Tuesday, November 1, 2011

125th Street, one of the most important streets in New York City PART 2

This is just east of Park Avenue at 125th street. The structure in the center of the picture was once Harlem Hall. The photo is dated 1904 and the Harlem Hall now houses the Majestic Hall as well as a theater calling itself The Orpheum. It is referred to as a Loew's theater. The only Loew's Orpheum I could find is, the one we all new and loved as kids, on 86th Street between Lexington and Third. That theater, designed by none other than Thomas Lamb, opened in 1913.

This is 125th street on the west side Park Avenue, we are facing towards the east. The loss of the building on the corner is up there with the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station, the Riverside, Riviera and Roxy theaters and the old Federal Hall (well, in 1842 no one thought about historic preservation). This the 1883 Mount Morris Bank Building. This was the only branch and the headquarters for this bank. Eventually the Corn Exchange Bank, a fore - runner of Chemical Bank, took it over. The major historical event that took place in this bank was when a Corn Exchange teller grew suspicious of a depositor’s $10 gold certificate. It turned out to be part of the ransom paid for Charles Lindbergh’s kidnapped infant son. The certificate was traced to Bruno Hauptmann, who was arrested within the week and eventually executed for the baby’s murder.
The building survived through the 1970's but by the late '70's the building was basically abandoned. The City tried to seal up the building by cinder blocking all the openings on the lower floors. As we all know, that doesn't work. In 1997 a fire took off the top two floors.

This is the building now. More like a nub of a building. I guess cinder block does last.  This building, in a much dilapidated state, was landmarked by the City prior to the devastating fire in 1997. Whether the building was abandoned by it's last owner or what, a restoration was not forth coming and the building had to be reduced to the nub it is today for safety reasons. I passed this building recently and it is still a nub, a landmarked nub.

This is the Harlem Casino. Some have said that this is / was the oldest theatrical building left in Manhattan. After that initial laying of the cornerstone on June 11th 1889, everything went wrong for what was going to be the West End Theatre. The theater’s owner and backer ran out of money soon after the cornerstone was laid and the foundation in place.

It turns out that the developer, A.H. Wood, who had built upon his self-perpetuating myth by designating himself “Napoleon” Wood, the theatrical wunderkind, not who he said he was. He was really named Charles Hahr, or Charles Morris, a known forger who had somehow managed to marry into a prominent family. Evidently he was accused of, but never indicted for, poisoning his father-in-law. He had hoped to speed up his inheritance from his wealthy father-in-law. At the time it was also discovered that Charles Hahr/A.H. Wood was the same man police were seeking in a series of unusual cases involving blackmail. Hahr’s practice was to observe trials in process at the police courts and wait for any information one of the parties would not want made public. Then he would visit the party at home, pretending to be a reporter who would expose any tawdry details unless a payment was made. Usually he asked for $100 but was willing to accept whatever he could get. My favorite con he would pull was to pay Harlem children to skip class, then to visit the parents of the children. Pretending to be a truancy officer, he would promise not to bring any charges if they gave him money.

The West End Theatre, meanwhile, stayed unfinished with only the foundation built. Eventually, a two-story market was put on top of it, and then, in the middle 1890s, the Harlem Casino – which became the Loew’s 7th Avenue and, later, the Greater Refuge Temple. So this building at 124th Street and 7th Avenue represents the oldest foundation for a theatrical structure in Manhattan.
Incidentally, in 1902 a theater with the name “West End” was constructed, on 125th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue. That building still exists today.

In 1910, future movie mogul Marcus Loew, who then resided on 111th and Seventh Avenue, acquired the Harlem Casino and converted it into a 1600 seat theatre for vaudeville and movies. All that remained of the old Casino were the exterior walls and the roof. The success of Loew's Seventh Avenue Theatre helped to finance the building of the larger and more sumptuous Loew's Victoria Theatre, which opened nearby on 125th Street in 1917. Loew's Seventh Avenue Theatre continued operating until around 1934, when it fell victim to the Depression.

Like many of the Harlem theatres (and Synagogues), it eventually became a church. As the Greater Refuge Temple of Christ it was ultra-modernized both inside and out by architect Costas Machlouzarides in 1966. Pretty trippy.

This is the Harlem Opera House. Opening in 1889 this theater was the work of architect John B. McElfatrick, who designed numerous late-19th century theaters around New York and theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein. Among those who performed on its stage during its early years included Edwin Booth, Lillian Russell and Sophie Tucker. Having been built for legit theater, the house went vaudeville then vaudeville and movies then just movies and finally just bowling.

This is the interior very early in the life of this theater. The location of this theater was just west of 7th Avenue on the north side of 125th Street. The block between 7th and 8th Avenues would, by 1917, be home to three of the biggest and most important theaters in Harlem. Built to hold just over 1500 patrons, the theater used both gas and that new invention electricity for lighting.

Another early interior view. By the turn into the 20th century, the Harlem Opera House was in the hands of Keith - Albee. By 1922 it was taken over by Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher who eventually took over the Apollo Theater once the owner, Sidney Cohen, passed away. It was Sidney Cohen who saw the future of 125th Street and eliminated segregation policies but it was Schiffman and Brecher who got the world famous Amatuer Nights under way.

This is the marquee of the Harlem Opera House in 1934. The picture playing is a Universal Picture starring Lee Tracy, the actor who originated the role of Hildy in Ben Hecht's The Front Page when it opened on Broadway (Pat O'Brien played the role in the 1931 picture) A more enlightened and racially sensitive policy is shown as the vaudeville attractions cater to the ever increasing African American population of Harlem. It must be summer as it is "cool inside". The following year, 1935, Schiffman and Brecher take over the Apollo and to eliminate competition between the two theaters, vaudeville is eliminated at the Harlem Opera House (the Apollo was larger).

This is the marquee for Loew's Victoria. It was just west of the Harlem Opera House so all the photographer had to do was step back 50 feet. It is still summer, as it did not take that long to move the camera. Also you can tell it is warm given all the short sleeves. The picture playing is from 1934 as well. It is The Witching Hour, a remake of a 1916 picture of the same name. It was made at the very end of the "pre-code" era and was directed by (one of my favorites) Henry Hathaway. Henry Hathaway was one of those directors who (later in his career) liked to shoot on location. He shot some of the 1946 picture Dark Corner (starring Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens) here in New York. In 1945 he went to Washington D.C. and New York City to shoot The House On 92nd Street and he came back to New York to film (in it's entirety) the 1947 Kiss of Death.
The Witching Hour is on a double bill with a picture called Cheaters. This is a true "B" picture. It was made by Liberty Pictures (not Frank Capra's company) who made 24 pictures between 1927 and 1975. As the depression took hold, vaudeville was dropped in a great number of movie palaces. By the mid 1930's Loew's had begun to drop vaudeville presentations. The stages at the Paradise (in the Bronx), the 83rd Street, the Victoria and (for a few years anyway) even the big Loew's State in Times Square went dark.

This is the Marquee for the Apollo. Construction began in 1913 and the Hurtig & Seamon's New Theater was opened by 1914. It was built for vaudeville and burlesque. In late 1933 Hurtig & Seamon's New Theater closed for refurbishment. It reopened January 26th, 1934 as the Apollo Theater. The re-opening consisted of a full stage show and a movie. Movies played a small role through out the history of this theater, one of the most famous in the world. There was motion picture exhibition here over the years. In the 1970's, amongst other pictures that played the Apollo, a re-release of "The Wizard of Oz" had a run. On February 10th, 1939, the Apollo hosted the American premiere of "Big Fella," a British-made musical with two African-American stars, Paul Robeson and Elisabeth Welch. The Apollo's stage show for that week long engagement was impressive; top billed was Andy Kirk & His Orchestra, pianist Mary Lou Williams, singer Pha Terrell, and comedians Moke & Poke. As always, the Apollo also presented a Jitterbug dance competition on the Monday night of that week, and the soon to be world famous"Amateur Night" on Wednesday.
I have read that the importance of movies shrank at the Apollo over the years. Movies were shown prior to the renaming, during the silent era. I have also read that a good number of pictures shown at the Apollo were real "B" pictures, some of them awful. Someone once wrote that he believed that "awful pictures" were chosen on purpose to clear the house between stage shows.
It was not long after the renaming that the famous Amateur Nights began. On November 21, 1934, a 17 year old Ella Fitzgerald took to the stage. She was originally going to dance but changed her mind when she found out she was going to follow a dance act. She sang instead and the rest is history.

The marquee gives you the idea that this was a special theater, given the kind of acts that played there. Duke Ellington is headlining, Jackie Mabley was still singing and not yet called "Moms Mabley" and Geoffrey Holder was leading a dance company and not hawking 7 Up with it's "uncola nut" taste. Big name acts like Jimmie Lunceford, Sidney Bechet, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughn, Diana Ross and the Supremes, James Brown, Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, Buddy Holly and the Crickets (maybe the first "white act" to play the Apollo) and at least one Beatle (Sir Paul McCartney) have played the Apollo along with many other big names and thousands of not so big names.

This is obviously a recent, post restoration shot of the house. It was designed as a legit house by George Keister, a renowned theater architect who is represented on Broadway by the Belasco and whatever the old Selwyn Theater is called now. The decor was fairly restrained not overly ornate.

This is an undated photo taken obviously from the stage of the Apollo. The only caption found was that it was taken during an Amateur Night show.  The man with the gun (they are cap guns - don't worry) is probably Sandman Sims and he is chasing a not so hot singer from the stage at the urging of the crowd.  He would undertake this task with his blank guns and his dancing; Mr. Sims was a noted tap dancer.  As the audience appears to be made up of an African American and white mix, I am guessing that this is post World War 2 (when there was no more segregationist policies on 125th street) and pre - Vietnam as dictated by the and jackets ties on all the men.
In 1964 a young Jimi Hendrix took the stage during an amateur night and won.