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!


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.


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.


A Quick One at the Jumble Shop

New York City is a boîte 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: The Jumble Shop

Maeve Brennan (the Long-Winded Lady to her fans) begins a Talk of the Town piece in the December 3, 1960 New Yorker,
“One night about ten years ago, very late at night, I was sitting in the big, square bar of the Jumble Shop when Jean Gabin walked in and sat down.”
We are to be surprised at the great French actor’s appearance in a humble Greenwich Village hangout, as the point of her story is that movie stars turn up in the oddest places. But the Jumble Shop attracted its own luminaries—not always the sort to set a Hollywood marquee ablaze, although just as important in their own scene, the art world.

The Jumble Shop served its first dinner in 1922 at 21 West Eighth Street. It had opened as an antique shop the previous year. The owners, Frances Russell and Winifred Tucker, hospitable folk, served tea in the front room to friends and customers, but when it became apparent that more people were dropping in for a snack than to buy they decided the restaurant business might be a better bet. They kept the same sign out front, and the antique collection became décor. Soon more space became necessary and in 1926 The Jumble Shop moved across the street to number 28.

28 West Eighth Street today.
Greenwich Village in the ‘Twenties being the epicenter of the arts in New York the place drew a clientele heavy with writers, sculptor and painters. Guy Pène du Bois,  Reginald Marsh and Ashcan ace William Glackens were early regulars. The Jumble Shop became a space for informal art exhibitions and also a meeting place for painters and critics; Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky could be found frequently holding court. The avant-garde in performing arts was represented by Deems Taylor and Martha Graham.

The tan building was Fraser's studio on MacDougal Alley.
Sculptor Daniel Chester French, most famous for the Seated Lincoln in Washington, DC’s Lincoln Memorial, was an early regular, as was another sculptor of monumental portraiture, James Earle Fraser, who ate lunch at the first Shop daily. His studio was a converted 1854 stable in MacDougal Alley, just behind Eighth Street.  When he moved out, the Jumble Shop claimed the vacancy, and expanded 28 West Eighth Street back through the former studio.  In 1933, after Repeal, they had the opportunity to take over the storefront at 176 MacDougal on the corner of the Alley.  Their landlord offered the bar from a saloon on the corner of Eighth and MacDougal and this space became the Tap Room.

176 MacDougal, the Jumble Shop Tap Room.
In the ’Thirties and ‘Forties, for the painters that would soon become the “New York School,” Greenwich Village bars came to fill a social role akin to the cafés of Paris. These were important venues to unwind and talk about their work with their peers. Painter Lee Krasner recalls, in a 1964 oral history recorded by the Smithsonian’s Archives of America Art, “The Jumble Shop was a place in the Village where you could sit down in the evening and nurse a glass of beer and talk about your art problems.” By 1949 the group would be codified into a combination lecture series and debating society called The Club, but up until then, The Jumble Shop or Romany Marie’s would be the place to find displaced European painters like de Kooning, Gorky and John Graham mixing with home-grown artists like Barnett Newman and Stuart Davis, and critic Harold Rosenberg, honing the ideas that would become the foundation of Abstract Expressionism.

The literary arts were also well represented. Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, J.D. Salinger and Patricia Highsmith were among the noted scribes to be found here. S.J. Perelman loved to drop the Jumble Shop into his stories, often to satirical effect when he wanted to evoke a genteel bohemianism peculiar to the Village. Thomas Wolfe was a loyal patron, and a handwritten note thanking the owners for their hospitality hung in a frame above his favorite table for many years. Until it went missing. According to Bennett Cerf’s column of May 2, 1955, the thief confessed his crime in a note to the restaurant:
“Will return that Wolfe item as soon as I finish my own novel. I was stuck and about to give up the other night when I read Wolfe’s letter and it gave me new inspiration. It’s on my wall now, but I’ll be through with my book soon.”
Did the Jumble Shop’s artistic credibility fall victim to its own long-standing success? One cranky naysayer, Robert C. Ruark, in a 1946 column syndicated to Scripps-Howard newspapers, complains that the post-war bohemian scene in Greenwich Village had become so tame that “The Jumble Shop now has a sign which says females in slacks won’t be served, and that the men better have a coat on…” Not the artistic orgy Ruark had been on the prowl for.
But in some form or another the Jumble Shop lasted another few decades; its bankruptcy notice appeared in the New York Times in 1967.

Last week,  we assembled at 176 MacDougal Street and MacDougal Alley for an informal salute.

A convenient telephone booth served us as a makeshift bar. We chose a Chianti for our toast, a tribute to the commingling of Italian immigrants and artists that shaped the early days of the bohemian in Greenwich Village.

A toast: "To solving your art problems!"


Day of the Lizards

On the last perfect Indian Summer day of the season we decided to make the most of the beautiful weather and go visiting in the neighborhood. We should mention that in our little corner of Queens we’re surrounded by cemeteries, so a lot of our neighbors have been dead for years. There are a couple notable folks interred nearby we had never called on, so we took a mile stroll, past the two enormous halves of New Calvary Cemetery, to Mt. Zion, a Jewish cemetery established 1893.


Compared to the bigger Catholic cemeteries, Mt. Zion has a very different look; the monuments are placed closer together and many seem smaller and taller, too. Off the paths at Mt. Zion it can feel like you’re walking through a marble labyrinth.

Our first stop of note was at the two monuments to the victims of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, one erected by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the other by the Workingmen’s Circle. Mt. Zion is divided into hundreds of plots, most family owned, but many sponsored by fraternal and social clubs, charities, labor unions or religious organizations. Cast iron gates, most dating from the turn of the Twentieth century, mark entry to the various fraternal and neighborhood societies' sections. The Workingmen’s Circle (known as Arbeter Ring in Yiddish, hence the AR in their logo and on the gate) was founded in 1900 to promote the interests of social justice and the labor movement in the Jewish community. Their sentinels have lost an arm or two, but the organization is still around.

 A short walk brought us to the main attraction for this trip: Night man at many a Manhattan fleabag, and one of our favorite writers, Nathanael West. West managed to write both the quintessential Hollywood satire, “Day of the Locusts,” and one of the best novels about New York City, “Miss Lonleyhearts.” He and his wife Eileen, (an important muse for not only West but also her own sister, author Ruth McKenney) died, far too young, in a car crash in 1940. His contribution to literary art wasn’t limited to his own work, he also often wangled his writer buddies cheap—or free—rooms at the hotels he managed. You can read about it in Writing Manhattan, an essential product from the fabulous Herb Lester Associates (that we happened to write.)

One more famous resident before we end our visit; another wordsmith, this time a maven of the musical theatre, Lorenz (Larry) Hart, the lyrical half, with partner Richard Rodgers, of the most successful duo on Broadway in the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties.

We met very few people on our long ramble through the cemetery. Unexpectedly, a nature show introduced vibrancy and life into the stillness; birds black and grey and neon yellow chattered and displayed a flash of color, and lizards rustled in the leafy plots. Lizards in Queens? That’s what we thought, too, and we have never seen them in Calvary, just across 58th Street, but they are everywhere in Mt. Zion. This fellow basking on Nathanael West’s headstone seemed to have had an idea similar to ours on how to spend a sunny Sunday.