Friday, April 18, 2008

Broadway News

How often does the theatre or those in it get on the front page of the paper of record? Tricia Walsh Smith is being divorced by her husband, Philip Smith, who the New York Times refers to as a “theatre executive”; he is the President of the Shubert Organization. The Times says that Ms. Smith said, “they never had sex, and yet she found him hoarding Viagra….” To read the rest of the article, click on the link above. To watch Ms. Smith's YouTube plea, go to:

I couldn’t figure out what to blog about today, and then, as Mr. Williams wrote: “Sometimes there’s God so quickly.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Homecoming

Last week, we were lucky enough to catch one of the last performances of “The Homecoming.” It’s not my favorite Pinter, but it’s damn close to it. Ben Brantley’s rave review in the Times in December was well-deserved. I don’t write that sentence; here’s the link to the review:

Ian McShane was really wonderful; he did not chew the carpet as he might have. I never believed for a minute that he wasn’t really Max. Eve Best was good as Ruth, as was Michael McKean as Sam (a far, far away from “This Is Spinal Tap”) and James Frain (he plays Cromwell in “The Tudors”- we see him every Sunday). Raul Esparza was just about perfect. I never remember seeing a Teddy that dead-on. Nor a set so right as Eugene Lee's. I liked the costumes as well, despite the fact that Jess Goldstein yelled at me for buying Kate Burton the wrong color ballet shoes, but that was many years ago.

Produce more Pinter, I say!

The link above is to his website.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Frick

My friend Joyce and I haven’t been to a museum in awhile. Part of that is writer guilt (What do you mean you’re going to a museum with that scene like it is? You should be writing!), but Joyce did what they always tell you Not to do- ran for the subway- and broke several ribs and her jaw. This is scarily described in her blog, I don’t usually run for subways, but now I’m not even tempted to.

So week before last, Joyce make her maiden voyage to the Frick. There’s something comforting about the Frick. Not only the fantasies about what it must have like to live in that house if you were a Frick. The special exhibit was Meissen porcelain, which neither of us felt compelled to see. It’s the permanent collection there that’s so wonderful- I’d forgotten how many Vermeers there were. And something about the space itself that reminds me more of how Manhattan was when I first moved there- less rushed, less pushy (though that wouldn’t be hard), quieter.

The first time I went there, what really blew me away were those four big Whistlers, and the Constable Salisbury Cathedral (see above). I’m not a big landscape lover, but the way the building glows in the sun light is really amazing. It was not on the wall this trip. This time, my third or fourth trip, I was less enthusiastic about the Whistlers than I was about the El Greco St. Jerome (I’d forgotten it was there- I thought it was at the Met up the street). And there are a bunch of Goyas. Goya’s subjects always look to me that despite their clothes, they are faces I could see on the street at any moment. The guy above (“An Officer’) could have easily been on my subway ride home.

By the way, Joyce is mending beautifully.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Power Broker, Part V

What follows are in my opinion the miscellaneous best parts of Caro’s wonderful book.

Title I Slum Clearance
The best and most moving section is about the East Tremont neighborhood in the Bronx. For a good summary of this, you can visit Caro’s own website, Similar events happened at other sites, including what is now Lincoln Center (the movie of “West Side Story” was shot just before the bulldozers leveled that neighborhood).

Riots on the LIRR
Perhaps not technically riots, but there were poorly heated cars where conductors would not go, because they were afraid that if they tried to collect tickets, the passengers would rise up against them.

Why Do the Subways Suck, and the Traffic’s Worse?
I was not a little testy about Shelly Silver blocking the Mayor’s congestion pricing from even coming to the floor in Albany earlier this week. Shelly hasn’t tried getting crosstown in a taxi lately. Crosstown in a limo in Albany doesn’t count. At least our new governor is looking at ways to fund capital improvements for the MTA. Gene Russianoff’s Times op-ed piece on Wednesday goes into further detail (link above). All those millions and millions of federal dollars, not to mention state and city, that Moses had reallocated from public transportation, and school and hospital construction, to build more highways and more bridges. New York City is still reeling from the effects of it.

Al Smith & the Tiger
I’d read this story elsewhere, but I’d always feared it was apocryphal. When Al Smith was an old man, he lived on Fifth Avenue with his daughter and her family. The apartment was across the street from the Central Park Zoo. After Moses renovated the Zoo in the 30s (and he did do a wonderful job with that- I was only sorry that the last Children’s Zoo renovation didn’t keep more of Moses’ ideas. I miss Jonah and the whale!), he presented Al Smith with his own key, as “Night Superintendent”. So Smith would wander the zoo alone at night. Caro writes that Smith made friends with the Rosie the hippo, and would bring her an apple for a snack. Smith referred to the Zoo’s tiger as the Tammany Tiger. So that when he would bring guests with him while LaGuardia (elected as a reformer) was mayor, Smith would say “LaGuardia!” and the tiger would roar and roar.

It’s true!

The Power Broker, Part IV

It wasn’t only in the 1950s that Robert Moses wanted his own way. The New York Aquarium used to be down on the Battery, in Castle Clinton. You know, that sort of forlorn-looking fort where the ferries stop to go to Ellis and Liberty Islands. In early 1939, Moses announced that what had been planned as the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was going to be built as the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, with an anchorage on Hamilton Ave. in Brooklyn, another on Governor’s Island, and the third in Battery Park. The road from this bridge to the West Side Highway would go through the Battery. And this is 1939, right, so the tallest building in that neighborhood is probably the Standard Oil Building. West of Washington Street were docks; when the WTC was later built, it was built on landfill. The scale of this bridge and the road was enormous in proportion to the rest of the neighborhood back then. Not to mention the history of British colonial New York and the Revolution.

The one old structure in Battery Park was Castle Clinton. For 35 years (1855-1890), it was the predecessor to Ellis Island, the way-station for European immigration. By 1939, it was the New York City Aquarium, which two and a half million people visited every year. Caro writes: “The old fort would be partially hidden by the giant road piers- one would, under Moses’ plan, be placed smack in front of it….” There were voices of protest. Eleanor Roosevelt pleaded against the bridge in her syndicated newspaper column. Eventually, President Roosevelt killed the possibility of the bridge
Moses was so furious he had the building condemned, ripped all the aquarium accoutrement off of it, threatened to have the building razed and throw all the fish in New York Bay! He built a fence around Castle Clinton and put guards on it.

The Coney Island Aquarium opened in 1955, so for all of those years New York had no aquarium. Because Moses was so angry.

The Power Broker, Part III

Another memorable Robert Moses moment was the Joe Papp fight. That confrontation actually wasn’t Moses’ fault so much as his lieutenant who ran Central Park, Stuart Constable, whose nickname was “Mustache.” In 1953, Joe Papp began producing free Shakespeare in an amphitheatre in East River Park. Moses had built that amphitheatre at Al Smith’s request; as a child growing up in that neighborhood he’d never seen a play because his family was too poor to afford it. I believe that amphitheatre is no more; about ten years ago I saw an Anne Hamburger piece (I think the last thing she did here before she went to work for Disney) there, staged around the crumbling (much of it) parts of the building.

In 1957, Papp got permission to produce plays in Central Park; there was no theatre there yet. His productions were very successful, and Moses volunteered to help raise $50,000 for the 1959 season. Moses left town for vacation, and Papp had to deal with Constable. Someone mentioned to Constable that Papp had testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee the previous year. Moses knew this; CBS-TV where Papp was working as a stage manager knew it, been let go and been reinstated after his union fought for him. Constable told Papp that he’d have to charge admission, Papp refused and Constable told him there would be no free Shakespeare in the parks anymore.

When Moses returned from vacation, he felt obligated to back Constable, Papp went to the press, and accusations were made that Papp was making Shakespeare into Communistic propaganda. Mayor Wagner tried to intervene, to no avail. Papp had to take his case to an appeal, and finally won. At that point, Moses (who was a great Shakespeare fan) said he’d abide by the court’s decision. By 1962, George Delacorte and other donors had given enough to build the theatre as it is today. Difficult to imagine Central Park without it, isn’t it?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

More on The Power Broker

One thing about “The Power Broker” is that when you encounter it, in all its heft, your first thought is “I know nothing whatsoever about Robert Moses.”

But as you keep reading, it comes back to you in pieces. Oh, yeah, the playground fight- neighborhood mothers protest Moses expanding the Tavern on the Green parking lot through their playground. Many times when I’ve been near that playground and the Tavern, I've witnessed some of the prodigious rodent population (and I don’t mean squirrels). Fearless rats, cavorting in broad daylight. [N.B.: For Cheryl Davis, who’s writing a ten-minute play about that fight- it’s Chapter 42.] It didn’t hurt the mothers that Arnold Newman lived across the street from the playground, and took some lovely photos for the press. The mothers (and their lawyer) stood up to Moses at a time when he had begun to fall from grace. There were mobsters (like Vinnie the Chin Gigante, in his youth, and Frank Costello) found connected to subcontractors on Title I slum clearance contracts. Then once reporters starting digging through Tavern on the Green’s financial records … well, it got very messy. Not bribes per se, but certainly honest graft and the Tammany machine (what greases a machine so well as money?).

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Power Broker

As we grow up, we collect habits and rituals to help us deal with the world around us. One of my later habits is when faced with the worst possible emotional stress, find a big book to escape into. When the surgeon told me that I was indeed going to have breast surgery (which turned up nothing malignant), it was immediately after 9.11, and I was living in Manhattan, smelling the smoke coming up from downtown every day. I thought I was going to lose my mind. But I didn’t- my business partner at the time lent me Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans” instead. I read that, and was completely absorbed by it.

The past few weeks saw the death of one of my closest friends (not the business partner; alas, she died four years ago). So when I’ve been able (even grief needs a break), I’ve been reading “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s 1974 epic on Robert Moses and how he changed (and in Caro’s and my opinion, severely damaged) New York, city and state. It is 1162 pages long, not counting the end notes. That said, it’s obvious why it won the Pulitzer that year. The writing is clear and lively; Caro writes incredibly well about emotion- not a trait you find in all historians. The editing is so good- I had forgotten how well books used to be edited, before publishers started merging.

I’ve read some New York City history, but there is plenty in “The Power Broker” that I didn’t know. For instance, Jones Beach was named for a Revolutionary War officer. Caro gives details about one of the elevated highways, the Gowanus, I see outside my kitchen window (the other, later one is the Prospect Avenue Expressway). If you’ve ever been on that road, or underneath it, you’ve never seen a highway quite like that: what it’s elevated by is odd looking, but also the way the lanes are set on it doesn’t seem quite right either. It turns out a four lane elevated highway was built on top of the supports of the Third Avenue El train, destroying a northern chunk of Sunset Park (then a working poor neighborhood full of Norwegians, Finns, Danes, Irish and Germans). It was opened November 1, 1941. Once the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel opened, the highway got congested fairly quickly, so Moses added a lane on each side, which gave it the overhang feeling it has now. The dripping water that runs down the supports on Third Avenue, over near Costco? That was happening in the 1940s as well; it’s condensation.

Because Moses was able to amass so much power because he was able to hold his offices for so long (Al Smith gave him his first Commissioner job in 1924), and act with so much autonomy (he had never been elected, and never had to worry about being re-elected) he changed the landscape of New York City, Long Island and New York state forever. He literally moved rivers. Moses not only had a hand in building all that public housing that lines the East River (using only the cheapest materials, and eschewing “luxuries,” in which he included toilet seat lids and closet doors), but nearly everything else you can think of built in that era: Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, the newer part of Bellevue, NYU Hospital, the U.N., Rockefeller University and New York Hospital. And that’s just on the East River.
It’s a long book- it’ll take at least another blog.