vaudeville to roller disco and trolleys to pterodactyls, Metroland
writers muse on things from days gone by that they wish would
think the relics of the past are relics for a reason—“let
bygones be bygones,” as they say. But we are not that easily
appeased—particularly when it comes to our fond lost memories
and phenomenal fantasies of days gone by. Sure, a world where
disco rises from the dead and dinosaurs tear through the cities
may seem terrifying. But try on our rose-colored glasses for
a moment, and hop an electric trolley to a rollicking vaudeville
show. We invite you to wax nostalgic for the good ol’ days—and
a few of the things we here at Metroland believe we’ve
gone without for far too long.
old days get better-looking the further away they get. In
Troy, with its glorious architecture and ever-precarious present,
worshipping the past is especially attractive. Let us now
cast a wistful public eye on the performances that entertained
the city’s many iron and collar workers during their limited
hours of leisure.
theatrical fame perhaps began in 1852 when a dramatization
of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first staged at Peale’s Troy
Museum. But the limelight never quit shining in Troy, or in
its many opera houses and dance halls. Live entertainment,
from internationally known traveling professionals to local
amateur musical performances and dramatic productions, kept
audiences busy seven days a week. By the late 1800s, vaudeville,
which had its root in uncouth shows that ran at saloons, lost
its unwholesome air as national touring groups followed strict
rules of content—such as no women wearing men’s clothes. The
rules did not protect anyone from cultural smears, however,
I learned as I studied old programs at the pleasantly refrigerated
Rensselaer County Historical Society’s library on a day that
was as hot and moist as over-buttered toast. Schedules prove
the popularity of minstrel shows, as well as specific travesties
like Jappyland, a Japanese opera in two acts, that
appeared at Proctor’s in 1916.
of Vaudeville” F.F. Proctor made his way to Troy in 1908.
Proctor built his first theater in Albany in 1880, and introduced
“continuous vaudeville” at one of his New York City theaters
in 1893, urging patrons to come after breakfast and stay until
programs were so littered with advertising that it was hard
to find the listing of the shows, but the ads were gems, too;
the Troy Automobile Club solicited membership and support
for the construction of proposed roads. A selection from March
1908 told of Proctor’s Theater Orchestra performing “Moonlight
on the Old Plantation,” and a country choir, “a quartet of
good singers.” There were also comic stories told in a German
dialect, and Belle Hathaway and her troupe of 17 trained monkeys.
A couple of silent films closed the show.
movies were headlining the High Class Vaudeville programs,
but other acts, or at least their names, still shined. Who
wouldn’t want to see “Mercedes, The Psychic 8th Wonder of
the World,” or “The Man of A Thousand Poems,” or “John W.
Ransome, Cheerful Mirth Purveyor?” Bring back vaudeville.
Put real people on real stages and maybe we can shrink celebrity
to human scale again.
River Steamship Service
it be great to be able to take a steamship to New York City?
And back again?
it would, you say, but wouldn’t such a trip be a tad slow?
My time is too valuable for such a leisurely journey.
we reply! You speedy types can take an Amtrak train or drive
the Thruway or strap 100 helium balloons and a tank of nitrous
oxide to your Cooper Mini and propel yourself, blimp-style,
toward Gotham. We think life is too short not to relax
and spend seven or eight hours cruising down the most beautiful
river in America.
not that long ago, it was a regular form of transportation.
From the 1860s to the end of the 1940s, the Hudson River Day
Line plied the waters of the Hudson with a fleet of impressive
ships. (Their motto? “Strictly first-class—no freight.”) At
its peak, in 1925, the Hudson River Day Line carried 2,000,000
passengers in one year—though most were, according to the
Web site of Kingston’s Hudson River Maritime Museum, day trippers
from New York traveling to Indian Point (pre-nukes, ’natch),
Bear Mountain or Poughkeepsie. Still, 100,000 passengers used
steamships to travel between New York and Albany in 1925—more
people than total Albany’s current population.
there’s the naughty flipside of daytime travel: the Albany
night boat. Sin under the stars. Or as Al Jolson observed
in the song “Why Do They All Take the Night Boat to Albany?”:
“They all claim it’s just for the sights/But still they travel
1931 movie Party Husband, a sophisticated Manhattan
wife gets even with her “party husband” (and hubby’s skanky
media-mogul mistress) by accompanying her own employer to
the state capital, “on business,” on the dreaded Albany night
boat. Although, of course, she doesn’t actually spend that
kind of quality time with the boss (even though he’s more
handsome than her douchebag spouse and eager as all get out),
it’s enough to send hubby harrumphing his way out the door.
was the last time a trip to or from Albany had such a delicious
aura of sin? Geez, Eliot “Whore Diamonds” Spitzer had to go
all the way to D.C. to get into trouble. Next year is the
big 400-year anniversary of Henry Hudson discovering (and
slapping his name on) our great river. Let’s celebrate by
bringing back, at least, the Hudson River line and Albany
environmental scientists, archaeologists and young children
alike can get behind the notion that the Earth has gone far
too long without flesh-tearing, bone-reaving, hungry-as-fuck,
is quite simple: 6.684 billion people on Earth is 4 or 5 billion
too many people for the earth to sustain, with their stinky
pollution and whatnot.
don’t drive cars; they eat stuff. And with 6.684 billion people
running around, it is an undeniable fact that if dinosaurs
were brought back to the Earth today their diets would
be chock-full of humans—young and old, short and fat, Republican
herd of 100 rampaging T. rex, deinonychus, allosaurus and
giganotosaurus would thin the pathetic human herd of
any major metropolis with devastating speed.
modern weaponry might be able to effectively kill a few of
the rampaging beasties, but what about the ones that cleverly
darted behind skyscrapers? What about the ones that learned
about modern guerrilla warfare? Soon a dino . . . a dino-topia
would reign beautifully over the Earth while the remaining
humans—the curious and daring ones, that is—would finally
be able to answer the great dinosaur debates.
. . . did dinosaurs have feathers?
they do!” some snively chap would be able to shout into his
walkie-talkie before being torn to shreds by a pack of velociraptor.
Another would report via cell phone to one of the few remaining
camps of humans, “God damn, these things make noises terribly
similar to chickens!” before being swallowed whole by a spinosaurus.
part of bringing dinosaurs back is that folks like James Howard
Kunstler, who are gleefully predicting the fall of civilization
due to the energy crisis, will soon find themselves running,
not from literary agents and adoring press, but instead from
dinosaurs that want to rip out their hearts and gnaw on them.
about a decade ago I had a reunion of sorts at Guptill’s Arena
(which, for anyone who doesn’t recognize the stature of this
Capital Region treasure, is officially ranked by the Guinness
Book of World Records as the largest indoor roller-skating
rink in the world), back when Guptill’s used to have $2 skate
night every Tuesday and Thursday—yet another fond memory that’s
been lost to days gone by. Two-dollar skate night brought
out the truly devoted skaters, an odd mix that ranged from
waist-high girls in tutus to gangs of “young toughs” channeling
a West Side Story-esque rolling rumble. But on this
fateful day, a star emerged who would etch himself indelibly
in my memory.
fairly unremarkable at first glance, short and squat, yes,
and with a notably voluminous afro. But aside from that, he
was just another baby boomer in a sweat suit. Maybe he was
meeting his grandkids for a few laps. Maybe the roller rink
was his way of decompressing from a long day in a tedious
cubicle. Maybe the doctor had prescribed aerobic exercise,
and $2 skate night was a hell of a lot cheaper than a gym
I laced up my clunky rental skates, he began to shed the ordinary
like a cocoon. He pulled off his sweats to reveal a pair of
snug gold running shorts, red-striped knee socks, and a tight,
faded red T-shirt. Emblazoned on the chest was the blocky
yellow silhouette of a single roller skate with a wing spreading
from the heel.
a sweatband across his forehead, unzipped an unassuming duffle
bag, carefully lifted, one skate at a time, a pair of thoroughly
loved black leather skates and laced them with meticulous
dexterity. Then, without any of the warranted fanfare, he
pulled out two quilted gold lamé wings, affixed them to the
backs of his skates, stood abruptly, and shot across the waxed
wooden floor like a plump Mercury. Yellow block letters arched
across the back of his shirt dubbed him: “John Hell on Wheels.”
man had emerged like some awkward cotton-and-metallic butterfly—and
John Hell on Wheels took center rink under the whirling, shimmering
lights of Guptill’s giant disco ball. While the rest of the
crowd thrummed by in their repetitious oval, John Hell on
Wheels burst into a solitary fury of perfectly-honed, breathtakingly
groovy roller-disco moves that swept him back to a time when
I am sure he was king.
no appeal to bring back disco in general. Disco had its day.
But this is disco on wheels. And if you’d seen what
I’ve seen, you’d want it back too.
and Trolleys—All of ‘Em
it costs too much to build, operate and maintain rail transit!”
advocates have long since known better: Not in my wildest
light-rail dreams could I invent a mass-transit system that
would cost anywhere close what we have paid to build, operate
and maintain the Automobile Nation. And with this year’s spike
in gas prices, suddenly the rest of the country doesn’t think
we’re quite as crazy: People everywhere are driving less,
using mass transit more, and even asking question like, “Um,
do you think the Capital Region will ever have a rail-transit
I answer that question, here’s a summary of what I’ve been
proposing for years: Five light-rail lines to unite us all
(sounds a little scary, doesn’t it). 1. Route 5 corridor connecting
the Amtrak station to Schenectady. 2. Northway connecting
Crossgates and the Airport to Skidmore College. 3. Route 7
corridor connecting Schenectady to RPI. 4. Madison/Western
corridor connecting downtown Albany to UAlbany and Crossgates.
5. A Hudson River line (either side, but preferably through
the old towns on the west bank) connecting Albany to Troy.
you can now get to almost any downtown, shopping center, college,
and major emplyment center in the Capital Region via light
rail. Governor, mayors, county executives: What are you waiting
the question: Will the Capital Region ever have a rail-transit
system? Answer: Like most metro areas of any size, we had
a splendid rail-transit system. Look at the old photographs
of trolley cars gliding through the bustling streets of Albany
and Troy (and Cohoes and Watervliet and Rensselaer and so
on) at the turn of the 20th century. Ask old-timers who remember
when you could commute to Albany from Altamont or Chatham
or to Troy from Averill Park. Look up historical accounts
of how well-to-do vacationers arrived at resorts on Lake George
(and farther into the Adirondacks) by train. Read about the
infamous trolley strike of 1921 in Ironweed.
the late 1800s until the 1930s or so, before the automobile
and oil industries and their government enablers helped make
driving a daily necessity for most of us, trains and trolleys
crisscrossed American cities, especially in the downtowns
whose economies thrived thanks in part to the easy access
for masses of workers, shoppers and entertainment seekers—and
whose landscapes were not littered with automobile congestion
and seas of parked cars. Rail transit worked then and could
work again, for very nearly the same reasons. Bring the rails
back to the Capital Region. All of ‘em.
upon a time, not so long ago, Albany used to throw a pretty
kick-ass New Year’s bash. Back in the ’90s, First Night Albany
was the only event of its kind in the area, and its scope
was such that it felt like everyone was in on the party. Every
December 31, venues and establishments from above Lark Street
to below Broadway—pretty much the whole of downtown Albany—would
join in on First Night to present a family-friendly (meaning:
something for adults, too), safe celebration, with entertainment
ranging from live music to puppet shows, plus food, drinks,
what have you. For the price of a button (something like $10),
you could take in a set by the band of the hour at the Armory
(I don’t know who would have paid $10 to see Perfect Thyroid
in any other situation), hoof it down Lark to get some grub,
then take a trolley downtown and see the midnight fireworks.
Not a bad deal.
the First Night thing got popular. Saratoga, the money capital
of upstate New York, decided to hone in on the action. Albany
(unwisely, IMHO) chose to downsize and concentrate their event,
pulling all the attractions from the Center Square neighborhood
and moving the whole shebang into the Pearl Street area. I
mean, have you ever been to Pearl Street at night?
Not really the place where you’d want to take the fam for
a “nice” evening out. (Unless the kids like Jell-O shots.)
happened next was really just a natural progression: Saratoga’s
event grew exponentially, eventually becoming the biggest
in the Northeast next to Boston’s; the capital city continued
bailing water until they gave up on December 31 altogether,
opting to stage a new event called Albany Winter Festival
the Saturday prior to New Year’s Eve.
say whether or not this new venture has proven successful—my
research budget for this piece dried up around the end of
the first paragraph—but I say it’s time to take back the night,
so to speak. Man up, Albany! Bring back First Night Albany.
Do it for the children.
not just going to sit there and let Saratoga make you look
like a clown, are you?
to me, Sen. McCain, Sen. Obama. I don’t wanna be hearing about
your policies or your visions for the future of this country
or whether “hope” trumps “experience” or blah, blah, blah.
I don’t wanna hear about how you will save us from economic
depression or our corrupt duopoly or the heinous and illegal
legacy of W’s war. Stop teasing me. I know you aren’t gonna
fix any of these things. I see through your games.
I want is for you to start showing some self-respect.
is what I want you to do. Find yourself an American history
book, flip to the pages of presidential portraits, and take
a long, hard gander at the heralded men you aim to join and
ask yourself: Which of these stalwarts of democracy engender
the grandeur, the stature, the aspect of presidency? Is it
Andrew Jackson, scourge of the Red Man, with his long, sober
jaw? Or William McKinley, his face like a hairless thumb?
Or Herbert Hoover, his fat jowls frank and clean-shaven like
a prep-school brat?
the faces that fill you with jangling American pride?
Chester Arthur’s “Franz Josef” plume of wiry fur, Abraham
Lincoln’s Amish spade of black, thick curls jutting from his
sagging chin, the explosion of Martin Van Buren’s Wolverine
whiskers (pictured) that draw your eye, stiffen your spine,
and give you the courage to invade an oil-rich country. These
great men lifted their images up to the regal arrogance and
ambition of the presidency.
time I saw a whisker on anything near a presidential mug was
after Al Gore retired, a crushed victim of the sport, and
began (to look like he was) stockpiling weapons in a Tennessee
arsenal. He appropriated the look of a man unafraid to lead
other men to their deaths. Like Grizzly Adams. Or Rutherford
B. Hayes, the scrappy Ohioan with scraggly and thorny beard,
who made his legacy by rooting out corruption. Or the fearsome
Ulysses S. Grant, or James Garfield, or Benjamin Harrison.
my president—when male—to stand astride the Earth like the
titan that he is, unashamed of his well-groomed, aristocratic
mask of facial fur.
our betters—start looking like it!
I was in Rome six summers ago it was hot. It was the beginning
of August and that’s just what happens. The building we stayed
in was not air-conditioned, but it had simple systems for
maximizing human comfort. Preeminent among these were shutters
on the outside, which could be closed during the portion of
the day when the sun was the most demanding. Heavy draperies
also curtained off the windows from the inside, but it was
the shutters in which I took a special delight.
up in the suburbs, and the houses in my neighborhood were
the epitome of architectural compromises. Huge garage doors
were given center stage, front porches had insufficient depth
to welcome anyone, and ornamentation seemed based on ill-formed
memories of an era that never was. I didn’t think about this
much at the time, but over the past couple decades I’ve become
a crank about a very specific particular: shutters. Everyone
who has seen The Wizard of Oz knows how essential closing
the shutters is when a tornado is bearing down on your homestead.
Most shutters affixed to houses nowadays are screwed in place.
I can begrudgingly accept that, and even the fact that most
are now hollow plastic props, not really shutters at all.
I don’t like this, but as long as I don’t have to encounter
them up close, and that people I care about aren’t hoodwinked
into such sad purchases, I can turn away in the hope of being
distracted by a more aesthetically resonant detail somewhere
draw the line at geometry. The absolute nadir of fake shutters
are pairs whose combined surfaces don’t equal the size of
the window they surround. Vast swatches of our citizenry seem
to have no idea that shutters have an actual purpose beyond
decoration. How else can it be explained that large horizontal
picture windows have been forced to sit between them, like
some grammatically obtuse parenthetical statement? As the
subtle articulations of house and building faces have been
lost, they’ve been replaced by approaches which appear to
have their roots in the simple drawings of children: a chimney
festooned with a curl of smoke goes here, a window goes there,
a tree goes there, etc. Once essential and dependable, shutters
have been reduced to less than a reference point. They’ve
been pummeled beyond the realm of silly into just plain stupid.
Bring back their breezy functionality.
Fox of the Month
People who go out at night and party don’t get recognized
nearly enough for their efforts. Especially you gals! There’s
the preparation, picking out just the right outfit, the right
shoes, the right accessories! Make up! Hair! Especially
with all the humid weather this summer, my thoughts turn to
those valiant ladies who go through such a supreme effort
to get that hair up there, and to make it stay up
there. I mean, it looks so effortless when it’s done right,
but if you’ve ever been a girl on a Friday night, I don’t
have to tell you about the pressure, the drama, the intense
amount of sang-froid required to get out the door, and to
the club, and always lookin’ good!
the disco scene ain’t what it used to be; the 21-year-old
drinking age law cut the throbbing heart out of that strobed
and sniffin’ puppy. So we no longer have the BBC Videotheque,
Fatso Fogarty’s, Studio 471 Discoteque, Hobos (“Upstate New
York’s Foxiest Club”), La Cava Lounge, Charades, Night Fever,
the Mad Hatter, Tansy’s, Arthur’s Off Broadway, Argyle’s,
Mr. C’s, ZanZabar, the Fat Cat, Charity’s Lounge, the Silver
Spur, the Late & Lazy, the Spotlight Lounge, Rhum Runners
Lounge, or Sparkles. All gone the way of the Chevy Monte Carlo.
what, brothers, sistas! We don’t need that fascist groove
thing! We still have Nick’s freakin’ Sneaky freakin’ Pete’s!
Now, that’s a name that has always perplexed me (what exactly
is the connection between Nick and Pete?), but no matter.
I say it’s time to bring back the Metroland Fox of
those uninitiated, Fox of the Month was one of Metroland’s
best-loved features back in the hazy, crazy late ’70s, when
we were but a humble disco rag. It was as it sounds like it
was—a picture of a hot local girl. Despite numerous calls
for its reinstatement over the years, we’ve decided to take
the so-called “high road.” Ask again next year.