Posts Tagged ‘New York in 1930s’

The claw hammer murder rocks 1930s New York

May 18, 2015

PhelanleavingcourtEarly on New Year’s Eve 1933, the battered body of a 68-year-old retired stockbroker was found in his five-room apartment at the Grinnell (below), a luxurious building at 800 Riverside Drive.

Douglas Sheridan’s corpse was slumped in the bathtub with scalding water from the shower pouring down over it.

His head had been bashed in, once in his face and once in the back of the skull.

The scene was grisly, but it offered detectives immediate clues.

“In the courtyard below they discovered a hammer which they believe to have been the murder weapon,” wrote the New York Times on January 1, 1934.

Detectives also noticed that Sheridan’s housekeeper, 52-year-old “gray haired” Catherine Phelan (left), had bloodstains on the lenses of her glasses.

Phelan, who had worked for Sheridan for 28 years, had called police to the apartment and led them to Sheridan’s body.

She told police she had the night off, and that she left the apartment to see a movie after two guests of Sheridan’s arrived.

Phelanmurdergrinnell“Later in the evening, she was quoted as saying, she became vaguely uneasy because Mr. Sheridan had been drinking, and she started back toward the apartment,” stated the Times.

Soon after, she discovered her employer’s body—his two guests gone, she claimed. Hours later, she called police.

Detectives cast doubt on her story, but they didn’t arrest her immediately. It took a day to check out her version of events and look into Sheridan’s personal and financial life.

PhelanmurderheadlineThey soon learned that Phelan stood to gain $8,000 from Sheridan’s will, and that Sheridan was about to fire her, according to apartment building employees.

In addition to that, Sheridan apparently had a “fondness for young women friends.” One of his guests the evening he died was a young female, and police believed Phelan killed Sheridan out of jealousy.

After her arrest on January 1, she insisted she was innocent. Charged with murder, she stood trial in November.

A month later, she was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. “Thank you for the Christmas present, your honor,” she told the judge, before heading off to Auburn state prison.

The sad decline of an Art Deco movie theater

May 22, 2014

Metrotwinmidtown1933nyplIt started out in 1933 with great promise in the cinema-crazed Depression.

The auspiciously named Midtown was a gem of a movie house on Broadway and 99th Street that played first-run films (Ann Harding! William Powell!)

By the 1950s and 1960s, it had switched to foreign movies, showing European flicks like Belle de Jour, Breathless, Repulsion, and other non-mainstream fare.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The neighborhood was still rebounding after decades of decline, and the Metro took on second-run films, then porn flicks, according to Cinema Treasures.

Metrotheaternyarchimges

After a resurgence as an art house venue in the 1980s (and a name change to the Metro), it served as a first-run theater in the 1990s, only to shut its doors in 2004.

MetrotheateremblemSince then, it’s been abandoned, a shuttered eyesore in a neighborhood of higher-end development.

Over the years, new tenants were announced—including retail outlets and a movie theater chain that serves beer—yet never moved in.

Metrotheater2014At least the unique facade, with its Art Deco emblem representing comedy and tragedy amid two female figures, scored landmark status back in 1989.

A piece of another era, the theater haunts the upper Upper West Side, a reminder of something lovely that entertained the community.

A word about the theater’s original name, the Midtown: I suppose the owners thought that this corner at 99th Street and Broadway would soon be the city’s new midtown?

[Photos: top, New York Public Library Digital Collection; second: New York Architectural Images]

New York City’s first racially integrated nightclub

December 29, 2012

CafesocietyaudienceDid it really take until 1938 for the first truly desegregated nightclub to open in New York?

It’s hard to believe, but though black performers entertained whites at Depression-era venues such as Harlem’s Cotton Club, audiences remained separate.

Blacks were either not permitted, or they were relegated to the back of the club.

This kind of segregation was finally undone at a Greenwich Village basement lounge called Cafe Society—a play on the upscale nightclubs for snobbish elites popular in the 1930s.

OnesheridansquareThe club, at One Sheridan Square (right), was the creation of a former shoe salesman with leftist leanings named Barney Josephson.

He’d spent time traveling in Europe and was impressed by the racially mixed cabarets he’d visited.

He was also a huge jazz fan, and at his new venue he booked talent such as Lena Horne, Art Tatum, and Sarah Vaughan. Billie Holiday (below) was the opening night performer, and she later debuted Strange Fruit there.

Cafe Society Sheridan Square (Josephson opened another cabaret uptown) had a good run for a decade or so. “Ultimately, his political cabaret was undone by politics,” wrote Sam Roberts in The New York Times in 2009.

Cafesocietybillieholiday

“In 1947, after Mr. Josephson’s brother Leon, a Communist, refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the cafe owner was pummeled by prominent columnists, customers left, and both clubs were sold.”

[Bottom Photo: Charles B. Nadel via Downtown Express]


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