Bryan: November 2009 Archives
I'll spend most of today making my way back to New York -- back over the river and through the woods, if you will -- but I wanted to alert readers to mark your calendars for tomorrow: we'll be offering up some history-oriented holiday suggestions as part of a multi-blog city guide to the season. We'll include links to the several other fine websites participating. See you then!
photo from framingham.edu's archive of a 2007 alumni trip to the city.
This afternoon I'll be heading to Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market to pick up oysters for tomorrow's dinner, per tradition. I'd thought about making the oyster leek soup featured in NYMag this year, but have decided that, well, we'd rather just eat the oysters.
If you're hankering for historical holiday reading, check out the posts tagged "Thanksgiving" at The Bowery Boys (where I nabbed the Underdog photo, above), Ephemeral New York, and Forgotten NY.
At Virtual Dime Museum I found this Thanksgiving Dinner menu from the Park Avenue Hotel, dated 1900:
The BBs' post on Underdog mentioned an old Thanksgiving special I'd forgotten about. For your holiday viewing pleasure, all four parts:
1. It's the play that defined "sensation" for the New York stage. The debut run, at the Worrell Sisters' New York Theatre, Broadway at Waverly Place, saw 47 performances. The signal moment -- the original train-tracks rescue -- originally aimed for extraordinary realism. In "sensation plays" from the Victorian era, audiences hoped to be transfixed by a single, sublime moment on stage: a fire scene, a shipwreck, a volcano erupting. I'm eager to see how this defining element of the genre translates into the Metropolitan's much more intimate space. I doubt we'll see a train rush by; I'm hoping to be caught up in the moment nonetheless.
Plus a train-tracks bonus: in this protoype for the melodramatic rescue scene, it's a worthy, lower-class man tied to the tracks, only to be rescued by our heroine, who appears lower-class but is really of aristocratic blood. And virtuous! (Probably because she thinks she's low-born.)
2. It's a great "City on Stage" play, one I write about in my chapter in our Cambridge Companion (forthcoming next spring, as we've reminded our readers repeatedly). Daly was a major figure in 19c New York theater (and eventually in London) -- both as a playwright and as a manager. Gaslight offers a terrific look at class-issues in the years just following the Civil War. Its settings include Delmonico's and country estates on Long Island, and though it never questions the equation of money and virtue -- the truly virtuous are those most deserving of wealth -- it does seem to target the brutality of the upper classes, suggesting that not everyone born into wealth deserves it. Upper-class society is compared, by one character, to a pack of Siberian wolves. It's kind of Gossip Girl for the nineteenth-century stage; the heroine would be the equivalent of Dan Humphrey in drag. That is, the play both revels in the lavish life of the upper-classes and offers a set of qualified critiques.
3. Fans of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) will remember that the heroine got her start on stage in a community production of this play, out in the mid-western hinterlands of Chicago. The narrator refers to it as "Augustin Daly's famous production, which had worn from a great public success down to an amateur theatrical favourite, with many of the troublesome accessories cut out and the dramatis personae reduced to the smallest possible number." The Metropolitan's version, then, may be more akin to the regional production Carrie starred in than to Daly's original (with all the "accessories"), but I'm confident the crew the Metropolitan has assembled, including Amanda Jones (who sparkled in The Contrast), will outstrip a late-nineteenth-century Chicago Elk's Lodge by miles.
The play is in previews at the Metropolitan through the end of this week; opening night's the 28th. It runs through December 10. Cyrus and I (and our colleague Tom Augst) have tickets for Sunday afternoon, Dec. 6, if you'd like to join us. I'll be sure to report back, though by that point only a few performances will remain.
Glad I made it out to Bowery Ballroom last night to see the last show of the Dirty Projectors' four-night NYC stand. (Thanks again to those who conspired to get me in.)
I saw the show with my brother, who'd been to the previous night's show at Music Hall as well. Together we'd seen Dave Longstreth play solo (as Dirty Projectors) back in 2003 or 2004, maybe earlier, when he was still working out the songs for The Getty Address. In those pre-Amber, pre-Angel, pre-Haley days it was just Dave, a cassette deck, and a laptop, if I remember right, but you kind of had an idea of how big -- operatic, even -- the stuff was that was going on inside his head. I don't think I could have predicted that 5 or 6 years later NYMag would feature him as the centerpiece of the Brooklyn indie renaissance.
Full recap of the show at BV (where I nabbed the pictures above and below, too). Highlights, though: if night 3 of the hometown shows had been a Quaker Meeting, as Dave put it, all enlightenment and joy, night 4 turned out to be a dance party. Tune-Yards, opening, had the crowd in the palm of her hand with a set that helped clarify DP's own African influences. Then the Projectors by turns rocked out -- like choir kids doing Max Tundra tunes without the use of computers -- and took some acoustic detours, including a number w/ just Dave and Angel that made me wish they'd gone on to play "Edelweiss." Near the end of the set, The Roots made a guest appearance, folding the place inside out as they backed Amber's solo vocals. ?uestlove was sporting a killer Cosby kids T-shirt. When they finished he tossed his sticks into the crowd.
Finally, for the second encore number, David Byrne, who through the whole show had been standing with Cindy Sherman against the wall near the front, like a humble presiding spirit, popped out from the wings to join in on "Knotty Pine," their great Dark Was The Night collaboration. It's a tricky song (aren't they all?) and it seemed like a while since it had been rehearsed, which lent to the fun. Earlier I'd said to Nathan that DP seems to me to be the Talking Heads of his generation. Watching Byrne and Longstreth play off each other only seemed to confirm it.
Afterwards, through scenester cache not my own, we ended up in the green room for a post-show toast. Some kids from SNL were there, and my brother pointed out Michael Azerrad across the room. Years ago I gave my brother MA's book for Christmas, so we shared a little sentimental fraternal moment over that. The first time I'd been in Bowery's green room, coincidentally, Cindy Sherman had been introducing the act I was performing with. Crammed together into the room's doorway, I told her so; she remembered the night, though surely not me in particular. (I was buried deep in the rhythm section, safely behind the star power.) And can I just conclude with an early New Year's resolution? If I'm ever standing awkwardly in the same hallway with David Byrne again, I won't chicken out from the chance to introduce myself properly. I kicked myself all the way home.
If you've been digging Alex's downtown then-and-now photos, check out these archival images from Harlem -- paired with what's (not) there now. [Harlem Bespoke]
Parks Department calls for volunteers on Saturday to clean up and help preserve the old New York State Pavilion in Queens. Meanwhile, Queens Crap readers raise their eyebrows. [HDC Newsstand; Queens Crap]
Or you can spend the weekend on one or more Brooklyn gallery tours. [Bed-Stuy Blog]
Brooklyn bonus from Brooks! "FYI, there is still room for a few more on the Nov. 29, Thanksgiving weekend walking tour of Carroll Gardens West/Columbia Heights Waterfront District. Please let me know if you'd like to join us." [Lost New York]
Or you can get ready for Thanksgiving by giving thanks with "Native American Circle" on the Harlem River. [Bronx Mama]
And plan ahead for a post-Thanksgiving tour of historic Richmond Town with the Staten Island Historical Society [NYC Arts]
Photo of the old Corn Exchange Building from Harlem Bespoke: "This was the section that was largely visible from the Metro North platform for the last 100 years until the city demolished it in the past six weeks."
Here's an overview from the station's site:
"Photographer W. Eugene Smith moved into a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, in the heart of New York's Flower District, in 1957. The place had already become a hangout for artists, writers and especially jazz musicians, who rehearsed and jammed there. Among the visitors to the loft: Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, Steve Swallow, Mose Allison, Bob Brookmeyer and hundreds more, over a period of about 8 years." (Read more here.)Smith eventually recorded over 4,000 hours of life in the Jazz loft, from jam sessions to conversations to what happened to be playing on the radio or television. The tapes are an audio supplement to the 40,000 photos he took during the same period -- or vice versa: maybe the photos supplement the audio tapes.
Either way, the series makes for a fascinating slice of New York's arts scenes in the late 50s and early 60s. Sam Stephenson of Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies discovered the tapes in an Arizona archive in the late 90s. No one had listened to them in the 20 years they'd been housed there. In addition to producing this radio series with WNYC's Sara Fishko, Stephenson's also written a book that's due out next week, and the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts will host an exhibition of Smith's photography.
Start listening here. Much more, including a blog, at the project's home page.
See a slower version here, which will also allow you to progress one year at a time or to click on individual buildings for more info. The artist, a Seattle-based web designer and writer named Zac van Schouwen, explains the project's origins:
Awhile back, I was trying to find out the history of a building that my great-great-grandfather had lived in -- an old five-story tenement on Eldridge Street in Manhattan. With some help from Christopher Gray's guide to researching New York City buildings, I discovered that the building had been erected in 1834, on the site of an old house. It was demolished in the 1940s; its lot later held a garage, then a housing project.
My mystery was solved, but the project had piqued my interest anyway. I decided to try a more mammoth task, compiling a complete record of the life cycle of a single city block. That's what I've presented here. Beginning in the 1780s with James Delancey's farm, and ending with the present public housing structures, erected in 1985, this is a record of eight generations of buildings on two-thirds of an acre. (There is a brief gap from about 1802 to 1808, during which I've made educated guesses as to the state of construction.)
Clicking on any building here will give you more details about its history. The tenement that sparked this interest, #218, is a good place to start. My great-great-grandfather lived there in 1860. Keep an eye on it in 1922. Enjoy!
My favorite part is the fire-escapes that pop up in the early twentieth century. 1978 is the saddest year of all.
Bloomie's $100 million land grab at Coney Island [Brooklyn Paper]
In Queens cemeteries, with Newtown Pentacle and Scouting NY.
Moon over Harlem [Harlem Hybrid]
City Lore to honor "places that matter" in the Bronx [Bronx Latino]
"We can go to the future known for the ferry and the dump, or we can embrace our legacy as the center of the lighthouse industry": The saga of Staten Island's Lighthouse Museum [silive]
Wonder Wheel photo via Straits Time (h/t Brownstoner)
On 10 November 1969, on PBS, the first episode of Sesame Street aired, sponsored by the letters W, S, and E and the numbers 2 and 3.
The cheeky parody of the advertising industry -- and corporate sponsorship of television programs -- was only one of the things that tied the show to New York, though the attempt to "sell" educational content using the methods of television commercials was one of the series' originating concepts. It also drew -- like sketch-based variety television more broadly -- on vaudeville traditions long linked to New York's popular entertainment culture, preserved in Muppet slapstick and satire, including Bert and Ernie's comic partnership. The show's creators lived in New York, too, and they came together much as any urban literary or artistic scene had in earlier periods: over conversation, food, and drink. (The idea for the show came, like the decision to move the national capital from New York to the swamplands of what would become DC, out of a Manhattan dinner party.) The set of collaborations born in the late '60s grounded the show in New York and ensured it would be filmed here for the next 40 years. Perhaps more than anything, the Sesame Street set -- a brownstone, weather-beaten storefronts, a pushcart vendor, and a tire swing, for instance -- was clearly drawn from the visual iconography of New York's neighborhoods. "There would be no Treasure House, no toymaker's workshop, no enchanted castle, no dude ranch, no circus," writes the show's most recent biographer, Michael Davis. "To the underprivileged, the target audience, these settings seemed as foreign as the dark side of the moon."
Original sketches for the set were drawn in Harlem, Davis explains, but one early possible name for the show set it more specifically on the Lower East Side: 123 Avenue B was eventually discarded as too New York-centric, and the creators hoped for urban preschool audiences across the country. And so a bit of fantasy slipped into the mix after all, a sort of Jane Jacobsean dream: the show would feature life in a slightly magical neighborhood, where adults of mixed races looked out for kids who were even more diverse. (The show's emphasis on ethnic diversity was aggressive from the start -- so much so that I was shocked to learn, as a young adult, that at least one of my childhood friends in rural Arizona had been forbidden by her parents from watching it, out of a fear that it would promote inter-racial marriage. I was more conscious of its nifty packaging of Spanish vocabulary.)
Magical or not, what Sesame Street offered in its city street scene was a space that felt lived in, worn, repurposed, ordinary. (At least, it started out that way.) And yet it housed something extraordinary: the accommodation, the cosmopolitan celebration, even, of difference. Some sketches, to be sure, established universals: everyone eats, everyone sleeps, even though "everybody" in both cases is shown in the end to be made up of a bunch of differences. (Thanks again goes to Joe Raposo for the score to those daily activities.) The late-breaking, treacly classic "We Are All Earthlings" would also seem to preach a universalist gospel, but even that song begins by articulating difference. The show foregrounded not simply diversity but the experience of being different -- being the one thing that wasn't just like the others -- in language, color, and economic class, even in lifeform. And it made it plain that difference was not simply a fact of life, but that it was okay, maybe even fun. Humans interacted with Muppets. Mr. Hooper represented a generation older than the principal adults on the cast. The humans on set, adult and children, were surrogates for an audience of diverse ages. The show aimed to please children and adults -- including grandparental care-givers -- alike. Only over time did they broaden their focus to include us country kids (see below), though it should be understood that where I lived we already knew where milk came from without Lorne Greene telling us. The differences encountered by watching the show -- even when it rendered me an outsider -- were part of what made it so interesting.
Such differences also tend to make genuine neighborhoods interesting, though some people, of course, will always see neighborhoods as exclusive rather than inclusive. Sesame Street's neighborhood is distinctively urban, as the various "Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?" sketches make clear, operating as they do from the assumption that neighborhoods are relatively self-contained in terms of basic public services rather than suburban. (They also assume not everyone in your neighborhood is pleasant.) The neighborhoods I saw on Sesame Street were quite different from my own. I don't remember this sketch from the mid-70s, but it seems like something that would have drawn me, in my imagination, away from the cow patches I was surrounded by:
Come to think of it, I've looked a lot like that city kid for most of my adult life. It's only the last few years I've had my hair cut short. I wonder if this guy has been burrowed in my subconscious all that time.
The sketch puts a primary difference up front, both to value that difference and to affirm one's identity -- and also, I would argue, to allow one to imagine other identities than the ones you were born into.
Sesame Street didn't have to wax metaphysical to make New York seem enticing. All it took was a Raposo melody and some seemingly random footage of the city in winter. Can you identify places pictured here? Things that remain the same? Things that have vanished?
Against the grain of 1970s images of the subway as a scary place, Sesame Street offered this Sam Pottle and Grace Hawthorne song from 1974, which the MTA should really consider picking up as part of an official campaign. It begins with urban rudeness and accounts for all sorts of frustration -- missed stops, the heat, crowds -- but somehow still affirms the democratic joy of it all:
On the first episode of Sesame Street (which you can get on the Old School Vol. 1 DVD set or with this book, but which I can't seem to find on YouTube), Gordon escorts a little girl named Sally -- clearly a proxy for child viewers -- around the neighborhood, introducing her to human and Muppet characters. "Sally, you've never seen a street like Sesame Street," he tells her. "Everything happens here. You're going to love it." Michael Davis responds to this line: "everything and anything can happen on Sesame Street -- except bad stuff." Not necessarily so -- at least not mildly bad stuff. One of the show's genius strokes was to let characters -- usually Muppets or characters in animated segments, but sometimes the humans, too -- feel all kinds of unpleasant emotions, from frustration, to the isolation of difference (even if it's a difference that makes you feel ordinary), to embarrassment over mistakes, to annoyance at your friends, to miscommunication. In some cases, but not all, these issues are worked through. But things work out for different people in different ways. What's remained constant for 40 years is the affirmation that no matter how isolated or different you may feel, someone else somewhere -- maybe just a ten-ton Muppet no one else can see -- cares enough to make the loneliness go away, that someone who's different from you may be able to care about you nonetheless.
The other contender for the title, though, would be Sesame Street's Joe Raposo. Over the last week or so I've been floored to realize how many of my favorite Sesame Street sketches feature his songs. Not all of my favorites below are Raposo songs, but enough are that I'm giving the guy a big fat shout out. I think my early encounter with his music for Sesame Street (and for The Muppet Show, too) primed my brain for a certain strain of rock and roll that stretches from David Bowie to Destroyer, what I lovingly refer to as Muppet Rock. (More often than not bands with animal names fall in this category.) One of my grand unfinished schemes is to curate a Muppet indie rock opera, starring Gonzo, for WFMU's listener hour.
But enough of that. For your Monday afternoon music needs, here's a playlist of my fifteen (well, sixteen) favorite songs from Sesame Street, the ones so deeply burned into my brain there's no hope of ever shaking them. Most are from 1969-74; I may have picked up some later ones from a 25th anniversary VHS collection I watched with my daughters a decade ago.
In descending order:
15. Grover and Madeline Khan sing "Sing After Me (The Echo Song)," after she rebuffs Grover's advances. This is a Sam Pottle tune, first aired in 1977:
14. The Count, "Doing the Batty Bat." I remember this song a little better than the other famous song by the Count, and unfortunately this one doesn't have such a brilliant parody to go along with it. (Please click that link. You will not regret it.)
Raposo wrote this song in 1985:
13. "Would You Like to Buy an O?" This shady character reminds me of my friend Scotty G out in the LBC. Raposo wrote this; first aired in 1971:
12. "What's the Name of That Song?" Another Sam Pottle tune (1974):
11. Bert and Ernie sing "I Dance Myself to Sleep." This is from '81, which means I probably watched it with younger siblings. I know I watched this with my daughters when they were little but I'm pretty sure I knew it in the 80s too. Classic Bert and Ernie, this one written by Christopher Cerf:
10. "Mah-Na Mah-Na." I don't actually remember this version (1969), but it was later a staple on the Muppet Show with different characters. According to Muppet Wiki, it was "written by composer Piero Umiliani for an Italian documentary about life in Sweden, titled Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden, Heaven and Hell)." This was Henson's first pass at it:
9. "Martian Beauty" (1972) was designed to teach the number 9, so I'll let it clock in here. Written, sung, and animated by Bud Luckey, who would go on to work for Pixar. Lyrics by Don Hadley:
8. Ernie sings "Rubber Duckie." I don't know if I love or hate this song. When I was a kid we had a Sesame Street songbook for the piano, so I also grew up playing and singing this and a few of the others on my list. Written by Jeff Moss, performed by Jim Henson. I was in my mother's womb when this first aired:
7. "The Alligator King" (1971). Another Bud Luckey song and cartoon w/ Don Hadley lyrics. I'm putting it, appropriately, at number 7, but this was one of my favorite sketches of all as a kid. Still is:
5. "Sing" (1970). Another one that's as old as I am. Raposo wrote it. It's been performed any number of ways. I liked the Carpenters' version when I was a kid. I remember a filmstrip at church when I was a kid that held this up as the "right" kind of music. This version, the bilingual one, is from '71. Luis was always trying to squeeze Spanish in there.
4. Bert and Ernie, "The Imagination Song" (1972), by Joe Raposo. I love how Bert wakes up:
3. Oscar sings "I Love Trash" (1969). This was my favorite to play on the piano, and I loved the lyrics, too. They gave me license never to throw anything away. Here's the original version from the first season, when Oscar was still orange:
2. (tie) Two songs about 12: "The Pinball Number Count" and "Ladybug Picnic." I couldn't dispense with these all the way back at #12, though. These rank so high simply because once you hear them you can't shake them for days. Probably the most memorable of all those animated sketches. The first one's by the Pointer Sisters. Written in '72 but debuted on SS, apparently, in '76:
And the other is another Bud Luckey/Don Hadley number (1971):
1. And, finally, Kermit singing "Bein' Green," also from the year I was born, and perhaps Raposo's best song. They were lefties at Sesame Street in the early days, those wacky kids.
You have seen the version Big Bird sang at Jim Henson's memorial, haven't you?
What would be on your Best Of list?
Counting to 20, with commentary on Kermit's eyes:
Another, in which we learn how ticklish Kermit is:
And, saving the best for last, Joey tries out her ABCs, with a little trick up her sleeve. This is one of the best Sesame Street sketches ever:
I just realized Joey's got the same shirt on for all three. Were these filmed on the same day?
On another occasion Joey helps Snuffy with his ABCs:
And I'm pretty sure this is her standing by the piano when Mary Lou Williams teaches the kids to scat.
Her Muppet Wiki page makes her out to be a little older than typical kids on the show or in the audience, which is why she seemed so smart. It doesn't tell us, though, where she is now. Unlike John John, she wasn't featured in the 20th anniversary special.
Next week Sesame Street celebrates its 40th anniversary. If you've used Google today, you may have been tipped off to the fact:
I've written about the show here before -- even recently -- but I'm planning a longer post for Tuesday, the actual anniversary of the first episode's airing in 1969, not quite a year before I was born. In the meantime I wanted to create some playlists of favorite sketches from my own childhood.
For this installment, I wanted to offer a set of clips with kids interacting with Muppets. One of the things New York Magazine pointed out this week in its nod toward the 40th anniversary -- along with the fun fact that the original name of the show was to be 123 Avenue B -- is that initial audience tests for the show, without Muppets, flopped with kids. Henson's arrival on the scene clearly was key. (I've purchased Street Gang to help me out with posts this week, but like an idiot I left it in my office. I'll fact check later.)
Given that I'm the oldest of 7 children, my encounter with Sesame Street was a long one. And I never really outgrew it. I loved to watch it with younger siblings and I've loved revisiting it with my own kids, though I strongly prefer the show pre-Elmo. I have very clear memories, dating as far back as I can remember television, of one human child who was a perpetual favorite in our household. In fact, if one of his sketches came on, whoever was watching would yell throughout the house: "John John's on!" and people would come running.
Was there ever a Sesame Street kid as adorable as John John?
Clearly, his gift was to be able to interact with the Muppets as if they were human. He seems not to notice there's a human being attached below and to the back. The genius of the directors was that they only loosely scripted these encounters and let the actors improvise.
Take Bert's reaction to John John's questions in this one:
Like many Sesame Street sketches, the ones with John John tend to turn on the idea of difference. I'm toying with the idea that the show's foregrounding of this idea is a key to its cosmopolitan vision. More on that later. For now, easy differences to digest, like the difference between up and down:
And between loud and soft:
Here's some more counting for good measure. JJ's mess up (below) bears an uncanny similarity to this classic Bert and Ernie clip from the first season.
And finally, he makes it to 20, in what was, perhaps, John John's best appearance of all time:
Late in the semester when we teach Writing New York, I give a lecture on Ginsberg's Howl that situates it -- especially the long attack on the burst of midtown skyscrapers as the heathen god Moloch -- within the history of mid-century "urban renewal."
To get the point across, I show some clips from Ric Burns' New York that deal with the protracted antagonism between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the 1960s. At some point over the past several years, I became convinced that Dr. Seuss's book Yertle the Turtle (1958) perfectly parallels this confict -- though the timing's off by a few years -- with Moses cast as Yertle (separated at birth?) and Jacobs as the little turtle Mack, whose burp upends Yertle's scopocracy. (Is that even a word? He's the king of all he surveys.) It's been more commonly suggested that Seuss had Hitler in mind for Yertle's prototype, but I think the reptilian monarch looks more like Moses, and so I'm happy with my anachronistic reading.
In his pre-election post today, Jeremiah draws the connection between Bloomberg and Moses, a comparison I find apt. I want to draw a similar connection between Bloomie and Yertle. And so, dear readers, we encourage you to get out the burp tomorrow. Wouldn't it be wonderful if a bunch of ordinary little voters could prevent the billionaire from buying a third term?
Thanks to Dana for my subtitle.