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Why That here?
By Shawn Stone

An Academy Award is one of a few unlikely things to be found around our region

Once upon a time there was a very funny Saturday Night Live skit in which Bill Murray, in full reprobate mode, stood facing the audience and acted like he was gazing at something inexplicable and wondrous. “What,” he wondered, “the hell is that?”

Here, we’re not interested so much in the what—although that’s part of it—as in the why. There are plenty of things we see every day that seem right and like they belong where they are. This is about a few things that don’t seem like they belong, and why they do.

Like, for instance, that peculiar horseshoe-shaped park where Jay Street and Hudson Avenue end by the Empire State Plaza in Albany’s Center Square. The good folks in the neighborhood have turned it into a pleasant green space adjacent to one of the busiest traffic arteries in the city, but it still looks odd and out of place. To the casual observer, it raises a number of puzzling questions.

Such as, why did the state demolish the houses where the green space is, if they weren’t going to use it? Why is it there?

And here’s the answer: They were going to use it. As part of Nelson Rockefeller’s grand master plan for remaking Albany into something a lot prettier and more modern than it was in the 1950s, that park is the (more-or-less) exact spot where a connecting highway to Interstate 90 was going to go underground. Commuters to the South Mall (aka the Empire State Plaza) would have been spared having to traverse Albany’s surface streets; they would have traveled underground in a tunnel under Lark Street to Washington Park, where the tunnel would have turned north. The road would then emerge from the subterranean depths, plow across Arbor Hill and join I-90 where the current ramps for exit 6 are. (You might have wondered why exit 6 was so large and elaborate, and comes to such an abrupt end.)

According to William Kennedy, thanks to a combination of neighborhood activism and the legislature’s unwillingness to spend more millions on Rocky’s gigantic vision of an über-Albany, we were not only spared an endless rumble under the heart of the city and giant exhaust vents in Washington Park, but Center Square got a nice, if peculiarly shaped, park.

The first time I heard that the Albany Institute of History and Art had an actual Academy Award, I tried to imagine what film and category it was for. Not surprisingly, I guessed wrong.

The film was Bad Girl, and the Oscar went to writer (and Albany native) Edwin J. Burke in 1932 for the screenplay he adapted from a novel by Vera Delmar (no connection to the Albany suburb).

According to Tammis Groft, deputy director for collections and exhibitions at the AIHA, Burke was a successful actor and prolific writer, with 87 works (of various lengths) produced in theaters. When his hit play This Thing Called Love was turned into a talkie in 1929, he followed his work to Hollywood to become a screenwriter and dialogue director at Fox Film Corp. This Thing Called Love was remade with Rosalind Russell in 1940, which is a nice tribute to the durability of his work. Burke died in 1944.

This is more than unusually interesting, not just because of the Albany connection, but because Bad Girl won two important Oscars—for best direction as well as adapted screenplay—and is nearly completely forgotten.

Unless you go to classic film conventions, the picture isn’t easy to see. The negative and studio print of Bad Girl were presumably lost in a notorious vault fire in the late 1930s that wiped out a lot of Fox silent films and early talkies; it doesn’t even survive in a 35mm print. New York’s Museum of Modern Art has a 16mm copy, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive has an unpreserved print of the Spanish-language version.

This is too bad, because Bad Girl is an often moving portrait of the difficulties faced by a young, working-class couple in the Depression. Director Frank Borzage was one of cinema’s great romantics; in his best remembered film, Seventh Heaven, love literally transcends death. Nevertheless, he was in synch with Burke’s script and imbued Bad Girl with a palpable sense of the tension created by poverty. This mood of frustrated happiness must have connected with 1931 audiences. The film certainly connected with the Academy. If you can’t actually see Bad Girl, you can at least gaze at one of the Oscars that noted its achievement. (Well, actually, not for the next six months—it’s on loan to a theatrical club, the Lambs, in New York City.)

And why is this Academy Award here? The Institute obtained it in 1979, from a bequest by Grace Baxter, Edwin Burke’s niece. And does it feel as heavy as the winners say on TV every year?

“Yes,” says Groft. One of the fun things about being a curator, Groft admits, is “being able to put on the white gloves and hold the Oscar.”

Drive along New York’s winding Route 7 about 90 minutes west of Albany and you’ll see them. In fact, you can’t miss them: They’re right by the side of the road, on a tight 15-mph curve. If you don’t know what they are, you’ll still be impressed by their size. If you do know what they are, then you’ll probably feel—after the shock of recognition wears off—a little bit thrilled.

“They” are a pair of Pennsylvania GG1’s, 70-year-old electric locomotives from the golden age of rail passenger service. And they’re hundreds of miles away from where they used to roll.

With key contributions from the legendary designer Raymond Loewy, the GG1 was one of the signature industrial designs of the 20th century. In its prime, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s flagship passenger engine was a sleek and modernistic behemoth, nearly 80 feet long and weighing almost 500,000 pounds. Its welded—not riveted—construction, pinstriped detailing and Tuscan-red Pennsy color scheme made it stand out from anything else on steel wheels. It was a two-headed beast, too, with cabs on each end so it could run in either direction without having to be turned around. When it was introduced in the mid-1930s, most electric locomotives were boxy and unimpressive; the GG1 must have seemed as exotic and futuristic (and beautiful) as anything out of Buck Rogers.

There were 139 GG1’s manufactured in the ’30s and ’40s, and the fleet was in service on the Northeast Corridor from the mid-1930s through the early 1980s. According to a couple of railroad-reference Web sites, there are fewer than 20 of them remaining, none operational—and this includes the two in Cooperstown Junction.

The GG1 can be seen in action (outside collector rail videos, that is) in many movies, including Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss, the original version of The Manchurian Candidate and—through the miracle of special effects—in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The one place you’ll never see them, however, is at the front of a train; according to a number of sources, including Wikipedia, even if a GG1’s transformer and motors were restored, they’re not compatible with electrical system used on contemporary Amtrak and NJ Transit lines. (Plus, the transformers are supposedly full of PCBs.)

What in the world are they doing sitting on a Delaware & Hudson Railway siding, far away from any former branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad? They are part of the Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society collection in Cooperstown Junction; among other activities, the LRHS has sponsored summer-and-fall reserved tourist trains on a former D&H branch line. Most of their engines and rolling stock are on the other side of Route 7, at the proposed site of a railroad museum; the GG1s, on their mainline siding, are the easiest part of the collection to see.

Successor railroads Penn Central or Amtrak may have painted the engines black, but even with the pretty paint scheme gone, the GG1 is an aesthetic triumph. Engines 4932 (originally 4909) and 4934 (originally 4917) may be a bit worse for wear since the days they ruled the rails between New York and Washington, D.C., but they’re well worth the drive to check out.

Finally, this is about some thing that isn’t there anymore—a statue that spent more than a decade at a local institution without anyone ever seeing it. Why it isn’t there is interesting, though. (And, curiously, like the GG1, also related to the long-gone Pennsylvania Railroad.)

It’s one of those delicious ironies of history. When Alexander Cassatt died 100 years ago, he was one of the most famous men in the world; his sister was largely unknown. Today, Mary Cassatt is remembered (and revered) as an impressionist artist of world renown, and he’s been forgotten.

Cassatt was a successful president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then a lynchpin of the U.S. economy. According to information from the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Cassatt “saw the immense possibilities of the air brake,” which made train operation much safer, and introduced it into service. He “extended and increased lines, stations, equipment and facilities.” He also began electrification of what is now the Northeast Corridor, and “introduced progressive employee relations policies.”

What Cassatt was most famous for, however, is likely the reason he’s so poorly remembered: He built the “late, great” Pennsylvania Station in New York City. The McKim, Mead and White-designed station, a sprawling, exuberant mix of Italian renaissance grandeur and 19th-century industrial utilitarianism, was ignominiously torn down in the 1960s to make way for an office building and the current edition of Madison Square Garden. Its demise led directly to New York’s historic preservation laws.

For six decades, a large statue of Cassatt had a place of honor in the station. When the wreckers came in, however, the railroad didn’t quite know what do with it.

At more than 10 feet high, it was too large for the glorified subway stop that is the current Penn Station. But there must have been something else involved, too; after all, a similar-sized statue from the old station, of another railroad official, now has pride of place at Penn Plaza outside the 7th Avenue Garden entrance.

The Pennsy had received a lot of bad press for the demolition, and having a statue of the man who built the old station may have been an embarrassment. So they boxed up the statue of Alexander Cassatt and shipped it away to his alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

According to my sources at RPI, the statue “remained crated and in storage on campus and was never displayed.” After all this time, no one’s sure why. It is known that RPI offered the statue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “but they turned it down.” Finally, in 1985, “a home for it was found at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania” in Strasburg, Penn., in Lancaster County.

On the plus side, there is an RPI dormitory named after Cassatt.

sstone@metroland.net


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