Archive for New York City

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.

The Tax Day March in NYC

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , , , on April 16, 2017 by travsd

This year Tax Day fell on Easter Eve, and the timing was fortuitous; the Resistance was in need of some renewal and regeneration. After attending constant protests in the first two months of this year, sometimes several a week, I am startled to notice just now that I hadn’t been to one in nearly two months. But the Tax Marches had been in the works from the beginning — 45’s refusal to show his returns is a major sticking point, and has been, long since before the election. This one isn’t even a political issue, a left vs. right thing. It’s honest citizens vs. an extremely sketchy job applicant who managed to fast talk his way into the most powerful office in the world.

There were 150 protest events all over the country yesterday. I’m told 45,000 people came to the one in New York, and I’m here to tell you that this wasn’t some hippie lefty “radical” thing; I found myself surrounded by families, old people, veterans. Average Americans who are outraged that this man has hidden the amount and sources of his income. There can be no legitimate reason for his secrecy.

It started with a rally at Bryant Park, featuring speakers Sarah Silverman, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and  Congressman Hakeen Jeffries.

The crowd at Bryant Park

At this point I became vaguely aware of movement out of the park and realized that the rally was turning into a march. I looked across the street and was startled to see that many more thousands of people had amassed for that component.

Here’s where I joined the march. My phone was running out of juice so I only got a few snaps from within the actual march. People were chanting, “We want a leader, not a tax cheater!”, “We wanna know! Who You Owe!”, “Liar, Traitor, Tax Evader!” The march moved up Sixth Ave — we shouted appropriately nasty thing as we passed the News Corp. Building, home of Fox News, and the climax was the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, where people pointed and wagged their fingers yelling, “Shame!”. Most cathartic.

Photo Essay: Yesterday’s Protests in NYC

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, Protests with tags , , , , , , , on July 8, 2016 by travsd

I was just about to leave for The Iron Heel rehearsal yesterday when I heard that protests about the Baton Rouge and Minnesota killings were taking place at Union Square, only a couple of blocks from the rehearsal studio. So I left a few minutes early to see what was going on.


My train let out at 6th Ave — a couple of blocks west of Union Square — and immediately encountered a stream of protesters. They had gathered at Union Square, but were now on the march (to Times Square, I later learned). As I took this picture, they were chanting “Hands Up; Don’t Shoot!” As I walked along the march, different groups were chanting different phrases. “Black Lives Matter”, “No, Justice, No Peace!” I passed hundreds of people along 14th Street.


As I approached the core demonstration I saw 6-8 police wagons speed in the direction of where the march had headed. (I later learned over 3 dozen demonstrators were arrested at Times Square)


This was the scene at Union Square.




I only had a few minutes there and then I had to get to rehearsal, which was a surreal experience. Socialist action is a central part of the play I’m in. At one point in the play, we hand out socialist literature. Someone had handed me a piece of socialist literature in the street just minutes ago. This is the right play to be doing.

Rehearsal ended at 10. I’d heard by now that the protest had moved to Times Square, 30 blocks north. I’d also heard that there had been arrests. I debated whether I should go; my assumption was that it would be over. The closer I got, the more I began to get the feeling it probably was. So many families and tourists were out, behaving normally, taking walks, eating ice cream cones. But when I got to 42nd Street (about 10:30) I found the demonstrators  were still out in substantial numbers. The odd thing about this location is that protestors were surrounded and far outnumbered by tourists, some of whom watched them as a kind of local spectacle for their enjoyment as a tourist experience (“Hey, look at this characteristically crazy New York thing they’re doing”) and others of whom were more concerned with Elmo and Grover and where they were going to go for after-theatre drinks.  Few that I noticed heeded the protesters call to “Join us” but I was heartened to see that some did. I had time to observe the protesters now. They were all colors and all ages and peacefully coalescing to get their message across.


They were coming down the Broadway sidewalk when I first encountered them. The banner says “It Stops With Cops” It features a painting by artist Michael D’Antuono, whom I later spoke with that night without realizing it.




At this point, the protest spilled into the middle of the intersection (in the middle of the street in the busiest intersection in the world) and stayed there.




After a few minutes police arrived to remove them and it turned into a standoff.


The commanding officer got in front of his men. Then a pre-recorded announcement came over the police van’s P.A. system (not unlike the subway narrator’s voice but more ominous), declaring that was an “illegal assembly”, that it was illegal to block traffic, and ordering the crowd to “disperse” or be “subject to arrest”. Somewhere around this time, I looked over and there was Spike Lee, watching. He saw me see him (how could you not stare?) and I didn’t want to be so crass as to photograph him, but it was him.


This group of officers came up behind, on the other side of the protesters. I’m not sure the protesters realized it but they were encircled in a kind of net. A third line of officers was actually lined up across 7th Avenue. If there had been a rout and protesters had tried to run in that direction they would have run into a wall of cops.


The demonstrators doubled down at this stage and sat down right in the middle of Times Square. Can you see the line of cops standing next to them? They almost get lost in the sea of people.

At this juncture, the protesters decided not to push it; they left the street and started heading north through the pedestrian mall, past the Elmos and the Naked Cowboy, etc.


There were several of these militarized S.W.A.T. guys by the old recruiting station. Hard to know in these crazy days if they were there for the protests or if they were part of ordinary Homeland Security ops.

By this point, the protest seemed to get swallowed up by the tens of thousands of ordinary people who happened to be in Times Square. For a while there, I actually lost the march!


Then I spied a bunch of cops heading north and headed where they were going.


The protesters now occupied 46th Street. The cops returned and resumed their P.A. announcements. Here, they were fairly effective at breaking things up. Lines of cops separated the sidewalks from the streets so the march wound up in three groups. It got hard to see the group in the street. I heard a scream at one point, but it was a false alarm. Someone shouted “Fuck Da Po-lice!”


Protesters and onlookers intermingled, with an ironic Broadway show as backdrop.


As you can see, walls of cops block both sides of the street.


Onlookers. Even Lady Liberty is photographing the event.


By this stage my phone battery was dying so I made for home. Heading east on 46th Street I passed several police wagons, standing at the ready for mass arrests. I tried to get a shot of whoever was sitting in the van, but I didn’t dare get too close or be seen — I didn’t want to be the one in the van.

In the middle of all this, a good friend had let me know about Dallas. It wasn’t until I got home around midnight that I heard the awful news in its entirety, which changes the dynamic of events yet again. I’d had a busy day and hadn’t even caught up properly with the Minnesota story yet. Events are unfolding so rapidly it has become impossible to keep up. It goes without saying, I hope: the unacceptability of random killing is the bottom line. I want police officers held accountable for their own murders, and I want those guilty of killing police officers held accountable every bit as much. Those five Dallas cops weren’t the guys who shot those African American men, and even if they were, we have courts to address their cases, and legislatures to address the systemic problems. Electing leaders who are committed to addressing these problems is the only way, since peace, not bloodshed, not revenge, is the goal. Do we want guilty cops put on trail and held accountable? Yes. Do we want random cops KILLED? No way. My cousin’s a cop, my fiance’s cousin’s a cop; cops caught the burglars who robbed my house; the bravery and heroism of the NYPD on 9-11 is the stuff epic poems are written about. Day in, day out, they do some of the most important work there is to be done in this world. All anyone is saying is don’t give them a blank check, a license to kill. That’s not how it’s supposed to work in a democratic republic. The guilty must be held accountable.





R.I.P. Bill Cunningham

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


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:


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


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


A little bird captured my departure from our window





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


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.





Back to my own front door

Back to my own front door



“Time to write a blog post”

Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #88: Barney Miller

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


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 etc etc etc

My Interview with Penny Arcade

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


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:

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