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COMING APRIL 15th

Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.

Check out our new book online at www.footprintsinnewyork.com.

Friday, April 29, 2011

"One-Third of a Nation" at Metropolitan Playhouse

As any New Yorker knows, one of the greatest challenges of living in the city is making the rent. And it probably comes as no surprise that this has been the case for a very long time. The Metropolitan Playhouse—a wonderful, small theater company in the East Village that is dedicated to exploring the forgotten nooks and crannies of the American theatrical canon—has just started performances of the WPA-era play One-Third of a Nation, an exploration of landlords and tenants throughout New York’s history. On Sunday, May 22, we will be joining the Metropolitan for a talkback and Q&A after the 3:00 p.m. matinee. We hope you can join us for this fascinating look at New York's past.

One-Third of a Nation was written in 1938 by Arthur Arent as part of the Federal Theatre Project’s “Living Newspaper” unit. The Living Newspaper was designed to create jobs for out-of-work journalists, actors, and other theater professionals by telling stories that were “ripped from the headlines.” Their first production, Ethiopia, began rehearsals in 1936, but was never allowed to open. Government censors told them they couldn’t depict living people—like Italian dictator Benito Mussolini—and the production was scrapped. Their next work, Triple-A Plowed Under, focused on the hardscrabble lives of Dust Bowl farmers; Injunction Granted skewered the rich; and Power—in a shift that would also affect One-Third of a Nation—was written to overtly support New Deal policies (in this case, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority).

Then came One-Third of a Nation, a probing look at the nation’s housing crisis. Though the narrator reminds the audience early on that this isn’t a specifically New York story, the action takes place exclusively in the city, beginning with a devastating tenement fire at 397 Madison Street, then taking the audience on a multimedia journey through the city’s housing history. The play was the Living Newspaper's biggest success and versions were produced around the country. (The poster, above, is from a touring production from 1939.) It was also turned into a film in 1939 with Sylvia Sidney, though the melodrama produced by Hollywood did away with most of the plot and all of the Living Newspaper's innovative staging.

The Living Newspaper was known for its experimental staging--including the use of projections, film, and off-stage characters heard through loudspeakers--that were cutting edge in the 1930s. The plays also featured dozens of characters (One-Third of Nation has over 100 speaking parts) in order to keep as many indigent actors employed as possible. In this current production, Metropolitan deftly divides the roles between just 13 actors.

We hope you can join us on May 22nd at 3:00 p.m. The play costs just $20 ($15 for students/seniors) and it is a small space, so reserve your seat today at http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org/onethirdtickets.

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Read more about WPA-era New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Balloon Hoax of 1844


The morning of April 13, 1844, New Yorkers awoke to find an astonishing headline in the New York Sun:
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! 
SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON'S FLYING MACHINE!!
The article went on to detail how Monck Mason and his traveling companions had set off from England in the gas-filled balloon Victoria and landed in Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, three days later. An amazing triumph, Monck's flight promised to revolutionize transportation and communication.

Of course, it wasn't true. Two days later, the Sun had to publish the following retraction:
The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England, the particulars of which from our correspondent we detailed in our Extra, we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous. The description of the Balloon and the voyage was written with a minuteness and scientific ability calculated to obtain credit everywhere, and was read with great pleasure and satisfaction. We by no means think such a project impossible. 
The hoax was the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Nine years earlier, the Sun had perpetrated the "Great Moon Hoax," and, as Matthew Goodman argues in his book The Sun and the Moon, Poe was annoyed at the newspaper for, in his mind, appropriating an idea from one of his own short stories for that series. The balloon hoax may have been Poe's way of getting back at the newspaper. If Poe is to be believed, the balloon hoax brought on a surge in sales for the Sun--and thus would have caused them great embarrassment when the story had to be retracted. (There's some thought that it was Poe who wrote the retraction, as well.)

The complete balloon hoax can be read online at http://www.poestories.com/text.php?file=balloonhoax.



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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mormonism -- Home Grown in New York State

One hundred an eighty years ago today—April 6, 1830—in a log cabin in the hamlet of Fayette Township, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was born. Seven years earlier, Joseph Smith, who lived in nearby Palmyra, claimed to have been visited by an angel named Moroni, who told him of hidden golden plates that told the story of Christ’s visitation to America after his crucifixion. Over the next few years, Smith, his wife, and volunteers labored to transcribe and translate the golden plates, the result of which was the Book of Mormon, the founding text of the Mormon church and one of the most widely distributed texts in the world. (Mormonism continues to be one of the world’s fastest growing religions.)

On April 6, 1830, the first meeting of Mormons took place in the cottage of Peter Whitmer in Fayette Township. Soon, however, Smith and his followers left New York, first ending up in Nauvoo, Illinois (which grew so large that it rivaled Chicago), and then—after Smith’s murder in 1844—in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[Mormonism wasn’t the only religion to spring up in Upstate New York during this time. Indeed, the amount of religious fervor found in the state led it to be named the “Burned Over District,” since religion swept over it much like a forest fire.]

This entire Mormon story is much more entertainingly told in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Book of Mormon, now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. While most shows are sold out, there is a ticket lottery each day two hours before curtain for $32 orchestra seats. $27 standby tickets are sold one-hour before curtain.  So why not celebrate Mormonism’s birthday by knocking off work early today and seeing a Broadway show?

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Read about New York City’s religious history in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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