Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

The many lives of an East Houston Street theater

April 22, 2019

For almost two centuries, 143 East Houston Street has been many things to many people, from a church to a fight club to an indie movie house.

Now it’s destined for the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a $30 million office space. Let’s pay homage to this remnant of another city by looking at all the ways it served New Yorkers for 180 years.

Some of its history is murky, such as its beginnings as a church.

It’s not clear if it started out as a Dutch Reformed Church built in the 1840s (as a 2018 New York Times piece has it) or a German Evangelical Mission Church, dating back to 1838, stated The Real Deal.

By the late 19th century, a church and two parish houses on the site were run by German evangelicals, who perhaps also used the buildings as an immigrant meeting hall.

Remember, East Houston Street at the time was squarely in Kleindeutschland—the city’s vibrant Little Germany neighborhood.

By the early 1900s, Little Germany was departing for Yorkville, and 143 Houston became a fight club.

“The building’s showbiz debut probably came in 1908, when Jack Rose, a gambler and minor figure in organized crime, painted over the religious scenes and held prizefights there, calling it the ‘Houston Athletic Club,'” stated The Village Voice in 2001.

East Houston by then was also part of the burgeoning Yiddish theatre scene.

What would come next? A nickelodeon featuring Yiddish movies and vaudeville acts—run by an enterprising guy named Charlie Steiner.

“With minimal modification, the Athletic Club became the (above right) ‘Houston Hippodrome’: The entrepreneurs converted the pulpit into a stage, put the projection booth in the organ loft, and left the wooden pews,” according the The Village Voice.

“Admission was 10 cents, with a half-price matinee. Two proto-snack bars opened to serve the crowds: a dairy restaurant in the basement and Yonah Shimmel’s knish bakery, still in operation, next door.”

In 1913, the Houston Hippodrome was the site of a deadly stampede (above left). A projectionist thought he saw smoke and yelled fire! into the audience.

Two patrons were killed. The incident made headlines for weeks as city officials recognized the building as a potential firetrap.

“The old church building is dry, worm-eaten tinder, which would need nothing more than a match dropped in a corner to spring into blaze,” the paper quoted the coroner.

In 1916, Steiner rebuilt the Houston Hippodrome, with some of the wood from the old church still remaining, according to some sources.

He reopened it a year later as the Sunshine Theater (above); the name was changed in the 1930s to the Chopin Theater.

By 1945, the curtains went down and the building was turned into a hardware warehouse (above, in the 1980s).

In 2001, a restored and refurbished theater became the much-loved Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Today, it’s now the much-mourned Landmark Sunshine Cinema. The doors have been bricked in (above right) since 2018, and the unique facade stands defeated, awaiting its fate.

[Second photo: cinematreasures.com; third image: Evening World 1913; fourth photo: cinematreasures.com; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The man in a concrete wall in the tenement city

April 8, 2019

Edward Hopper spent four decades chronicling the isolation of modern urban life: people unconnected to each other in a cafe, a lone person on an elevated train, and building facades almost empty of humanity.

Yet perhaps none of his paintings are as haunting as “Office in a Small City,” from 1953. Here, Hopper gives us a symbolic everyman with his shirtsleeves rolled up—sitting at a desk inside an office with windows so large it almost resembles a zoo exhibit.

He’s gazing past the tenement tops across the street, ostensibly imagining a bigger life for himself, one not confined by the low-rise cityscape he’s part of right now.

“Reprising one of his signature subjects—a solitary figure, physically and emotionally detached from his surroundings and other people—it was described by the artist’s wife as ‘the man in concrete wall,'” explains the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has the painting in its collection.

Desolation and isolation on the East River in 1909

March 25, 2019

Social realist painter George Bellows completed “Bridge, Blackwell’s Island,” in 1909, which is also the year of the opening of the Queensboro Bridge, as this span over the East River was called at the time.

Like the East River waterfront, Blackwell’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island) was to Bellows a place on the margin—where refuse, industry, and those who were edged out by 20th century urban life were relegated.

This look at the bridge almost devoid of people seems to say something about the desolation and isolation of the contemporary city.

Smokestacks belch, a tugboat speeds through the choppy river, a lone man not much bigger than a speck is tending to something on the dock—and four children shrouded in darkness peer across the water—perhaps contemplating the modern metropolis they’re part of.

The mysterious mosaic at 88 University Place

March 25, 2019

University Place is only seven blocks long—but this Greenwich Village street has its share of historic plaques.

One marks the Hotel Albert, the spectacular Victorian Gothic “French Flats” opened in 1887 between Tenth and Eleventh Streets that was a haven for creative types before becoming a co-op in the 1980s.

At 113 University Place is a bronze tablet dedicated to the New York State Militia’s Ninth Regiment, which fought in the Civil War. And at number 90, a sign marks the walkup building where poet Frank O’Hara lived in the 1960s.

But there’s another, more unusual marker in front of the 1900s-era loft building at 88 University Place (at left) that carries some mystery.

This one is a mosaic. “Kaliski & Gabay 88” it reads, in a funky blue and white tile typeface.

Who were Kaliski and Gabay? Fine arts auctioneers who operated their business here auctioning paintings, rare books, rugs, and other items as early as 1914; that’s the earlist reference I found of the fine auction house Arthur Kaliski and Richard Gabay founded.

The place was really rocking in the first half of the 20th century. Kaliski died in 1946 at age 63, but his Brooklyn Eagle obituary stated, “his performance every Friday and Saturday, except holidays, was regarded as a good show and drew crowds of more than 200 persons at a time” to the University Place auction house.

This 1947 newspaper ad makes note of their auctions (and a GR phone number!).

At some point around 1950, it seems the auction house shut down. Today, it’s a WeWork, and I wonder if the workers here ever think about the names they have to step past to enter the building.

[Fourth image: New York Herald, December 1922]

A city printmaker of “twilight, shadow, mystery”

March 11, 2019

Like other New York City printmakers in the 1930s, Armin Landeck’s etchings and engravings focus on the city’s dark corners and mysterious pockets.

[“Housetops, 14th Street,” 1937]

His work displays the kind of familiarity with the city one would expect from an artist who grew up peering around the early 20th century Manhattan of dimly lit bars, shadowy elevated trains, and hidden tenement roofs.

[“Pop’s Tavern.” 1934]

But he was not a New York City native. Born in Wisconsin in 1904, Landeck arrived in Gotham to study architecture at Columbia University and attend summer classes at the Art Students League on West 57th Street.

[“Manhattan Vista,” 1934]

“By the time of his graduation from Columbia in 1927, he had become interested in printmaking and had bought a used press,” states the website for the National Gallery of Art. When he couldn’t find a job as an architect, he turned to printmaking.

Though he lived in Connecticut, he taught in New York and had a studio on 14th Street. Landeck spent much of his career rendering nocturnes of rooftops, stairwells, street corners, and other “secretive places amid the very public place, Manhattan,” as the New York Times put it in a 1998 article.

[“Manhattan Nocturne,” 1938]

“Like Hopper, Landeck uses the human figure sparely; he was more interested in the surroundings, and his ambience of choice obviously was urban,” stated the Times.

[“Approaching Storm,” 1937]

In a 1980 Times article, Landeck addressed the fact that often the only person in one of his prints is the viewer. “That there are no people is intentional on my part, because I look at New York in terms of theater very often,” he said.

Landeck’s work became more abstract as the 20th century continued, but no less accomplished. Still, his prints from the 1930s and 1940s might best exemplify his style. Armin was “ever the master of twilight, of shadow, and mystery,” as one 2003 book title described him.

[Prints 1, 2, and 4: Smithsonian American Art Museum; Print 3: Artnet; Print 5: Artnet]

The men who worked the Brooklyn docks in 1912

February 25, 2019

Painter George Bellows captured early 20th century New York’s lovelier moments: a blanket of bluish snow over the Battery, a girl’s enchantment with Gramercy Park, and carefree boys swimming off an East River pier.

But this social realist also cast his eye on the city’s grittier scenes. “Men of the Docks,” completed in 1912, is one of those—showing us a group of men literally pushed to the margins of Brooklyn, where they’ve gathered on a raw morning at an East River pier and face uncertainty.

These day laborers, “await jobs on the docks of Brooklyn on a grey winter morning. The towers of Lower Manhattan rise in the distance,” states London’s National Gallery, where the painting hangs.

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]