7/9/15

A Quick One At The Krazy Kat Klub

New York City is a boĆ®te boneyard, a nite-spot necropolis, a potter’s field of cabarets, oyster palaces and hotel lounges.

Some names of past hotspots live on in popular lore — your Stork Club, your El Morocco. But there were so many others, maybe smaller in size and fame, that were at one time just as legendary with a certain clientele. Today they are nearly unknown. The heyday of these storied joints can never be recreated. Well, if we can’t step inside, let’s loiter outside and toast, in salute to good times past. We may be a little late, but we have time for a quick one.

Today's Stop: Ye Syne of Ye Krazy Kat


For years Volare has been among our favorite Village restaurants. Food and service are top notch, and the building, at 147 West 4th Street, is overflowing with history. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney began her Studio Club, which would eventually evolve into the Whitney Museum of American Art, in the main and lower floors, John Reed worked on Ten Days That Shook the World here and Edward Hopper had his first solo exhibition at the Club. It housed a later version of the Bohemian hangout Polly Holliday’s restaurant until sometime in the early 1930s when the space became Mother Bertolotti’s.


As enjoyable as the osso bucco and the vitello tonnato, as impeccable as the waiters’ jackets, as lovable as the archetypal Greenwich Village Italian restaurant interior, the incomparable thing about Volare is the art on the walls. Above the booths hang large charcoal and crayon drawings of scantily clad showgirls cavorting with elegantly attired sports. We asked our host about them and he said they were created by a successful Broadway set designer called Cleon Throckmorton.  That’s a name that’s hard to forget. Installed during the Bertolotti era (some are dated 1933), they remained with the restaurant when it became Volare in 1984.


In 1924, fresh out of college in Washington, DC, Throckmorton went to work designing sets for the Provincetown Players, starting with Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, and dressed many of their productions for several years. Moving to Greenwich Village after that first season was the natural next step. An early commission was his design for the interior of the Cherry Lane Theatre, also in 1924. He soon went on to conquer Broadway.

From the moment he hit the Great White Way, he was apparently kept hopping. His October 25,1965 obituary in the New York Times tells us, “In the nineteen-twenties Mr. Throckmorton became so busy and so prominent that his name, it was said, appeared on Broadway playbills with a frequency exceeded chiefly by the fire commissioner.”


 A fascinating side project and grand amusement was launched in 1928, when he and his buddy, writer Christopher Morley, began staging a series of old-time nineteenth century melodramas, played for satirical laughs, in a dilapidated theater in Hoboken. From the Gay Nineties look of the stage-door Johnnies and chorus girls in his Volare drawings, Throck thoroughly enjoyed the campy charm of Old Broadway. It’s clear these characters knew how to have a ball. Enjoying the wilds of the “last seacoast of Bohemia” meant art projects galore, not only sets and posters but the creation of their own Hoboken Free State with related gewgaws including a flag, city map, and elaborate passports issued to friends and acquaintances. (Fans of Yo La Tengo and other 1980s Hoboken scenesters will relate to these ancient artists on the other side of the Hudson.) There’s a great book about these fun-filled days called Born in a Beer Garden; Or, She Troupes to Conquer: Sundry Ejaculations by Christopher Morley, Cleon Throckmorton and Ogden Nash; And Certain of the Hoboken Ads with a Commentary on Them by Earnest Elmo Caulkins; Embellishments by Edward A. Wilson, George Illian, Cleon Throckmorton, August William Hutaf and Jay.



Cleon Throckmorton, at right, with pals in front of the Krazy Kat Klub. Courtesy Shorpy.com


That’s a little about Mr. Throckmorton. Unsurprisingly, we became fans the moment we clapped eyes on those walls at Volare. From that day we were on the lookout for Throckabilia, so you can imagine our eyes were like saucers when our daily dose of the Shorpy photo blog began to deliver posts featuring the man himself! These photographs date to 1921, Throckmorton’s college days in DC, and show Cleon and friends, decked in Bohemian splendor, at play in and around a speakeasy/nightclub of their own creation called the Krazy Kat Klub (or sometimes Klubb.) Descriptions of the interior mention a riot of gaudy Impressionist and Futurist pictures on the walls, and a clientele of students, artists and atheists. It was one of the very few speakeasies we’ve ever heard of to boast a treehouse out back.


The club was of course named in honor of George Herriman’s masterpiece, the comic strip Krazy Kat. Although the strip lasted from 1913 to 1944, the twenties would have been the height of its popularity, and it is impossible to overstate the impact of Herriman’s creation at that time with highbrow types. Not many daily comics inspired essays from art critics, and even a ballet (1922). The innovative art and surreal story lines had to have had an irresistible appeal for the youthful Throck and his arty pals.

All this vicarious hotcha was well and good, but the spirit of Grade “A” Fancy demanded that one day we would have to track down what remained of this den of frivolity. Recently, finding we had business in the District, we did just that.

The Krazy Kat Klub was housed in a stable down an alley called Green Court, off Thomas Circle. The building is long gone, probably Charleston’d to flinders. The blue building, now a gym, is where it once stood.









But you can get an idea of what it may have looked like from the converted stables across the alley, which currently hosts a gay bar of long standing.


On our return home there was no question but to visit Volare to raise a glass to Cleon Throckmorton, surrounded by his fabulous drawings.

A toast! To Throck and his showgirls, to George Herriman and Krazy Kat, and to all the iconoclasts and flappers, the members of the Klub.





5/21/15

Six Feet Under the Borough of Jazz

Bright and warm as it was the other day, we were itching for an outing. An adventure seemed to be in order, and what says excitement better than a cemetery? Queens is known as "the Borough of Jazz" because of the hundreds of working musicians who made their homes here, and Flushing Cemetery could be called "the Necropolis of Jazz" since it is the final resting place for several top players, foremost being the man whose legacy extends beyond jazz to all popular music, Pops himself, Mr. Louis Armstrong. His house – now a museum – is just a few miles away in Corona (an essential and super-fun pilgrimage if you've never been) but we had never visited his monument, so we loaded up the Thermos and set a course for Flushing.

We hustled through the cacophony and congestion of the subway and sidewalks of Main Street, and a short bus ride later were breathing easily in the peaceful leafy luxury of Flushing Cemetery. We found our man resting side by side with his wife Lucille.


For a guy whose instrumental virtuosity and unique vocal style left music forever changed, Armstrong's headstone is fairly humble, as he was in life. Although he is clearly the person responsible for his own nickname "Satchmo," I've never liked it. Fine for Louis to self-deprecatingly refer to himself as "satchel mouth" (or variations like "dipper mouth" or "real estate jaws") but it's always seemed less than respectful, and sometimes a little creepy, when squares call him Satchmo. Well, it was part of the Armstrong brand, so there it is in gold script.
A toast to the preeminent innovator, Louis Armstrong.

 

Our next stop was the grave site of the legendary Johnny Hodges, for decades Duke Ellington's lead alto. No question that we have the right fellow, because below "John C. Hodges" is helpfully inscribed "Alto Sax" and in one corner "Rabbit," a nickname bestowed by bandmate Harry Carney who was tickled by Hodges' love for lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Hodges won the admiration of the best players in jazz for his lyrical solos and "a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes," as Ellington eulogized at his funeral. But boy, could he blow some blues, too.



That should be plenty of talent for one graveyard, but this being Queens, there are more big stars in repose. Reportedly, Charlie Shavers, a trumpet player's trumpet player if ever there was one, resides somewhere in Section 31. Pianist and singer Hazel Scott takes five (and more) in Section 9. Woefully, the graves are unmarked.

Most surprising, the one trumpet player whose legacy rivals that of Armstrong himself also rests somewhere in Section 31. John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, founding father of bebop, outstanding proponent of Afro-Cuban jazz, virtuoso instrumentalist, composer of both serious standards and goofy novelties, and an all around mensch, lies modestly in an unnamed plot.

That Gillespie and Armstrong, two men who each created a revolution in jazz music, should find themselves sharing eternity a few hundred yards from one another is a wee bit mind blowing. But that's kooky Queens for you.


Imbibliophiles will want to know what cocktail we tipped in toasting these fine musicians. It was our own special concoction, devised for this field trip, which we are calling

The Groove Juice Number 1

2 ounces gin – for all the gin mills the cats played in

1 ounce Suze – for a bittersweet occasion

A dash of orange bitters (ditto)

Shake until cold as the number 7 subway in summer, strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry (don't you forget!)

 
words, photos, recipes ©2015 McBurnie/Hammer

4/8/15

The Tempo King, The Marine Room and Chicken Tetrazzini in the Subway

Research is a shaggy dog. And more often than not that dog will disappear down a rabbit hole. When casting about for tasty bits of New York City barroom history for A Quick One, A Little Late, the winding path taken can be as fascinating as the ending. Take this example wherein a little sleuthing into the origins of a stride piano record leads to an opera megastar, a little bit of radio broadcasting history, and finally deposits us in a downtown subway station, loitering in front of some nautical froufrou that once adorned a spectacularly whimsical grotto in Herald Square.



The other day, a song came on the radio, a novelty number from 1936 with a stride piano strongly reminiscent of Fats Waller. The vocal was clearly not Fats, but it was pleasantly laid back and the trumpet break interesting. We looked it up and learned that the band was called Tempo King and his Kings of Tempo. Catchy!  Some snooping on the Google machine yielded more than four dozen sides cut under the Tempo name with this line-up: the Marsala brothers, Joe on clarinet and Marty trumpet; the great Eddie Condon, guitar; Queenie Ada Rubin on piano; Mort Stuhlmaker playing bass; ace drummer Stan King; and the vocal by Tempo King. Some of these names were familiar enough to surmise that this was a white group trying to cash in as a Fats Waller sound-alike act, but who, we wondered, were the two halves of this fake Fats: the piano of Queenie Ada Rubin and the voice of “Tempo King?”

Nobody seemed to be sure, although conspiracy theories were, unsurprisingly, easy to find. A fanciful moniker like Queenie Ada Rubin doesn’t immediately come across as real, and speaking of aliases, clearly nobody was born Tempo King, so he’s got to be a fake too, right? Some people suggested that Fats Waller cut these tunes himself; it was the golden age of musicians recording under a pseudonym to dodge exclusive contracts, and everyone did it. Probably just a series of record dates Waller’s good friend Condon put together to earn him a payday without The Victor Talking Machine Co. getting wise. But a little searching in newspaper archives laid that theory to rest. Radio listings from 1935 tell us that Tempo King and his Kings of Tempo played Saturday nights on WMCA, and the Times notes that Tempo King opened a trio engagement at the Town Casino Club in July 1936, so the act was more than a studio concoction. Plus Ada Rubin would have been an old hand at radio dates by this time since we found regular solo appearances listed for her from the 1920s. And how’s this for sewing things up: in a biography of music publisher Joe Davis, author Bruce Bastin reveals that Rubin worked as Davis’ secretary at about the same time he was publishing Waller’s tunes and she was playing with the Kings of Tempo. She continued to perform on 52nd Street long after the band was kaput, according to Linda Dahl's Stormy Weather, a guide to women in jazz. So while there is little chance that Queenie Ada Rubin was a figment of anyone’s imagination, we haven’t discovered the true identity of Tempo King. Some of the mysteries may remain unsolved, but the fact that the group played regularly on WMCA is a concrete connection to a spot of New York history.

In the earliest days of radio it was common for stations to be owned by a city’s tallest hotels because they were awfully convenient places to stick a broadcast tower. The first broadcast from a New York hotel was hosted in 1920 by the McAlpin on Broadway and West 34th Streets. Opera superstar Luisa Tetrazzini (yes, her legacy includes the namesake chicken dish) took to the nascent airwaves with a recital beamed from her apartment at the hotel. The show was arranged by the Army Signal Corps and its success convinced the McAlpin’s management to dive into the radio game in a big way. In 1925, WMCA (McA — get it?) began a regular schedule of broadcasting from its glass-enclosed circular studios, fashionably Art Deco stylish and technically cutting edge, newly built on the 24th floor. The hotel soon sold the station to Broadway playbill publisher Donald Flamm, and by the end of 1928 the studios moved into the Hammerstein Theatre building on 53rd Street where in 1935 Tempo King would make those Saturday broadcasts.



The McAlpin was also home to an eye-popping example of turn of the century glamour more apropos to the proceedings on these pages, the glorious Marine Grill. Dating from 1913, a year after the opening of the palatial McAlpin, this restaurant in the hotel’s basement was an immense maritime fantasy seating 250 diners. Polychrome terra-cotta covered every inch of the stocky piers and vaults, framing 24 lunette-shaped murals of New York’s seafaring past designed by Fred Dana Marsh. In 1957, the room became The Gate of Cleve, a hoked-up burlesque of a grand old restaurant in Amsterdam. By that time the writing was on the tiles. Over the years, as the McAlpin’s fortunes slid, the space accommodated a string of mediocre hash houses — one German, another Indian, a Japanese — and miraculously the interior largely survived these humiliations. But in 1976 the hotel was converted to rental apartments and by the Eighties the management ran out of takers to lease the restaurant. Plumbing repairs necessitated the destruction of its ceiling in 1989, and the following spring the space was stripped. Ground floor retailer The Gap began using it for a storage room. The majority of the interior went into the trash (a preservationists’ horrifying nightmare) but a salvage company retained sixteen of the terra-cotta murals, offering them for sale.

That would be too sad an ending, and you know we always like to see the glass half full of gin, so fear not, there is a happyish finale. Six of those murals, rescued by the NYC Landmarks and Preservation Commission, can be seen today by anyone with the price of a subway fare. The MTA, through its Arts for Transit program, installed these six lunettes and the restaurant’s iron grillwork gate in the William Street entrance of the Fulton Street 2-3-A-C subway station.



The mural at the top of the stairs honors Robert Fulton’s Clermont, the first commercially successful steamboat, which plied a passenger service between New York and Albany beginning in 1807.







Downstairs, facing the token booth, is the cast iron gate that once decorated the entrance to the Marine Room.


Through the turnstile and to the left are the remaining five murals. The original native New Yorkers, the Lenape, canoeing out to greet the arrival of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon is the scene in the center. Flanking Hudson to the left is the Commonwealth, the last and the largest of the Fall River Line steamers, and a British warship in New York Harbor during the Revolution, possibly on a foray up the Hudson River in July 1776. On the right, we find a tug guiding the luxury liner RMS Mauretania, and a depiction of settlers entering the harbor of New Amsterdam during Dutch colonial times.


After seeing everything was shipshape with the survivors, we buzzed up to Herald Square for a look at the carcass of the McAlpin, and of course, a Quick One.





For a toast to maritime history, the Grade “A” Fancy cocktail department prescribed a rum and lime drink.  Here at a cocktail table in the ass-park on Broadway, we knock back what we’ll call a McAlpin Daiquiri:  Muddle two pitted cherries (fresh or from your grocer's freezer, thawed) in a glass with a flat bottom that will permit muddling.  Shake two ounces rum (El Dorado 8 Demerara Guyana on this occasion), the juice of ½ a lime, and a teaspoon superfine sugar with ice until you’re tired.  Strain the liquid over the cherries and that’s it.






 Yo ho ho!




12/23/14

The Grade “A” Fancy Holiday Cocktail 2014

On air with Fool’s Paradise with Rex- WFMU -  December 20, 2014




8 Days of Getting Oiled


Our Hanukkah cocktail[1], inspired by the traditional potato pancake. A liquid latke, if you will. Potatoes, onion, oil. And some celery bitters in tribute to Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray tonic.

  • 2 1/2 ounces potato vodka
  • A splash[2] dry vermouth
  • 2 dashes celery bitters
  • Small piece of lemon peel

Add liquids to a shaker of ice.  Twist peel over ice and add.  Stir or shake as you choose but one thing you must do is get it very, very cold.

Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass.

Two garnishes here: first, add a speared cocktail onion. Then, a potato chip – placement will depend on the size and shape of the chip. A curvy chip can hang on the rim, a big chip can be placed over the mouth of the glass. Just don’t put the chip in the glass or it will get soggy.


[1] No, it was not invented at the "Fryers" Club!

[2] A note on vermouth in this drink: we are gin Martini aficionados and require a bit of vermouth in those cocktails.  Vodka does not have the same natural affinity, so you’ll want just a splash here – 1/8 to 1/4 ounce – to liven things up.


12/17/14

We Want the Airwaves

Prepare your ears for the wildest holiday-themed novelty records and the sounds of on air gift giving with a cast of celebrity merry-makers. This Saturday everyone's fave holiday tradition, the Radio Bartender, returns to the "Fool's Paradise" featuring Rex on the mighty WFMU! As always, Grade "A" Fancy's head mixist Karen will unveil a new cocktail for the occasion, live in the studio, amid much radio hi-jinx.

Tune in this Saturday, December 20, from 1 to 3pm on the Fun 91! In the New York City area it's WFMU 91.1 fm Jersey City, and 90.1 in the Hudson Valley. Children of any land can listen in real time via the miracle of the internet.