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This week, guest blogger Sunny Stalter-Pace marks the 50th anniversary of dancer and choreographer Gertrude Hoffmann's death with a post sharing some information about Hoffmann's early life and career. Stalter-Pace is writing a biography of Hoffmann and has used the Gertrude Hoffmann Collection here at the Brooklyn Collection as part of her research.
Gertrude Hoffmann (1885-1966) enjoyed a long career as a performer, choreographer, and producer. Brooklynology introduced the versatile vaudevillian in a blog post that’s now more than 5 years old; it followed that post with another on her most famous act, the scandalous “Vision of Salome” dance. Since October 21 will mark 50 years since her death in Los Angeles, now is a good time to look back on her early career. Her remarkable life on stage is outlined in a typed resume titled “Gertrude Hoffmann: Experiences and Credits” that is part of the Gertrude Hoffmann Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Born Catherine Gertrude Hay in San Francisco, Gertrude Hoffmann changed her name several times early on. She was Kitty Hayes at the Alcazar Theater, then Gertrude Hayes at the Grand Opera House. (These stage names, plus the German character actress named Gertrude Hoffman whose career overlapped with hers, have made it tough to pin down some of the basic chronology of Hoffmann’s life.) She performed as a dancer in the pantomimes, operettas, and extravaganzas that were popular in the late Victorian era. As a member of the Belasco Stock Company, she supported stars of the day such as Florence Roberts and Eddie Foy.
Gertrude played the punningly named “Miss Judge” in the San Francisco tryout of The Night of the Fourth. When the touring company left for New York, she went with them. The show was a failure, playing a mere 14 shows at Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater. But one thing came out of it that was a success: Gertrude married the show’s music director Max Hoffmann in 1901.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Gertrude and Max worked in a touring stock theater group called the Bijou Musical Comedy Company. He wrote the songs, and she staged the dance numbers and performed in the shows. One collaboration was “Sadie My Creole Lady,” a song that debuted in the Bijou show called What Happened to Jones? On the cover of the song’s sheet music an illustration of the titular Sadie seems to make coy eye contact with the viewer. An inset photograph of Gertrude Hoffmann shows her propped on one elbow, reading on a bench. This is no modest ingénue, though: she posed in such a way that her legs, clad in striped tights, are exposed up to the knee. Gertrude’s tights – or lack thereof – would become an important sticking point in her later dances.
Source: Historic American Sheet Music, David M. Rubinstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Members of the Bijou Company traveled to Brooklyn on Labor Day weekend in 1902 to help open the fall season at the Orpheum Theater. The Orpheum was located on Fulton Street and Rockwell Place, near the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Gertrude Hoffmann appears on the top of the Orpheum Bill with fellow Bijou stock company member Little Chip and the New York Theater Ballet. They performed what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle termed a “novel singing and dancing act, ‘My Zulu Lu,’ which has been the hit of the summer season at the New York Theater Roof Garden” (August 31, 1902). This fake African number appeared on the same bill as a duo whose importance to African American theater cannot be overstated: Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, brother and sometimes collaborator of Harlem Renaissance man James Weldon Johnson.
When she appeared at the Orpheum again in 1907, Hoffmann shared a bill with another innovator, cartoonist Winsor McCay. Hoffmann had established herself as a solo performer, one who focused on celebrity imitations. An advertisement in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Gertrude Hoffman Collection shows her as a dainty puppeteer. She sits on her suitcase, holding the strings that lead to celebrity puppets like George M. Cohan, dancer Adeline Genée, and vaudeville’s reigning bad girl Eva Tanguay. Individually they may have been more famous than Hoffmann, but she could bring them all to life onstage.
Source: Gertrude Hoffman Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.
I’ve only touched on the first decade of Hoffmann’s more than forty years onstage. Some highlights of her later acts included counterfeit Russian ballets, snake dances, and acrobatic acts that would rival present-day Cirque du Soleil. But there was one constant from her early days. In a life otherwise marked by constant change, Gertrude married her music director Max in 1901 and stayed married to him until his death in 1963.
Source: Gertrude and Max Hoffmann Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.
Sunny Stalter-Pace is writing a biography of Gertrude Hoffmann. She is an associate professor in the English Department at Auburn University, where she teaches modern drama, American literature, and critical theory. Her first book, Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway, was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2013. Find her on Twitter at @slstalter.
Note: Previous posts on this blog had spelled Hoffmann’s name with only one N, but primary source documentation spells it with both one and two Ns. In this post, we defer to the expertise and research of our guest blogger, who determined it should be spelled with two Ns based on the spelling of Hoffmann's legal married name.
A couple of months ago, a colleague at the Brooklyn Museum Library tweeted that she had found a film reel in their collection with nitrate film. Since nitrate film is highly flammable and needs to be stored in special conditions in order to prevent it from catching fire, the library needed to identify the film quickly in order to decide whether or not to keep such a dangerous item. All they knew was the film's title, "Brooklyn Progress," the date range, 1933-1937, and that the content included a kind of tour through prominent Brooklyn sites.
Photo courtesy J.E. Molly Seegers
I offered to use Brooklyn Collection resources to try and identify the film, and lo and behold, I was able to find it in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle by using Brooklyn Newsstand:
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 7, 1937
The film was created for Borough President Raymond V. Ingersoll's re-election campaign in 1937. The film's voiceover, according to the Eagle article, has this to say by way of introduction:
"This talking picture...takes the form of an inspection tour of the achievements of the present administration of Borough President Ingersoll and Mayor LaGuardia. Our two actors, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Citizen represent you in this film...Through their eyes you will see the accomplishments of the Fusion-Ingersoll administration in Brooklyn."
A few days later, the Eagle ran an op-ed called "Pictorializing a Campaign" by John A. Heffernan, which describes the film as "a new campaign method" and muses on the "political adaptation of the products of modern science to its purposes."
Having identified the film, the Brooklyn Museum Library searched other collections to see if any other institutions held a copy, and found that only one seems to exist, at the Museum of Modern Art. So they decided to donate their copy to the Library of Congress's Packard Campus for Audiovisual Conservation. Read more on their tumblr here. Excitingly, the experts at the Library of Congress identified the reel as the original camera negative. Due to its historical value, they plan to expedite the film's digitization, so hopefully it will be available for all of us to watch sometime soon.
Those of you who know a bit about BPL's history might recall that Ingersoll was instrumental in helping our Central Library finally get finished, but Ingersoll's "accomplishments" memorialized in the film would not yet have included a completed Central Library, as it was not finished until 1941. However, since Brooklyn Public Library is listed as one of the sites seen in the film, it's possible they visited the Central Library construction site, which could be very interesting to see. Or perhaps they visited some other library branches. Once the film is digitized, we'll be able to find out.
Borough President Raymond V. Ingersoll, center, signing construction contracts for Central Library on December 29, 1937. Also pictured are Philip P. Farley, consulting engineer to the borough president; Edwin L. Garnin, president of BPL's board of trustees; Francis Keally, architect, and Lauson H. Stone, BPL board of trustees member. Photo by Roy Pinney.
I was working with our clippings collection the other day and came across the subject heading "Red-Headed Legion." Intrigued, I decided to explore this organization further. The trail led me all the way to the 1924 Republican National Convention which, like this year's, was held in Cleveland, Ohio. But let me start with the legion itself.
"Red-Headed Legion Holds Rally of Nine" announced a headline in the June 9, 1924 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The nine who attended the rally comprised "four red-headed women, four red-headed men and one man with black hair and a red mustache." (The latter was allowed to attend because "a red mustache will qualify for membership.") Two of those attendees were radio personality Wendell Hall and his bride of four days. Interestingly, their wedding is thought to be the first that was broadcast live on the radio, which must be why the article refers to Hall's wife as his "radio bride." The brief article says little of substance about the Legion, but I did find an excerpt from The Volta Review stating that one of its purposes was "urging that a national organization be formed to end the ridiculing of red-haired persons." The Eagle notes that at the meeting, the Legion pledged to support Calvin Coolidge's run for president "because it is said he has a brick top."
A slightly more extensive column in the same edition of the paper goes into more depth regarding the political affiliations of the Legion: "Neither Washington nor Jefferson was really 'red-headed' when he got to be President, though both are claimed by the Legion. Time's brush modifies occiput color schemes...the red ideas of youth...depart year by year as redness of hair becomes less vivid." So Coolidge was perhaps not a true "brick top," and after all, the article concedes, he "needs no assistance from the Legion." If that was the case, why were there two articles about their assistance in the paper?
Perhaps the newsworthiness of the Legion was because the 1924 convention was "chilly" and "few high jinks pepped up the proceedings," according to writer Edwin Palmer Hoyt, Jr. (p. 310). Among these "few high jinks" in the city of Cleveland was a drink called the "Keep Cool with Coolidge Highball" (ice, pineapple and grape juices, and a raw egg--blech!) and burlesque dancers called the Keep Cool Kuties. Some of the Coolidge supporters at the convention itself were the Hometown Coolidge Club of Plymouth, Vermont; Wellesley College alumnae; and of course, the Red-Headed Legion of America, announcing its support "for obvious reasons." Otherwise, the proceedings were sober, and Coolidge won the nomination without much fanfare.
After the convention concluded, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "Cleveland Frugal in All Convention Details" and further chided, "Decorations Meager." So meager, in fact, that there was not even a picture of Coolidge in the convention hall. Coolidge also preferred a non-confrontational style of politics, speaking on the issues rather than attacking his political opponents. While our current Republican nominee is known for his hair, the similarities with Coolidge's restrained 1924 convention end there. I can't imagine a small special interest group's support making headlines or ending up in the history books when it comes to this year's raucous convention. In 1924, Coolidge defeated John Davis by the second-largest popular vote margin in US presidential race history. Come November, we'll see if the 2016 candidate's very different approach will net the same result.
Hoyt, Edwin P. Jumbos and Jackasses: A History of the Political Wars. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1998.
The school year has finally come to a close but, before students and teachers rejoice at the long summer days that lie ahead, they take the time to pause and partake in that time-honored celebration of achievement: the graduation ceremony. How have Brooklynites celebrated this singular milestone throughout the years? We have numerous graduation programs in our collection, and by studying their content, as well as the physical program themselves, we see how the ceremonies were a reflection of their era, and how they changed with the times.
The early commencement programs were elegant, formal, and dignified, befitting the solemn ritual taking place. When the students graduated from Bushwick High School in 1922 the evening program featured a violin solo by Chopin, and a selection from "The Merry Wives of Windsor". The program cover was classic and minimal.
This trend toward formality continued throughout the 1930's, and 40's. There were some exceptions though. Both the 1940 and 1967 graduating class from Samuel J. Tilden favored the modern. Incorporating the Tilden owl, they featured a smart and contemporary design cover for their commencement.
By the 1950's schools had expanded their graduation repertoire to include Broadway show tunes. In 1950 the graduates of James Madison, which incidentally included future Supreme Court judge, Ruth Bader, selected Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from the 1933 musical Roberta.
The 1960's ushered in a sense of freedom, revolution, non-conformity, and ethnic pride. These societal changes were reflected in the commencement exercises as well. Sarah H. Hale high school graduates began the turbulent decade in 1960 with a program including the Negro national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson. In 1961 they selected "The Sound of Music" by Rodgers and Hammerstein as one their numbers.
The ascent of popular music along with revolutionary fervor continued into the 70's, with schools choosing any mixture of pop, folk, Broadway, and classical music for their programs. Simon F. Rotschild Junior High School marched in on Elger's "Pomp and Circumstance" in 1974, but any semblence of tradition flew out the window after that. Black pride and Broadway were on full display with the featured songs of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," "To Be Young Gifted and Black" by Nina Simon, "There's a Place for Us" from West Side Story, and the gospel/jazz song by Billy Taylor that became a civil rights anthem, "I Wish I Knew How it Feels To Be Free."
The commencement program at I.S. 218 featured a Pop Art commencement cover for their 1971 ceremony. Featured solos were Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now," Michael LeGrand's jazz standard, "Watch What Happens," and Roto and Mancini's "A Time for Us."
Since then the digital world has come to dominanate the landscape, transforming music, and graphics. It was inevitable that this technology would also alter the graduation ceremony as schools seek new ways to project sound and visuals. Even with all of todays technological wizardy, students, parents and teachers still need to come together and celebrate their hard work, and as the graduates of MS 340 confirmed last year, todays schools still want to keep the ceremony classy.
A few months back, the Brooklyn Collection provided some images and expertise to ABC News for a story about Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay. The story was most excellent – if you missed it you can check it out here. I used the video as a source for a note taking lesson and, during the lesson, my students kept peppering me with questions: What was life like for the people who lived and worked on the island? What was school like? How did the island's inhabitants navigate all that garbage?
I could only answer their questions in adjectives: smelly, exhausting, backbreaking, dangerous, filthy, putrid, infested. So, I went on a quest looking for answers in complete sentences.
Colton, J.H. Map of the country thirty three miles around the city of New York. 1852. Brooklyn Historical Society blog, 16 Mar 2012. Web. 9 Jan 2014.
Long story short: Barren Island went from being an uninhabited island good for fishing and burying (alleged) pirate treasure to a hub of offal factories -- harboring the largest concentration of them on the planet -- within a twenty year span. Offal refers to the internal organs of animals, usually those not consumed by humans. These factories rendered animal waste, similar to today's rendering plants, where they turned carcasses, bones, and intestines into glue, fertilizer, buttons, etc. In the above map you can see the island in the bottom right-hand corner.
In the mid-19th century, both Brooklyn and New York City had messes on their hands. Horses routinely died in the street, butchers slaughtered cows in the alleyways, and packs of feral pigs seemed to be in continuous turf wars with packs of feral dogs. Garbage and manure, both human and otherwise, were collected and taken to dumping piers on the waterfront alongside the waste from tanneries and offal factories. Thus, the shoreline of the East River was slowly morphing from a sandy beach to a goopy sponge of entrails and blood. It. Was. Super. Gross.
Barren Island was the solution. Offal factories, rooming houses, saloons, and single-family homes were built and then populated, creating a multi-ethnic community amidst the hordes of flies and the putrid smells.
"Barren Island Factory." 1911. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
In 1877, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter went on an excursion to the island and noted the "the faint odor of decayed horses and putrid dogs" that hit him as he approached. "The stench is something to be feared, even by persons having very strong stomachs." (Side note: We melted a TON of dogs.) In the late 1870s, the population was noted at roughly 500: one hundred gaunt and semi-feral dogs, nine horses, some thirty most likely tubercular cows, about one hundred hogs, 270 men, and 10 women. Most of the humans were Irish, Swedes, and English.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 20 Aug 1877.
Although the island was bustling in the summer months, many factories went dark during the winter, leaving only eight permanent families. Permanent or not, none of the island's residents received a lot of press unless they were involved in a drunken saloon fight; part of a gang of toughs called the "Bone Gang"; kicked off a train for smelling horrible; one-eyed; or sick with cholera, diptheria, or any number of other illnesses. The newspaper lumped all of the island's inhabitants and the garbage with which they worked together. Rarely was there discussion of the conditions of the factories or the families of the workers, but constantly there were discussions about how the offal runoff was ruining the beaches for the middle-class across the bay.
Jump to the 1890s. Benjamin Miller's Fat of the Land has a pretty succinct description of the island and its amenities: "In 1897, there were five factories and four saloons on Barren Island, one store, one road, no doctor, nurse, or pharmacist, no church, no electricity, no post office, no social hall, no reading room, and a one-room school (on the first floor of a Polish tenement) into which some fifty of the school-age children on the island crowded for daily lessons." By that time, the population was said to be mainly Italians, Poles, and African-Americans.
One of the factories was used for the melting down of animal carcasses: horse dog, pig, cat, goat; another said to boil down over one million fish weekly. The fish were used for oil and fertilizer, but first dried on massive platforms. The waste wasn't just from New York City and Brooklyn, but also towns in New Jersey. Often, the offal washed back on shore when the tide was high, creating pools of perpetually soggy waste along the shoreline.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 9 1899.
In 1897, Barren Island's PS 120 was shut down. Held in a multi-family dwelling, the children packed into one of the lower rooms for their schooling. The closure was ordered by the Heath Department, as it had come to their attention that a man was dying of diphtheria in an upper apartment. Aside from that, the physical structure wasn't safe. "The school sits in a depression that fills up with water at every tide," wrote a reporter. "After the tide goes out the damp ground is left to dry by evaporation, with stenches of all kinds arising from refuse matter thrown out and left to decay... In front of the school house and about 400 feet from it is McKeever's plant, in which he makes fertilizer out of the carcasses of horses." The school's floors were rotten, the building slanted, and the windows were always shut to keep out the smell.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 17 Sept 1897.
The reporter goes on to list other factories and odors, culminating in the description of a particularly dangerous puddle: "All sorts of things have been thrown into it... pigs and cows use it at will; dead cats and dogs lie in it and the people who live near it have made it a general dumping ground for all their refuse. One of the objects noticed in it was a large straw tick and the reporter was told that it was the tick on which two children died of diphtheria a short time ago. It has been thrown out to the air and left to scatter germs with every passing wind."
After much debate, money was put forward to build a new school building. When the structure opened in 1901, the Eagle sent a reporter to cover the story. In this reporters eyes, the school was "the only bright spot for children of that desolate place." Not even the teachers could stand the island for very long, choosing to make the long commute by boat every morning rather than live amongst their students. One educator, described by the reporter as "a pretty teacher," explained how even getting a drink of water was an ordeal: "The water tank in our house was in an indescribable condition of filth, and there is not any water fit to drink upon the island. There are a number of wells on the island from which is must be carried to the house. It usually tastes like oil, though sometimes by way of variation it is flavored much more horribly."
"PS 120." Board of Education Collection. 1905. Print. New York City Municipal Archives.
"Barren Island." 1912. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
*This is another photograph of PS 120 from 1912, a slight alteration having been made to the front of the building.*
The island's inhabitants lived "in small wooden houses which might be called huts." Here is where the reporter makes choice use of quotation marks: "A few bedraggled sunflowers serve to decorate their 'gardens' and the houses all in a row, each having a number, like a convict settlement or the outdoor wards of a pest house. Amidst such an enviornment these little children are being 'raised'. Down at the opposite end of the island and near the crematory is a dance hall, where a monthly 'soiree' takes place."
He goes on to talk about the plentiful liquor used to dull the sorrows of the "drunken workman of the garbage heap," and the fact that fruit doesn't grow in the sandy soil. Not that it would matter, writes the reporter, as "it remains a doubt whether the inhabitants would find it of interest. They find amusement in the saloon and the dance hall." The parents would bring their children to the parties with them; "the young white women frequently choose negro partners and the children look on and drink in, as children do, all the sights and sounds of the seamy side of Barren Island society." The saving grace was the school, which provided refinement "unknown in their homes."
What a glowing review, right?
So often, this is where the story ends. An outsider tells us how it is and, because we lack an opposing voice, we accept it. This particular reporter painted a picture of filth, both human and otherwise. The adults were morally inferior, the children tragedies, and the "pretty teachers" martyrs. We don't get to hear about the community that formed on the island, the culture and connections that these immigrant and African-American people made amongst themselves.
Thank goodness for Daniel Edwards, principal at PS 120. (This man is my new favorite.) Edwards wrote to the Eagle the following Sunday with a letter to the editor directly rebutting the claims made by the reporter and systematically breaking down the false description of the island community.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 25 Aug 1901.
Edwards admitted that the island has an odor, but claims it nowhere near as bad as reported. He also made clear that the squalid huts mentioned are actually "respectable cottages," that the inhabitants of the island were "hard working, thrifty people," and that the children were "remarkably healthy and bright."
Barren Island Houses. 1936. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. Print.
*The above image was taken in 1936, a few years before the residents evicted and the houses demolished. I'm not sure if these are the "respectable cottages" mentioned by Principal Edwards, but they very well could be.*
And my favorite part, "Some of the children, it is true, go down to the 'Klondike,' as the garbage dumping ground is called. Here they find brass, silver, gold, and once in a while a diamond. But are they not to be commended for thus earning a penny, rather than engaging in more questionable pursuits?" A 1918 article from the Eagle described a special "brass apron" worn by children on their treasure hunts, essentially an embroidery apron folded into a big pocket.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 4 May 1918.
Barren Island was filled in and is now part of Floyd Bennett Field. All of the inhabitants were evicted in the late 1930s and, as the ABC News story mentions, you can still find treasure out at Dead Horse Bay. If you go, you can leave your "brass apron" at home, as the rangers at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge discourage treasure hunting. With that said, if you do visit and walk away with a diamond, I won't tell.