Radio Pioneers of the Algonquin Round Table

The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide coverOur friend Kevin Fitzpatrick, chronicler of all thing Dorothy Parker, has a new book out that we think will be of great interest to many of our readers. The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide allows the reader to “explore the shadowy speakeasies, majestic hotels, glittering theaters, and other locations frequented by the legends of the Algonquin Round Table.”

We’re pleased as punch to have this guest blog from Kevin. We think his new book is terrific and we’re confident you’ll find it an entertaining and engaging read.

When I was compiling the material for my new book, The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide, I was struck by the group’s versatility. I’d originally believed the group, which met from 1919 to about 1927, was the realm of newspaper and magazine writers. However, by researching the biographies of all thirty members, it became clear the group had their fingers in every form of mass entertainment and media.

It turns out that there were members with careers that stretched from silent pictures to live television, such as actresses Margalo Gillmore and Peggy Wood. Robert Benchley made the first all-talking short, The Treasurer’s Report, released in March 1928 by Fox. Marc Connelly and Dorothy Parker both wrote captions and scenarios for the silents, then later jumped into writing plays and talkies.

But if there is one format that most of the members drew paychecks from after the Round Table ended, that’s radio. Many members of the group appeared as guests, commentators, writers, or actors. Benchley and Parker had their short stories adapted for dramatizations. Harpo Marx whistled his answers on-air. Others made the transition from newspapers to microphones, trading on their popularity as writers.

The book has more than 100 locations around the New York area tied to the lives of the “Vicious Circle” that met at the Algonquin Hotel on West Forty-fourth Street. Here are three spots from their radio days, all within walking distance of the Round Table.

NBC, 30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Franklin P. Adams on Information PleaseFranklin P. Adams was a veteran newspaper columnist with 35 years’ experience when his services were no longer needed. Radio saved him, and a quiz show was the last hurrah of his brilliant career. In 1937, the Herald Tribune didn’t renew his contract. With an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and trivia and a family of five to support during the height of the Great Depression, the offer to be a regular panelist on a radio quiz show came as a blessing.

The format of Information Please was simple but brilliant. Listeners mailed in questions. If the question stumped a panel of experts, the listener won a small cash prize. The show was unrehearsed and conducted before a live studio audience. The 30-minute program moved like lightning, and experts and guests had to answer quickly. On May 17, 1938, Information Please debuted on the NBC Blue Network (later ABC). Clifton Fadiman, a literary critic who wrote for The New Yorker, was master of ceremonies. The show was an overnight success, and more than 25,000 questions poured into the studios.

One question put to F.P.A. in 1938 was to finish the Joe Miller gag, “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” To which he replied, “There are two answers: That was no lady, that was my wife. And the other is that was no lady, that was your wife.” The show continued for ten years, mostly on NBC. Over time, just about every Round Table member appeared as a guest.

NBC has always been associated with Rockefeller Center. John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil, owned the land and helped create the landmark. The area bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues from 48th to 51st streets contained numerous speakeasies before demolition in 1930. NBC has called 30 Rockefeller Plaza home since the building was completed in 1933, spanning corporate ownership from General Electric to Comcast. More than a dozen buildings form the complex today, with “30 Rock” as centerpiece. Radio studios were the original tenants (hence Radio City) and now television studios. The Art Deco buildings are landmarks inside and out.

CBS, Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue
When radio networks became national broadcasters in the late 1920s, some of the live programming was classical music. Symphonies and orchestras dominated as networks tried to reach upper class listeners. William S. Paley signed the New York Philharmonic to CBS in a major coup and gave the network enormous prestige.

Deems Taylor, composer Sigmund Romberg, and Alexander Woollcott in the studio, circa 1935Beginning in 1936, Deems Taylor served as commentator during intermissions. Already a star composer and conductor, he had been a newspaper music critic but never a broadcaster. His role at CBS was an enormous success, and Taylor found himself giving weekly music lecturers to a huge audience during Sunday afternoon concerts in Carnegie Hall. He helped listeners understand what they were hearing and helped a generation appreciate classical music. Taylor also introduced listener questions, interviewed orchestra members during intermissions, and brought the whole experience of classical music into the nation’s living rooms. A broadcaster for more than ten years, Taylor became the country’s best-known authority on music.

The building was saved from a wrecking ball in 1960 and underwent multi-million dollar renovations in recent years. Today the Isaac Stern auditorium, the main performance hall, seats 2,800.
Read More »

Times Square Tintypes: Patrick Cain

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles Patrick “Patsy” Cain, a man who made a living storing the scenery from closed Broadway shows.

NOT A SHOW IN A CARLOAD

An author spends months writing a play. A producer stakes everything on it. Days and nights of weary rehearsals with stars sweating. The play opens. Evening dress and silk hats. Speculators selling tickets on the sidewalk. Everybody is so happy. A few months later a truck backs up at the stage door. The path of glory leads but to Cain’s.
Caricature of Patrick CainPATRICK CAIN is the owner of that theatrical storehouse. Everybody calls him Patsy.
He attended P. S. 32. Bows his head shamefully when admitting that he didn’t have the honor of receiving a diploma.
His father, John J. Cain, a former policeman, started the trucking business forty-two years ago. He used to help his father just for the ride.
Seldom goes to an opening night. Producers, considering him a jinx, shoo him away. He has attended more closing nights than any other man in the world.
Has a broken nose. This he received in his youth during a block fight.
His warehouse is located at 530 West Forty-first Street. Directly opposite is an old brewery with a statue of a fallen man holding a schooner of beer. He seems to be saying to those show entering their final resting place: “Here’s to Better Days.”
Is happily married and the proud possessor of four children. Has his own home in Flushing. It was built especially for him by a stage carpenter.
He doesn’t drink, smoke or use profane language.
Rarely eat in restaurants. Has breakfast and dinner at home. Has lunch at his sister’s, who lives two blocks from his place of business.
The storehouse consists of five stories and a basement.
The fifth floor is for the shows of Aarons and Freedley, Schwab and Mandel, Gene Buck and the personal belongings of W. C. Fields and Laurette Taylor. The fourth floor holds the last remains of Florenz Ziegfeld‘s Follies and George White‘s Scandals. Their mighty efforts for supremacy rest in peace. The third floor is for Sam H. Harris, Douglas Fairbanks, A. L. Erlanger and the Paramount Theatre. The second floor is occupied by Richard Herndon and others. The basement is for the canvas “drops.” They are rolled neatly and lie row on row. Their tombstone is an identification tag on which is scrawled in pencil: “Garden Drop—Follies—1917.”
He drinks two chocolate ice cream sodas every day. On Sunday evenings he takes the entire family to the neighborhood drug store and treats them to sodas.
Employs only four men—a night watchman, a day watchman, a bookkeeper and a superintendent. He hasn’t a secretary. But the superintendent, attired in greasy overalls, takes great pride in referring to himself as “Patsy’s typewriter.”
He hires his help by the day. Employs exactly the number he needs for that day’s work. While on a job if the men eat before three o’clock they must pay for the meal. If they eat after three he must. Every day he phones his men at exactly one o’clock and says: “Boys, I think you ought to knock off now and get yourselves a bite to eat.”
He has eight gold teeth in his mouth. They make him look dignified.
Reads only two things. They are the dramatic reviews and the cartoons in the New Yorker.
Has the same amount of strength in his right hand as in his left. He can write just as unintelligibly with both.

Read More »

Times Square Tintypes: Leslie Howard

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles star of Broadway and the silver screen Leslie Howard.
 

THE ENGLISHMAN FROM AMERICA

LESLIE HOWARD. He so conquered this nation that in his native country, England, they refer to him as “that American actor.”
Caricature of Leslie HowardHe is nearsighted and wears glasses at all times, except when acting and reading.
His father was a stock broker. When he was graduated from Dulwich School, London, he had to work as a clerk in a bank. When the war broke out he joined the army to escape from this existence.
Never eats any meat because he dislikes eating animals. Eggs are his favorite dish. He often eats eggs three times a day.
Was “invalided” out of the army in 1918. Later that year he made his London theatrical début in Pinero’s play The Freaks. It opened during an air raid and lasted only six weeks.
He was the first member of his family ever to appear on a stage.
Hates the accepted style of fashions for men. Wearing trousers, collar and tie annoys him. He is happiest when in the country. Then he wears short pants, no socks, no tie, sandals and a beret.
Is not an impromptu person. He must think about a thing before he does or says it.
Has a great intuitive sense about plays. When allowed to make his own selection he has always picked a hit.
His passion is languages. He would like to learn every language. He speaks English, French, German and American.
Only knew his wife, Ruth Martin, three weeks before they were married. They eloped. He was a soldier at the time. He was given an hour’s leave of absence. Two scrubwomen in the church were the witnesses. After the ceremony he went back to the war.
Has two children. One a boy, Ronald, age eleven. The other a girl, Leslie, age five. Ronald is in school in London. Leslie is here with him.
The only sports that interest him are the three in which he indulges. He is fond of horseback riding, playing tennis and swimming in warm water.
Made his American début in 1920 in Just Suppose. After that he had the ill-fortune to appear in a number of failures. Speaking of that dreadful period a person recently said to Mrs. Howard: “Every first night I went to I saw your husband.
Wears a guard ring on the pinkie of his right hand. It has never been off that finger since it was given to him by his mother when he was sixteen.
He has two sisters, Irene and Doris. Has two brothers, Arthur and Jimmy. He hasn’t seen Jimmy, who is now somewhere in the wilds of Africa, for the last ten years.
His ambition is to be an author. He wrote one play, Murray Hill, and articles that have appeared in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He doesn’t like acting.
Autumn shades are his favorites. Every tie he owns is brown or red. Every suit is a gray flannel or a brown tweed. When he buys a new suit it looks exactly like the one he has discarded.
At the age of sixteen he pulled a Noel Coward by writing the book, music and lyrics of a play called Mazie’s Diplomacy. He plays piano by ear.
Two years ago his wife was very ill and underwent a serious operation. When she recovered he presented her with a Victoria Cross, which he bought in a pawnshop. “For Valor” was inscribed on it. It is her proudest possession.
He never drinks coffee but has buttermilk with every meal.

Read More »