Mae West

Greenpoint’s Vaudeville Era Theaters: Still Hiding in Plain Sight

Drawing of RKO Greenpoint Theater (Courtesy of Julia Wertz)

It is almost inconceivable today, but in the 1920s Greenpoint had as many as eight Vaudeville theaters. Some of the buildings still survive, but with other uses.

In the days before most homes had a radio, Vaudeville theaters provided cheap non-stop entertainment with shows lasting for up to 15-hour stretches. In those days families were often larger in size with people crammed into their tiny dwellings like sardines. Vaudeville theaters provided an escape from these overcrowded apartments.

By 1911, records show a theatre at 153 Green St. It shows up in later records as a 400-seat theater either called the Arcade Theater or The Greenpoint Arcade Theater, but it did not last.

RKO Greenpoint’s interior (via cinematreasures.org)

Starting in 1927 with the arrival of the first talkie moving pictures, many of the Vaudeville theaters also served as movie houses. The largest theater was the RKO Greenpoint Theater on the corner of Calyer and Manhattan Avenue, which seated more than 1600 people and resembled an opera house with boxes, arches murals and terracotta designs on the ceilings. There were three levels of boxed seats on either side of the stage, and two balconies. The RKO hosted first-run double features after becoming a movie house.

RKO Greenpoint (Via cinematreasures.org)

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Mae West’s Gay Drama That Shocked 1920s America

Artwork by Michael DiMotta – sketched for the stage play “Courting Mae West,” written by LindaAnn LoSchiavo, DGA

Mae West was much more than a local-born movie star or even a sex symbol. She was a playwright, a woman decades ahead of her time in dramatizing questions of gender and sexuality. Her views almost a century ago were remarkably progressive when it came to homosexuality and those views were never better dramatized than in her shocking play entitled “The Drag.”

Even today, in a time when society has largely embraced gay marriage and become more accepting, West’s play would be so offensive to some that it still could not be staged in many places in America. In puritanical 1920s America, the play was considered outrageous and morally offensive.

West, who grew up locally and began her theatrical career on Brooklyn vaudeville stages at the age of five, said that the theater was her greatest education. She had little formal schooling, but the stage taught her all she needed to know. She soon became friendly with a number of gay theatrical professionals and West immediately empathized with gay people. She enjoyed spending time in gay clubs in the west village and one night she hit upon the idea of writing a play about gay men.

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Teddy’s: Williamsburg’s Historic Bar

The bar at Teddy’s (courtesy of Teddy’s)

Gazing through the luminous 100-year-old stained glass windows at Teddy’s Bar and Grill (96 Berry St.) in the Northside of Williamsburg, it’s possible to imagine that time has stood still. The bar is in fact so old that it predates the windows by about three decades. The 130-year-old mahogany bar and tiled floor are original, adding to Teddy’s 19th-century ambiance. Opened in 1887, the bar makes the claim to be Brooklyn’s oldest continually run bar. The Brooklyn Inn (148 Hoyt St.), which claims to have opened in 1885, might dispute Teddy’s claim, but there’s no disputing that Teddy’s retains a unique 19th-century feel. Continue reading

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The Illicit Affair That Brought Greenpoint’s own Mae West to Hollywood

Mae West

In a previous piece I described how Mae West funded her scandalous 1927 play sex through her romance with the rich, handsome, but very dangerous gangster Owney Madden. However, it was the poor, but handsome bag man of the gangster who made West an American icon.

In 1927 the Acting Mayor of New York Joe McKee, scandalized by the drama’s frank sexual portrayals, had West and the rest of the cast arrested. The arrest was a publicity gold mine and sex and West were the words on the lips of all New Yorkers. When the cops jailed Mae the gangster’s connections with Blackwell’s Island warden earned Mae a private cell and silk underwear. She even dined with the warden every night and left after six days being let out early for good behavior. Upon her release she quipped, “It was the first time I ever got anything for good behavior.” Continue reading

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How New York’s Most Notorious Gangster Bankrolled Mae West’s Broadway Hit

Cary Grant and Mae West in You're No Angel.
Cary Grant and Mae West in You’re No Angel.

In my book about local history, Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past, I told the story about how in 1927, local Greenpoint gal Mae West scandalized New York by staging a play called Sex, which presented prostitution and so outraged the acting mayor of New York that he had Mae and the cast arrested. The arrest catapulted West to stardom, but I only knew half the story. The real life drama behind the staging of the play is every bit as salacious as West’s racy drama.

Staging a Broadway play has always been an expensive proposition, and it was beyond the means of West, who in 1926 was an out of work actress. West, however, was resourceful and if she did not have money, then there were men who did; so she decided to use her considerable feminine charms to finance her Broadway drama.
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Women’s History Month: Mae West, Feminist and Progressive

Mae West, via Wikipedia

A lot of people know that movie star Mae West was born in 1893 on Herbert Street and that she became a and one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, but a lot of people do not know that she was an outspoken feminist and a social progressive who successfully challenged bigotry and narrow-minded conventional morality.

West grew up at a time when women’s social roles were changing. She explained, “I was born just at the right time. A little earlier and they would have put a scarlet letter on me and burned me at the stake. A little later and they wouldn’t have been shocked any more.” West came of age at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment, and Greenpoint had seven vaudeville theaters. West had little formal schooling, but her huge exposure to vaudeville theater shaped many of her avant garde ideas. In a day when most whites were prejudiced, her favorite male vaudeville actor was African American Bert Williams, from whom she took many of the aspects of her stage persona. She copied Williams’s uses of double entendres, innuendo and answers with multiple and conflicting messages where rebelliousness hid just below the surface. Later, when she directed plays, she insisted on racially integrated casts.
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When Freedom of Expression and Censorship Battled on Manhattan Avenue!

Screen shot 2016-02-28 at 7.30.49 AM
Cartoon by Julia Wertz

The other day, I gave a talk on the Irish history of Greenpoint, and a long-time Greenpointer offered me a new twist on a famous old Greenpoint legend.

Before diving into the story, lets get acquainted with the story’s protagonists. The legendary scandalista Eva Tanguay was a Vaudeville legend who came to perform at the B.F. Keith’s Theater at Manhattan Avenue and Calyer Street sometime around the turn of the century. Notorious as the “I Don’t Care Girl”—the title of her signature song—Tanguay established herself as the queen of Vaudeville in 1901 with the New York City premiere of her controversial show “My Lady.” The Lady Gaga of her day, Tanguay was brazen, impudent, and shameless in the eyes of the Prudish. Some of her hit songs like “It’s All Been Done Before But Not the Way I Do It” and “Go As Far As You Like” boldly suggested illicit pleasures. She wore a shockingly revealing dress made entirely of pennies and filled her act with racy double entendres. Greenpoint’s Mae West, who later became equally notorious, was an early admirer who later incorporated many elements of Tanguay’s act into her own suggestive performances. Continue reading

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Famous Greenpointers: Happy Birthday Mae West!

Mae West – Greenpointer
A portrait of Greenpointer Mae West – illustrated by Rebecca Clarke

Mae West was a renowned stage actress, director, playwright and film star whose career spanned over seven decades. Born on Herbert Street in 1893 to a German mother, Tillie Doelger, with a voluptuous figure and to an Irish American boxer Battlin’ Jack West, she would’ve turned 122 years old today. From her mother she inherited her great figure and from her father she inherited his pluck and self-confidence and a penchant for wise cracks. Continue reading

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Famous Greenpointer : Mae West

Mae West – Greenpointer
A portrait of Greenpointer Mae West - illustrated by Rebecca Clarke

Mae West is Famous Greenpointers of the month! According to Wiki, “during her childhood, West’s family moved to various parts of Woodhaven, Queens, as well as the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn. It was in Woodhaven, at Neir’s Social Hall (which opened in 1829 and is still extant) that West supposedly first performed professionally.

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(Not) Forgotten Greenpoint: “Taj Mahal For All The Birds… & Elvis!” – Beverly’s Memories & Karen None Of Your Business

When I first took over Greenpointers, Beverly, an original Greenpointer who now lives in Florida and stays connected through the website, wrote me one of the most inspiring messages about her mother’s Irene’s Social Column that was in the Greenpoint Gazette in the 70s.

Her warm wishes made me feel that I’d made the right decision to work on this amazing blog and serve Greenpointers who don’t even live here anymore – but still love it and want to keep up with the neighborhood.

She recently wrote me to ask a favor, to fulfill her birthday wish by doing what I do best, photography! She asked me to send her a photo of the building she grew up in, which happens to be the home of Acapulco Restaurant on Manhattan Ave and a house her parents owned on Clay St.

With Beverly’s permission I share her special email that gives us some great insight into Greenpoint of the past:

I was born at 1116 Manhattan Avenue on January 20th, 1951. As you are standing on Manhattan Avenue facing the building, I was born on the top floor left apartment and lived there until I was 12 years old.

My Grandparents had the apartment next to us and on the first floor where the other two apartments are (even though it is one flight up), lived an Aunt and Uncle in each apartment.

Although we did not own the building, at one time it was only rented to family members of mine.

There use to be a Bar & Grill downstairs that closed up very early in the 50’s and stayed that way well past the 60’s and if not mistaken into the 70’s.

One unique thing about the apartments in that building, the apartment one flight up and on the left hand side has a unique thing within it. From the kitchen into the bedroom and parlor, you actually had to walk up like 2-3 steps and then walk down 2-3 steps.

My Dad raised Pigeons there and had a huge Pigeon Coop on the roof that he and my Grandpa treated like it was the Taj Mahal for all the birds. Continue reading

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