Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

Magnificence and magic at 1920s Columbus Circle

February 4, 2019

Since last week’s Columbus Circle painting turned out to mislabeled (it was actually Madison Square), I thought I’d make up for the error with this Impressionist kaleidoscope of the Circle, as it was called, by Colin Campbell Cooper.

This must be around 1920. The trolleys circling the Columbus monument are joined by automobiles, and pedestrians seem to cross wherever they can—though it looks like a police officer is directing traffic. (Has Columbus Circle ever been pedestrian friendly?)

The streets look slicked with rain, giving them a soft, magical quality. But blue skies peek through the clouds, perhaps a nod to the magnificent early 20th century city.

Blue and white tiles line the Queensboro Bridge

February 4, 2019

New York City’s many bridges are frequently praised for their beauty.

But The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge (yep, the former mayor’s name was officially added in 2011) might be the most lovely.

The cantilever span itself is graceful and elegant, of course. But what sets the Queensboro apart might be the smaller design motifs and decoration the bridge architects insisted on before it officially opened in 1909.

Among these are the decorative lampposts at the entrance to the bridge, and vaulted, Cathedral-like ceilings lined with famous Guastavino tiles under the Manhattan-side bridge approach, the commercial space known as Bridgemarket.

Then there are the blue and white tiles built in to the facade under the bridge approach on First Avenue. They could be terra cotta; I’m not quite sure.

The circles and rectangles on each individual tile weave a spectacular pattern covering large swaths of the bridge approach.

But if you don’t look for them as you walk under the approach, you might miss out on this wonderful decorative touch that appears to exist entirely to charm pedestrians.

Gilded Age Manhattan aglow in a rainy twilight

January 28, 2019

UPDATE: Turns out this painting is probably not Columbus Circle, as Artnet had it; it looks like opposite Madison Square. Thanks to eagle-eyed ENY readers for catching]

Columbus Circle in the 1890s must have dazzled the senses.

The towering granite monument that gave the Circle its name was unveiled in 1892. On one side was the entrance to the carriage lanes and horse paths of Central Park, and on the other could be heard the “uninterrupted whirr” of the Broadway cable cars heading downtown, as Stephen Crane described it.

Stylish electric street lights illuminated the Circle with globes of sunshine. The Theater District was now just blocks away to the south; the new apartment houses and townhouse blocks of what was still known as the West End were rising to the north.

And a mostly forgotten artist named William Louis Sonntag, Jr. captured the din and dazzle in this painting, giving us a view of twilight at Columbus Circle on a rainy, magical night.

This Bowery theater gave performers “the hook”

January 21, 2019

When a city policeman turned U.S. congressman named Henry Clay Miner opened Miner’s Bowery Theatre in 1878, this small venue between Broome and Delancey Streets showcased a type of entertainment known as variety shows.

“Actors came on the stage to sing, dance, and do acrobatic acts and then unite to burlesque some current musical show,” wrote the New York Times in 1929.

Even for the Bowery—legendary at the time for its raucous bars, theaters, flophouses, and music halls—Miner’s drew huge merciless crowds. Customers cheered, jeered, and stomped their feet in approval as each act did their number.

“Long before the doors opened, boys with the necessary 10 cents ready in their hands were lined up,” the Times recalled.

“It mattered little whether the show pleased them or not…they could have their enjoyment by annoying the 50 cent- or 70-cent patrons in the orchestra and boxes as they drank their beer below.”

Audience participation and reaction was all part of Miner’s allure.

So in the 1890s, after variety segued into vaudeville, Miner’s came up with a genius idea to make Friday night amateur nights even rowdier: giving entertainers “the hook.”

Yep, the showbiz taunt “give ’em the hook” was invented on the Bowery.

“To get the more excruciating acts off the stage as quickly as possible, an inspired stage manager apparently lashed a stage-prop shepherd’s crook to a pole and started yanking the most scorned performers bodily from the stage in mid-performance,” stated a New York Times piece from 1997.

Naturally the audience loved it all. There was also prize money for any act that survived the hook and went on to win audience favor: five bucks and any loose change they could find on the floor.

Most of the entertainers over the years who bravely risked the hook have fallen into obscurity. Others went on to great fame—including Eddie Cantor.

In 1908, this 16-year-old wannabe performer from the Lower East Side went on stage at Miner’s. He didn’t get jeered off.

“At the end of the night, Cantor lined up on stage alongside other amateurs who had survived ‘the hook,'” wrote David Weinstein in his 2018 biography of Cantor.

“The announcer pointed to each act, while the crowd voted for the winner with noise and applause.”

Cantor won the five dollar nightly prize. Getting the hook, meanwhile, remains a metaphor no aspiring performer wants.

Miner’s Theatre burned down in 1929, just as vaudeville was ending its run as America’s favorite lowbrow entertainment…and the sin-and-spectacle Bowery was becoming the city’s 20th century skid row.

[Top image: “Bowery at Night” by William Louis Sonntag, 1895; second image: MCNY 43.316.64; third image of H.C. Miner, NYPL; fourth image: tvtropes.org; fifth image: Evening World, 1912; sixth image: Eddie Cantor; seventh image: New York Times, 1909]

The striking doorway Medusa on Sutton Place

January 14, 2019

In Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster with snakes in her hair; looking at her could cause a viewer’s face to turn to stone.

On contemporary Sutton Place near 58th Street, there’s another Medusa.

Snakes live in her hair, but rather than turning viewers into stone, she herself is stone—a keystone that is. She frames the doorway of a beautiful five-story, French chateau–inspired townhouse below a lovely wrought-iron balcony.

The house has a long backstory. It was the first in a line of drab, out-of-style brownstones to be transformed by literary and decorating power couple Elizabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe in 1920 into a luxury showpiece.

Soon after, the East Side street attracted New York’s most elite to the newly developed Sutton Place, according to Daytonian in Manhattan.

Since then, it’s had a number of notable residents, and in 2017 was listed for sale at $8.5 million. (See the amazing interior photos.)

But who put Medusa there?

She wasn’t guarding the (much less ornate) doorway in the 1940 tax photo I found taken by the city, above.

But she appears to be in another tax photo taken sometime in the 1980s.

That photo also shows the townhouse looking much like it does today. Though the quality of the image is too poor to be sure (at left).

At some point between the 1940s and 1980s, an owner decided a scary Medusa head would be a nice addition to the facade.

[Third and fourth photos: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

The bronze dancing bears just inside Central Park

January 7, 2019

Just off Fifth Avenue at 79th Street in Central Park is a small playground. Step inside, and try to resist the charm of these three enormous bronze bears.

“Group of Bears” has been at the Pat Hoffman Friedman playground since 1990. Cast 30 years earlier, this whimsical sculpture is the work of Paul Manship.

If the bears look familiar, its because Manship is the sculptor behind some of Central Park’s most beloved bronze animal statues. Those are his dancing goats and frolicking boy on top of the Lehman Gates (above) at the entrance to the Children’s Zoo.

Manship also designed the Osborn Gates (below), which feature bronze vignettes inspired by Aesop’s fables. Dedicated in 1953, these gates stood at the entrance of a playground on the northern side the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the 1970s, the playground was torn down to expand the museum, and Manship’s animal-themed gates sat in storage—until they were brought back to the park and installed at the Ancient Playground in 2009.

Not all of Manship’s work has a child-friendly, fairy-tale kind of feel. He’s the sculptor whose Prometheus marks the skating rink at Rockefeller Center.

[Third photo: Centralparknyc.org; Fourth photo: Wikipedia]

A Gilded Age painter’s rainy, wintry New York

January 7, 2019

Cold rain and wet snow make it hard to get around New York on foot and take in its beauty. But damp weather like this was ideal for the Impressionist painters who lived and worked in the city at the turn of the last century.

With dark streets marked by puddles and tree branches heavy with water, the Gilded Age city glistened. The blurred faces of New Yorkers in black coats and hats came across as elusive and mysterious.

Carriages and street cars made their way through wet streets with passengers hidden and snug inside. Tall buildings higher than treetops and small walkup tenements alternate in the background.

Few painters revel in this rainy enchantment quite like Paul Cornoyer. Born in St. Louis in 1864, he came to New York at the tail end of the Gilded Age in 1899.

Cornoyer focused on Madison Square Park, at the time still a lovely spot in Manhattan but no longer than exclusive park of the city’s elite. The Flatiron building and Madison Square Park can be seen in the background of many of his paintings.

But he also visited other locations, like Columbus Circle, Central Park West (the site of the fourth painting above), Washington Square. His depictions of these and other streets and parks present us an atmospheric Gotham with soft, dreamlike contours.

The famous tea water pumps of 1700s New York

December 17, 2018

New York’s love of tea began in the 17th century, when the Dutch imported it to the colony.

By the time the British took over, tea-drinking had become an ingrained social custom, especially for ladies, according to New York City: A Food Biography.

There was one problem though: finding fresh, clean water for brewing the tea.

In the 18th century, residents got their drinking water from “wooden pumps set commonly at street corners, at intervals of about four blocks,” wrote Charles Haswell in his 1896 book, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York.

The pumps drew water from underground springs, but what came out tended to be distasteful and brackish. (It’s part of the reason people in the colonial city also developed a taste for beer, Madeira wine, and spirits.)

Luckily for the ten thousand or so city residents at the time, a couple of the street corner pumps actually produced high-quality, refreshing water.

These special pumps became known as “tea water pumps” because the water that came out of them made high-quality tea.

Perhaps the most famous tea water pump was at Chatham and Roosevelt Streets.

Here “stood the celebrated Tea Water Pump, of which it was alleged by the housekeepers who drew from it, that it made better tea than any other water; it was supplied by a spring from the hill of sand leading up to the juncture of Harmon Street (East Broadway) and the Bowery,” wrote Haswell.

Another legendary tea water pump was in today’s Nolita/Chinatown area, according to one tea website.

“Sometime during the first half of the 1700s, a spring of fresh water between Baxter and Mulberry Streets began to attract popular attention,” states the site.

Yet another was found on the West Side, either at Bethune Street or 10th Avenue and 14th Street, depending on the source. This one was “owned by a Mr. Knapp, who distributed its products from carts at 2 cents a pail,” stated Haswell.

Selling the tea water from these choice street corner pumps by wagon via “tea water men” became big business, as seen in the above painting depicting an 18th century residential street.

“Tea water! Tea water! Come out and get your tea water!” was the cry heard on the street by the vendor, according to the 1935 guide All About Tea.

By 1774, an estimated 3,000 households bought their water this way, according to New York City: a Food Biography.

At the turn of the 19th century, though, even the tea water pump wells were becoming polluted, especially those closest to Collect Pond, now a stinking cesspool polluted by industry.

New York’s love of tea wasn’t going to taper off; tea gardens had even opened up with views of the Hudson for refined ladies and gentlemen. Clearly, a new source of reliably fresh water would be necessary.

These New-York Historical Society images dated 1898 show children posing by old wooden corner street pumps, at left on Trinity Place and on the right on Edgar Street.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: NYPL; third image: Metmuseum.org; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society]

A lawyer-turned-artist’s moody Greenwich Village

December 3, 2018

Until recently, I’d never heard of Greenwich Village painter Anthony Springer. But I’ve found myself captivated by his colorful, textural images of a less dense, less luxurious Village and other surrounding neighborhoods.

Born in 1928, Springer, a native New Yorker, worked as a lawyer before deciding to make painting his vocation at the age of 40, according to friend and fellow artist Robert Holden in 2013 on his blog, Painting Life Stories.

“Tony was a wonderful, quietly mysterious kind of guy, who played poker all night long, slept until the late morning, and then grabbed his half-box French easel and 16×20 inch stretched linen canvas to go paint the narrow side streets of the Village in the dusty afternoon light, a habit he kept up for 20 years or more,” wrote Holden.

When he died in 1995, Springer left behind “hundreds of his beautiful, moody gray cityscapes,” he wrote.

More than two decades or so have passed since Springer’s death, and his evocative work serves as a reminder of the very different pre-2000s Greenwich Village.

Springer’s “Meatpacking District,” at top, takes us to the Belgian block intersection of Greenwich and Gansevoort Streets.

When Springer painted it, this was a daytime corner of trucks, garbage carts, and pigeons before it became an pricey restaurant playground.

His image of a gas station amid tenements is a reminder that downtown used to actually have gas stations. Could this be the one Eighth and Greenwich Avenues?

“Downtown Street” shows a quiet scene of a narrow side street and empty sidewalks. Maybe Mercer Street, or Greene Street?

The last image, “Townhouses and Naked Trees,” feels appropriate for the current season with winter approaching. Hmm, Tenth Street?

[First and last images: Doyle; second and third images: mutualart]

“The subway is a microcosm of New York City”

November 19, 2018

We may never know what printmaker Harry Sternberg was thinking when he etched this rich, detailed scene inside a city subway car (appropriately titled “Subway Car”) in 1930.

But I like Nicole Viglini’s take on a web page published by Smith College Museum of Art in 2015: that Sternberg, who was born on the Lower East Side in 1904 and as a kid took free art classes at the Brooklyn Museum, depicted a microcosm of New York City.

“Though people from many different walks of life are present together, they do not directly interact with one another,” Viglini wrote. “A couple chats in the foreground, and a few shady-looking men look askance; everyone else seems to be absorbed in their own thoughts.”

“The ads above the seats remind the viewer of the busy commercial madhouse above ground. Within the confines of the subway car, hurtling through tunnels beneath the chaotic city, there is a measure of calm and a respite for people to regain some modicum of control.”