Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

Music and magic at the city’s first roof gardens

May 2, 2016

After the Casino Theater on Broadway and 39th Street opened its spectacular roof garden (below) in the 1880s, a rooftop entertainment craze swept the city through the early 20th century.

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Now, the “stay-at-homes,” as New Yorkers who couldn’t retreat to the seashore or mountains during the sweltering months were called, had a way to stay cool while socializing.

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“[W]ithin the last few years skyline theatres and skyline restaurants have sprung up here and there,” wrote Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper in 1904.

Roofgardenamericantheater“[T]heir owners have grown rich with the money which tired, heat-tortured mortals have gladly given in return for the cool breezes and a dainty mid-air supper served on the top of a lofty building.”

[Right: American Theater roof garden, overlooking Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, 1898]

Since this was the Gilded Age, no gaudy expense was spared to draw the rich and powerful (or money-spending tourist) and blow away the competition.

The Casino roof top was actually partially covered with a sliding glass top to keep the party going even when it rained.

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The Madison Square Garden rooftop theater (second photo) had 300 tables, multicolored electric lanterns, and the best views in the city, thanks to the Garden’s 300-foot tower.

The New York Theatre, on Broadway and 44th Street, hauled in cherry trees under a glassed-in roof and called the rooftop theater “Cherry Blossom Grove” (above).

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Willie Hammerstein’s Paradise roof garden (above) incorporated the roofs of two separate theater buildings on 42nd Street.

RooftopgardenhotelastormcnyTrue to its name, it had kind of a Coney Island Dreamland magic to it.

Theater roof gardens were soon joined by hotel roof gardens, turning the high-in-the-sky view of the twinkling lights of an electrified city into kind of an entertainment of its own. Perhaps the most famous was the Hotel Astor’s roof garden, above in the early 1900s.

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The hotel, on Broadway and 45th Street, was built in 1904 and its roof was instantly popular—remaining an A-list place to dance, dine, and enjoy the magic of summer night through the Jazz Age.

[Photos: MCNY Digital Collection; second photo of Madison Square Garden from Lost New York via Untapped Cities]

A Little Italy painter’s colorful, complex city

April 4, 2016

In October 1972, the cover of New York magazine featured a photo of a working-class man posing with several paintings.

[“Worker’s Holiday—Coney Island,” 1965]

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“This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living,” the New York headline announced. “He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”

[“New York City,” 1957]

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The smiling man on the cover was Ralph Fasanella. Born in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Fasanella had already scored some success as a self-taught painter.

[“San Genarro—Festa,” 1950]

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But the New York cover turned this middle-aged union organizer and gas station owner into something of an artistic late bloomer.

His enormous, carnival-colored paintings and panoramas, finely detailed and conveying the complexity of urban life, became sought-after examples of primitive art.

[“Stickball”]

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“Primitive” was a term he disliked. Social realism might be a more appropriate label for Fasanella’s work, as he captured images of family life, labor unrest, and working-class neighborhoods.

[“New York Going to Work”]

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“[His paintings’] bittersweet mood and crowded space also conveyed something of what the critic John Berger called ‘the violence of the daily necessity of the streets,’ noting ‘the way that the density of the working population makes itself felt,'” wrote the New York Times.

FasanellacoverHis depictions of Italian festivals, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and other New York icons burst with color, energy, and authenticity.

“Painting until the wee hours of the morning to the tunes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, Fasanella described himself as a jazz artist,” states aflcio.org.

“He said he painted from his belly and would urge young aspiring artists to reject pretention, to be authentic, to paint what they know and where they came from.”

A witness paints the tragic Triangle shirtwaist fire

March 7, 2016

Before he became a noted painter in the mid-1940s, Vincent Joseph Gatto was just another kid growing up in Little Italy.

He lived with his widowed stepmother and made ends meet as a plumber’s helper, a milk-can washer, steamfitter, and a featherweight club fighter.

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Looking for extra cash, he decided to show some of his paintings at the annual Greenwich Village Art Show, thinking his unschooled artistic efforts were better than what he saw on display along the sidewalks.

He quickly found fame and gallery representation for the works he painted from “outa my head,” he told Life in 1948.

VincentjosephgattoOne of those from-memory paintings focused on the Triangle shirtwaist fire. On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, Gatto (left), then 18, witnessed the terrible inferno on Washington Place and Greene Street.

Thirty-three years later, he recalled what he saw: the intense smoke and fire, helpless crowds, and the shrouded bodies of workers who jumped or fell to death being laid out on the sidewalk by firefighters.

The painting is part of the Museum of the City of New York’s Activist New York exhibit.

[Photo: Smithsonian Institute/Renwick Gallery]

The oldest street scene photos of New York City

March 7, 2016

France’s Louis Daguerre perfected the earliest form of commercial photography in 1839. It didn’t take long for others to seize the new technology and create daguerreotypes of New York City street scenes.

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These surviving early photographs offer a fascinating (if faded) glimpse into the city during an era when images were generally recorded with paint or ink, not copper plates.

At top is the Unitarian Congregational Church of the Messiah, which once stood on the east side of Broadway at the end of Waverly Place, surrounded by small free-standing houses.

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The photo was taken in 1839 or 1840 from the rooftop studio of Samuel F.B. Morse and John Draper, who worked together at New York University. (Draper also took what might be the first daguerreotype portrait in 1840—of his sister, Dorothy.)

The second daguerreotype captures Chatham Street (now Park Row) northeast of Chatham Square. It dates back to 1853-1855 and shows a commercial, working-class section of the city known for its shops, taverns, and dance halls.

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“Unlike the period’s printed views, which were generally designed for clarity and filled with drafting table anecdote, this photograph shows the city as an inelegant confusion of traffic, commercial signs, and pedestrians,” explains the link to the photo (which can be enlarged for careful study) on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

And though it doesn’t necessarily count as a street scene because the street at the time was rural farmland, the third daguerreotype is an 1839 image of a lovely house and white fence on Bloomingdale Road, once a part of today’s Upper West Side.

Mystery and misery in a forgotten painter’s city

February 22, 2016

John R. Grabach didn’t just paint scenes of working-class life—he was the working class. [Below, “New York Street Scene: Man Made Canyons”]

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Born in 1886, Grabach grew up in blue collar Newark. Set on becoming an artist, he held various jobs—die cutter, freelance illustrator, greeting card designer—while taking classes in Newark and at the Art Students League in Manhattan.

[“Sidewalks of New York,” 1920s, Lower East Side]

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“Inspired by Ash Can school artists, Grabach became fascinated with the urban landscape,” the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) wrote on their website.

[“The Lone House,” 1929]

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Like Ash Can artists George Bellows and Robert Henri, he began working in New York in the 1920s, where he painted everyday images of tenements, clotheslines, skyscrapers, and city streets.

Grabach’s work reflected the beauty and mystery of contemporary urban life, as well as its disorienting loneliness and despair.

[“New York East Side,” 1924]

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“Toward the end of the decade his lighthearted treatment changed as he became more concerned with social conditions, and consequently during the Great Depression his urban images developed a stronger, satirical tone, and the figures were made larger and dominated the scene,” stated LACMA.

[“The Fifth Year,” 1934]

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By now, he’d won awards and recognition, and he became a beloved teacher of drawing at the now-defunct Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art (a casualty of Newark’s budget woes in the 1990s).

JohnGheadshotBut like so many other artists, Grabach gradually lost prominence and never became a household name. He died in relative obscurity in 1981.

He may not have been a trailblazer in the art world, but his work reflects an unappreciated sensitivity to the urban experience.

The old city along the East River waterfront

February 8, 2016

Everett Longley Warner’s “Along the River Front” captures the city in 1912 on the cusp of change.

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The old New York waterfront, one of horse-drawn wagons loaded with packages heading to small commercial fish dealers and the office of a steamship line, have been dwarfed by the modern city’s enormous bridges and the traffic they carry.

Pier201900This photo, from 1900, gives an idea of what Warner was looking at. He changed the name of the steamship line from the New Haven Line to the Maine Line, for unknown reasons.

Warner was an impressionist painter who lived in New York in the early 1900s. Despite early notoriety, his lovely depictions of industry and commerce in the city haven’t made him a household name.

Album covers from the 1970s shot in New York

February 1, 2016

Sometimes it’s obvious an album cover was shot in New York City—like Physical Graffiti, Billy Joel’s Turnstiles, or that wonderful New York Dolls cover of the band decked out in front of Gem Spa in the East Village.

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Other times it’s not so easy to tell. Take the cover for the Who’s The Kids Are Alright, photographed in 1968 by Art Kane.

With the band wrapped in a Union Jack flag, you’d never know they were leaning against the base of the statue of German revolutionary and New York reformer Carl Schurz, located at Morningside Drive and 116th Street.

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Neil Young doesn’t come across as a New York kind of guy; he’s more California or Canada. But here he is walking past NYU’s law school building on Sullivan and West Third Streets on the cover of 1970’s After the Gold Rush, captured by Joel Bernstein.

The website popspotsnyc.com has some incredible photos and backstory on After the Gold Rush and other New York–centric albums.

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Foghat—does anyone remember Foghat? In any case, the English band shot the front of their 1975 LP Fool for the City in the middle of 11th Street between Second and Third Avenues in the East Village.

The block hasn’t changed much, and the back of St. Mark’s Church is recognizable. Off the Grid, the blog for the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation, has a nice post covering the then and now.

Rock albums shot on New York streets must have been a thing in the 1960s and 1970s—like these here. Maybe it all started with The Freewheeling Bob Dylan on Jones Street?

Grand Central is filled with acorns and oak leaves

February 1, 2016

Even when you’re rush through Grand Central Terminal, it’s impossible not to glance up and notice its breathtaking treasures, like the beautiful light fixtures, clocks, and painted or tiled ceilings.

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But there’s a decorative theme running through the station that’s a little more subtle and easy to miss: acorns and oak leaves.

AcornswaterfountainAn acorn tops the iconic brass clock above the information booth.

Marble garlands of oak leaves and acorns decorate the original 1913 water fountains. They’re also on the ceiling, chandeliers, and staircases.

So what’s with all the harvest images?

It’s a Vanderbilt thing. The Vanderbilt heirs financed the construction of the terminal, and the family crest is all about acorns and oaks leaves.

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“From a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” was Grand Central builder Cornelius Vanderbilt’s motto, according to Christopher Winn’s I Never Knew That About New York.

AcornclockinterestingamericaI’m not sure if any of the Vanderbilt homes that lined Fifth Avenue in the Gilded Age also featured acorns and oaks. Those flourishes may not have gone with the decor in this chateau-style mansion, for example.

But Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Newport, Rhode Island summer “cottage,” the 70-room palazzo-inspired Breakers, is also decorated with acorns—a symbol of strength and long life.

[Third photo: via newyork.com; fourth photo: via interestingamerica.com]

Magical color lights of a New York City night

January 25, 2016

Vienna-born photographer Ernst Haas turned his camera to New York City’s skyscrapers and suspension bridges, creating a kaleidoscope of blurry color in this painterly 1970 image, Lights of New York.

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Haas started his career as a photojournalist for Life, Vogue, and other magazines. In 1962, he was celebrated with a retrospective show of his color photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

Over the years he captured a postwar, midcentury New York in all its poetic, weird, magical glory.

Alienation and anxiety in a 1950s subway station

January 4, 2016

Brooklyn-born painter George Tooker depicts the disquietude of a mundane trip into a contemporary subway station in The Subway, on display at the Whitney Museum.

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“Made in 1950 with egg tempera paint, George Tooker’s The Subway, takes as its subject the alienating effects of modern life,” states the museum website.

“Just as the positioning, color, and facial expressions of figures in the painting suggest a dark side to modern life, so too does Tooker’s choice of subject matter: a subway station,” according to the website.

“This location emphasizes feelings of alienation, as any New York subway passenger knows. Subways are labyrinthine and almost prison-like, with low ceilings and barred areas. Tooker accentuates this effect by removing all signs from the subway station of his imagination, so that a person who is lost might never find his or her way out.”


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