Monday, July 26, 2010

"Lights of New York" -- The First Real "Talkie"


On July 26, 1928 -- eighty-two years ago today -- the first all-talking film, Lights of New York, opened across the country, ushering in the era of sound film and effectively killing the silent movie.*

The film had actually opened in New York at the Strand Theater** on July 6th to lukewarm critical reaction (
The New York Times called it "crude in the extreme") but strong box office. Made for $23,000, the film ultimately grossed somewhere between $1.25 and $2 million dollars, thus proving that earlier sound films, like The Jazz Singer, weren't flukes. (Often billed as the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer has only two scenes of ad-libbed dialogue and the sound of Al Jolson singing; the rest of the film is essentially silent.)

The experimental nature of
Lights of New York is apparent in its staging: boom mics were not in use, so stationery microphones were hidden throughout the set. The blocking in the film suffers, since characters could only speak when near a microphone, causing odd breaks in the dialogue as people walk from one microphone to another.

 The film itself is a standard gangster movie: a rube from upstate comes to the city and ends up being the stooge for a Broadway speakeasy. However, the film had one notable line of dialogue: "Take him for a ride!" that went on to become a gangster cliche.



* By 1929, sound production was taking over and that year is
considered to be the last of the silent era though some directors -- notably
Charlie Chaplin -- would continue to make silent films well in the 1930s.



** The Strand is now gone; it stood on the site now occupied
by the Hershey's store at the northern end of Times Square.









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Read more about New York in the 1920s in Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Civil War Draft Riots


Today marks the start of the Civil War Draft riots in 1863. Last year, we blogged extensively about each day of the riots. You can read about Day 1 here (or Day 2, 3, or 4).

We also, of course, cover the draft riots and their aftermath in Inside the Apple.

Monday, July 12, 2010

RIP Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804)


Two-hundred-and-six years ago today, at approximately two o'clock in the afternoon, Alexander Hamilton died in Greenwich Village, the victim of a bullet fired by Vice President Aaron Burr.


Hamilton, originally from Nevis in the British West Indies, had come to New York to study at King's College (today's Columbia University). He joined the Continental Army in 1776 and within a year was Washington's aide-de-camp, a role that in many ways he never relinquished. Part of a trio that formed Washington's first cabinet, Hamilton had disproportionate sway as Treasury Secretary--biographer Ron Chernow has called him Washington's de facto Prime Minister.


After leaving Washington's cabinet, Hamilton worked as an attorney in New York; founded the city's oldest paper, the New York Evening Post (as a mouthpiece for his Federalist agenda); and made life difficult for people like Aaron Burr. Burr served as Thomas Jefferson's first Vice President, but in 1804 he discovered he was being left off the ticket in favor of New York Governor George Clinton.


As we write in Inside the Apple:

[When this happened,] Burr chose to run for Governor [of New York] himself. When he lost, he blamed it, in part, on the conniving of people like Alexander Hamilton. While politicians often attacked each other in print, it was done using pseudonyms or by attacking the party rather than the person. However, at a dinner party in Albany in March 1804, Hamilton and other anti-Burr Federalists had a grand time describing why Burr was incapable of being “trusted with the reins of government.” One guest at the dinner, Dr. Charles Cooper, wrote a letter to a friend recounting the event; the letter was leaked, and before long Hamilton’s Evening Post was refuting its contents publicly. This caused Cooper to write a follow-up, published in the Albany Register, in which he declared that everything he’d said was true—and there was more. Had he wished to, Cooper could have recounted Hamilton’s “still more despicable opinion…of Mr. Burr.” It was these words—“despicable opinion,” which were not even Hamilton’s—that would eventually get him killed.


When Hamilton refused to apologize to Burr, the Vice President challenged him to a duel. Since New York City had sensibly banned dueling, they headed across the Hudson to Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804. Much has been written about each man's intentions that morning, but the facts are these: Hamilton missed and Burr shot Hamilton straight through the stomach and liver. Hamilton was rushed back to New York and the next day, July 12, died, soon after his wife Eliza had reached him from their home in Harlem.

Hamilton is buried in the south yard at Trinity Church, Wall Street. If you work in that neighborhood or are visiting today, stop by and you'll see lots of coins on the grave--a memorial to America's first financial wizard.

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Read more about Hamilton, Burr, and Revolutionary New York in


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Friday, July 9, 2010

Should July 9th be Independence Day?

As we mentioned last week, the day we celebrate Independence Day in America, July 4th, isn't actually the day we voted to break away from Great Britain. While July 2 has a strong claim to be Independence Day, we'd also like to put forward today, July 9th, as a good candidate to celebrate America's birthday--at least in New York.

When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to vote on ratifying Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, the delegation from New York balked. This wasn't so much because New Yorkers weren't interested in backing independence, but rather that the colony's delegation (which included such notable citizens as Lewis Morris and Francis Lewis) didn't think that New York's legislature had given them the authority to take such a bold step.

Some time after July 2, the New York delegation left Philadelphia to return home to debate the matter and on July 9 voted to back the independence resolution, making them the thirteenth and final colony to get on board.

Later that same day, the first copies of the Declaration of Independence arrived in New York and, that evening, it was read aloud for the first time to George Washington's troops. In a frenzy, soldiers and members of the Sons of Liberty stormed down Broadway, jumped the fence at Bowling Green park, and toppled the gilded equestrian statue of of George III. (This is a story that we tell in depth in Inside the Apple.)



So, if you are around Lower Manhattan today, here's a couple of places to visit to honor what could have been Independence Day:

  • Bowling Green park, site of the George III statue and still surrounded by its British Colonial fence (erected ca. 1771).
  • Federal Hall National Memorial, on the spot where the New York delegation voted for Independence (and, later, where George Washington was inaugurated and the Bill of Rights passed).
  • Trinity Church, Wall Street, where Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lewis is buried in the north yard.




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Read more about the colonial and Revolutionary New York in


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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Brief History of Hanover Square

Yesterday, Queen Elizabeth's whirlwind trip to New York included a stop to cut a ribbon at the British Garden at Hanover Square in the Financial District. The garden is a memorial to the British citizens who died in New York on 9/11 and has become a primary destination for British royals in recent years. (See Prince Harry and Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.)


During New York's British colonial period (1664-1776), many streets of the old city were either named or renamed after the British royal family and by the time of the American Revolution, we had a Queen Street, Duke Street, King Street, and Crown Street. When George I, the Elector of Hanover, ascended to the throne in 1714, this small square was named in his honor.

In 1776, the British captured the city and made it their command center. During the war, George III's son, Prince William Henry, was a midshipman in the British navy and he came to New York in 1782, in part to rally American colonists to the British cause. The Americans, sensing that the 16-year-old prince would make an excellent bargaining chip, approached George Washington with a plan to kidnap William Henry. Though Washington approved the plan, (it "merits applause" in Washington's words), the British soon found out and posted bodyguards around the prince. Though not originally in the line of succession, Prince William Henry became King William IV in 1830 upon the death of George IV, making him the only British monarch to have lived in New York.



After the Revolution, the Americans stripped the streets of Lower Manhattan of their British names: Queen Street and Dock Street both reverted to their Dutch names (Pearl and Stone streets, respectively) and Crown Street became Liberty Street. However, a few British names remained. For example, Thames Street, just south of Pine Street (formerly King) got to keep its name and Hanover Square, though de-mapped, never lost its appellation. The square was officially re-mapped in 1830--the same year as former resident King William IV's accession. Coincidence?


By the 1830s, Hanover Square was known to most people as Printing House Square and it was here in December 1835 that New York's worst fire broke out. You can read more about it in our blog post from last year.


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Read more about the colonial and Revolutionary New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.


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Friday, July 2, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

As we noted on our blog a year ago, today actually marks America's birthday, for it was on July 2, 1776, that the Second Continental Congress voted to become an independent nation.

Actually, only 12 of the original 13 colonies voted for independence. The hold out? New York. The New York delegation didn't think it had been given the power to declare a break from Great Britain and so retreated to New York City to discuss the matter. Meanwhile, on July 4th, the first copies of the Declaration of Independence were printed and that date stuck as the country's birthday.



You can read the entire original blog post here. And tune back in on July 9th, when we'll talk about how New York famously entered the Revolution that day with an act of vandalism.



 * * *



Read more about the colonial and Revolutionary New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.


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