Archive for New York City

30 Years Ago in NYC (Because I’ve Now Been Here That Long)

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , on August 17, 2017 by travsd

Taken a couple of years later; the tee shirt was a promo for David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”

I marked this on my calendar to write about today: 30 years ago (yesterday and today) there occurred a curious alignment of stars and planets that New Age people called “the Harmonic Convergence“.  It was a topic of chatter that summer, in the media and amongst ordinary people, in the same way that the “2000 bug” was, or the upcoming solar eclipse is. The Harmonic Convergence was like the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it was said. The alignment meant there would be this unleashing of positive energy, that everything would be beautiful, and auspicious, and right. It was a crock, of course. It proved to be an ordinary day. Why I note the date at all is because I remember where I was. I was in New York City.

I generally count the summer of 1987 as when I moved here, although in the fall I did return to school in Providence for several months, and then spent another few months in Maine before finally moving here for good. But ’87 was my first experience living here, working here (at temp jobs), taking the subway to get around, carrying around my morning coffee in those Greek themed cardboard coffee cups that say “We are Happy to Serve You.” It was my first time learning what it was to walk around in the shoes of a New Yorker, even if I wasn’t one myself yet.

I’d come here before as a tourist of course, about a half dozen times as a teenager, had been to Broadway shows, the Met and MOMA, and so forth. I grew up between New York and Boston. Though I was much closer to Boston, ironically I’d spent much more time in the Big Apple. My first visit here, at about the age of 13 changed my life. I always knew I wanted to move here. In 1987 I actually began the process. I was a baby at the time, about the same age that my oldest son is now. About seven years ago I passed the crucial milestone of having lived the majority of my life here. New York is now my home in a way that even my hometown is not.

So, this is one of those hokey “how things were different” posts; bear with an old timer and his memories at this milestone.

Checkered Cab

It was the NYC of Working Girl, Desperately Seeking Susan, After Hours, and Sidewalk Stories. Some of the cabs still looked like those cabs on Taxi.  Hizzoner Ed Koch was still the Mayor, and a wonderful ambassador and booster for the cityRonald Reagan was still president and it was still the Reagan economy. And in 1987 Newsweek did a cover story on this local asshole, who was still two years away from helping to railroad the Central Park Five:

Temp jobs were plentiful. I worked as a receptionist on Wall Street and midtown, and took other odd jobs. There were no cell phones. Computers in the workplace were new. Macs and IBMs were entirely different; the latter didn’t yet employ Windows or a Mouse, so you had to learn keystrokes. There was no Internet. Documents were exchanged long distance via Fax Machine.

At the same time homeless people seemed to be everywhere. Crime was higher. The subways were covered in graffiti. Though the Walkman existed, belligerent dudes would carry boom boxes everywhere blasting their personal music. When they got onto subway cars it was a tense experience, because they annoyed everybody but it wasn’t worth fighting about. The Guardian Angels, a proto-vigilante group, were highly visible as a volunteer, if largely cosmetic, means of dealing with the crime situation.

Because there was no Internet, everyone read The Village Voice, which then cost a dollar, to see what was going on. I literally read the whole thing cover to cover, not just for the news, but for jobs (they had the best, most relevant classifieds), and for what to do socially and recreationally, because of the reviews and pages of paid ads. (Later competition would follow from the New York Press and Time Out New York, but those weren’t a factor for several years.) We went to see bands at places like CBGBs. Political performance art by people like Karen Finley and Penny Arcade was on the ascendant. It had been only a few months since Andy Warhol and Charles Ludlam had died (weeks in the case of Ludlam); Basquiat and Keith Haring only had months to live.

Times Square was the worst sort of pit you can possibly imagine. The following year I got an internship at a Theatre Row theatre on the opposite end of 42nd Street. Getting there was a terrifying gauntlet past crack dens and porn theatres, and criminal low lifes of every description. When people tell me they want that back I want to knock their block off. By contrast, today’s Times Square is a scene of vitality and health. It used to be a disgrace, a showplace of rot and disease.

As I’ve written many times, Indie Theater was not yet a thing (wouldn’t be for a long time), and there was an enormous need for it, because the original Off Off companies like La Mama had gotten big. You couldn’t just walk in off the street and do a show anywhere anymore. The Off Off places seemed just as hard to get into as Broadway. Coffee houses and galleries and so forth were no longer scenes of artistic ferment in the same way as they had been in the legendary 60s. We did go to art events, poetry readings and the like, but as I say, it was against the backdrop of the Reagan years; the climate was more like winter setting in rather than a flower unfolding. Subsequent years were better in certain ways. Certainly in terms of access to venues, although that’s always a struggle in one way or another.

In those days (as Penny Arcade has articulated so well) we were drawn to New York for its storied diversity, yes for art, but for breadth of culture — food for example, from a 100 different countries. Now it’s safer and cleaner in ways that newcomers may take for granted. At the same time, the experience is not as rich, for the new comers seem to have tamed it somewhat, to have suburbanized it. It is more like a mall now, more like the American provinces than the Capital of the World. But I’m not sure I could live anywhere else. In fact, I know I can’t. I can’t drive!

 

 

 

 

The General Slocum Disaster and Its Impact on American Popular Culture

Posted in German, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 15, 2017 by travsd

June 15, 1904 was the day the P.S. General Slocum burned and sank. I write about this dark day today for two reasons: 1) I constantly encounter people — even well educated people — who have never heard of this, the worst disaster to befall New York City prior to 9/11; and 2) the event effected American culture, including popular culture, like my usual subject matter, which is vaudeville.

I myself had probably not heard of the event prior to reading about it in Luc Sante’s Low Life in the ’90s, but I owe my true understanding of it (details, context, impact) to my friend the historian Kathleen Hulser, curator of a centennial exhibition we had about it at the New-York Historical Society back in 2004. This is a Before-and-After story, so bear with me while I take you on a little journey:

Remove the Germans and the 4th of July starts to look a lot less festive

In the mid 19th century, one of the largest movements of immigration to the United States came from Germany (they were roughly neck and neck with the Irish). It’s pretty well known that German immigrants moved to many places in the U.S. , Pennsylvania, for example, and the cities and farms of the mid-west. Less well remembered today is that they once had a major footprint in New York City. Just as today there is a Chinatown, a Little Italy, a Harlem, and a zillion other ethnic neighborhoods, once upon a time, on the Lower East Side there was a Kleindeutschland — a Little Germany. The cultural contributions of the Germans who lived here are hiding in plain sight, they just became so assimilated, so American, we forget they are German. Many of them are culinary. The delicatessen is a German institution (not to mention a German word) as are so many things that one finds there, such as cold cuts and sausages. If you don’t find sausages particularly American recall that a German American named Charles Feltman adapted a certain kind of sausage into the frankfurter, the hot dog. The hamburger, too, comes from Germany (note the name), as do mustard and relish. The popularity in America of BEER is a result of the influence of the Germans. We nowadays associate St. Louis and Milwaukee with their German American breweries; NYC was once full of them as well. German Americans also helped Anglo Americans (the majority culture at the time) to cultivate a taste for music in their leisure time. Anglo American culture was still strongly Puritan in many ways; prior to the 19th century, the idea of going to a theatre or a pleasure garden for no other purpose but to hear a singer or a musician, or to acquire a musical instrument (e.g., the German American Steinway piano) and study it, was frowned upon. And there were influential Germans in show business: the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Koster and Bial the operators on NYC’s top concert saloon.

The kids who became Weber and Fields grew up around Germans on the Lower East Side and became the nation’s most popular, most influential vaudeville and Broadway comedians in the last quarter of the 19th century by imitating them. Many others followed in their footsteps, including Kolb and Dill, the Rogers Brothers, Sam Bernard, Cliff Gordon, James Budworth, Ford Sterling, Al Shean and a young Groucho Marx.  Stereotypical “Dutch” (German) comedy was a specialty, in the vein of blackface** or stock Irish characterizations.

Thus we begin to see that German culture was very visible in 19th century New York, very much part of the pulse and energy of the city. But it suffered a one-two punch.

The first was the General Slocum Disaster. Named after Union General and U.S. Congressman Henry Warner Slocum, the General Slocum was a local excursion vessel. On June 15, 1904, she was chartered by a local Lutheran church group from Little Germany to take them to their annual picnic on nearby Long Island. There were over 1,300 people on board, mostly women and children, as it was a Wednesday morning and the fathers were all at work. While the ship was in the middle of the East River, where the water was deep and the current strong, the ship caught fire. As usually happens with major disasters, multiple factors contributed to worsen events: flammable materials, strong winds, faulty safety equipment, and bad decisions by captain and crew. When it was all over, over 1,021 people — over 70% of those on board — had either burned or drowned to death. Of the 321 who survived, 28 were crew members.

The General Slocum Disaster is said to have literally devastated Kleindeutschland. We often use that phrase figuratively, to speak of emotional devastation, but here it can be taken literally. Hundreds of German American fathers had lost their entire families. Practically everyone in the community had lost someone — a friend, a relative, a neighbor, someone they knew on the street. The community dispersed. Many moved uptown to Yorkville, a migration that was already happening but was hastened by this horrific event. Kleindeutchland faded out of existence.

What was the second part of the “one-two punch” we spoke of earlier? World War One — another centennial now upon us. Anti-German sentiment ran strong, and so German Americans made the decision to assimilate and de-emphasize what was culturally unique about them. They and their contributions remained, but the Germans of America became much quieter about their identity, and Americans lost the habit of acknowledging or celebrating them in the way we celebrate other national groups who managed to maintain a strong identity (e.g., Italian Americans). World War Two enhanced that process even further, but the bulk of it had already happened in the early part of the 20th century. One of the casualties of this “burying” of German American culture, I think, was any awareness of the General Slocum Disaster. You saw those numbers, right? A thousand women and children killed? This is close to Titanic numbers and it happened within sight of Manhattan — people stood on shore and watched it happen.

The irony is that German Americans weren’t our enemies in the World Wars. By definition, they were part of THIS crazy quilt. They LEFT their native land because it wasn’t doing it for them!(In fact many had come to America to escape the reprisals following the Revolution of 1848, indicating that they were the farthest thing from fans of the “Reich”.  And many were German Jews, part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. Their cultural contributions deserve to be remembered. We have a whole section on Travalanche celebrating German American contributions to American popular culture: peruse it here.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

R.I.P. Bill Cunningham

Posted in OBITS with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by travsd

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Just heard the news that yesterday New York Times society photographer Bill Cunningham succumbed yesterday to the stroke which had felled him a few days earlier. He was 87, still riding around town on on his bicycle, still peddling from pillar to post taking snaps. My dealings with him were mostly about 15 years ago when I was p.r. director at New-York Historical Society. I found him to be  a unique combination of a boy and a gentleman, always cheerful, pleasant, polite, humble, and apt to make everyone in the room feel like a celeb. He was that most self-contradictory of creatures, a democratic papparazzo, in the employ of one of the most powerful publications in the world. Because of this, he had the rare ability to make New York City feel like a small town. Everybody, from the largest New York institutions to the smallest not-for-profits has their Bill Cunningham testimony. Everybody knew him — and he made everybody feel like royalty. For more on this extraordinary character I highly recommend the film Bill Cunningham’s New York. 

Trav’s Big Snow Adventure

Posted in ME with tags , , , on January 24, 2016 by travsd

Being snowed in today and all, I took the opportunity to do a little busy work, and wound up entering all my year’s expense receipts into a spreadsheet in preparation for my tax return. For 14 hours. Towards the end, there was a real danger of my turning into something like Jack Nicholson in The Shining:

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And so I just had to step outside, even at the risk of winding up like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining:

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And I had wrapped up my work at the perfect moment. The blizzard was over, but the world hadn’t begun moving yet. And I especially love this city when it’s quiet and there’s no one around, at night, at dawn, or after a big storm. And I also needed to get out there while the snow is still pretty and not yet the big slushy mess it’s predicted to become tomorrow.

Piled up in front of the door

Piled up in front of the door

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A little bird captured my departure from our window

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I went into Prospect Park, but ironically it was less interesting than the streets. I did take this picture in virgin park snow though:

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And there was a predictably small number of hearty souls abroad. I saw a couple of kids having an adventure (10:30 at night after a blizzard. Good for those parents — I mean it! Such adventures are what my entire childhood was about!). I saw numerous young couples having romantic strolls, a couple of folks walking very happy dogs.  And the reassuring presence of the authorities. Do the math! I saw about a dozen people in my entire neighborhood! For the heck of it I went my local grocery, where I was the only customer. Most luxurious.

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Back to my own front door

Back to my own front door

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“Time to write a blog post”

Barney Miller

Posted in Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 11, 2015 by travsd

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Please don’t protest that YOU haven’t forgotten the show. This world contains 7 billion people, including 320 million Americans, most of whom are younger than you are. 

I try to make my posts appropriately somber every September 11, but this year I thought of a lighter one that has some relevance to the day. The credit sequence to the ABC sit-com Barney Miller (1974-1982) is without a doubt the first place I ever saw the image of the World Trade Center. WTC had only just opened its doors to tenants in 1973 — I never even learned its name until 1979. That was on my first trip to New York City, a field trip organized by my high school teacher — very probably the single person who changed my life the most.

New York! I’ve known since I was 13 years old that I was going to move here, lured mostly by Neil Simon movies, and 70s and 80s sit-coms like The Odd Couple, Taxi, and Barney Miller. It appeared to be a gritty place, a place where irritated, world-weary, vaguely ethnic people dealt with frustration and inconvenience by making irresistible wisecracks.

Barney Miller was an especially strange one. Hard on the heels of a whole spate of neo-realistic 70s crime dramas like Serpico and The French Connection, it attempted to make merry in the same milieu, as a ragtag bunch of Lower Manhattan plainclothesmen brought in an endless parade of prostitutes, transvestites, drunks, hippies, flashers, litterbugs, peeping toms, shoplifters, vandals, and other colorful New York street types. The squad room was a smorgasbord of human types (and stereotypes): Fish, an elderly Jew (Abe Vigoda), Wojciehowicz, a dumb Polish guy (Max Gail), Yemana, a deadpan Asian (Jack Soo), Harris, a flashy, funky African American (Ron Glass), Dietrich, an intellectual (Steve Landesberg) and Levitt, a diminutive uniformed cop who aspired to make detective (Ron Carey). The first two seasons also featured Gregory Sierra as Chano, a moody, hot-headed Puerto Rican. They were all led by the patient, seemingly unflappable Captain Barney Miller, played by handsome Broadway star Hal Linden (whose real last name, we never tired of observing, was Lipschitz.)

Oh yes and James Gregory as crusty Inspector Luger

Oh yes and James Gregory as crusty Inspector Luger

Every episode, the detectives would bring in a parade of entertaining perps off the streets of New York, conveniently one at a time, so we could hear their snappy, funny New York conversations. There would be occasional moments of seriousness and pathos, always cleaned up neatly (if implausibly by the end of the episode). As a prime time show in the pre-cable age, it never got TOO close to truly troubling or controversial stuff. Thus as crime-ridden as it made New York seem, somehow the crooks came off as kind of lovable. Strung out junkies, knife fights, things like that got downplayed. But even those would have heightened the glamour. New York is a candle, and the millions of us who move here — are moths.

By the way, I was also a huge fan of the spin-off series, Fish which we blogged about here. 

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

My Interview with Penny Arcade

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, ME, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on May 14, 2015 by travsd

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When I moved to New York, Penny Arcade OWNED performance art. Her smash show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, her in-your-face response to Jesse Helms and the conservatives who de-funded the NEA 4 (and then the rest of the NEA) ran forever…in fact it’s pretty much still running…she still books it and performs it internationally.

But she’s still creating new work, too. Her new work-in-progress Longing Lasts Longer will be at Joe’s Pub from May 18 through June 8. The new show’s themes will not be a shock to those who follow her on social media…she’s been airing these ideas for months now. And I’m with this lady all the way. Not just because she’s such a radical individualist, or such a clear and articulate thinker, or such a combative truth-teller. Well, yes because of all of those. But mostly because she is right. And one thing needs to be made clear. Young people need to know that this isn’t about a bunch of fogeys bemoaning the old days. As Penny says, change is constant, particularly in New York. What’s alarming is that the particular change she is talking about is seismic and UNPRECEDENTED. This isn’t about ongoing change, or the old lament of “this city’s going to hell in a handbasket”. It’s that over the past 20 years a cultural revolution (more accurately, a counter-revolution) has happened in this city (and really, all cities). Thanks largely to the internet I think there has been a cultural flattening out. Cities were once meccas where you necessarily had to go (i.e., physically go, move to) in order to be exposed to a certain kind of cultural richness and sophistication. If people wanted a different kind of life, a quieter more vanilla kind of life, they would move to the suburbs. Now for the first time in history, that is not the case. People are moving here from the suburbs and bringing the suburbs (including their 7-11s and Applebees) with them. From a cultural perspective it’s the opposite of gentrification, it’s a mediocrification. But anyway, I’ll let her do the talking.

We talked a LOT for the Villager interview which just hit the stands. In fact, I had to cut a lot of what we talked about. Penny (like her contemporary Karen Finley) was an important precursor to what became the “burlesque movement”. Her performance art featured lots of nudity and erotic dancing. It was a lot dirtier and more political than the classic striptease revival. But her work is what came just before Julie Atlas Muz, World Famous Bob and Dirty Martini, and was one of the forces that conditioned theatre audiences to be open to the frank presentation of the human body onstage. We talked a bit about that, as well as her longtime working relationship with her director, Steve Zehenter, and her insistence and stress on her show as entertainment. This was good stuff, but we had to keep the published piece focused and to a certain word count. I may be posting the excerpts though in the next few days because the woman is just too brilliant, and, what is more important, a hot pistol.

The Villager interview is here: http://chelseanow.com/2015/05/counterculture-as-cure-for-new-yorks-sugar-coma/

The Third Girl from the Left

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2015 by travsd

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Here’s one for all burlesque fans. We caught this 1973 tv movie the other day and must share news of its existence. Written by Dory Previn (whom we only just heard about and are rapidly becoming a fan of) and produced by Hugh Hefner, The Third Girl from the Left tells of a historical moment I’ve always been curious about; the moment when the burlesque art form “died” in New York. As I’ve written, the burlesque INDUSTRY died in the 1930s when Mayor LaGuardia cleaned up Times Square. But for a time (decades in fact) nightspots continued to feature floor shows with burlesque style chorus girls. In places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City of course that type of thing NEVER died. But about two thirds of the way though the 20th century, it died in New York, to be replaced with topless titty bars. Though The Third Girl from the Left was made in 1973, it appears to be set a few years earlier, circa 1967, and that sounds about right. (Clues: a cinema is showing You Only Live Twice and it simply feels more like the 60s than the 70s).

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Adding to the poignance and the meta symbolism of the moment is the casting in the lead roles, Kim Novak and Tony Curtis. Both were major stars of the 1950s who seemed to be going to seed; this was the first tv movie for either of them. Novak, who was 40, plays an aging chorus girl (her character is 36), still gorgeous, fit and statuesque, who is nonetheless on the way down and out. For 13 years she has been the semi-kept woman of a successful entertainer played by Curtis. (They should have made him a comic a la Lenny Bruce. In the film he is a singer, he really sings, and he is a terrible singer.)

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Curtis disses her royally. He’s always out of town, and when he is, he bangs whoever’s around. In the film, it’s none other than Barbi Benton (Hef’s squeeze at the time). As a kind of revenge, Novak hooks up with a much-younger hippie but hunky grocery delivery boy played by Novak’s real-life partner at the time Michael Brandon. They briefly hatch implausible plans of running away together, going back to school, and living a vastly different life. But it proves a fantasy, a bubble. Curtis comes back and there is an ugly confrontation. Brandon washes out and Curtis rather lamely finally makes a long overdue marriage proposal — too little, too late. The final moment, typical for the time, is the freeze frame on an uncertain future for Novak, not unlike the one at the end of Sweet Charity. Terrific telefilm and one of Novak’s best performances.

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