Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

A tough painter depicts a tender New York

April 27, 2015

George Luks arrived in New York from Philadelphia in 1896.

Passionate and energetic, he was one of many young painters (along with artist friends he met in Philly, like Everett Shinn and William Glackens) whose work focused on the tenderness of the city’s underbelly.

[“The Bread Line”]

766px-'The_Bread_Line'_by_George_Benjamin_Luks,_Dayton_Art_Institute

“One of the dynamic, young group of American Realists known as the Ashcan School, [Luks] was a tough character who in art and life embraced the gritty side of turn-of-the-century New York,” states the Brooklyn Museum.

Macho and combative, he first worked as an illustrator at the New York World, honing his skills outside of his newspaper job by painting peddlers, poor older women, street kids, and other down and out New Yorkers—as well as impressionist-like scenes of the city at play and at street markets.

[“Madison Square,” 1915]

Luks_madison-square

In 1908, he’d gained notoriety as a member of the Eight, a group of social realist painters whose dark, gripping work attracted controversy.

Artistic styles change fast, and soon, Luks’ urban realism was out of fashion.

“Ironically perhaps, by the time Luks exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913, his formerly radical subject matter and style were overshadowed by the developing abstract movement,” states one gallery site.

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[“Spring Morning in New York,” 1922]

220px-George_Luks_I“Luks would teach at the Art Students League in New York from 1920 to 1924 and go on to establish the George Luks School of Painting in New York,” on East 22nd Street.

His death in 1933, at age 66, was characteristically dramatic. On October 29, Luks (at left) was found in the early morning hours slumped in a doorway, beaten to death after a barroom brawl.

The most sensational actress of the 1860s

March 16, 2015

Adahmenken19Adah Isaacs Menken (at right, in her teens) was never considered a great actress.

But she sure was a colorful one, hanging out with Walt Whitman, Ada Clare, and other bohemians at Pfaff’s saloon on Broadway and Bleecker Street and earning notoriety in a tawdry play that required her to appear naked on a horse.

She spun many tales about her origins, but Adah may have been born Ada Berthe Theodore to mixed-race parents in New Orleans in 1835, according to Rebel Souls, Justin Martin’s wonderful book chronicling New York’s 19th century bohemian crowd.

To support her family, she became a New Orleans chorus girl, then joined a traveling circus.

After a few marriages, some theater work, and a conversion to Judaism, she arrived in Manhattan, taking roles at the Chatham Theater and working at the Canterbury Concert Saloon on Broadway in today’s Noho.

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She was fearless, sensual, acrobatic, and gorgeous—all of which helped her land her big break: the lead in Mazeppa (above), a play based on a Byron poem about a 17th century Cossack.

Menken would play the title role, requiring her to wear a body stocking for a pivotal nude scene during which she was strapped to the side of a horse.

Adahmenken1855“The audience was shocked—scandalized—horrified—and delighted!” states one source.

A huge hit, Mazeppa toured the nation before landing on Broadway in 1866 at Wood’s Theater at 514 Broadway.

Adah never abandoned her literary aspirations, publishing a book of poems in 1868 dedicated to Charles Dickens.

“Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menken’s deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet,” states jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

She maintained her friendship with Whitman and the Pfaff’s crowd and also became close to Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne.

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Adah was a sensation during her life, but she died young, succumbing to tuberculosis and peritonitis in Paris in 1868.

[Bottom photo by Napoleon Sarony]

A wood telephone booth hides on 54th Street

March 9, 2015

After an 88-year run in a townhouse on East 54th Street, Bill’s Gay Nineties closed in 2012.

Billsphonecloseup

The shuttering of the former speakeasy turned saloon and restaurant was a big loss for New Yorkers who love a time warp and a mahogany bar.

BillsphoneboothReopened and rechristened Bill’s, it’s a cleaned-up version of the old place, with much of the same decor, framed old photos, and finishings (and the silver dollars long embedded into the floor).

And luckily, the old wood telephone booth (with a phone with separate coin slots for quarters, dimes, and nickels!) off to the side of the front doors is still in place as well.

Sightings of wood phone booths are rare in Manhattan, so it’s a relief that this one wasn’t turned into a coat check or closet.

But why in the world does the staff keep one of those yellow wet-floor warning signs in there?

Billsbar

An 1860s fashion accessory for New York ladies

March 9, 2015

Demorestsbriscoecenterforamericanhistory1877Even with the Civil War going on, New York City in the 1860s was a stylish metropolis.

Well-off women (and there were many, thanks in part to money pouring in from wartime industry) decked themselves out in “carriage cloaks of moire and amber velvet, to sable or mink furs, and to gowns of organdy, grenadine, and brocade silks in deep and brilliant magenta, gold, or fuchsia,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

The hoop skirt was the most fashion-forward style. But with a hemline that brushed the ground, it was tricky to wear in New York City, which at the time consisted of muddy, manure-filled streets and iffy trash and snow removal services.

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That’s where a woman famously known as Madame Demorest comes in.

The American-born head of her own fashion empire, she invented something called the “Imperial Dress Elevator” that was made of a series of weighted strings, so a woman could discreetly raise and lower her hoop skirt to avoid dirtying up the hemline as she strolled past filthy gutters and curbs.

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“The dress elevator was so popular that ‘Imperial’ became the code name for any device that raised a skirt,” wrote Anne Macdonald in Feminine Ingenuity.

Madamedemorestnypl“When women asked each other, ‘are you wearing your imperial today?’ they knew what they meant.”

Madame Demorest’s (at left) fashion empire was vast: she ran an emporium on Broadway, invented a sewing machine, sold inexpensive dress patterns that copies the styles of the day, and put out a magazine that was enormously popular through the 19th century.

Mostly forgotten today, she paved the way for women in fashion and business in the 20th century.

[Photos: Top, Briscoe Center for American History; bottom: NYPL Digital Gallery]

When New York winters were spent on the ice

February 16, 2015

One of the few activities open to both men and women in the 19th century city, ice skating was hugely popular.

“Skating in a moral and social point, is particularly suited to our republican ideas as a people,” stated the handbook published by the Brooklyn Skating Rink Association for the 1868-1869 season.

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Above, skating at Brooklyn’s Union Pond in 1863, once in the town of Williamsburgh on Marcy Avenue.

“The millionaire and the mechanic, the lady of fashion and those of humbler rank, all meet together to enjoy this fascinating and beautiful exercise.”

Winslowhomerskatingcentralpark

How democratic ice skating was is not exactly clear. Ice was plentiful, but you needed the money to buy or rent skates.

And the fashionable attire worn by ladies on the ice, as seen in this Winslow Homer painting from 1861, was not cheap.

Currierandivescentralparkwinter

These sleighs and the handsome teams that pulled them were costly as well, afforded by only the richest New Yorkers.

This Currier & Ives lithograph shows the skaters and the sleighs, sharing a snowy Central Park in what looks like the 1860s.

A winter view of the Depression-era East River

February 9, 2015

“New York City goes about its varied daily businesses in [John] Cunning’s painting, despite the Depression,” explains the description of this evocative view of a wintry river and city, on the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Johncunningmanhattanskyline1934

“Whether or not their offices were full of workers, the Farmer’s Trust Building, 120 Wall Street, the Bank of Manhattan, 60 Wall Tower, and the Singer Building towered proudly against the gray sky,” states the site.

“Commuters who still had jobs had come from the outer boroughs in the ferry boats shown tied up at the Manhattan docks.”

“On the Brooklyn shore, cargo ships are tied up for loading or unloading. The men in the foreground are removing snow from the roofs of a coffee warehouse on Water Street near the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Cunning, a WPA artist, completed “Manhattan Skyline” in 1934.

The Manhattan Bridge’s two lost lovely ladies

February 9, 2015

Look closely: in this 1920s postcard depicting the grand Manhattan Bridge approach from Brooklyn, you can make out two statues inside the granite pylons flanking the roadway.

Manhattanbridgeapproach1925mcny

These heroic sculptures—created during the City Beautiful era, when art was meant to inspire and uplift—were known as “Manhattan” and “Brooklyn.”

Installed seven years after the bridge opened in 1909 and designed by Daniel Chester French, these 12-foot lovely ladies represented the attributes of each borough.

Manhattanbridgestatues

Impressive, right? But by the 1960s, they were gone—victims of bridge reconstruction in the age of Robert Moses and the automobile.

Luckily, Manhattan and Brooklyn didn’t end up in pieces in a Meadowlands dump, the sad fate of parts of the original Penn Station.

ManhattanstatueInstead, they were brought to the Brooklyn Museum, where they’ve guarded the entrance since 1963.

Interestingly, the attributes of each statue represent the way we view the boroughs today.

For Manhattan, that means hubris. “The pose of the figure of Manhattan typifies splendor and pride, of which the peacock at her side is the emblem,” says a 1915 article.

Brooklynstatue“The right foot of the statue rests upon a treasure-box and a winged ball in the statue’s hand suggests the City’s domination in world affairs.”

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has a softer, more artistic and educational vibe.

“Beside the figure of Brooklyn stands a church and the arm of the statue rests upon a lyre, symbolizing music.”

“A Roman tablet which the figure holds on its knee indicates study, and a child at its feet reading from a book typifies the Borough’s well-filled schools.”

[Statue photos: Brooklyn Museum]

Three subway scenes from a 1930s painter

February 2, 2015

The head scarves, newspapers, advertisements, and hats are definitely Depression-era. Substitute the newspapers for iPhones, however, and it’s eerily familiar.

Celentanosubway1935

This 1935 painting by Daniel Celentano, Subway, looks strangely contemporary: a packed car, a cross-section of New Yorkers, and almost everyone minding their own business, looking down or away.

Celentanounderthesubway

Celentano needs more recognition. A WPA muralist born in 1902, he grew up as one of 15 kids in a Neapolitan family in Harlem’s Little Italy.

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His work captures the rhythms of 1930s life in the city’s immigrant enclaves and beyond: festivals inspired by saints, laborers at work, and a coal stove keeping passengers warm as they wait for the train in an El Station.

CelentanoselfportraitIn the second painting, Celentano gives us a glimpse of the hustle and bustle under the elevated tracks in a working-class New York neighborhood.

Celentano’s New York Street Scene, the third painting here, offers a view of the 1930s elevated train far off in the distance. But what is going on in that green booth with a figure of a woman hanging inside it?

[Above, Celentano’s self-portrait, 1940]

Looking down Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village

January 19, 2015

Sixth Avenue at West 10th Street looks about the same today, right? Well, except for the notorious women’s prison building hiding behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse turned Library.

Walterbrightwell

Walter Brightwell painted this scene, according to Artnet, naming it “Looking Down Sixth Avenue Towards the Jefferson Market Library Building.”

The painting looks like it was done in the 1940s, but interestingly, Jefferson Market didn’t became a NYPL library branch until the 1960s.

A Times Square neon sign through the years

January 19, 2015

Bondtimessquare1950sFans of old-school New York neon know the Bond Clothes billboard and sign, the enormous and spectacular signage that lit up Broadway and 45th Street in different forms from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Captured in countless photos (at left, on New Year’s Eve 1950), the sign that stood from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s—with a clock in the O of the Bond name—has become an emblem of Times Square’s postwar glory years.

“This sign was 50 feet tall and 200 feet wide, spanned two streets, and featured a 50,000 gallon waterfall,” states this page from the Sign and Billboard Blog.

Bondsignnighttime

“Surrounding this waterfall were two classical-style figures of a man and woman who were nude during the day, but clothed in neon togas and dresses at night.” (Electric lights turned on at night gave the impression the figures were wearing clothes.)

Bondtimessquare1979By the late 1950s, Bond began leasing the billboard space to other brands, like Pepsi, which turned the two human statues into giant soda bottles.

As Times Square slid into decay (above, in 1979), part of the Bond sign continued to live on—even after the store went out of business in 1977.

Bondclashposter

The venue became the Bond’s International Casino, a nod to the International Casino, a 1930s-era nightclub that existed on the site.

Bond’s was a short-lived disco and rock venue that featured dancing and live acts, most famously the Clash.

Bondeyewitnessnews2

The Clash played 17 shows in 15 nights there in 1981 (opening acts: Grandmaster Flash and the Dead Kennedys, among others).

This made the news because concert promoters oversold tickets, which led to the fire department getting involved, as Channel 7 reported live from the scene the night of one of the planned shows.

Today the site is the location of the restaurant Bond 45, which continues the neon sign tradition. (Second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: Bow Tie Partners)


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