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Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

Panties Inferno: An Interview with Peter Larkin

January 15, 2015 | by

Making a pop-up book about burlesque.

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Peter Larkin

My mother Racelle, a painter, met the production designer Peter Larkin in the midsixties when she went to work for him as a scenic artist. After my parents divorced, Peter and Racelle became an item, eventually marrying. Peter had a long, Tony Award–winning Broadway career and then moved into film, designing pictures like Tootsie and Get Shorty. He’s a brilliant illustrator, as well—Ralph Allen, who’d conceived the musical Sugar Babies, collaborated with Peter on his book The Best Burlesque.

Burlesque, it turns out, is one of Peter’s great obsessions. Over the past twenty years, he’s created a mass of drawings, mock-ups, and maquettes for Panties Inferno, a pop-up book on the subject. Now eighty-eight, he continues to refine the work, though publishers have told him the book is too expensive to manufacture and publish—something about the glue points. But his pop-ups and drawings are wonderful, a testament to his comprehensive knowledge of the old burlesque scene. I called him to talk about his process and the basis of his fascination with burlesque as well as its history, which he feels has been mischaracterized since burlesque began to die out in the late fifties and early sixties.

Where does burlesque begin, for you?

The word burla is some kind of antique Italian. It means “joke,” and the first burlesque was imitations of what went on uptown. It was a family affair. People brought their lunches and stuff. Florenz Ziegfeld had The Ziegfeld Follies, which probably cost a lot of money—that show had nude ladies in tableaux, but they were forbidden to move. The curtain opened on Aladdin’s cave, say, or an artist’s studio, and all the ladies were still.

But in the early twentieth century, forward-thinking people like the Minsky brothers, of Minsky’s Burlesque, made it so that for a lot less money you could go and see the women moving. It changed tremendously through the years. These acts started out with a preponderance of acts and comics and maybe one or two strippers, and as it went on, more and more time was given over to strippers. The comics were furious. They started to use bluer material, to get even. Read More »

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HAL, Mother, and Father

January 9, 2015 | by

Watching the sixties and seventies through 2001 and Alien.

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From 2001: A Space Odyssey

It was April 1968 and my father was sitting in a theater in Times Square watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, certain that what he was seeing wasn’t just a movie but the future. When it ended, he got up and walked out into Times Square, with its peep-show glitz and sleazy, flashing advertisements; he found the uptown subway beneath the yellow marquees for dirty movies like The Filthy 5; and through all of it, he thought that when humanity hurls itself into the depths of the cosmos, this is how we will do it. In the film’s iconic final shot, the space baby looks down at the planet to which it is no longer bound. Freedom, this shot says, is imminent.

My father was twenty-four then, and perhaps at his most world-historical: he was becoming an expert in computers. He’d worked for IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York, a corporate labyrinth of beige cubicles and epochal breakthroughs; a world of punch cards and reel-to-reel magnetic tape, where at least some of the employees were deadly serious about making sure to wear the company tie clip and then, once they were off duty, to switch to their own personal tie clips.

When 2001 premiered, he was working at Columbia University’s Computer Center, in the academic computing branch. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the movie summed up everything my father was in April 1968. It became something of a talisman for him, a semisacred object invested with all the crazy hopefulness of his youth. For as long as I can remember, my father had talked about 2001. He told me often of HAL, of the monolith of evolution, of how glorious the future would be. Of course, when I finally saw the movie, well after the actual year 2001, it bored me out of my mind. Too slow, too bizarre. Ah, my father told me, that’s because evolution is slow, evolution is bizarre. It wasn’t until much later that I started to understand the movie—and, maybe, to understand my father. Read More »

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A Night Out in the Twenties

January 6, 2015 | by

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Ruth Gordon in 1919.

In The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa refers to “that most absurd of emotions, retrospective jealousy.” He’s talking about sexual jealousy; in the way of new lovers, a young woman finds herself bitterly resenting her fiancé’s old flames, real and suspected. But the phrase has wider application. I’d guess most of us have experienced a longing for past times, places, eras, that bordered on resentful. Possibility and idealism and cheap rents—it all comes together to burnish just about any time but our own. 

Romanticizing is the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes it seems like our current brand of nostalgia doesn’t take skill or imagination, just a modicum of dissatisfaction, a sketchy grasp of history, and enough brain space to remember your last pass around the fishbowl. Very pernicious, too; if you don’t watch yourself, you wake up one day and you’re Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time. (Well, okay, that’s an extreme case.) 

I tell myself this. And yet, sometimes, you are reading Arthur Schwartz’s magisterial New York City Food and you come across this description, by Ruth Gordon, of a night on the town in the twenties, and there is nothing for it but to give in. Read More »

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The Jimmy Winkfield Stakes

December 23, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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A racetrack in obsolescence.

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Photo: Ilya Lipkin

Every year on the third Monday of January, the Aqueduct Racetrack, in South Ozone Park, Queens, runs a six-furlong race in honor of Jimmy Winkfield. The choice of date, Martin Luther King Day, is not accidental. Of Winkfield’s many accomplishments, which include winning the Russian Oaks an incredible five times for Czar Nicholas II, he is best known as the last black jockey to run a winner in the Kentucky Derby, in 1902.

To be black in the world of horse racing was no easy thing in the early part of the twentieth century. Winkfield, born in Kentucky, had enjoyed a storied career in Russia and France, but when he returned to America he was forced to enter a reception held in his honor through the hotel’s service entrance, with the bellhops and the kitchen staff.

Because of the raw January weather, attendance at the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes is usually rather sparse compared to the bigger events at the height of the racing season. This year, my older brother Ilya and I saw the race completely on a whim—we thought it might be fun to trek out to the Aqueduct like we used to when we were younger. Back then, if the weather was fine, our father would drive us to the track out in Ozone Park, a favorite destination for the unattached men in the neighborhood. Edik from the dry cleaners down the street was a fixture there, as was Pavel, the bartender at the Pennant Sports Bar on Northern, and Parsons, whose brother was an orderly at the elder-care facility where our grandfather died. To me, gaining admission to that world of working men was no less exciting than the races themselves. I watched with great interest as they quaffed beer and studied the odds on the board and cursed when they invariably lost their money. Being a bit older, Ilya had a better sense of what was actually going on. He nagged Pavel until the bartender showed him how to decipher the near-hieroglyphic racing form. The one time my father let him place a bet, we won eighty dollars. It proved to be a red-letter day, because that same afternoon, I fed a carrot to Cigar, the Hall of Fame thoroughbred, just before the first big win of his career. (The Aqueduct now runs a race in his honor as well.) Read More >>

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Toast

December 18, 2014 | by

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Photo: Ken Hawkins

I was told not long ago that a certain prominent New York publication has put a moratorium on features about the death of local institutions; otherwise, they’d be running such features constantly. And the sad truth is, there is a sameness to the narrative. Neighborhoods change, rents rise, developers swoop, venerable places close. It’s a story so familiar that it tends, nowadays, to inspire sadness rather than outrage.

These stories also pose certain questions. What makes something "iconic”? Just because a place is old, does that automatically make it an institution? What if standards have slipped, and a restaurant or bar is a pale shadow of its former self? And, of course, the ultimate test: sentiment aside, how often do you actually go there? In the end, the arguments are moot. Good or bad, beloved or forgotten, everything is going. The Metro section reads like an obit page. 

You could spend your life going only to sepia-toned places for purely charitable reasons. What kind of a life this would be, I can’t say—probably a melancholy one, filled with pricks of secret, guilty relief when some of the spots are put out of their misery and the civic-minded patron is let off the hook. Read More »

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Most Wonderful Time

December 12, 2014 | by

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Santas overtake London, 2011. Photo: Garry Knight, via Flickr

Two winters ago, I accidentally found myself in the East Village on the day of SantaCon. For those fortunate enough to have been spared it, this is an annual holiday event in which punters in Santa costumes (mere hats won't cut it) pay an entry fee toward charity and then go on a daylong bar crawl. This happens in cities across the globe. My most vivid memory of that nightmarish evening is a single lewd elf stopping traffic as he squatted in the middle of Second Avenue and slowly, hypnotically, rotated his hips to music only he could hear. 

SantaCon is one of the easiest targets for snark, but it really is pretty awful. The NYC branch says it’s going legit this year—no public nuisances, no blocking traffic, no street urination or gutters running with vomit—and to this end the organizers have hired a prominent lawyer and posted rules of conduct to its site. (Exposing yourself in public is a sex offense, it reminds the Santas.) In further efforts to curb the charitable, drunken Santas’ behavior, various commuter trains, including the Long Island Railroad, have banned pre-gaming. Read More »

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