Bryan: October 2008 Archives

Times Square Thriller

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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).

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 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!

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, Chekov 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 plays 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.

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 City. 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?

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.

Jackie, Oh!

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Thumbnail image for Jackie_Kennedy_husband_01.jpgTHIS DAY IN NEW YORK CITY HISTORY

Forty years ago today Jacqueline Kennedy, the most famous widow in the world and resident of 1040 Fifth Avenue, married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. She was not quite forty years old; he was born in either 1900 or 1906, but no one knows for sure.

I made this discovery at the gym this morning, along with an even bigger discovery: NY1 has a daily feature called "This Day in New York City History"! I promise we won't mine it too often to fill our own feature, but NYC history buffs may want to bookmark the page.

In 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, candidates for the U.S. presidency, spoke at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. The foundation -- named for the four-term Governor of New York and candidate for the presidency in 1928, an Irish kid from the Lower East Side -- hosts the white-tie dinner as a fundraiser for Catholic Charities. In election years since 1960, candidates have often, but not always, been invited to speak.

This year, McCain went first. He set the bar high -- in a meta way, even -- but I think he was bested by The One. See what you think:

As a bonus: McCain finally makes it to Letterman's show. Verdict: More cranky than funny, certainly not as good as his performance at the dinner.

New York to Berlin

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I'll be in Germany for the next week. No, I'm not part of the young artist set abandoning New York for Berlin. I have a conference in Dresden but will spend a couple days in the world's new arts capital too. I won't likely be blogging while I'm there, so have fun while I'm away!

Forgotten New York

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cover copy 2.jpg Do you know Kevin Walsh's Forgotten New York?

I've had a copy for a year or so, and every once in a while remember to pack it with me when I'm heading to an unfamiliar neighborhood. (There's also an accompanying blog, cheerfully cluttered, that's well worth checking regularly.)

The book offers hundreds of out-of-the-way or in-plain-sight-but-easily-overlooked details from the city's past, broken into categories like "Truly Forgotten," "Quiet Places," or "What's This Thing?" It's  designed for New Yorkers rather than tourists; it's for people constantly on the look for little glimpses into lost parts of the city.

I rarely use the book to find a destination for an afternoon outing, say, but when I pack it along it always adds a nice dimension to a trip to or from somewhere I already wanted to go. A few weekends ago, ssw and I took our bikes and headed up the paths along the Hudson. We weren't sure how far we'd go, though we had a vague idea we wanted to go kayaking up at Pier 96 before the weather turned. Once we were done (and had spent enough time spread out in the sun to dry our asses off) we got back on our bikes and headed up as high as St. Clair Place, around 125th street.

I had my copy of FN in my basket, and vaguely had some idea that we were close to Grant's Tomb, which we'd never managed to visit. So we circled around until we hit Riverside Drive, pumped our way up the rather steep hill, and made our way back a few blocks to 123rd St.

Do you know who's buried at Grant's Tomb? I'm sheepish to admit I didn't know the answer to that riddle until we visited with FN's assistance.

One minor disappointment, though. I remembered, when the Hudson River path hit St. Clair Place and we decided to stop our journey north, that FN had an entry explaining that street's name. It accompanies the entry on Grant's Tomb, in fact. It has to do not with the more famous tomb, but with an obscure grave nearby:

Five-year-old St. Clair Pollock was playing on the rocks overlooking the Hudson River on the Pollock property, and fell to his death on July 15, 1797. When the Pollocks later sold the property, his father (perhaps his uncle; records are unclear) made the request that St. Clair's grave, which was on the property, would always be respected. A small stone urn remains marked, "Erected to the memory of an amiable child." St. Clair is also commemorated with the very short St. Clair Place, which runs between the Hudson River and West 125th Street under the Riverside Drive Viaduct, about a half mile to the north.

We only spent about 15 minutes looking for it, but we couldn't find the little stone urn, which is supposedly a little ways "up Riverside" (I assumed that meant north), "standing by itself, surrounded by an iron fence."

I suppose I'll have to go back and look again. Tip for bikers: ride back downtown as far as you can along Riverside Drive itself, which is somewhat more spectacular than I would have imagined and certainly lusher than a ride along the river at that point.

Everybody ♥ Banksy

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Seems like all NY media are fixated on Banksy, NMTE. Suddenly every piece of street art downtown's being fixated on with attribution speculations abounding. The comments sections of blogs (regrettably not ours -- we need to have a lurker amnesty post soon!) bristle with debates about the more identifiable points of his style.

Gawker, Gothamist, and the Times report on the above mural, which went up earlier in the week in SoHo (Wooster and Grand). One of the painter's girlfriend (as reported on another blog) told a passerby that Jeffrey Deitch had something to do with it.

The super cool SuperTouch blog smells another rat a few blocks away, on Broadway just above Canal; they report that Banksy's gone legit, rented the wall space, and hired a painting crew to put these up:


Of course this has raised the eyebrows of the worldwide legion of the Banksy faithful that follow the Bristol Bad Boy's every clandestine move with baited breath. Has Sir Banks given up his usual M.O. in favor of going legit? Has he made so much money that it's safer to rent space and hire commercial painters than bomb? Is he qualified to run for Vice President of the USA?

Probably not. But if he were, we hope he'd be wise enough not to follow Cheney's Imperial Vice Presidency lead, unlike another candidate we could name ...

And speaking of street art and politics: The Times also has a piece this week about Shepard Fairey, of Obey Giant fame. (I've always thought it looked more like Nixon than like Andre the Giant, myself.) Mr. Fairey, of course, is responsible for the best political art of this presidential season, beating out even MBW's SuperObama:


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