nob with wealthy and fashionable New Yorkers and openly flaunt Prohibition laws. There were others, however, who found the idea of an exclusive playground for the rich in a public park distasteful. The New Yorker observed as much in the “Notes and Comment” opening of “The Talk of the Town”…

…the “Schuyler L. Parsons” referred to above was a tireless host, prominent decorator, and a society A-lister. He is pictured here (circa 1930) with two of his closest friends, actor Charlie Chaplin and the actress, singer and dancer Gertrude Lawrence

(Tyler Hughes Collections)

The Central Park Casino reopened its doors on June 4, 1929 at an invitation-only event. The following day it would open to the public, but as New York’s newest and most expensive restaurant it would remain closed to all but the wealthiest. As the New Yorker observed, the city was, after all, a plutarchy, and the populace passing by the Casino would at least be allowed “to glimpse the decadent class in the act of eating a six-dollar dinner” (nearly $90 today).

This formal announcement of the opening appeared in the May 6, 1929 issue of the New Yorker, including the time of the event—I suppose for the benefit of the 600 who actually had an invitation, or perhaps to tantalize those without such credentials…

The Casino was a playground for the rich by design, conceived in the image of the flamboyant Mayor Walker—himself a product of the Tammany Hall political machine—and executed by hotelier Sidney Solomon, who obtained the building’s lease via some Tammany-style subterfuge. Solomon hired architect and theatrical set designer Joseph Urban to transform the Casino into a glittering showpiece of Jazz Age nightlife.

Clockwise, from top left, the Central Park Casino; architect Joseph Urban; his Casino ballroom design with black-mirrored ceiling; the Casino lobby. (acontinuouslean.com/Columbia University/centralpark.com/drivingfordeco.com)

The New Yorker continued its observations on the Casino in another “Talk of the Town” piece titled “Historical Note,” attributing the inspiration for the Casino not to Walker or Solomon, but to socialite Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Jr…

AN EYE FOR THE FINER THINGS…The wealthy socialite A.J. Biddle (pictured here with his first wife, Mary Lillian Duke, in 1924) trained his eye on the Central Park Casino while on the rooftop of the St. Regis Hotel pondering another Joseph Urban project. (voxsartoria.com)
PARTY BOY…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker and his nighttime playground, the Central Park Casino, show here on September 10, 1935. (Britannica/ New York City Department of Parks & Recreation)

Well, as you’ve probably guessed, the party didn’t last forever. After the October 1929 stock market crash, the sight of rich folks stuffing their faces and drinking fine wines in a public park looked even more unseemly. Soon the Casino found itself in the crosshairs of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who detested Mayor Walker.

As for Walker himself, a growing financial scandal prompted him to resign from office on Sept. 1, 1932. He promptly fled to Europe with his mistress, Ziegfeld girl Betty Compton, and stayed overseas until the threat of criminal prosecution had passed. For Moses, it wasn’t satisfaction enough to see Walker driven from office. In 1936, despite protests from preservationists, Moses had Urban’s lovely restaurant demolished. It was replaced by a children’s playground the following year.

THE PARTY’S OVER…Crews dismantling the Central Park Casino in 1936. In 1937, the Rumsey Playground was built on the site of the Casino, and in the 1980’s the site was razed again and converted into Rumsey Playfield, where the city’s SummerStage events are now held. (Museum of the City of New York/centralpark.com)

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A Drinking Life

As the Jazz Age was winding down, one of its greatest chroniclers began a brief relationship with the New Yorker. In the March 12, 2017 issue of the magazine, Erin Overbey and Joshua Rothman wrote “There’s a doomed, romantic quality to the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and The New Yorker; they were perfect for each other but never quite got together.” In total, Fitzgerald published just two poems and three humorous shorts for the magazine, beginning with this piece in the May 25, 1929 issue:

Fitzgerald’s last contribution to the New Yorker would appear in the Aug. 21, 1937 issue (“A Book of One’s Own”). Following the author’s death in 1940 the magazine would feature various articles on his life and work, and in 2017—77 years after Fitzgerald’s death—the New Yorker would publish a long lost short story, “The IOU.” A fitting title for an author who sadly did not get his due while he was alive.

IOU…F. Scott Fitzgerald with daughter “Scottie” and wife Zelda, circa 1927. (The Telegraph)

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One of the Gang

Among the Jazz Age artists and writers who orbited around the Algonquin Round Table (and the Central Park Casino) and chummed with the writers of the New Yorker was musician and composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) who was profiled in the May 25 issue by his friend and longtime New Yorker writer Samuel N. Behrman. The opening paragraph (with caricature by Al Frueh):

IN THE SAME ORBIT…Samuel Nathaniel Behrman (left), was an American playwright, screenwriter, biographer, and longtime writer for The New Yorker. From the late 1920s through the 1940s, he was considered one of Broadway’s leading authors of “high comedy,”His son is the composer David Behrman. At right, George Gershwin at the piano, 1929. (prabook.com/IMDB)

In the profile, Behrman observed that although Gershwin expressed a desire for privacy, he was quite capable of dashing off major works in practically any setting:

TOOTING HIS OWN HORN…Composer George Gershwin and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra percussionist James Rosenberg holding four taxi horns used in the orchestra’s performance of An American in Paris, on Feb. 28, 1929. (Photo courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts)

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Scratching the Surface

Emily Hahn (1905-1997) was a prolific journalist and author who contributed at least 200 poems, articles and works of fiction to the New Yorker over an astonishing 68-year span—from 1928 to 1996. As the title suggests, I am merely scratching surface, and will devote a post to her in the near future. Here is her contribution to the May 25, 1929 issue:

PROLIFIC…A 1937 portrait of Emily Hahn taken in Shanghai, China, by Sir Victor Sassoon. The author of 54 books, Hahn is credited with playing a significant role in opening up Asia and Africa to the West through her many novels. (DeGolyer Library, SMU)

Another frequent contributor to the New Yorker was screenwriter John Ogden Whedon (1905-1991), who offered up mostly shorts from 1928 to 1938. He is best known as a television writer for such shows as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Leave It to Beaver. Whedon and his wife, Louise Carroll Angell, were parents and grandparents to a number of screenwriters, including grandson Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and writer/director of The Avengers (2012) and its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). An excerpt of grandpa’s writing from the May 25 issue:

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From Our Advertisers

In a recent post (Waldorf’s Salad Days) I noted an ad from Lily of France that proclaimed the straight flapper figure was out, and it was now the “season of curves.” This ad from B. Altman begs to differ…

…one way to keep that straight figure was to pull on a girdle, which I’m sure felt great while one played tennis…

…our latest Lucky Strike endorser is…Mrs. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte. Never heard of her? Well, “Mrs. Jerome” was actually a one Blanche Pierce (1872-1950) of Rochester, NY. Her second husband, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (the great-grandnephew of Emperor Napoleon) was something of a wastrel, having inherited a fortune and never worked at a job or profession. Blanche herself was known as a social climber…

THEY EXISTED…Jerome Napoleon Charles Bonaparte (pictured here circa 1915) was the great-grandnephew of Emperor Napoleon and a man of extreme leisure. His wife, Blanche Pierce Bonaparte (right, in a photo circa 1925), was known as a dog lover, a passion that indirectly led to her second husband’s demise. Jerome died while walking his wife’s dog in Central Park—he apparently stumbled over the dog’s leash and broke his neck. (Library of Congress)

…speaking of European nobility, here is another sad endorsement from a French noble touting the wonders of Clicquot Club ginger ale to Prohibition-strapped Americans…

…and then we have this weird “Annie Laurie” analogy used by Chrysler to sell its line of automobiles…

…the manufacturers of Studebaker, on the other hand, opted for a more direct approach, equating its automobiles with the speed and modernity of airplane flight…note how in both ads the cars are pictured with the windshields folded down to emphasize sleekness…

…on to the cartoons: we begin with this two-page entry by Rea Irvin, which makes very little sense…I get the part where the rich old man (stalked by his fearsome wife) finds a mistress (and a new wife) through the process of “checking his horse,” but the whole mermaid thing is lost on me…please click to enlarge—I’d love to have this one explained…

Carl Rose had some fun with newfangled sound effects in the dawning age of the talkies…

Peter Arno sketched up the cynicism of one New York dowager…

Perry Barlow captured two women who might have been driving home from an auction at the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel…

…and finally, a lovely illustration by Helen Hokinson of children at play…

Next Time: The Unspeakables…