October 2008

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25 years ago yesterday Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” debuted. Yesterday, 73 fans reenacted the dance at Madame Tussaud‘s in Times Square in an attempt to break the Guinness record for the most people to do the dance at once. Local ABC report, with video, here, and a nice account from the Times‘s City Room blog here. (Photo credit goes to the latter.)

Alas, the Times story contains the bad news that the record had already been broken  last weekend by a group of over 800 dancers in Austin, Texas, part of a worldwide  “Thriller” dance-off that included  over 4,000 people across the globe. The Texans, as the Village Voice‘s news blog snarked, “presumably [danced] with their thumbs in their beltloops.”

The full 13-minute original, which I tried to pretend I hated in the 8th grade but like everyone else was actually blown away by, is here (sorry, embedding disabled).

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orson-wells-mtota-war-of-the-worlds.jpegExactly seventy years ago today, radio signals emanating from the twentieth floor of 485 Madison Avenue caused a panic. The occasion was the 8:00 p.m. broadcast of the CBS show Mercury Theater On Air, a special Halloween episode that featured an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel War of the Worlds (1898).

The broadcast was the brainchild of Orson Welles, who became famous as a result. The radio adaptation was written Howard Koch, who departed from Wells’s novel by setting the action not in England but in Grovers’s Mill, New Jersey. The conceit behind the radio play was to present the story as if it were actually happening in real time, and Welles used recordings of the Hindenburg disaster to inspire the cast and crew.

Events from the novel were presented as if they were news bulletins interrupting the regularly scheduled programming, with Welles first appearing in the guise of Professor Richard Pierson, “a famous astronomer.” Because many listeners tuned in late to the broadcast, they believed the fake bulletins to be real, causing a panic. A front-page article in The New York Times the next day described the furor:

The broadcast, which disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged cqmmunications systems, was made by Orson Welles, who as the radio character, “‘The Shadow,” used to give “the creeps” to countless child listeners. This, time at least, a score of adults required medical treatment for shock and hysteria.

In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than twenty families rushed·ont·of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture.

Wikipedia has a good account of the broadcast and its aftermath. A television film called The Night That Panicked America dramatized these events and was broadcast on Halloween night, 1975. A documentary called The Day That Panicked America was released in 2005.

war_spielberg_dvd.jpgIt is tempting now to read Welles and Koch’s adaptation as a meditation on world events, and the public’s response may well have been fueled by a sense of national unease at the increasing belligerence of Germany, which had annexed the Sudetenland on the first of the month, and Japan, which spent October invading Canton. Steven Spielberg’s effective 2005 adaptation of Wells’s novel seems, in retrospect, also to be a meditation on fears of invasion from abroad. Although Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp follow Welles and Koch by setting the tale in New Jersey, the film is clearly marked by the events of 9/11. “Is it the terrorists?” 10-year-old Rachel Ferrier (Dakota
Fanning) screams, as she and her father, Ray (Tom Cruise), attempt to escape from Bayonne in a minivan.

You can stream or download the 1938 broadcast from the Internet Archive, which also has an interesting set of materials related to the Hindenburg.

jesusobama.jpgI know you’re probably tempted to regard the McCain campaign as comedy, say in it attempts to paint Obama a socialist for supporting a graduated income tax — the same sort of tax plan McCain himself has defended in the past. And certainly their campaign — the moose-hunter in particular — has provided fodder for humorists (including NY’s finest — well, this season at least).

In case you need a little more humor to fill those gaps between refreshing fivethirtyeight.com a dozen times a day, consider this terrific bit about Park Slope parents from my friend A White Bear:

I keep hearing parents around here making a new threat when their
kids misbehave, and it’s working. They don’t threaten not to take them
to Balthazar or not to buy them that Eames chair they so wanted. They
threaten them with Barack Obama’s disappointment in them.

“What would Barack Obama say if he saw you treating your brother that way?”
“If you don’t stop hitting me, you won’t get to watch the Barack Obama debate tonight.”
“Do you think Malia and Sasha act like that? No, they don’t.”

The rest of the post here (and yes, that’s me she references in the first paragraph).

For more Park Slope election oddities, check this out. I’d bet those houses don’t get a lot of Halloween action this year: too scary for the kids!

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Taken today on the southwest corner of 14th Street and Second Avenue. In case you can’t make it out, the sticker on the garbage can reads: “In case of bankruptcy: please help yourself.”

The can across the street was not similarly festooned.

goldman.jpgIn the spring of 1914, a few months before the beginning of what would be called the Great War, Emma Goldman set out on a national lecture tour, speaking to crowds on various “radical” topics, from birth control and unemployment to something that had come, in recent years, to occupy much of Goldman’s attention: the modern drama, which she believed would prove a compelling vehicle to bring radicalism to bourgeois audiences. As the tour kicked off, she published a small volume on The Significance of the Modern Drama, based on a stenographer’s notes on a six-week lecture series at the Berkeley Theater, near Times Square. “In countries where political oppression affects all classes,” she wrote in the volume’s foreword, “the best intellectual element have made common cause with the people, have become their teachers, comrades, and spokesmen.” In America, by contrast, the only ones who seemed to wind up in prison–or tarred and
feathered–for their politics were “the ‘common’ people.” Something was needed, then, “to arouse the intellectuals of this country, to make them realize their relation to the people, to the social unrest permeating the atmosphere.”

Goldman’s interest in modern drama was not new; as early as 1897 she had lectured on George Bernard Shaw to an audience of coal miners. In 1905 and 1906, a period when she had withdrawn from the public eye in the wake of a presidential assassination for which she was blamed by some, she had served, under the name “Miss Smith,” as a tour manager for a Russian-speaking Paul Orleneff theater troupe, with stops in Boston and Chicago. The group, which
included the future film star Alla Nazimova, is sometimes credited with introducing modern drama to American audiences; the group also staged a benefit
performance to help fund Goldman’s fledgling Mother Earth. As the Village personality Hippolyte Havel wrote in a 1910 biographical sketch of Goldman, working with the Orleneff troupe granted Goldman access to “various polite functions” among the “aristocratic ladies of Fifth Avenue,” who “had not the least inkling that the amiable manager who so entertainingly discussed philosophy, drama, and literature at their five o’clock teas, was the ‘notorious’ Emma Goldman.”

Though Goldman’s conceptions of what was vital about modern drama did not always square with the ideas of her Greenwich Village intellectual friends, many of whom were helping to usher in a political “little theater” movement at almost the same moment, the convergence of these theatrical obsessions was productive in its own time and can serve us–as I’ll argue at greater length in a chapter of the cultural history Cyrus and I are writing–as a particularly clear window onto the production of literary personality in the early twentieth-century city.

I thought about Goldman yesterday afternoon at the closing performance of the Metropolitan Playhouse‘s production of George Middleton’s Nowadays, written and published in 1914 but never staged because producers feared it would be insufficiently “commercial.” Goldman devoted The Social Significance of the Modern Drama primarily to major works by Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Chekhov and others, but she also called for a new program in American dramatic arts: “My only regret,” she announced in the preface to her volume, “was that my own adopted land had to be left out [of the book]. I had tried diligently to find some American dramatist who could be placed alongside the great Europeans, but I could discover no one.” She did mention in passing as “commendable” works by American playwrights like Eugene Walter, Butler Davenport, and–yes, George Middleton–but her complaint was clear: an American “dramatic master … was not yet in sight.”


I’m not sure if Goldman ever addressed Nowadays in her lectures on American drama; if she read it, though, I’m sure it must have worked for her. The play’s technical weaknesses correspond directly to the limitations Margaret Anderson identified in EG’s criticism: Goldman biographer Alice Wexler quotes Anderson on EG’s “intrusion of dogma and platitude into the discussion, the wearying insistence upon ‘the moral’ of each play, the uncritical acquiescence in the veracity of each dramatic picture of life.” Certainly Middleton’s previously-unstaged play suffers from similar problems. The story of a mid-Western family torn apart (but ultimately reunited and strengthened) by a fiery young daughter’s desire to leave home and make it as an artist in New York, Nowadays plays to exactly the kinds of bourgeois-radical concern Goldman hoped to play in her effort to recruit middle- and upper-class intellectuals to the causes of anarchism and feminism. (One wonders if Middleton realized that the newspaper story he uses to open the play–“Eight Million Women Support Themselves by Working”–probably didn’t refer to middle-class women who struck out on their own to be modern artists. Goldman certainly would have known it.)

The play’s most unique plot twist–the mid-Western mother’s decision, two-thirds of the way through the play, to follow her daughter to the city, where she’ll pick up her own youthful enthusiasm for
painting–seems simultaneously far-fetched and, at the same time, extraordinarily heartfelt. It makes plain that Middleton’s target audience was not a generation of bohemian intellectuals in the Village but their parents. The play’s most riveting moment comes at the end of the second half, when the Victorian wife confronts her patronizing husband and tells him she’s going to the city to join her daughter, with or without him. The real force of the drama, then, isn’t the satirical social comedy that opens and closes the play but the tragedy of a woman whose life as a good wife and mother has forced her to sacrifice her own development as a human being. (Unlike her daughter, she doesn’t quite make it as an artist once she’s struck out on her own.)

Middleton, who participated in early public discussions of feminism in the Village, lived until 1967. He published an autobiography in the mid 1940s. Even though he remained somewhat well-known in the theater world during the first half of the twentieth century and had his works censored by church and state for advocating liberal divorce laws, Middleton remains virtually unknown today, a mere Wikipedia stub, perhaps because his cultural politics trumped artistic subtlety. (It’s no mistake that Goldman’s known for her politics rather than her role in American dramatic history.) Perhaps more productions like the Metropolitan’s Nowadays will return some attention–at least from cultural historians of feminism and the American stage–to someone Goldman once thought might develop into a great American playwright.

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John McCain and Sarah Palin, in the latest installment of their occasionally uncomfortable joint interview with Brian Williams, offer their definitions of “elites”:

WILLIAMS: Who is a member of the elite?

PALIN: Oh, I guess just people who think that they’re better than
anyone else. And– John McCain and I are so committed to serving every
American. Hard-working, middle-class Americans who are so desiring of
this economy getting put back on the right track. And winning these
wars. And America’s starting to reach her potential. And that is
opportunity and hope provided everyone equally. So anyone who thinks
that they are– I guess– better than anyone else, that’s– that’s my
definition of elitism.

WILLIAMS: So it’s not education? It’s not income-based? It’s–

PALIN: Anyone who thinks that they’re better than someone else.

WILLIAMS: –a state of mind? It’s not geography?

PALIN: ‘Course not.

WILLIAMS: Senator?

MCCAIN: I– I know where a lot of ’em live. (LAUGH)

WILLIAMS: Where’s that?

MCCAIN: Well, in our nation’s capital and New York
. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived there. I know the town. I know– I know
what a lot of these elitists are. The ones that she never went to a
cocktail party with in Georgetown. I’ll be very frank with you. Who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.

I suppose we could have seen that coming. Too bad no one lives in that Pennsylvania cornfield where Flight 93 went down, or they just might be targets too. Oh, wait …

So I find their answers interesting, in part because I’ve heard myself saying more than once this season: “What’s wrong with arugula anyway?”  But of course that must mean I’m an elitist too. Real, men, apparently, only eat iceburg lettuce purchased at a Super Walmart. Oh, wait … apparently even Walmart stocks the funny green stuff these days. Elitists!

Sure there are some folks in NYC who take their food snobbery out on the rest of the country. My friend A White Bear has great anecdotes in this vein from her shifts at the Park Slope Food Co-op, involving annoying co-workers who poo-poo middle-Americans for their poor taste in cheese — as if every rural Kansan has a world-class fromogier within a couple minutes’ drive. (The fact that they don’t must be what’s really the matter with Kansas.) And certainly there are a lot of people who live here who talk loudly, sometimes when tourists are close enough to overhear, that they can’t imagine living anywhere else. (By the same token, tourists are often overheard saying loudly that they might be having a good time on their visit, but they can’t imagine living here.)

And I’ll admit it: I’ve identified emotionally at times–in spite of the fact that my ability to live in Manhattan has nothing to do with money and everything to do with a million happy accidents I couldn’t have coordinated if I’d wanted to–with the old Talking Heads song “The Big Country,” from their second album, More Songs about Buildings and Food (1978). The speaker is in a plane, flying over the mid-West (which apparently includes everything west of the Hudson). Looking down at all the ballfields and driveways he launches into the chorus:

I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
I couldn’t live like that, no siree!
I couldn’t do the things the way those people do.
I couldn’t live there if you paid me to.

Guilty as charged? Maybe. But I’ve had my moments of nostalgia for the sort of Sam Shepard world I grew up in, too. I only wish the bulk of the people there didn’t think Obama is literally the anti-Christ, foretold by Scripture to wage war on Israel and usher in a one-world state. Don’t they know how to read? To sift information? Can’t they ask their fromagier for political advice? Oh, wait …

All this waffling (Am I an elitist? Am I above that? Does thinking I’m above it make me an elitist anyway?) and referencing old Talking Heads songs is merely a set-up, though, for an excuse to plug David Byrne’s recent entries in his online journal. He’s on tour at the moment, all across that Big Country, on the ground this time. And, as he’s proven many times before, he’s an exceptionally gifted blogger. I would pay good money for a “David Byrne’s Guide to Weird Americana,” and even more to be a stowaway on his buses and planes and other modes of transport. From hot-air ballooning in Albuquerque to visiting Satin Doll’s Lounge in Milwaukee, his entries celebrate the joys and idiosyncratic oddities of this great land of ours. It’s a nice corrective to the dismissive (if sometimes understandable) chorus of his old song “Big Country,” and yet this Byrne persona clearly retains an insidery-outsider’s edge. It’s not an elitist edge so much as one that brings a more generous kind of moral clarity.


As for McCain and Palin’s less generous kind of moral clarity: doesn’t that last line smack a little of hypocrisy?

“[Elitists are those] [w]ho think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.

I’d rather not have them legislating morality for my family, thank you. Damn evangelitists.

Byrne tour dates here, though there’s no hometown show listed. Photo by Lily Baldwin, snagged from Byrne’s journal. Doesn’t it look a lot like an Amy Bennett painting?

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Taken this morning on the south side of 23rd Street in Manhattan, just east of Broadway.

This Juicy Couture ad campaign has seemed tasteless from the start (that, I suppose, is part of the point), but in the wake of the global financial meltdown, it’s become egregiously so.

Be sure to check out mannahattamamma‘s wicked take on the Juicy Couture phenomenon.

If you’re wondering about the ad underneath Juicy’s offering, you can find the answer here.



One hundred-twenty-five years ago today, the Metropolitan Opera House opened at 1411 Broadway, between 40th and 39th Streets. It had been built by a number of newly rich families — including the Vanderbilts, the Morgans
and the Rockefellers — who felt shut out at the fashionable Academy of Music on 14th Street.

The company gave a performance of Charles Gounoud’s Faust, sung not in French but in Italian, as was then the fashion. The opening night cast featured Italo Campanini as Faust and Christine Nilsson as Marguerite, with Sofia Scalchi, Mme. Lablache, Franco Novara, and Ernesto del
Puente in supporting roles. The conductor was Auguste-Charles-Leonard-Francois-Vianese. (Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence [1920] opens with a scene set at the Academy of Music during the “early seventies”: Nilsson is singing Faust, and Wharton’s narrator wittily comments on the use of Italian: “She sang, of course, ‘M’ama!’ and not ‘he loves me,’ since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”)

The original building was designed by J. Cleveland Cady; it was nicknamed “The Yellow Brick Brewery” because of its seemingly industrial interior. A fire destroyed the building on August 27, 1892, forcing the cancellation of the 1892-93 season. Although the building was completely renovated and the opera re-opened for the following season, it soon became apparent that the building’s facilities were too small for the growing company.

Various locations for a new building were proposed over the years, including Columbus Circle and the site of the present Rockefeller Center. Finally, in 1966, the company moved to its present location at Lincoln Center. The Old Met was not given landmark status, so it was torn down the following year. Its original rival, the Academy of Music, had met a similar fate forty years earlier in 1926.

Today we inaugurate a new feature called . . .



This picture was taken yesterday with an iPhone near the northeast corner of 8th Street and University Place. If you go to frighteningprospect.com, you can download the poster of Palin and learn how to “wheatpaste” it for public consumption in your neighborhood.

The name of the bank that was “coming soon” has changed since the boards were first put up. It used to be North Fork. Gobble, gobble. I wonder if it’ll actually arrive, given the current situation.

Every weekday morning I give my younger daughter a ride to school on the back of my bike. She’s about the same age her older sister was when she swore off this routine, but for now, the bike ride is still part of what we do.

We ride down the edge of Little Italy, cross Canal, pass Columbus Park (near the infamous “Mulberry Bend” of the nineteenth century) on one side and the Tombs on the other. This is the neighborhood of the old Five Points.

Once we’ve cut over through Chatham Square, we cut down a short little street called Oliver. Turns out this is the street Al Smith was born on; the housing projects at the end of the block bear his name. (Richard Price named them after Clara Lemlich for his thinly veiled setting in Lush Life.)

kv.jpgThe school itself is nestled between the Smith Homes and Knickerbocker Village, a low-rent complex that takes up two city blocks on the north side of Catherine Street. All of this preamble is to get me around to the point of the post: Knickerbocker Village is also the name of a blog run by folks who grew up in KV, which was built using federal funds during the Depression. I like their blog very much; it’s a serious New York history blog with a distinct, neighborhoody feel.

Recent scholarship on that part of lower Manhattan has emphasized its long history of interracial relations, even — dare we say it? — its cosmopolitanism and comingling of cultures. W. T. Lhamon, one of the most imaginative scholars (and inveterate defenders) of blackface minstrelsy sees the form, which he thinks originated at the end of Catherine Street down by the old Catherine Slip on the river, as inherently subversive, antiauthoritarian, and a product of cultural clashes on the old LES, an outpost of the Black Atlantic. It’s part Irish, part African, and completely American.

Which brings us to the title of the post. Knickerbocker Village (the blog) recently featured this little ditty, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Obama’s Irish ancestry. I think it carries a little of the subversive edge of the old LES, home to Al Smith, and before him to TD Rice, Master Juba, and a host of other cosmopolitan entertainers.

There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama
You don’t believe me, I hear you say
But Barack’s as Irish as our own JFK
His granddaddy’s granddaddy came from Moneygall
A village in Offaly, well known to you all.
His mam’s daddy’s granddaddy was one Falmuth Kearney
He’s as Irish as any from the Lakes of Killarney
His mam’s from a long line of great Irish Mamma’s
There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama

Bonus: Barely Political had a fun time a while back with a similar premise.

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