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Bring it Back

From vaudeville to roller disco and trolleys to pterodactyls, Metroland writers muse on things from days gone by that they wish would return


You may 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.


The good 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.

Troy’s 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.

“Dean 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 bed.

The Proctor’s 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.

By 1917, 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.

—Amy Halloran

Hudson River Steamship Service

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to take a steamship to New York City? And back again?

Of course it would, you say, but wouldn’t such a trip be a tad slow? My time is too valuable for such a leisurely journey.

Pshaw, 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.

And, 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.

And then 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 at night.”

In the 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.

When 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 night boat.

—Shawn Stone

Carniverous Dinosaurs

Surely 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, mammal-devouring reptiles.

The math 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.

Dinosaurs 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 and Democrat.

A single herd of 100 rampaging T. rex, deinonychus, allosaurus and giganotosaurus would thin the pathetic human herd of any major metropolis with devastating speed.

Sure, 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.

Like . . . did dinosaurs have feathers?

“Yes 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.

The best 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.

—David King

Roller Disco

Just 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.

He was 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 membership.

But as 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.

He situated 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.”

A new 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.

I make 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.

—Kathryn Lange

Trains and Trolleys—All of ‘Em

“But it costs too much to build, operate and maintain rail transit!”

We 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 system?”

Before 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.

Presto, 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 for?

Oh, yeah, 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.

From 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.

—Stephen Leon

Albany First Night

Once 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.

Then 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.)

What 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.

I can’t 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.

You’re not just going to sit there and let Saratoga make you look like a clown, are you?

—John Brodeur

Presidential Facial Hair

Listen 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.

What I want is for you to start showing some self-respect.

This 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?

Are these the faces that fill you with jangling American pride?

No! It’s 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.

The last 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.

I want 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.

You’re our betters—start looking like it!

—Chet Hardin


When 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.

I grew 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 nearby.

But I 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.

—David Greenberger

Metroland’s Fox of the Month

OK, now. 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!

Maybe 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.

But so 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 the Month.

—Paul Rapp

For 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.

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