All That Jazz

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” editors were always in search of something to amuse, and in the Jan. 29, 1927 issue they found it in one Maurine Watkins, who wrote the Broadway hit musical Chicago (yes, THAT one) while still enrolled in her drama class at Yale:

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Maurine Watkins (Chicago Tribune)

Watkins transformed a brief career as a Chicago Tribune crime reporter into her Broadway success, thanks to her fondness for writing about murderers:

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Chicago opened on Broadway in late December 1926 at the Sam Harris Theatre, where it ran for 172 performances. Watkins wrote the play as “homework” for her Yale drama class:

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It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling, with Cecil B. DeMille producing a silent film version (directed by Frank Urson) in 1927.

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Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart from the 1927 film, Chicago. Ginger Rogers would play the role in the 1942 movie Roxie Hart, and Renée Zellweger would play the part in the 2002 film, Chicago. (chicagology)

Watkins would go on to write about 20 plays, moving on to Hollywood to write screenplays including the 1936 comedy Libeled Lady. She left Hollywood in the 1940s to be close to her parents in Florida. A lifelong Christian, Watkins spent much of her fortune funding the study of Greek and the Bible at some 20 universities, including Princeton. Following her death in 1969, her estate sold the rights to Chicago to famed choreographer and director Bob Fosse. Fosse would go on to develop Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville in 1975, which was revived in 1997 and turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 2002.

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Winter doldrums had set into city, which was digging out of the latest snowstorm and leaving the “Talk” editors pining for spring.

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January 29, 1927 cover by Ilona Karasz.

So it was unwelcome news that the green lawns along Cottage Row were to become the latest casualties of the booming city:

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According to the excellent blog Daytonian in Manhattan, around 1848 William Rhinelander filled the 7th Avenue block between 12th and 13th Streets with eleven three-story homes above “English basements.” The simple residences were intended for middle-class families and sat more than twenty feet back from the street, providing grassy lawns and garden space. During summer weather each floor had a deep veranda that provided shade and caught cooling breezes.

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This 1936 photograph by Berenice Abbot shows the abandoned “Cottage Row.” (Library of Congress)

As it turned out, the green lawns won a brief reprieve: By the time developers got around to building an apartment on the site, the Depression hit and left Cottage Row standing for another ten years. It was demolished in 1937, replaced not by an apartment building but rather by a gas station and used car lot, which were replaced in 1964 by the Joseph Curran Building (now the Lenox Hill Healthplex):

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Today the Cottage Row site is occupied by the Joseph Curran Building (now the Lenox Hill Healthplex). Albert C. Ledner, a New Orleans architect, fancifully evoked seafaring themes in his design of the Curran Building, which originally housed the headquarters of the National Maritime Union. (MCD Magazine)

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The winter drear was further compounded by the sooty smog that lingered over the city, fed by so many coal-fired furnaces. The “Talk” editors noted:

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A PERENNIAL NUISANCE…This Al Frueh drawing originally appeared in the Feb. 27, 1926 issue of the magazine.

To read more about “soft coal days,” see my previous post, “A Fine Mess.”

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Elsewhere in the magazine, the New Yorker featured this ditty by P.G. Wodehouse:

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Columnist Lois Long (“Tables for Two”) was contemplating dance lessons to learn the “Black Bottom,” the dance craze that supplanted “The Charleston” in 1926.

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Apparently the dance called for special shoes, per this advertisement from the same issue:

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Up to now I’ve been posting images of often lavish ads featured mostly in the first sections of the magazine and on the front and back inside covers, but there were other, less expensive (and less artful) ads sprinkled in the back pages of the magazine, a tradition that continues to this day:

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Next time: Spring Fever…

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Black Bottom & Other Scandals

The Roaring Twenties were all about fads and crazes, ranging from flagpole sitting to dances such as “The Shimmy,” “The Charleston,” or “The Black Bottom.” These dances were appropriated from Black culture, with many New Yorkers getting their first exposure in places such as Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.

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June 26, 1926 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The June 26, 1926 issue of The New Yorker was all abuzz over the Broadway debut of George White’s eighth annual Scandals. The Scandals were a long-running string of Broadway revues that ran from 1919-1939. Modelled after the Ziegfeld Follies, the Scandals launched the careers of many entertainers, including W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Rudy Vallée and Louise Brooks. Composer George Gershwin’s early work also appeared in the earliest editions of the show.

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Actress Louise Brooks got her start in the Scandals and later the Ziegfeld Follies. Here she portrays the “Duchess of Sidebottom” in George White’s Scandals of 1924. By 1925 Brooks would have a movie contract with Paramount, and go on to become a popular star of the late silent era and gain fame as the iconic symbol of the flapper. (flickr)

Like Flo Ziegfeld, George White must have been a master at marketing, since tickets for the Scandals opening sold for $55, which today would be the equivalent of about $725:

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The editors of “The Talk of the Town” were a bit skeptical of all the hype:

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The 1926 Scandals show featured “The Black Bottom,” danced by Ziegfeld Follies star Ann Pennington and Tom Patricola. In this dance-crazed era, “The Black Bottom” became a national phenomenon and even surpassed “The Charleston” in popularity.

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Tom Patricola & Ann Pennington dance “The Black Bottom” in 1926 as Scandals producer George White looks on (Wikipedia)
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Ann Pennington “teaching” Felix the Cat how to dance “The Black Bottom.” Image scan from Photoplay magazine spread, January 1927.

“The Black Bottom” was popularized in New York by the 1924 Harlem stage show show Dinaah. Although the dance moves originated in New Orleans in the early 20th century, Jelly Roll Morton gave it a name when he wrote Black Bottom Stomp in 1925, referring to Detroit’s Black Bottom district.

In typical fashion, The New Yorker was less than impressed with the spectacle. In his theatre review column, Charles Brackett made this observation:

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On to other things, “The Talk of the Town” also featured this curious note about George Custer’s widow, reminding us that 1926 was a very long time ago. Here are excerpts:

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Elizabeth Bacon Custer in 1876, the year of the Battle at Little Bighorn (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The New Yorker editors continued to remark on the changing face of Fifth Avenue…

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…and on the progress of the city’s infrastructure improvements, as in this excerpt from a humorous piece by the Robert Benchley:

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New York Governor Al Smith and New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore shake hands at the state border inside the Holland Tunnel in 1926. (NY Daily News)

Next Time: Wild & Woolly…

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