Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Nothing ever really changes

I've been reading Jon Meacham's terrific biography of Andrew Jackson and came upon a speech that seems precisely relevant to the current state of political discourse. It was made by Edward Livingston of New York, during a particularly vitriolic period of debate.

"The spirit of which I speak creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue - denies every merit to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs...mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing."

What I can't figure out is how Livingston was able to access blogs in 1830.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Tour to Remember

I had the pleasure of experiencing Justin Ferate's top-notch tour of Grand Central on Friday. The word "tour" seems too mundane to describe this two hour odyssey, which combined fascinating facts, lively and often very funny stories, and a real introduction to the potential of architecture to touch people's lives in a positive way.

Justin is a natural teacher (and entertainer) who knows how to involve his charges in the experience - the attached photo shows him teaching a fellow participant how to wave like the Queen Mother from the balcony near Michael Jordan's steak house. His point - how the architects planned that looking down on the floor of the terminal from this spot would make visitors feel that they were looking down on their loyal subjects and, as Justin said, "Who wouldn't want to feel that way?"

By the end my face hurt from non-stop smiling, so I just had to fill it with some Oyster Bar chowder.

I would recommend this experience to both New Yorkers and visitors. All you have to do is show up in the lobby of the Atria building any Friday at 12:30 PM.

And, I kid you not, it's all for free.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Elvis on the Tommy Dorsey Show on January 28, 1956

Me and Elvis back in the early days

A spate of Elvis movies on Turner Classic Movies celebrated the King's 75th birthday and brought back a treasured childhood memory - seeing a very young Elvis, very live.

It was all the fault of Mrs. Gelfand, our cub scout den mother out in Queens. She managed to wrangle permission for our den to go all the way into Manhattan and see a rehearsal of the Tommy Dorsey Show,  a temporary fill-in for the Jackie Gleason show, which was one of the most popular TV shows of that time. So off we went in our little blue uniforms with yellow bandanas tucked into special cub scout Webelos holders - I have a faint memory that we also took along our den flag, which Mrs. Gelfand's son got to carry.

Soon we were ensconced in an almost empty theatre on Broadway (it is now David Letterman's hangout.) The audience consisted of our den, a few technicians and producer types and, strung over about five seats in the back of the theatre, Jackie Gleason himself, who was regaling some buddies with what must have been very funny stories, because they were laughing very loudly.

After a series of acts that I can't really recall, out came Elvis, about to make his national television debut.He rehearsed his songs, "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "I Got A Woman," with both his band and his famous, still uncensored hips banging away. I'd say, as a group, Den 6 was not impressed by this strange noise. But we were definitely  impressed when Jackie Gleason laughed out loud as Elvis left the stage.

That night, my older brother and I sat before our ten inch black and white television to see the live performance of the show I'd seen rehearsed. I might've mentioned Elvis to my brother, but I probably emphasized seeing Gleason. Then on came Elvis and - WHAM - he went into his act, with that amazing, fluid voice and his unique gyrations. From the first second we were awestruck, and I might've experienced some of my first pubescent stirrings - after all Elvis was the most up front sexual artist we had ever seen. Somehow, in the excitement of the rehearsal, I must've just not gotten it. That night I really did.

God bless the King, who I hope is hanging out with a host of female fans in the great Jungle Room in the sky.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Remarkable Shearith Israel

I've been attending a class at Shearith Israel, which is the oldest Jewish congregation in New York, founded in 1654. It's first building (1730) was on Mill Street and then others followed on Crosby Street (1833), 19th Street (1859) and at the current site on West 70th and Central Park West (1897). It's a substantial building with a magnificent sanctuary modeled after one of the grand synagogues of Amsterdam and graced with enormous Tiffany stained-glass windows. But the real historical gem is the Little Synagogue, which contains items from all the previous buildings. It's definitely worth a visit.

The class is taking 20 weeks to cover events that have significantly affected Jews and their world view and religious practices. It is taught by a young, very knowledgeable rabbi who is doing a great job both relating the historical events and putting them in context. Of course, a certain portion of this history is simply horrifying, such as last week's class on the Crusades, but all of it shows the remarkable, almost miraculous, ability of Jews to keep alive their religion and extensive intellectual life in the face of constant harassment and persecution.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

100 New Yorkers Tell You Where to Go

Sure, anyone can tell you about New York's obvious tourist attractions, but I'm interested in finding out to what special, out of the way places true blue New Yorkers would direct a visitor. So I've decided to ask 100 New Yorkers to tell you where to go.

This very first contribution comes from Lee Gelber, the dean of New York tour guides. Lee is the fellow who hires and trains the guides for City Sights, an advisor to the Museum of the City of New York, and a grand raconteur unafraid to sprinkle his stories with the Yiddish he learned as a kid in the Bronx.

17 Beacon Place 
At the southeast corner of Beekman Place and 50th Street stands a 3-story limestone clad townhouse now occupied by the UN Mission and Consulate of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Prior to its diplomatic role that building was the home of Irving Berlin for the last 40 years of his life.

Born to Russian Jewish immigrants as Israel "Izzy" Baline, Berlin went on to be one of the most prolific and successful composer/lyricists to contribute to the Great American Songbook.

Every Christmas Eve, an ad-hoc group organized by the late cabaret performer and writer, John Wallowitch, would go over to 17 Beekman Place and serenade the Berlin family with one of Mr. Berlin's best-loved classics, White Christmas. Berlin was flattered and would often invite the "carolers" in for hot chocolate and cookies.

That the house where Berlin lived to be 101 (1888-1989) is now occupied by offices of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has a sweet ironic touch. Irving Berlin's last major Broadway hit was Call Me Madam - the libretto is based on the career of Perle Mesta, the woman President Truman appointed US Ambassador to the Grand Duchy.

Putting the Avenues on the Couch

The piece below on Riverside Drive is the first in a series about the avenues of NYC. I believe each one has a distinct personality (some even have multiple personalities!) and I'm going to try to describe each avenue's personality, along with presenting a bit of history.

Riverside Drive