Over a Century Ago, Caught in Snow

The footage is old and dark, so for some guidance let’s turn to the Edison Catalog, where they provide this plot summary: “A realistic panoramic view taken at Madison Square, New York City, on February 17, 1902. A portion of the New York Fire Department trying to make their way to a fire through the immense snow drifts. A few pedestrians are bravely plodding through the immense piles of snow, and a snow plow is hard at work on the Broadway, underground trolley line, endeavoring to clear the tracks. Madison Square, Madison Square Garden, Broadway, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and 23rd Street are all shown in succession.”

Too bad there’s no footage of New Yorkers walking across the frozen East River, or building that bar on the frozen Hudson.

The Gothamist

We New Yawkers are now (once again) shoveling our way through our present-day snow. In spite of that, it’s nice to reminisce…with the hope that some things become confined to reminiscence.

The Empire State of Slavery


In New York and Slavery: Time to Teach The Truth, Professor Alan Singer of Hofstra University explores the largely untold history of slavery in New York City. African enslavement commenced soon after the Dutch landed here in 1609 and gradually increased until it was abolished (somewhat) in the early 19th century. According to Professor Singer, slaves were largely responsible for building the city’s first homes, harvesting its first crops, transforming a forgotten Indian path into Broadway, and erecting the walls at Wall Street.

When New York became a British colony, the corporate elite turned the slave trade into such a lucrative enterprise that the city became its leading port. Slavery was a lucrative business in the Big Apple in the late 18th/ early 19 centuries; the number of slave-owning households in New York City surpassed those in the entire state of South Carolina. When the New York Stock Exchange opened in 1792, all of its 177 stockholders were slave-owners; in fact, Africans were among the first “commodities” on the auction block. It’s easy to see that slavery wasn’t merely a “Southern thing” when one considers the forced labor that helped build the Empire State.

At the same time, New York City was quickly becoming a leading center for abolitionism and other reform movements.  While many New Yorkers profited from the spoils of human captivity, many others vehemently denounced it; an “irrepressible conflict” for New Yorkers and all Americans that would only culminate in unprecedented warfare.

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Death Scene at the Met

met opera

Over the decades, the Metropolitan Opera has seen more than its share of death scenes. Many concerned the unfortunate if melodious victims of homicide, suicide or failing health who never made it to the final curtain (sometimes not even through the first act) and died in the spirit of grand opera. Of course, opera’s “dead” would rise again and proudly take their bows to the applause of appreciative audiences. But that eccentric and unpredictable fellow the Grim Reaper, who lies in wait for us all (whether or not we’re on or off stage), often has plans that go above and beyond the libretto. Since 1960, at least five to ten real deaths actually occurred at the Met.

Among these deaths, according to Wikipedia, the following:

March 4, 1960: Leonard Warren “died of a stroke onstage after completing the aria ‘Urna fatale’ in act two of Verdi‘s “La Forza del Destino.”

April 30, 1977: Betty Stone, a member of the Met chorus, “was killed in an accident offstage during a tour performance of ‘Il Trovatore’ in Cleveland.”

July 23, 1980: Helen Hagnes Mintiks, a “young Canadian-born violinist, was found dead at the bottom of an air shaft at the Met. Mintiks had been murdered by a stagehand, Craig Crimmins, during a performance of the Berlin Ballet. The investigation and trial were chronicled in the book Murder at the Met by David Black.”

January 5, 1996: tenor Richard Versalle died while playing the clerkportraying Vitek (an elderly law clerk) in what was to have been the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. Versalle was climbing a 20-foot ladder in the opening scene when he suffered a heart attack and fell to the stage.”

But the most famous of these incidents concerned the suicide of opera-goer Bantcho Bantchevsky on January 29, 1988 during an intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth.

Bantcho Bantchevsky was born in 1906 in Bulgaria and had a lifelong passion for music. He studied at the Sofia Conservatory, learning piano and flute, but his special love was in his study of opera. Establishing himself on Rakovska Street in Sofia (Bulgaria’s “Little Broadway”) he soon became quite well-known in the 1930s. After it allied itself with the Soviet Union, Bantchevsky left Bulgaria. He sang opera in Czechoslovakia and Austria, also appearing in films and plays in Berlin, including a small part in Macbeth. He emigrated to America in the 1950s and, and when he couldn’t find work as a performer, became a singing coach; gradually evolving into a well-known fixture at the Metropolitan Opera.

More than performing or coaching was his devoted love in attending the opera. With tickets given to him by friends in the opera company, he would usually have an orchestra seat. Three weeks before his death, he suffered a minor heart attack but quickly checked himself out of the hospital after a few days. However, friends observed that his usual cheerful disposition had all but vanished and he seemed irritable and remote.

On January 29, 1988 Bantchevsky attended a Saturday afternoon performance of Verdi’s “Macbeth.” He chose to sit in the Family Circle, the highest level balcony section, far indeed from his customary seating. Many witnesses later reported that he was causing several disturbances throughout the performance. During the intermission between the second and third acts, Bantchevsky perched himself on the balcony’s railing. When asked to come down by an usher, he leaned back and fell off, striking his head on another railing and crashing onto an aisle off the orchestra; he died instantly. This was the first and only suicide at the Met, which gave Bantcho Bantchevsky his only (if deadly) claim to fame. He was 82…beloved by those who knew him in better days.

Bantchevsky’s suicide, and various other scenes of death and absurdity at the Met, could be found in “Molto Agitato”: a comprehensive examination of opera’s darker, sillier and more unfortunate side.

And people wonder why I love opera so much!!!

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One More Ghost Station


The IRT‘s original City Hall station was part of NYC‘s first major subway project and designed as a sort of ceremonial terminal. Construction began on 24 March 1900 in front of City Hall; the steps of the building leading to the station’s entrance. From this vantage point, NYC mayors could expound on the benefits of mass transit and, more or less, interact with the citizenry

The station was open to the public in October of 1904. Unlike most subway stations, it had a unique, sharply curved platform; a Guastavino tile arched ceiling in addition to the more basic (for the time) skylights and plaques honoring its construction.

Unfortunately, its location at this turning loop, at a time when more practically configured uptown and local trains were coming into service, rendered the station noisy and poorly situated. Improperly designed platforms, riddled with gaps, also made it unsafe. The station was closed at night, local trains by-passing it on their way to South Ferry; and even when it was open it was limited to an “entrance only” station. After a disappointing forty-one years of service, the station was finally closed in 1945.


In April 1995, efforts to reopen the City Hall station as part of the newly created NYC Transit Museum were introduced. The loop track was re-classed from “yard track” (or maintenance track) to “mainline,” which allowed the public to view the station without special permission. The commemorative plaques which had been moved to Brooklyn Bridge station in 1962 were reinstalled in their original positions in 1996. Everything fell through when the awaited funding never materialized and in 1998 the plans were canceled.

The City Hall station remains, an unseen yet ghostly presence frozen in time beneath Manhattan’s crowded streets and alongside its speeding trains: Out of sight in the onrush of progress and out of mind in the onrush of history.


For more on this and other NYC Subway curiosities, Abandoned Stations (the source for this post and accompanying photos) is a great site for NYC’s vast collection of underground stories.


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Anonymous Cheer


For decades upon decades, numerous teams of volunteers at the Postal Service‘s Operation Santa have answered “Dear Santa” letters from children. Many post offices across America not only answered the letters but also had their volunteers deliver the letters (even gifts, at times) in person to the kids’ homes. Even this ancient blogger, on Christmas Eve 1958 when he was 4 years old, received a Santa hand-delivered letter and trinket at his apartment door. As I remember it (or, most likely, was told), Santa appeared to have had a little too much eggnog…in other words, he was apparently boozified.

However, that was long ago and it’s now relegated to a folio of personal Christmas memories. Sadly, the Operation Santa’s in-person visits from Santa may eventually be only a memory as well.

Among its list of benevolent volunteers, it was discovered that a convicted sex offender was unwittingly employed as a staff member. After a brief suspension of activity, while this person (and, presumably, any other threat) was weeded out, Operation Santa resumed its mailings. Postal workers are now blocking any personal information from volunteers, substituting codes, and face-to-face meetings with children will almost certainly never again occur.

A post office spokesman says “The spirit of giving is still there, but times change.” Indeed they do. In this day and age of cyberspace living, it’s only a matter of time before Operation Santa will become just another feature of virtual reality.


Winstanley: A True Spirit of Christmas Past

Big Apple Dayze

Four centuries ago, when England erupted in civil war, Christmas there was in a sorry state. In 1644, the victorious Puritan faction outlined its numerous and fundamentalist decrees by completely banning the holiday. They saw Christmas as a solemn, pious occasion and opposed the drunken debauchery and revelries that, in their opinion, had distorted its religious significance. In addition to this, the Puritans also objected to the name itself: Christmas (“Christ’s Mass“) resounded with Roman Catholicism; the ultimate anathema to Puritanism. They changed the name to “Christ’s Tide” and celebrated the day in a quite subdued manner…with fasting!

These Puritans weren’t joking; they made their menacing presence known to one and all in a not very merry old England. Soldiers patrolled the streets and would fine or arrest anyone holding church service, along with entering households and seizing any food they suspected would be used for…

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Is The Pudding Singing In The Copper?

Big Apple Dayze

christmas pudding

When I was a child, growing up in the wilds of Brooklyn, pudding was synonymous with My*T*Fine Pudding; since 1918, the “premium cook-n-serve pudding” for many Americans. Directions: stir 4 cups of milk into the mix, heat on a medium flame until the mixture thickens, pour the bubbly brew into serving dishes, allow to cool and you’re done.

In England, pudding is a big event, built on an even bigger process and richer tradition. My*T*Fine’s appearance would truly raise a few eyebrows over there and be dismissed as a concoction more befitting a hasty snack (or candy) than anything even resembling a pudding…let alone a Christmas Pudding.

Whereas My*T*Fine’s traditions are circa 1918, English pudding’s origins are set in the Middle Ages. It contained a hearty array of ingredients such as chopped poultry and rabbit; later on, sugar, raisins and candied apples and oranges were added. In…

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Ragamuffin Days & Parades

Manhattan: Bleecker Street - Christopher Street - 10th Stre...] (1933)

If it was known at all outside of New York City, it was because of a chapter in Betty Smith‘s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn where Francie dons a mask and becomes an urchin on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn at Thanksgiving. Indeed, long before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade appeared in New York City, there was the Ragamuffin Parade; a much smaller but equally cherished tradition. However, unlike Macy’s annual event, the Ragamuffin Parade was an occasion solely for children; and, similar to Halloween’s custom of trick-or-treating (also preceding it by many years), it was a time for kids to masquerade and visit door-to-door.

Actually, the Ragamuffin Parade wasn’t a single parade but a series of improvised  parades (or  gatherings, to be more specific) held throughout the city. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, the parades usually occurred in immigrant neighborhoods and historians suspect that the custom may have originated in Europe. While their mothers were cooking Thanksgiving dinner, hordes of kids would transform themselves into paupers. Smearing burnt cork or charcoal on their faces (sometimes they merely wore masks), they’d dress in their parents’ old and, naturally, over-sized clothing and went off “begging.” Making their way down adjacent streets, they held out their hands for apples, pennies or candy with the chant, “Anything for Thanksgiving.”

In the early days of the tradition, “Ragamuffin” parades were held and children dressed in more elaborate costumes as well as the more tattered ones. The parades became a chance for the poorer immigrants to march through the street in extravagant costumes. More organized parades were established in 1923 by a director of the Madison Square Boys Club for the sole purpose of discouraging begging on the holiday among the youth of the city. An item in the New York Times of November 25, 1938 notes that eight year old Frank Manino came dressed as the mayor (“Fiorello”) and others impersonated John L. Lewis and Thomas E. Dewey, with the piece de resistance was “Ferdinand the Bull.” The first prize of a 15 lb. turkey went to an 11 year old boy dressed as a scarecrow. UE

The custom continued into the early 1960s, despite being replaced by Halloween as an excuse for such frivolity in the late 1940s, but is still observed in certain parts of Brooklyn; the Bay Ridge section, in particular. Having been born and raised in Bensonhurst  (which is adjacent to Bay Ridge) in 1954, I myself haven’t seen nor do I recall any ragamuffins on Thanksgiving or any other day (beyond the usual unfortunates who play the part all year round) but I’ll take urban lore’s word for it.

Even though my pre-Thanksgiving dinner time was spent absorbed in watching Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers and other televised holiday treats, dressing up as a ragamuffin and annoying my neighbors could have been just as delightful.

Sources: Long Live the Ragamuffin Parade

New York Public Library

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