October 22, 1883: When the Fat Lady Sang

In April of 1880, a group of 22 men met at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant. These were men of considerable wealth – Morgans, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts – nineteenth century industrialists, bankers, and builders.  Nevertheless, they were men excluded from the inner circles of the One Percent, because they were not “old money”: they were the nouveau riche, “brazen new money.” They met that April with the goal of upsetting the Big Apple cart.

 

 

The Academy of Music opera house was the opera venue in New York City; subscribers to its limited number of private boxes represented the highest stratum in New York society.  And it was a place where the old money families had circled the upper crust wagons. Tired of being excluded, the insurrectionists at Delmonico’s determined to build a new opera house that would outshine the old Academy in every way. The new theater would include three tiers of private boxes in which New York’s powerful new industrial families could flaunt their wealth and reinforce their social prominence. Their vision became reality on October 22, 1883, when the Metropolitan Opera opened for business with a production of Gounod’s Faust.

 

The Academy of Music’s opera season folded just three years after the Met opened.  The building became a vaudeville house.  One hundred and thirty years later, The Metropolitan Opera is the largest classical music organization in North America, presenting more than two dozen operas each year in a season which lasts from late September through May. The operas are presented in a rotating repertory schedule with four different works staged each week. Several operas are presented in new productions each season, while the balance are revivals of productions from previous seasons — in all, over 200 performances in a season.

 

And today’s audiences are a blend of old money, new money and no money at all.

 

What’s Opera, Doc?:  A Wretched Richard Cheat Sheet

I’ve found that when I speak to friends, acquaintances, or strangers on street corners about opera, their eyes glaze over (or they run away).  I see this as a fundamental lack of understanding on their part, rather than any tediousness on my part.  The road to opera should not be paved with jagged rocks.  It should be an easy ride, a gentle ride.

Opera is really not that difficult.  Pretty much every opera goes something like this:  The Tenor loves the Soprano.  The Soprano loves the Tenor.  Should be easy – a couple of arias and they live happily ever after.  But the Baritone also loves the Soprano.  Here come the drama, here come the drama.  The Soprano’s daddy, a Bass, promises her to the Baritone – it’s never clear why; it just seems that daddies are not keen on Tenors.  Of course, everyone on stage (except maybe the chorus) is now heartbroken, angry or lustful.  They sing of their sadness, anger and lust, and Act One ends.

Act Two is all about mistaken identities.  To have a secret rendezvous with the Soprano, our Tenor will pretend to be her uncle, another Bass.  Because she suspects the Tenor of being unfaithful with a Mezzo-soprano, the Soprano will pretend to be her own sister and attempt to seduce him.  The Baritone will pretend to be a vagabond and attempt to seduce the chorus.  The audience will pretend to know what’s going on, except for a guy in the fifth row who will attempt to seduce the stranger next to him.

In Act Three, everyone is revealed for who he or she really is. The old Bass is subject to ridicule, and the Baritone is banished. The Tenor and Soprano consummate their love in the opera’s signature aria.  Then they die.  That’s pretty much it – unless it’s Wagner, in which case, you have valkyries and giants and dwarves, and pretty much everyone wears horns and marches off to Valhalla.

Here are the plots of a few popular operas to illustrate:

Carmen – A passionate gypsy seduces a young soldier, tosses him aside for a matador, then she dies.

Madame Butterfly – An American naval officer seduces an innocent Japanese geisha.  She has his kid.  He dumps her.  She dies.

La Boheme – Young bohemians fall in love. He’s a poet; she has tuberculosis. They enjoy Paris. She dies.

Rigoletto – A nasty nobleman seduces his hunchbacked jester’s innocent daughter. The jester tries to get even.  She dies.

So you see, it’s really just gratuitous sex and violence with beautiful music.  And that’s still rock and roll to me.

 

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August 22, 1893: Have Tongue, Will Travel

Alien encounters of a different sort used to take place at the Round Table of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City where its literary members gathered for lunch – humorist Robert Benchley, playwright Robert E. Sherwood, newspaper columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Alexander Woollcott, and Dorothy Parker. Born August 22, 1893, Parker was a poet, short story writer, screenwriter, critic and satirist, best known for her caustic wit and wisecracks.

Through the re-printing of her lunchtime remarks and short verses, Parker gained a national reputation. One of her most famous comments was made when the group was informed that former parker2president Calvin Coolidge had died; Parker remarked, “How could they tell?”

 

If all the girls attending [the Yale prom] were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

 

And there was that poor sucker Flaubert rolling around on his floor for three days looking for the right word.

 

You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

 

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

 

Every year, back comes Spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants.

 

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.

 

It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.

 

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If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

August 9, 1639: Tiptoe Through the Boroughs

Jonas Bronck was the Norwegian son of a Lutheran minister born sometime around 1600. Or he was a Swedish sailor in the Danish Merchant Marine. Or a Dutch Mennonite who fled the Netherlands because of religious persecution. Or German.

In any event, he was an immigrant to the Dutch colony of New Netherland during a time when the greetings-bronxDutch were trying to increase its colonial population by relocating folks who had gone broke during the bursting of the tulip mania bubble in 1637. The English, who didn’t give a whit about tulips, were copulating and populating the New World like so many limey rabbits, and the Dutch were urged to get out of those wooden shoes and get with it.

Thus, Jonas Bronck arrived in New Netherland in 1639 aboard a ship ostentatiously named The Fire of Troy, whereupon he purchased himself a large tract of land from the Lenape Indians for 400 beads. (You will remember that Dutch wheeler-dealer, Peter Minuit, who snapped up Manhattan for 26 bucks.)

Bronck’s 500 acres was just across the river from the village of Harlem, an easy commute to the Apollo Theater even then. Although Bronck traded with the local Indians, relations were not good, thanks to the Dutch practice of frequently murdering large numbers of Indians. Eventually, the Indians told Bronck to take his 400 beads and shove them, then killed him to reinforce the point.

Eventually, those populating English took over the Dutch lands. Jonas Bronck might have been completely forgotten, but for the river that retained Bronck’s name, mangled a bit to become the Bronx River. By extension, the land around it became The Bronx (and living there known as Bronxitis). This is fortunate, for the original Indian name was Rananchqua.

We’ll have Manhattan, Rananchqua and Staten Island, too?

 ♥

I don’t need bodyguards. I’m from the South Bronx.  — Al Pacino
Yes, Terry and the Pirate is available in the Bronx.  Or you can get it from  Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple.

August 8, 1988: Crazy Eights

Numerologists had a field day back on 8/8/88. To start, the temperature in New York City reached a high of 88 degrees. Out in Minnesota, the Twins scored their second triple play of the season and eightyeightbeat Cleveland – by a score of 6-2. Meanwhile, the Cubs and the Phillies attempted to play the first ever night game at Wrigley Field but were rained out in the fourth inning with the score 3-1 (you do the math). The number was not lucky for Alan Napier, who played Alfred the butler in the Batman television series. He died. He was in his eighties.

     You might guess that the celebration in Eighty Eight, Kentucky, was a dandy one and it was. Numerologists descended on the little town in hordes, taking advantage of the 88 cents per gallon gasoline and the 88 cents meatloaf special at the Eighty Eight Restaurant. The celebration was over ten times (11) more festive than the one in Eight, West Virginia.

     But the numerology prize goes to a young lady named Kelly in Hackensack, New Jersey.  She was born at 8:08 in the morning, the eighth baby delivered that day, by a doctor who had eight of his own children. She naturally weighed in at 8 pounds 8 ounces.   And all the while her father paced nervously in the waiting room, humming “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar.”

 

First the doctor told me the good news: I was going to have a disease named after me. ― Steve Martin

July 13, 1865: Gay Guinea Pigs and Middle-aged, Scheming Monkeys

Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and some western cities have buildings called museums, opined The New York Times, but they are mere theatrical attractions compared to Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.  Make that Barnum’s former museum, since the occasion for the Time’s ode, was the destruction by fire of the amazing structure at the corner of Broadway and Ann.  Forget that the Times also talked of its “ever patent humbuggery with which (it) coddled and cajoled a credulous people,” it was still an honorable institution.

The always staid Times ran the story of the fire under the following headline:

DISASTROUS FIRE.

Total Destruction of Barnum’s American Museum.

Nine Other Buildings Burned to the Ground.

LOSS ESTIMATED AT $1,000,000.

A History of the Museum and Brief Sketch of its Curiosities.

Scenes Exciting, Serious, and Comic at the Fire.

The Police Prompt and Vigilant—The Firemen Earnest and Active.

GREAT EXCITEMENT IN THE CITY.

Thirty Thousand People in the Streets

Pickpockets in the Crowd

Accidents and Incidents.

THE AQUARIA.

THIRD FLOOR FAMOUS PETRIFICATION, THREE MEN OF EGYPT,

THE FOURTH FLOOR, THE HAPPY FAMILY, ORIGIN OF THE FIRE.

SCENE WITHIN THE MUSEUM, COMIC INCIDENTS, A FEARFUL PANIC.

PROGRESS OF THE CONFLAGRATION.

ARRIVAL OF THE METROPOLITAN POLICE.

THE FLAMES EXTENDING. CLOSING OF SHOPS.

THE FIRE CHECKED.

INCIDENTS.

THIEVES ARRESTED. ACCIDENTS.

LOSS OF CURIOSITIES.

THE SUFFERERS AND THE LOSSES.

DISASTROUS FIRE.

Leave the sensationalism to the Daily News and the Post.

From the Times Article:

On the floor above was a collection of “sassy” monkeys, subdued dogs, meek rats, fat cats, plump pigeons, sleepy owls, prickly porcupines, gay guinea pigs, crowing cocks, hungry hounds, big monkeys, little monkeys, monkeys of every degree of tail, old, grave, gray monkeys, young, rascally, mischievous monkeys, middle-aged, scheming monkeys, and a great many miserable, mangy monkeys. Those animals and other creatures may have been happy, but they didn’t smell nicely; they doubtless lived respectable, but their anti(c)s were not pleasant to look at, and, to tell the truth, they frequently fought fiercely, and were badly beaten for it. However, they are gone; all burned to death, roasted whole, with stuffing au naturel, and in view of their lamentable end we may well say, “Peace to their ashes.”

New York Times article about the destruction of Barnum’s American Museum

Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one. ― P.T. Barnum

June 26, 1927: Look Ma, No Hands

In 1927, thrill-seekers plunked down their quarters to take a ride on the Cyclone, a new attraction at Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Noting the success of the Thunderbolt in 1925 and the Tornado in 1926, Jack and Irving Rosenthal jumped into the roller coaster business to the tune of about $175,000, and the Cyclone was built.   It would take only 700,000 riders to recoup their investment. The Cyclone was built on the site of America’s first roller coaster, known as Switchback Railway, which had opened in 1884.

The Cyclone remained extremely popular through the years and has accumulated its share of legends. One is from 1948, when a coal miner with aphonia, the loss of speaking ability, took a ride. He had not spoken in years, but screamed as the Cyclone plummeted down the first drop, and said “I feel sick” as his train returned to the station, whereupon he fainted.

Statistics were never kept to tell us how many other people got sick on the Cyclone or how many threw up.  And of course there were more serious incidents. Two men were killed in separate incidents during the 1980s, both Darwin Award contenders who felt the need to stand up during the ride. One fell out and the other was whacked by a crossbeam.

The Cyclone began to deteriorate during the 1960s and was shut down in 1969. Two years later, the city of New York bought it for one million dollars. It was condemned a short time later and, in 1972, it was nearly destroyed to make way for an expansion of the New York Aquarium. A “Save the Cyclone” campaign did just that, and it was refurbished and reopened in 1975. The Cyclone was declared a city landmark in 1988 and a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

That quarter ticket now costs nine dollars.

 

I write so slowly, I could write with my own blood and not hurt myself. ― Fran Lebowitz

May 24, 1626: For Two Guilders More, We’ll Throw in Queens

In what is often called the greatest real estate deal ever, Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from native Americans on May 24, 1626, for goods valued at 60 guilders. Popular history identifies these goods as baubles, bangles and bright shiny beads (celebrated in song by Alexander Borodin in his String Quartet in D, routinely hummed on special Dutch occasions, since the words were not written until 1953 for the musical Kismet which in Dutch means “we could have bought the Brooklyn Bridge for a wedge of cheese had it been built.”)

The actual figure of 60 guilders was determined in the seventeenth century using a Dutch version of Generally Recognized Accounting Practices (GRAP) – known back then as Chicanery (C). In 1846, a New York historian converted this figure to dollars and came up with an amount of $24. Since then, people have regularly tried to update the $24 amount to today’s dollars. But as Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace pointed out in their history of New York,”[A] variable-rate myth being a contradiction in terms, the purchase price remains forever frozen at twenty-four dollars.” Nevertheless people continue to point out what those baubles were worth in today’s dollars, euros or guilders. All the results are rather boring.

The transaction is often viewed as one-sided and beneficial to the Dutch, although some evidence suggests that Minuit actually purchased the island from a traveling beaver hide salesman who happened to be passing through and who had never heard of, let alone owned, Manhattan. At about the same time, Minuit was involved in another land purchase, that of Staten Island, for much more mundane goods such as kettles and cloth and garden tools (hence the phrase “we’ll buy Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too.”)

Strangely enough, the aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge (remember that?) was opened to traffic on this very day in 1883.  And a Dutch tourist bought it for 100 guilders from a New York cabbie who claimed to be a full-blooded Manhattan Indian.

 

 

May 1, 1931: Tall Building with Ape

US President Herbert Hoover pushed a button in Washingtonempire D .C. turning on the lights of a building in New York City. On May 1, 1931, the world’s tallest building (102 stories with a total height of 1,454 feet), one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and soon to become an American icon, the Empire State Building, was open for business.

Commanding the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street, the Art Deco masterpiece had taken just over a year to complete. It remained the tallest building in the world for 40 years, and is still a celebrated symbol of American culture. It has been a featured star in over 250 movies and many other forms of entertainment for its entire existence – An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle, Elf and, probably the most famous, the one with that giant ape clinging to its spire, battling modern technology.

Although jumping (or attempting to) from the Empire State Building is a much depicted form kingkong-oldof suicide, just 30 people have pulled it off. The most noted is the 1947 death of a young woman who landed on a United Nations limousine parked at the curb. A photo taken minutes after her death was featured in Life magazine as “The Most Beautiful Suicide” and was later used by Andy Warhol in his print Suicide (Fallen Body).

Notable failures included a woman who jumped from the 86th floor observation deck, only to be blown back onto the 85th floor by a gust of wind and left with a broken hip, and a man who jumped or fell from the 86th floor but landed alive on an 85th floor ledge from which he was rescued suffering only minor injuries.

“I’m big, and I sing, and boy, when I sing, I sing all over!” –Kate Smith (born May 1, 1907)

“Hi, ho, Steverino!” — Louis Nye  ( born May 1, 1913)

April 15, 1992: Me, Pay Taxes?

April 15 is most famously the deadline for filing income taxes, so it is quite fitting that prisoner number 15113-054 entered the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, on April 15, 1992, having been convicted of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, three helmsleycounts of tax evasion, three counts of filing false personal tax returns, sixteen counts of assisting in the filing of false corporate and partnership tax returns, and ten counts of mail fraud. Her famous excuse for this bit of naughtiness was “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

Known affectionately as the “Queen of Mean,” Leona Helmsley started her amazing career of acquiring everything she laid her eyes on back in the mid60’s, soon aided and abetted by Harry Helmsley, after they disposed of his wife in 1972. Their real estate empire included the Park Lane Hotel, the Empire State Building, Helmsley Palace and a collection of condos throughout Manhattan.

In 1983 the Helmsleys bought a 21-room mansion weekend retreat in Greenwich, Connecticut, for $11 million. Finding it a tad shabby for their tastes, they had it remodeled for another $8 million, adding among other homey touches a million-dollar dance floor and a mahogany card table. When they tried to stiff the contractors, they were sued for non-payment. The Helmsleys eventually paid up, but it was revealed that most of the work was illegally billed to their hotels as business expenses.

A federal criminal investigation followed, and they were indicted on several tax-related charges, as well as extortion. Harry called in sick, and Leona took the fall alone.

April 15 would be the ideal day for another real estate nabob to make public his tax returns.  Don’t hold your breath.

 

February 17, 1895: New Kid on the Block

Mickey Dugan, a bald, snaggle-toothed kid with a silly grin who always wore an over-sized yellow hand-me-down nightshirt, was right at home in the 19th century New York slum known as Hogan’s Alley, and beginning on February 17, 1895, became right at home in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
yellowkid
In the neighborhood filled with quirky characters that was home to R. F. Outcalt’s comic strip, Mickey, also know as the Yellow Kid was the quirkiest. The Hogan’s Alley comic strip gradually became a full-page Sunday color cartoon with the Kid as its main character. He spoke in a muddled slang that was practically his own language, and everything he said was printed on his nightshirt as though he were a walking billboard.

yellow_kidIt may have been a cartoon, but Outcault’s comic strip aimed its humor and social commentary squarely at an adult audience. It has been described as a turn-of-the-century theater of the city, in which a group of mischievous ragamuffins act out the class and racial tensions of their urban environment.

As the Kid’s popularity  grew, the strip’s presence actually increased paper sales for the World, and led to all sorts of merchandising from dolls to playing cards to cigarettes.  It also earned Outcault the appellation ‘father of the comic strip.’

Several years later, Outcault created the character Buster Brown who became a spokesboy for the Brown Shoe Co with the immortal line “Hi! I’m Buster Brown and I live in a shoe. This is my dog, Tige, and he lives there, too.”

 

carlin