Not Worth a Dime

First performed in Berlin in 1928, The Threepenny Opera was Bertolt Brecht’s socialist critique of capitalist society and was a favorite (somewhat ironically) of that city’s bourgeois “smart set.” However when it landed on the Broadway stage in 1933, it famously flopped, and closed after just twelve performances.

April 22, 1933 cover by Helen Hokinson.

The first American production, adapted by Jerrold Krimsky and Gifford Cochran, opened April 13, 1933, at the Empire Theatre, featuring Robert Chisholm as Macheath (“Mack the Knife”) and Steffi Duna as his lover, Polly. Critic Robert Benchley found value in the play’s “modernistic” music, but seemed puzzled by its enigmatic production, an opinion shared by other contemporary critics.

HANGING IN THERE…Scenes from the 1928 Berlin premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s musical, The Threepenny Opera. At left, Macheath (tenor/baritone Harald Paulsen) is spared the noose during the closing act, much to the relief of his lover, Polly (soprano Roma Bahn); at right, in a deus ex machina moment, a messenger arrives at the hanging and announces that Macheath has been pardoned by the queen. (British Library)

Some critics today defend the 1933 American production, noting that the Krimsky–Cochran adaptation was quite faithful to the Brecht original. Perhaps something was lost in translation, or maybe the world in which the play was conceived no longer held much relevance to Depression-era Americans.

THE FINAL CURTAIN fell after just twelve performances of the first American production of The Threepenny Opera at Broadway’s Empire Theatre. The production featured Robert Chisholm as Macheath and Steffi Duna as Polly. (

Benchley half-heartedly concluded that the play was probably worth seeing, for no other reason than to experience something different for a change.

By 1933 the world that had conceived The Threepenny Opera was long gone—Brecht fled Nazi Germany two months before his play opened in New York, fearing persecution for his socialist leanings. Things were quickly going “from bad to worse” under Adolf Hitler’s new regime, as Howard Brubaker observed in his “Of All Things” column:

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Look Ma, No Net!

Karl Wallenda (referred to as “Carl” here) was born to an old circus family in Germany in 1905, and by 1922 he would put together a family-style high-wire act (with brother Herman) that would come to be known as “The Flying Wallendas.” They debuted at Madison Square Garden in 1928, notably without their safety net, which had been lost in transit. So they performed without it, much to the acclaim of the adoring crowd. They soon became known for their daring high-wire acts, often performed without safety nets. E.B. White filed this (excerpted) report for “The Talk of the Town.”

In the years that followed Karl developed some of troops’ most startling acts, including the famed seven-person chair pyramid. They performed this incredibly dangerous stunt until their appearance at the Detroit Shrine Circus in January 1962; the wire’s front man, Dieter Schepp, faltered, causing the pyramid to collapse. Schepp, who was Karl’s nephew, was killed, as was Richard Faughnan, Karl’s son-in-law. Karl injured his pelvis, and his adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down.

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME…The Wallenda family practices the seven-person pyramid just prior to the Shrine Circus in Detroit, where the group fell, killing Dieter Schepp (far right, bottom row) and Dick Faughnan (second from left, on bottom). (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)

Karl’s own luck finally ran out on March 22, 1978, on a tightrope between the towers of Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. High winds, and an improperly secured wire, caused the 73-year-old Wallenda to wobble, and then fall, one hundred feet to the ground. He was dead on arrival at a local hospital.

THE SHOW ENDED for Karl Wallenda on March 22, 1978, on a tightrope between the towers of Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The 73-year-old high-wire legend fell one hundred feet to his death. (

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Safer Entertainments

Lois Long continued to file nightlife reports in her “Tables for Two” column, reveling in the sights and sounds (and rhythms) of the Cotton Club’s orchestra, led by Duke Ellington…but the real attraction was Ellington’s unnamed drummer, whom I assume was the great Sonny Greer

JAZZ GREAT Sonny Greer wowed Lois Long and the rest of the crowd at Harlem’s Cotton Club in April 1933. (

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From Our Advertisers

Given the news Howard Brubaker shared earlier in this post, I wouldn’t use the word Gemütlichkeit (basically, warmth and friendliness) to describe the state of things in Nazi Germany…

…a better option would be a trip to the British Isles or France on the White Star lines, nicht wahr?…

…RCA’s mascot, Nipper, appeared to contemplating fatherhood in this two-page ad for the company’s new “baby sets”…

…Camel took a break from its magician-themed “It’s Fun to be Fooled” ads to run another elegant Ray Prohaska-illustrated spot…

…on to our cartoons, Carl Rose demonstrated the economic benefits of legal beer…

E. Simms Campbell showed us a woman seeking a bit of motherly wisdom…

Whitney Darrow Jr (1909–1999), who began his 50-year career at The New Yorker on March 18, 1933, offered this look at childhood’s hard knocks…

James Thurber drew up an odd encounter at a cocktail party…

Peter Arno served up a proud patriarch…

…and William Steig explored the perils of somnambulism…

…on to our April 29, 1933 issue with a cover by Garrett Price…although we’ve already seen many cartoons by Price, we haven’t seen many covers (he did two covers in the magazine’s first year, 1925). Price would ultimately produce 100 covers for The New Yorker, in addition to his hundreds of cartoons…

April 29, 1933 cover by Garrett Price. Note the little train illustration along the spine.

…for the record, here is Price’s first New Yorker cover from Aug. 1, 1925…

…there was more troubling news from Nazi Germany, this time from Paris correspondent Janet Flanner in her “Letter from Paris” column…Flanner would later gain wider fame as a war correspondent…

THUGS…SA members stick a poster to the window of a Jewish store in Berlin on April 1, 1933. The poster is inscribed, “Germans, Defend yourselves, Do not buy from Jews”. (Bundesarchiv, Berlin)

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From Our Advertisers

Camel followed up its elegant ad from the previous issue with another “Fun to be Fooled” spot, this time presented as a multi-panel comic strip…

…Powers Reproduction was a frequent advertiser in the early New Yorker, touting the “realism” of their color photography, but in this case the model looked more like a department store mannequin…

Otto Soglow continued to ply a lucrative sideline illustrating ads for Sanka decaf…

…as we segue to our cartoonists, the opening section featuring work by both James Thurber and George Price

Gardner Rea’s snake charmer expressed her belief that all men are created equal…

…here is a cartoon by a new artist, Howard Baer, who contributed to The New Yorker between 1933 and 1937…

…and another by newcomers Whitney Darrow Jr.

…and E. Simms Campbell

Barbara Shermund continued to rollick with her modern women…

…and we end with the ever-reliable Peter Arno

Before we close I want to remember Roger Angell, who died last week at age 101. A literary legend and a great baseball writer to be sure, but also one of the last living links to the first days of The New Yorker. Rest in Peace.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe, for The New Yorker.

Next Time: Bohemian Rhapsody…



From Broadway to Babylon

While the introduction of sound to motion pictures ended the careers of some silent film stars in the late 1920s, Hollywood’s “talkies” offered new opportunities for Broadway stage actors who could now take their vocal talents to the screen and to audiences nationwide.

May 4, 1929 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

And so began the so-called “Broadway Exodus.” Humorist and frequent New Yorker contributor Robert Benchley offered his wry observations on the phenomenon in the May 4, 1929 “A Reporter at Large” column:

AW SHUCKS…Broadway mainstay and a perennial performer with the Ziegfeld Follies, humorist Will Rogers found his element in Hollywood’s new talkies, appearing here with Fifi D’Orsay in 1929’s They Had to See Paris. (Wikipedia)
TALE OF TWO CITIES…Broadway in 1925 (left) and Hollywood Boulevard in 1929. (Daily Mail/USC Digital Library)

Benchley observed that regardless how many Broadway stars moved west, Hollywood Boulevard would never be mistaken for Broadway. However, Benchley himself would catch the bug and head to Tinseltown, appearing in dozens of feature films and shorts including How to Sleep, which would win an Academy Award for “Best Short Subject, Comedy,” in 1935.

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT…Robert Benchley in the 1935 Oscar-winning short, How to Sleep. (YouTube)

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One Who Stayed on Broadway

James Thurber reported in “The Talk of the Town” that famed boxing champion Jack Johnson was a common sight on the sidewalks of Broadway. Thurber noted that Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915), had fallen on less glamorous days, but still appeared fit at age 51.

IN FIGHTING FORM…Jack Johnson visits with writer Joe Butler at the Scranton Times-Tribune offices on Nov. 30, 1929. (Scranton Times-Tribune)

Thurber noted that Johnson was planning to sell stories of his life, and possibly get into vaudeville. The boxer also mused that who could lick either of the heavyweight champs of the 1920s, Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey

CUPCAKES…The 51-year-old Jack Johnson claimed he could defeat either of the famed heavyweight champions of the 1920s, Gene Tunney (left) or Jack Dempsey. (Reemus Boxing)

…and Thurber shared a strange account regarding the thickness of Johnson’s skull, which apparently bested that of an ox…

FIGHT TO THE LAST…The 67-year-old Jack Johnson prepares for an exhibition boxing match at a war bond show in New York City on May 1945. Along with making public appearances, Johnson also performed on Broadway during his retirement. (Houston Chronicle)

Johnson continued professional boxing until age 60, and thereafter participated in boxing exhibitions in various venues until his death at age 68 in a car crash near Raleigh, NC. It was reported that Johnson was racing angrily from a nearby diner that had refused to serve him when he lost control and hit a light pole.

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Anyone who thinks the recent squabbles over Planned Parenthood are anything new might do a little reading on the life of Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916 (in Brooklyn) and was subsequently arrested for distributing information on contraception. In 1929 she was again arrested for operating a “secret” birth control clinic in the basement of a Manhattan brownstone. On March 22, 1929, the New York Police Department sent an undercover female detective, Anna McNamara, to Sanger’s clinic. Posing as a patient who wished to avoid another pregnancy, McNamara was advised on various forms of contraception. She later returned to the clinic as part of the police raid, during which she seized a number of confidential patient files. At Sanger’s subsequent court hearing, McNamara learned first-hand about the importance of patient confidentiality. From the May 4 “Talk of the Town”…

Recalling her arrest in a 1944 article, “Birth Control: Then and Now,” Sanger wrote that McNamara taunted her during the raid when she was told that she had no right to touch private medical files. Sanger wrote “I shall never forget the color of Mrs. McNamara’s face when she heard this medical testimony recited several days later in Magistrates’ Court at the hearing. She was totally unprepared for this embarrassing revelation of her own organs.” The New Yorker made note of this…

Sanger would continue to work for birth control until her death in 1966. Although her name is still invoked in debates over abortion, Sanger herself was generally opposed to abortion, maintaining that contraception was the only practical way to avoid it.

GAG ORDER…In April 1929 Margaret Sanger planned to speak at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum on Free Speech. Ironically, the topic of birth control was banned in Boston at the time, so Sanger appeared onstage with a gag over her mouth while historian Arthur M. Schlesinger read her remarks on free speech to the assembly. At right, the February 1926 issue of Birth Control Review. Founded by Sanger in 1917, she served as editor until 1928. It ceased publication in 1940. (

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Please Sit Still

The “Talk of the Town” also looked on American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam, who demonstrated the challenges of painting en plein air…

LOVELY SCENE…Childe Hassam’s Landscape at Newfields, New Hampshire, oil on canvas, 1909. Hassam in his studio circa 1920. (Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

…and found it difficult to finish a farmhouse sketch when a door was unexpectedly closed on his subject…

THIS ONE HE FINISHED…Childe Hassam’s etching, The Old Dominy House (East Hampton), 1928. This work was probably created during Hassam’s visits to East Hampton described in “The Talk of the Town.”(Smithsonian)

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All That Jazz

As Lois Long’s contributions to her “Tables for Two” column grew ever more infrequent, it was clear that she was wearying of the nightlife scene. Now 28 and a young mother, “Lipstick” was shedding her image as a fun-loving flapper and devoting more time and energy to her fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue.” Nevertheless, she still found the time to visit the Cotton Club and proclaim Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra as “the greatest of all time”…

…although her other observations of the New York nightclub scene appear to have been hastily dashed off…

THE BEST…Duke Ellington and his orchestra (top), circa 1930. Below, Vincent Lopez conducts his orchestra in 1923. ( / © Mark Berresford)

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Electric Wonders

The May 4 issue updated readers on some of the latest gadgets available to modern households in 1929. I particularly like the device that allowed your vacuum to blow “moth poison” into your garments…

NOW THIS DOES NOT SUCK…Garments and other household items could be fumigated against moths using a new reverse vacuum attachment, available at Lewis & Conger. (Cyberspace Vacuum Cleaner Museum / Columbia University)

*  *  *

From Our Advertisers

One thing you notice about 1920s advertising is the amount of turgid copy they contain…I suppose without distractions such as TV and iPhones people actually took the time to read all of these bloated messages, such as this one from Whitman’s that suggested a box of candy is more than a box of candy…

…or how about this lengthy appeal from Kodak, which used guilt to convince you to get some film of grandma while she was still “at her best…”

…the makers of Spud promised a “new freedom” and a “16% cooler smoke” to the users of its menthol-laced cigarettes. Spuds were the first menthol cigarettes, developed in 1924 by Ohioan Lloyd “Spud” Hughes, who sold them out of his car until the brand was acquired in 1926 by The Axton-Fisher Tobacco Company. By 1932 Spud was the fifth-most popular brand in the U.S., and had no competitors in the menthol market until Brown & Williamson launched their Kool brand in 1933. The Spud brand died out by 1963 (along with, presumably, many of its customers)…

…leveraging the popularity in the 1920s of knights and fairies, as well as the Anglo- and Francophila of New Yorker readers, “Mrs. Marie D. Kling” hoped to entice city dwellers up to the burbs in Scarsdale…

…our cartoons are courtesy of Barbara Shermund, who looked in on a couple of debs performing their daily exercises…

…while down in the parlor, Rea Irvin captured the horrors inflicted by an author’s tedious reading…

…and finally, Peter Arno probed the depths of sanctimony…

Next Time: Waldorf’s Salad Days…

The Cotton Club & Other Distractions

Of all the nightclubs made famous in the Roaring Twenties, none were quite so famous as Harlem’s Cotton Club. Frequented by many celebrities, the club was a whites-only establishment even though it featured many of the most popular black entertainers of the day including Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

November 13, 1926, Issue # 91, cover by Julian de Miskey.

So leave it to The New Yorker, and specifically its nightlife correspondent, Lois Long, to take a blasé view of the famed hot spot. Perhaps she was just tired, having already visited three other nightclubs that evening–the Montmartre, the Yacht Club, and Connie’s Inn–before seeking out the Cotton Club:

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Performers on stage at Connie’s Inn, Harlem, 1920s. (New York Public Library)
Duke Ellington and dancers at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s. (Untapped-Cities)
Program from the 1920s designed to attract white patrons to the Cotton Club. (Women of the Harlem Renaissance)

* * *

“The Talk of the Town” noted the passing of rodeo star and sharp-shooter Annie Oakley. Next time you get a free ticket with a hole punched in it, you’ll know what to call it:

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If nightclubs weren’t your thing, there were plenty of movie theatres screening the latest offerings from Tinseltown. The opening pages of the magazine featured this advertisement for the new 3,664-seat Paramount Theatre, located at 43rd Street and Broadway in the Times Square.

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It’s a reminder that Paramount, a venerable old Hollywood studio (which these days is owned by Viacom) had its origins in New York as the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Founded in 1916, Famous Players-Lasky was primarily located at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens (after 1920). It would eventually become Paramount Pictures and relocate to Hollywood in 1932.

The Paramount Theatre was closed in 1964. Sadly, the interior was gutted and converted to office and retail use. Here are a couple of interior shots of the theatre’s Grand Hall as it appeared following its opening:


NOT YOUR LOCAL CINEPLEX…Grand Hall of the Paramount Theatre, featuring imported Italian marble columns. (American Theatre Architecture Archive)

The theatre’s huge pipe organ, one of the largest and most admired theatre organs ever built by the Wurlitzer company, was removed and later installed in a convention hall in Wichita, Kansas.

Keyboard array of the Paramount Theatre’s huge pipe organ, one of the largest theatre organs ever built by the Wurlitzer company. (nycago)

Paramount would open theatres around the country (in the chain of Publix Theatres), and a number of them survive today. The original Paramount Building in New York is still there, but all that’s left of the theatre is the marquee.

The marquee in 1927:

Copy of New York's Paramount Theater - 1930s

And today:



Next Time: The Sporting Life…