Firecracker Lane

When fireworks were still allowed on the streets of New York City, Firecracker Lane was the place to go for all your pyrotechnic needs.

Theodore Haupt illustrated holiday travelers for the Fourth of July issue in 1931.

By 1931, however, fireworks had been banned across the greater New York City area, so customers visiting Firecracker Lane — a short row of sellers on Park Place between Broadway and Church Street — had to find a friendly burg beyond the metropolis to shoot off their Independence Day arsenals.

Before the city clamped down on the fun, Firecracker Lane did a bustling trade, and fireworks were even manufactured at sites around the metro area. But after a number of explosions and fires, the city closed down the fireworks factories, and by 1931 Fireworks Lane itself was on its last leg. “The Talk of the Town” visited what remained, and reminisced about the glory days.

A STREET WITH SOME SIZZLE…The famed Pain’s Fireworks company occupied this building on Firecracker Lane, photo circa 1903. At right, a young woman promoting Pain’s latest novelty, the “Chinese Dragon,” in the 1920s. (MCNY)
HAVING A BLAST…In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pain’s staged massive themed fireworks displays, including the incredible The Last Days of Pompeii show on Manhattan Beach, seen here during its 1903 Season. (heartofconeyisland.com)
BEFORE THERE WERE MOVIES, entertainment companies were fond of putting on spectacular shows like The Last Days of Pompeii on Manhattan Beach. Illustration from an 1885 edition of Harper’s Weekly. (heartofconeyisland.com)
LOCATION, LOCATION…Explosions at fireworks factories in New York and New Jersey put an end to the manufacture of fireworks in the area by 1930. Above, a July 1901 explosion of a fireworks factory in a Paterson, N.J. tenement resulted in the deaths of 17 people who lived above factory. The New York Times reported “So great was the force of the blast, that a boy playing in the street a half a block away was lifted from his feet and hurled against an iron fence, and had one of his legs broken.” (Courtesy Paterson Fire History, via boweryboyshistory.com)

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Not Mum on Mumford

In the previous post we were introduced to critic Lewis Mumford, who excoriated plans for the new Radio City, now known as Rockefeller Center. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White added his own two cents:

PERHAPS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CAKE…Even the promoters of the Radio City project looked uncertain of their scheme in this March 1931 photo. (drivingfordeco.com)

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From Our Advertisers

New Yorkers who wanted to get away from the steamy streets of Manhattan (almost no one had air conditioning in 1931) could catch the cooling breezes of the Atlantic on any number of cruise lines that plied the Eastern Seaboard and Canadian Maritimes during the summer…here the French Line offered a six-day “Triangle Cruise”…

…while Cunard offered a similar excursion (employing the cartooning skills of H.O. Hofman) that allowed passengers to “do the ocean” in just four days…

…to earn the ever-shrinking travel dollar during the Depression, both the Red Star and White Star lines offered their giant ocean liners for half- and full-week cruises to the Maritimes, Red Star even throwing in some on-board entertainment, claiming to be the first to do so “on any ocean”…

A SCRAPPED LOT…From top, the Belgenland, Majestic and Olympic. These great ships that once ferried passengers in high style between Europe and the States had been reduced to taking folks on short cruises and even one-day excursions due to the Depression. By the mid-1930s the Belgenland and Olympic (once the world’s largest ship) were sold for scrap. The Majestic was scuttled a few years later. (Wikipeda)

…I’m not sure where this pair is headed, but the angle suggests they just drove off a cliff…

…if cliff diving wasn’t your thing, you could tool around in a bright red Dodge boat…

…or be easily amused like this guy on the right, who gets his jollies from the abundance of ice cubes in his fridge…

…over at Essex House we find a more reserved scene, the “well-born” father and son gloating over their Central Park view…

…the Essex House might have been “all that,” but Dad and Junior would have to reconsider their social rank against a newcomer — the Waldorf-Astoria, reborn on Park Avenue…

…on to our cartoons, this couple illustrated by Garrett Price might consider something with a larger balcony…

Otto Soglow’s Little King took his Little Prince out for some air…

Kemp Starrett showed us a chap who contemplated the passing of time along with the passing of his timepiece…

I. Klein updated the theme of a damsel in distress…

…the growing popularity of Ping-Pong gave James Thurber some material to explore the battle of the sexes…

…and Barbara Shermund left us poolside with a couple of eggheads…

…on to our July 11, 1931 issue…

July 11, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…we find E.B. White taking his sweetheart, Katharine Angell White (referred to here as his “best girl”) out for a date at Coney Island…

A PLACE FOR ROMANCE…It’s not them, but this couple visiting Coney Island in 1928 (photo by Walker Evans) will serve well as our stand-ins for E.B. and Katharine White on their date to Coney. At right, the famous “Tunnels of Love.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Pinterest)
AND OTHER DIVERSIONS…Another famous and rather lurid Coney attraction was the wax museum, which featured dioramas based on headlines of the day. The biggest attractions were those featuring famous crime scenes, gruesome effects included. (Museum of the City of New York)
IT WAS A LIVING…Among other big attractions at Coney were the sideshow “freaks” White mentioned in his article. The photo above, from 1929, is by Edward J. Kelty. (artblart.com)

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On the Waterfront

The 1954 film by the same name featured the murderous mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who ruled the waterfront’s stevedores with an iron fist. The reality was just as brutal, if not more so along the Brooklyn waterfront in the early 20th century, where the reign of a crime boss was as short as his life span. Alva Johnston reports:

TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD…Midcentury view of the Brooklyn waterfront. (thenewyorkmafia.com)

Dinnie Meehan’s widow, Anna Lonergan, had the distinction of being shot at the side of two successive husbands; after Meehan was murdered, Anna married “White Hand” gangster Harry Reynolds. Johnston, who referred to Anna Lonergan as “the Brunhild of the longshore cycle,” concluded his piece with a look at the “last of the great leaders,” Red Donnelly, also known as “Cute Charlie”…

HARD KNOCKS…“Peg Leg” Lonergan was the final leader of the waterfront’s “White Hand Gang.” He was gunned down on Dec. 26, 1925, after a short reign as boss. He was just 25 years old when he died. (Pinterest)

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The Show Must Go On

With the glory days of vaudeville quickly receding into the past, Flo Ziegfeld was nevertheless determined to keep his “Follies” alive at his eponymous theatre. Robert Benchley stopped by for a look at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.

CARE FOR A SMOKE?…Program cover for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. At right, Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting, who portrayed a cigarette girl in the show’s “Club Piccadilly” skit. A note of trivia: Etting and I attended the same high school (but not at the same time!). (Playbill/Wikimedia Commons)
GLORY BE…Inside pages of the program featured some of the “Ziegfeld Beauties” appearing in the show. (Playbill)

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Gross

Back in the day some entrepreneurial types would kill a large whale, stuff it full of sawdust and formaldehyde, and then take it on the road to parade in front of gawkers with spare nickels in their pockets. E.B. White observed the fate of one such specimen:

YES, THIS WAS A THING…Before the days of Jacques Cousteau and Animal Planet, this is how some folks got their first and likely only look at a real whale, even if it was pumped full of sawdust and formaldehyde.

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From Our Advertisers

This small back page ad invited New Yorkers to the cooling breezes atop the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights, once referred to as the “Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn”…

Its rooftop restaurant — the Marine Roof — was a famous hangout. When the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, this is where they celebrated…

(brownstoner.com)

Dr. Seuss was still making a living illustrating advertisements for Flit insecticide…

…”my eyes are up here”…says the woman who uses Coty brand lipstick…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Garrett Price also examining the challenges of playing Ping-Pong…

Perry Barlow was at the seaside with a precocious beach-goer…

Carl Rose showed us a Boy Scout after his encounter with the Red Menace…

Kemp Starrett weighed the advantages of air travel…

Otto Soglow surprised us with this undercover operation…

…and we end with James Thurber, and the price of literary fame…

Next Time: The Black Eagle…

 

 

The Lion Roars

It’s easy to get into the weeds while digging through the New Yorker archives, as it is filled with a richly interconnected cast of characters whose lives and work still resonate with us today.

March 15, 1930 cover by Rose Silver. (Please see note on this artist at the end of this blog entry)

A case in point is Bert Lahr (1895-1967), who at age 15 dropped out of high school and joined the vaudeville circuit, working his way up to top billing in Broadway musical comedies including 1930’s Flying High, which received an enthusiastic welcome from New Yorker critic Charles Brackett

…Brackett enjoyed the “feminine beauty” offered by a George White chorus that included the “Gale Quadruplets,” described in the Playbill as “The only Quadruplets in the world appearing on the stage”…

…although in fact the Gale Quadruplets were actually two sets of twins: June and Jane, and Jean and Joan (real names were Doris, Lenore, Helen and Lorraine Gilmartin). But I digress.

What really caught Brackett’s eye were the antics of Bert Lahr:

ONLY ONE BERT…Clockwise, from top left, publicity photo of Bert Lahr from the 1931 film version of Flying High; cover of the Apollo Theatre Playbill; the Gale Quadruplets, circa 1930; Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. (Everett/Playbill/Pinterest/Wikiwand)

The Gale Quadruplets are long forgotten, but the work of Bert Lahr still lives on thanks to his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (a film, incidentally, that was panned in 1939 by New Yorker critic Russell Maloney, who called it “a stinkeroo” that showed “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity”).

Lahr also connects us to today’s New Yorker magazine, where his son, John Lahr, has been a staff writer and critic since 1992. Lahr has written a number of stage adaptions (he won a Tony award in 2002, the first drama critic to do so) as well as nearly twenty books, including a 2017 biography of his father, Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr.

DRAMATIC DUO…John Lahr with his father, Bert, backstage at the Belasco Theatre in the late 1940s; John Lahr today. (NY Times/Amazon)

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Greener Pastures

We remain on Broadway with another writer who was deeply connected to the New Yorker’s origins. Marc Connelly (1890-1980) was a playwright, director, producer and performer who collaborated with George S. Kaufman on five Broadway comedies in the 1920s. Connelly was also a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, around which orbited a number of writers, critics and assorted wits who would help bring the New Yorker to life in 1925. Connelly was listed as an advisory editor on the masthead of the very first issue:

Connelly’s play, The Green Pastures (based on stories from the Old Testament), had just opened on Broadway, drawing much acclaim for both Connelly and actor Richard B. Harrison (1864-1935). “The Talk of the Town” looked in on the playwright and the actor:

DID YOU HEAR SOMETHING?...Richard B. Harrison (left) and unidentified actor in 1930’s The Green Pastures. At right, Wesley Hill as the Angel Gabriel. (blackarchives.org/ngv.vic.gov.au)
FINAL BOW…Richard B. Harrison in a 1930 publicity photo for the Broadway play, The Green Pastures. At right, Harrison on the cover of the March 4, 1935, Time magazine. He died of heart failure ten days after appearing on the cover. (Henrietta Alice Metcalf Collection/Time)

Connelly would receive the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Green Pastures. And nearly 60 years later he would be featured in a 1987 documentary about the Algonquin Round Table (The Ten-Year Lunch) as the Table’s last survivor. It would win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. During his long career Connelly would act in 21 movies, including the 1960 romantic comedy Tall Story with Jane Fonda and Anthony Perkins. He also did some TV, included a stint from 1962 to 1964 as Judge Rampell in The Defenders.

HE COULD ACT TOO…Clockwise, from top left, Marc Connelly in a 1937 photo by Carl Van Vechten; a page from the Playbill for The Green Pastures; college student June Ryder (Jane Fonda) collides on campus with Professor Charles Osmond (Marc Connelly) in the 1960 romantic comedy Tall Story. (Wikipedia/Playbill/ridesabike.com)

Also in the “Talk of the Town” section of the March 15 issue was James Thurber’s latest installment of pet advice:

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Lipstick’s Lamentations

Once the place to read about wild speakeasies and other nighttime diversions of the Roaring Twenties, Lois Long’s “Tables for Two” column had quickly become anachronistic in the Depression years. Although the decade was still young, Long reminisced about her column’s “golden days” as if they had existed in some distant time, and lamented the state of the speakeasy; once a place for cheap and sordid frivolity, it had become staid and even snobbish…

THAT WAS THEN…Lois Long lamented the state of the speakeasy in 1930. Once sordid and given to frivolity, it had become a rather staid institution. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org/Time-Life)

…and Long described some of these new upscale speakeasies, where the oilcloth had been replaced with fine linen…

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Ozark Oeuvre

New Yorker art critic Murdock Pemberton, in his ongoing search for America’s best artists, took another look at that once “uncouth native” from the Ozarks, Thomas Hart Benton

PAINTING FROM THE SOIL…Cattle Loading, oil on canvas, by Thomas Hart Benton, 1930. It was one of the works viewed by critic Murdock Pemberton at the Delphic Studios in New York. (wahooart.com)

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From Our Advertisers

We start off with a couple of two-page ads, the first featuring caricatures of George Gershwin and Alexander Woollcott as rendered by the great Miguel Covarrubias

click image to enlarge

…and then we have this ad from the makers of Lux Toilet Soap, who must have had a bottomless advertising budget given all the splashy ads and celebrity endorsements…

…in the ads we also find clashes between the old and new…the new being this art deco-styled appeal for the newest form of transportation…

…and the old, the makers of the luxury car Pierce-Arrow, still harking back to its patrician origins (“The Tyranny of Tradition”)…the firm would not survive the lean years of the 1930s…

…and once again a colorful ad from Church using snob appeal to sell something as pedestrian as a toilet seat…”Toilet Seats For Better Bathrooms”…

…on to our cartoons, we have a voyeur’s perspective courtesy Helen Hokinson

…an exploration of the generation gap by Alice Harvey

…and this terrifically quaint encounter, rendered by Perry Barlow

…and before we go, a note about this week’s cover artist, Lisa Rhana, a.k.a. Rose Silver (1902-1985) who illustrated several New Yorker covers in the 1920s and early 30s. Her work is included in the permanent collections at the Whitney Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds this watercolor (left) that graced the cover of the Jan. 30, 1932 issue:

Next Time: Garbo Speaks…