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Sing (and dance) The Body Electric!

Jun 29, 2012 2:49 PM | 0 comments

Walt Whitman is quite literally one of Brooklyn's most celebrated (former) residents.  We continually name buildings to honor him, including a middle school, a library branch, and a housing project, along with commemorating him annually with marathon readings of his epic poem, Leaves of Grass.  Some suggest we take the adoration even further and rechristen our new NBA basketball team in homage to this pioneer of free verse.  That seems unlikely to happen, but just as unlikely, perhaps, was the tribute mounted by Brooklyn College for the centennial of the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1955 -- a stage production of the original musical, I, Walt Whitman.

That's him, Walt Whitman, on the far left, shaking hands with a Brooklyn College president Dr. Harry D. Gideonse on opening night, January 14, 1955.

The play, written by Brooklyn College English professor Randolph Goodman, was commissioned as part of borough-wide festivities honoring Brooklyn's laureate.  Brooklyn College built a new 2,500-seat auditorium, appropriately dubbed the Walt Whitman Theater, and the opening of the play would serve as an appropriate dedication of the space.  The theater still stands today and still hosts musical and theatrical events as part of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts.  In the days leading up to the premiere of the Brooklyn-centric play, the Eagle visited the cast members in their final preparations.

Cast members at rehearsal, dwarfed by the enormous new theater.

The play follows Whitman throughout his life, starting with a scene from his youth, depicting the death of a younger brother and its effect on the Whitman family.  This Eagle shot of "backstage banter" shows Andy Brandstone, who played Whitman as a boy.


From a brief overview of Whitman's youth, the play goes on to dramatize Whitman's years as a newspaperman, including a scene where Whitman meets Edgar Allan Poe (then editor of the Broadway Journal) and unsuccessfully pitches an idea for an article on East River ferries.  The scene depicting Whitman's time at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle provides meatier dramatic fare, giving the audience a showdown between Whitman and the Eagle's founder, Isaac Van Anden.  Although both men were professed Democrats, Van Anden sided with the more conservative branch of the party, which opposed interference in the South's slave-trading ways.  Our brash hero Whitman defied the wishes of his boss and insisted on publishing editorials that called for abolishing slavery, which led Van Anden to issue an ultimatum.

"VAN ANDEN: [Shouts] Well, I'm going to ask you to make a more difficult choice.  If you want to hold on to your principles, you will have to give up your job."

WHITMAN: [After a pause, during which the two men look fixedly at each other] Then . . . please accept my resignation . . .

VAN ANDEN: [Quietly] I'm sorry, Walt.  You are a good editor . . . but you'd probably make a better poet . . . [He laughs weakly]

WHITMAN: [Wryly] It's a sad day for poetry if it has become the graveyard for honest politicians!  [Brightly, but with an edge] Still, I can always dedicate my first book of verses to Isaac Van Anden, who fired me . . . with inspiration!"

This Eagle photo of a rehearsal of Whitman and Van Anden's tumultuous scene doesn't quite convey the tension inherent in the script.

Whitman's interest in phrenology is incongruously highlighted in the play with a dramatization of Whitman's 1849 consultation with the phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler.  Lorenzo and his brother, Orson, were early practictioners of the quasi-science that involved measuring and feeling the shape of the skull to determine a person's character.  They were also publishers, and they not only promoted Leaves of Grass in their American Phrenological Journal, they also published the expanded second edition of the work.  In Goodman's play, Lorenzo compliments Whitman on the self-esteem that is apparent in his cranial terrain and advises him to find himself a wife who can cook, to satisfy the "alimentiveness", or love of food and drink, that is evidenced both by Whitman's skull shape and the size of his belly.

Sprinkled throughout the play are appearances by a chorus, above, which sings verses from Whitman's own pen that comment on the play's action. 

Although we can glean much from the play's script and backstage photos, it's still difficult to get an idea of how I, Walt Whitman played out in front of a live audience.  For all it's pre-show hype, the Eagle never published a review of the play, which only ran for one weekend.  I haven't been able to track down an existing copy of the play's musical score, so we can't even know the melodies to which Whitman's words were sung.  Perhaps a revival of the play is in order?  With new music, new choreography, acrobatics, fireworks, underwater sequences, the whole nine yards?  Perhaps not.  Whitman's body of work speaks for itself without the bells and whistles.

Unless you made it into a movie, a big summer family-friendly blockbuster in 3D, with Whitman himself portrayed as a plucky CGI blade of grass (voiced by George Clooney, of course) who inspires all the millions of other blades of grass with his fiery prose.  Then you might be on to something...

There's No Place Like Home

Jun 25, 2012 3:51 PM | 0 comments

Brooklyn has a long and storied relationship with the homing pigeon. Who can forget Marlon Brando's portrayal of Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront"?   At once strong and nurturing, Terry mirrored the care and passion of hundreds of pigeon racers throughout the borough.  


Homing pigeons are not to be confused with the gad-about slackers that have long held the top spot on the nuisance list of most New Yorkers.  These are avian athletes, bred for speed and endurance, who with their remarkable navigational instinct, find their way home over hundreds of miles.       


Pigeon racing, which was hugely popular in Europe, especially Belgium, was brought to America during the 1870s. It proved so successful that by the 1880s Brooklyn had its first organization devoted to the homing pigeon: The Kings County Homing Pigeon Club, organized by Mr. Henry Rover of 28 Broadway. They were soon joined by the Brooklyn Homing Pigeon Club, and the Hudson Homing Club, although numerous individual enterprises had previously been in existence. This unfettered enthusiasm made Brooklyn third in the nation, behind New York and Philadelphia, in the cultivation of these flying aces.   

                          August 15, 1886


As with other sports the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was there at its inception to chronicle its rise as a beloved pastime. News about races, sales, pigeon thefts, and meetings appeared regularly.  In the March 24, 1895 edition the Brooklyn Daily Eagle offered this article on the economics of getting started with pigeon flying. 



Boys are famous lovers of outdoor pets.  Among these pigeons have not usually been counted until recently, owing to their cost.  Now, however, a boy can buy a good pair of homing pigeons for 60 cents, nail a soap box upon a shed in the yard in the rear of his house and consider himself a pigeon fancier. 


The racing seasons ran from May to July for older birds and from July to September for younger birds. An ever-growing list of clubs and organizations organized races  in which the pigeons achieved extraordinary speeds, all covered by the Eagle. Fanciers challenged their charges by taking them farther and farther -- to Maryland, Washington, North Carolina, Georgia and even as far away as New Orleans, with the results printed in the sports section.   


                        June 22, 1886

Mr. Henry Rover, of 28 Broadway, this city, last week sent six of his homing pigeons to the headquarters of the Hudson Homing club, of which he is a member, to be entered in the race of that club from Abingdon, Va.  The birds were liberated on Monday, 4:32 A. M.; none arrived home on Sunday as expected.  Mr. Rover was sitting in his garden yesterday afternoon when to his delight one of his birds, a blue cock, No. 7,619, arrived and entered its lofts at 3:21.  Mr. Rover immediately telegraphed Mrs. E. S. Starr, the federation secretary, in New York, the facts, and about 9 P.M. received a dispatch saying his was the only bird that had reached home up to that time.  

                                    June 24, 1889


Six homing pigeons of the Hudson Homing Club of this city were liberated last Sunday morning in a race from Newton, N.C. airline distance over 500 miles.  The entries were J.S. Iverson, 1: John Ballard, 2: G.K. Bradshaw, 3.  The start was at 5:10 A.M., under favorable weather and wind.  The first and only return the same day was to the loft of Joseph Iverson, at  5:35 P.M., distance 517 1/2 miles, making an average speed of 1,222 yards per minute, breaking the best previous record of 1,162 yards per minute, made by a bird owned by Samuel Taylor, of Baltimore, Md.


So popular was the sport that in 1887 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle got into the act by sponsoring a race and offering a silver trophy.     

                                                                         April 22, 1887



It is a handsome silver cup about ten inches high. On one side is engraved the figure of a pigeon in full flight.  On the other is a representation of a pigeon returned to its loft.  Competition will be open to all lofts of birds whose owners are members of the Federation of American Fanciers of Pigeon Flying. The distance will be 375 miles or over and the prize will be awarded to the best average speed.  


With the arrival of the 20th century, there emerged other recreational opportunities competing for the time and attention of enthusiasts, but the sport hung on. In 1924 there numbered about 300 pigeon fanciers in Brooklyn, and the paper would continue its eagle-eyed coverage of all things pigeon,  even as legislation threatened to clip their wings and remove them from the rooftops of Brooklyn.  





The sport of pigeon racing has declined in the past 50 years. But even with T.V., the internet, and a whole host of digital diversions, there are still those who seek the quiet rivalry, companionship and connection to nature that pigeon racing offers.  Many saw Mike Tyson's 6-part program on Animal Planet. Like a modern day Terry Malloy, Tyson was filmed exploring his lifelong attachment to pigeons as he raced them from his Bushwick loft. 

Sketch by June Koffi.

The beauty of the flock's collective movement has not escaped Aaron Wojack who has turned his lens on Brooklyn's pigeon fanciers, creating beautiful photos of the special bond between man and bird.  For more of Aaron's work, click on the link and scroll to the right.


Photograph courtesy of Aaron Wojack

Heather Spilkin's 2009 documentary Above Brooklyn opens another window into this quirky, therapeutic and sometimes cut-throat rooftop world. Says one fancier: "If it wasn't for this, who knows where I'd be--be in jail, be killed--they keep me off the street."




Kings Castle

Jun 21, 2012 4:15 AM | 0 comments


 Ocean Parkway. Photograph by Irving I.Herzberg, c.1970s. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

As a child I looked forward to weekends at my grandparents' house, not only for grandma's homemade lasagna, but also for the chance to watch people playing chess along Ocean Parkway's promenade,  across the street from their apartment.  As I watched, I often became engrossed in the games, paying close attention to the carefully formulated moves.  On the call of "Checkmate!" the players would usually smile and promptly start a new game.

Brooklynites have enjoyed chess for generations.  The first official club dedicated to the game was the Brooklyn Chess Club located at 315 Washington Avenue, established in 1869 to promote chess as a recreational activity and to organize annual chess tournaments.

As chess grew in popularity around the borough two new clubs opened in 1902, the East New York Chess Club and the University Chess Club.  Throughout the years, clubs would open and close, but chess continued to play a role in Brooklyn's culture.  Today there are still chess clubs around the city including a new incarnation of the Brooklyn Chess Club located in Canarsie.  (The present club is not related to the Brooklyn Chess Club of the 19th and early-20th Centuries.)

Brooklyn's chess players have made history. In 1999 Brooklyn resident and Brooklyn Technical High School Alumnus, Maurice Ashley, became the first African-American Grandmaster, joining the ranks of some 500 other Grandmasters.  Five years later, in 2004, the ever-competitive Brooklyn College fielded the first all-female collegiate chess team.  But the most famous player to come out of Brooklyn is surely Grandmaster Bobby Fischer.

Fischer in 1962 Championships

Fischer and Petrosian, Candidates tournament, Curacao 1962. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Fischer began playing chess at the age of six, when his sister bought him a chess set from the candy store below their Brooklyn apartment.  At age eight, he began taking lessons at the Brooklyn Chess Club; by age twelve, he was competing against some of the strongest players in New York at the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs; at fifteen, he became the youngest person to hold the Grandmaster title; and at sixteen, he decided school got in the way of his chess playing.  He dropped out of Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush in 1959.  He later explained to journalist Ralph Ginzburg, "You don't learn anything in school.  It is just a waste of time."

"The Dutchman," Erasmus Hall High School, October 10, 1958.  This school newspaper article noted Fischer's return from his record-breaking, title-winning tournament in Yugoslavia.

In 1972, Fischer became the first American to win the World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland.  His win against Russian rival Boris Spassky sparked a huge increase in sales of chess sets and lessons throughout the United States.  When he returned to the U.S., he was invited to the White House by President Nixon and received a hero's welcome in New York, being presented with the Gold Medal by Mayor Lyndsay and hailed as "The new world champion of a truly Brooklyn sport--a sport of intellectuals" by Borough President Leone.  A year later Fischer lost his title.

Bobby Fischer, Candidates Tournament, Curacao 1962. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection.

Fisher's troubled life story has been widely reported.

Fischer on right, unidentified player on left. Curacao, 1962. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

The prodigy who dominated the world of chess and had a reported IQ of 181, died in Iceland, which had granted him citizenship, in 2008.

Today, chess is still ingrained in Brooklyn's culture, notably in its elementary and middle schools.  "Brooklyn Castle," a recent documentary released as part of the 2012 South By Southwest Festival (SXSW), follows five young chess players from Intermediate School 318 and documents their activities on and off the chessboard.  Like many schools, IS 318 has struggled to overcome budget cuts, but has still been able to maintain its extracurricular activities, including chess.  Located in Williamsburg, it is an inner-city, Title 1 school, yet the students hold the record for the "most winning junior high chess team in the nation" with 28 national championships.  Among many talented players, two standout--Justus Williams, recently selected to join the United States Chess Federation, and Rochelle Ballantyne, who is competing to become the first African-American female Grandmaster.

More recently in May 2012, Public School 503 in Sunset Park won the Unted States Chess Federation's National Elementary Championship in Nashville, Tennessee.  According to the New York Times, PS 503 and IS 318 are the only New York City public schools to win championships this season by beating older students.

No genius required to predict more Grandmasters in Brooklyn's future!



Jun 14, 2012 2:14 PM | 1 comment

The Zambonis and skates have all been packed away, basketballs are only around to get dribbled and dunked for another week or so, and the summer Olympics have yet to begin. With this doldrums in the sports calendar, what's a fan to do? Oh yeah...I almost forgot...our national pastime, baseball!

And on the train this morning baseball seemed to be all around me. I had my head buried in The Natural, which I was just reading for the first time, and as Roy Hobbs was stuffing his gut with lobster salad, milk, corned beef, anchovies and hamburgers, and Judge Banner was putting his shady machinations in motion, two young kids sat down next to me and started talking about the perfect game San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain just tossed. As they went on reeling off numbers and stats like a couple of zombie census workers another pair of kids got on the train dressed in baseball uniforms, lugging bats and fiddling with their gloves. It was uncanny. I thought for sure if I looked at one of their bats it would have Wonderboy burned into it...well, only if it had been wood and not aluminum. After looking around the D train for more signs of the diamond, I plunged back into The Natural and made it to the gut-busting finale. Poor Roy! If you haven't read it, you should. And if you don't know much about its Brooklyn-born author, Bernard Malamud, you should stop by and have a look at Evan Hughes's great book, Literary Brooklyn. In it he offers up, among other things, a terrific portrait of Brooklyn's Depression-era Jewish milieu from which writers like Malamud, Daniel Fuchs, and Alfred Kazin emerged.

Anyway, all of this is a round about way of saying I had no idea what to write a blog post about until I realized the subject was right under my nose and all around me in the air: Baseball. But what about it? We've had posts in the past about Dodger babies, Duke Snider, Dodger valentines, and even the diary of a Dodger fan. As you can see, one thing in our baseball coverage hasn't changed: the Dodgers. But the Dodgers are far from the only team this borough has seen. Inspired by the story of that grizzled, barnstorming, semipro playing journeyman, Roy Hobbs, I decided it was about time we poured out the limelight on another crew of stick swingers: The Bushwicks.

This photo, printed in the Eagle April 10, 1949, shows from left to right: first baseman Pat Petrino, second baseman Ray Triebel, shortstop Gar Del Savio, and third-sacker Al Cuccinello.

The story of the Bushwicks begins and ends with their owner, Max Rosner. Rosner came to the States in 1892 from Hungary and quickly established himself in the cigar trade. Legend has it he was out and about one day and saw some employees from his cigar concern hustling up a game on a field at Morgan and Metropolitan (not too far from Peter Cooper's old glue works -- that must've been a stinky diamond) and got the notion to sponsor a team, thereby boosting his cigar business. This team, playing their home games at Paramount Field in Williamsburg, were imaginatively called the Paramounts. Until 1902 when he got spiked in the head, Rosner also played shortstop for his club. The Paramounts disbanded in 1910 and just a few years later, in 1913, Rosner founded the Bushwicks, though some Eagle articles don't have the Bushwicks appearing until 1916. In any case, the team that Rosner would guide for close to 40 years was born. Early games were played at the Wallace grounds at Halsey St. and Irving Ave. in Bushwick, but after that ball field burnt down the team made their home at Dexter Park, right between Cypress Hills and Woodhaven, near to where Franklin K. Lane High School stands today.

This photo accompanied Rosner's obituary in the Eagle on November 29, 1953. He died at 77 in the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital.

Being a semipro club meant that the Bushwick players existed somewhere between being full fledged professionals and your average working stiff.  Most semipro players had to work regular jobs 6 days a week, leaving Sundays as game days. For the first three decades of the 20th century semipro ball was big. In his wonderful book chronicling the life of the Bushwicks and semipro ball in general, Thomas Barthel quotes an Eagle article from 1914 listing a few of the clubs that played in Brooklyn: Jimmy Gilbert's West Ends, the Original Empires, the Brooklyn Real Estate Brokers and the Atlantic Stars are just a few of the quirky names these teams had.

The Bushwicks regularly hosted the best pre-Negro league teams, such as the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the Adrian Page Fence Giants, the Cuban Giants, and the Philadelphia Giants. In addition to these squads, Rosner occasionally wrangled big name Major Leaguers to play at Dexter Park, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Barthel estimates that the Bushwicks were drawing a crowd of around 15,000 for each of their Sunday double headers. Numbers even Charles Ebbets would love.

The 1916 Bushwick team.

However, by the late 1940s with the advent of TV and the integration of the Majors, semipro ball lost a lot of its lustre. Rather than heading out to Dexter Park, people could stay home and watch games for free. And without the talented African-American players coming through town competition thinned out considerably. The Bushwicks eventually folded in 1951 and Dexter Park, long the scene of many semipro dreams, was turned over to auto racing. Of course there's more to the story of the Bushwicks than I can fit here in this blog post, but if you visit us you can browse our 7 folders of photos, numerous newspaper clippings, and Barthel's valuable book. Who knows, maybe you'll even find a story to beat The Natural.

Whotypes? Albertypes!

Jun 11, 2012 10:00 AM | 0 comments

How many early photographic printing processes can you name? I'll bet Daguerreotypes would be on the list, maybe tintypes, and enthusiasts will name ambrotypes, collodion prints, albumen prints, cyanotypes. A small collection of ours consists of 21 Albertypes showing Brooklyn scenes from 1904. They seem to have been published in an album, from which the pages have now been detached, by A. Wittemann, Publisher of American Views, 250 Adams St, Brooklyn NY.

What, you may ask, is an Albertype? According to Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography, it is a process that depends on bichromated gelatin. Joself Albert of Munich who perfected the process, gave his name to these prints of a fine and delicate grain that became popular for the reproduction of paintings.

Among our Albertypes are a few that suggest revisiting earlier blog posts. This image of the The Vale of Cashmere  beats anything we found back in March.

Through the matte finish of the Albertype one can see extraordinary detail. In the image of the Vale of Cashmere, for example, the variety of leaf structure of the foreground plants, the drops of water falling from the central plume of the fountain, the translated shades of green, even the background grass, appear as a three-dimensional field of variegated texture.

And here is a view of Brooklyn's sugar refineries that would have made a handsome addition to How Sweet it Was. The sturdy rhythms of industrial architecture punctuated by decorative brickwork, the distant docks all covered in a pearly haze--all have an almost hallucinatory clarity, the world seen in a moment of complete mindfulness.

Finally, here is the site of our library building, an image that might have given me yet another reason to wax lyrical in an early post on the Belcher Hyde atlases--probably just as well I didn't have it back in 2008. There is the water tower, the reservoir that is now Mount Prospect Park, and the truncated Brooklyn Museum. And here we are, still hovering somewhere in front of the tower, nearly four years later and still blogging.