10 December 2006

After the Show

Seventy-seven years ago, on December 10th 1929 --- exactly seventy-seven years ago to this day, a tragic event occurred which would capture the nation's attention for a few days as the story battled for space in newspapers focused upon world events, the upcoming Christmas and New Year holidays, and attempts to decipher the ominous chords reverberating through the skyscraper canyons of New York City's financial district that were slowly spreading outwards, upwards and away.

In the end, and as it would today, the heartbreaking and frightening front-page story would reduce itself to a paragraph or two of human interest material and then, vanish entirely --- likely going unnoticed by readers eager to escape gloom and doom reports as the ticking of clocks ushered in a new decade that, at least initially, held high promise and expectation as the successor to a decade that had left the country as exhausted as it was exhilarated.

In late 1929, as you traveled up Park Avenue --- well beyond the reach or notice of the famed street's addresses and residents of wealth, stood a nondescript three story brick structure with a basement storage facility. Surrounded by several five and six story "thickly populated" tenement buildings, and steps away from the Harlem River canal --- then busy with waterborne traffic of the sort that has long since passed from memory, the building would surely have been the last place any film goer or even neighborhood resident would equate with the snappy, raucous and tuneful short subjects --- some in color -- they would have seen in theaters throughout 1929.

As the headquarters of the Pathe Motion Picture Exchange and Manhattan Studios, Inc., inside the dull brick walls lurked hints of Hollywood magic, although so diminished and makeshift as to have surely been a crushing disappointment to any visitor seeking so much as a wafted sense of the West Coast film kingdom.

Churning out film after film, all largely profitable so long as they talked, sang and danced, the Pathe Comedies (or "Musical Reviews") were lowbrow entertainment at best, cobbled together based upon what vaudeville talent was available for hire, and the ingenuity of the writers and directors (one person often performing double duty) for inventing threadbare pegs upon which to hang a bit of comedic patter, a musical number or two and plenty of flash and pretty girls. Especially pretty girls. With youthful figures, beaming smiles and dancing legs, all manner of technical and production inadequacy could be masked, or at least overlooked by satisfied audiences.

On the morning of December 10th, the small, claustrophobic and cluttered studio --- its walls thickly padded with sound absorbing material --- was filled nearly to capacity as filming began for "Harry Delmar's Miniature Review." (There is some confusion as to the title of the film in production --- some sources claim the title as being "The Black and White Revue" or "Sixteen Sweeties.") The studio sound-stage, set in the rear of the building's first floor, held Eddie Elkins and his twelve-piece jazz band (hired to perform the music for the film,) one set of chorus girls (versatile dancers or "pony girls") comedians, technicians, a director and his various assistants, cameramen, electricians and do-it-all studio employees. In total, fifteen girls and fifty men were crowded into the filming area. A short flight upstairs from the sound stage, another fifteen girls --- hired as statuesque show-girls, were in their dressing room awaiting their call. Throughout the rest of the building were many other employees, including those working in the office area, and the areas given over to film processing, storage, and cutting. Ironically, this was also the day that a number of officials of the Pathe Company proper had chosen to drop in.

Having set before you what I hope amounts to a verbal image prologue of the setting for the events about to unfold, I now choose to allow the written voice of 1929 step forward and tell the story as only it can and rightfully, should. Your author shall return momentarily.

"The first number to be recorded was to have been the pony ballet, dancing and singing to the music of Elkin's orchestra. The girls had been called from their dressing room and were gathered on the stage, while the musicians gave the final toot at their saxophones and tightened the head of the big bass drum. In a minute the director would shout 'Camera!,' the music would begin, the girls would start to dance and sing and the dreams of the girls of the pony ballet that some time they would appear in the movies would be a reality."

"But just then an electrician saw a spectacular flash and one of the dancers on the stage cried 'Fire!.' That was the end of the dream. A stage hand grabbed a fire extinguisher and turned it towards the great, black velvet back drop from around the edges of which flames were licking out towards the fluffy bands of ruffles and feathers which made up the ballet girls costumes. The girls screamed and drew away. The big curtain billowed out as if reaching for them. Then there was a puff which shook the place and flames enveloped the curtain and much of the stage."

"The chorines fled in terror. Cameramen, their cameras already set up, seized their costly machines and ran. Studio hands tried to stop the flames. In a moment there was confusion, screaming and shouting everywhere. Upstairs, the second set of chorus girls, awaiting their call to the stage, were gathered in a dressing room rubbing the last touch of color to lips and cheeks, and making fast the last flimsy bit of costume. Bernard Mahooney burst into the room. 'Step out girls, make it lively! Get right busy!' They thought it an ill-tempered way to give their call and moved slowly to the door. But when the first girl was out.... she saw her sisters in a wild fight for the exits as flames snarled from the stage and leaped from section to section of the soft-padded walls. Soon the girls behind her had joined the flight and were fighting, somewhat blindly for their very lives."

"Kay McIvory, working on a cowboy film in the cutting room, heard the cries and at the door she was met by billowing smoke. She was caught in the panic-stricken crowd and literally swept onto the street. Walter Sternge of the cutting room staff saw the fire reflecting from the ceiling in the finder of his camera. He carried his machine to the street and returned to help girls to safety. He did not give up until he himself had been severely burned."

"In the executive offices on the second floor, Joseph E. Flynn, vice president, was dictating letters to his secretary, noticed smoke and looked out on the mezzanine floor to see flames reaching up for him. With his secretary, he climbed from a window to a stone ledge 35 feet above the street where, 15 minutes later, firemen rescued him, his secretary and Leonard Malone with extension ladders."

"Bobby Carney, Cy Wells, and Harry McNaughton, the three comedians hired for the film, were in their dressing rooms. They fled in safety. Ruth Goodwin, ingenue, awaiting her call in her own dressing room, likewise escaped unhurt."

"Carl Edwards, an orchestra leader, had just finished in the projection room an inspection of the music he had prepared for an 'Aesop's Fable' (cartoon). 'I had started out and a sheet of white hot flame met me at the door, so I crawled out a window to a fire escape but there the fire was licking all around me. I saw the only chance there was and jumped for an iron bar which ran from the building down to a fence adjacent. By a miracle I caught the bar with both hands.' He went down the bar, hand over hand, until almost at the fence he lost his hold, fell and broke his leg. 'The police left me on the sidewalk and as I lay there on a stretcher looking up at the burning building, I saw girls gathered screaming for help at one window. Some of them had their costumes afire. Their agony was terrible. But no one could help them."

As these odd dozen stories of survival were being enacted, nearly as many had met an awful death --- either by flame or smoke or by being trampled and crushed in narrow stairwells and hallways.

By 11AM, the fire was out. Gathered outside were those who had escaped unhurt, many hysterical. The chorus girls who had survived stood in the chill of that winter morning, shivering in their dance costumes --- their faces a grotesque mask of pancake and rouge smeared with ash and soot, further distorted by the streaming of tears that cut through the grime as best it could in the frigid air. They were soon gathered up and taken to the nearby offices of Crane & Co., a plumbing supply house, where they were warmed, quieted and sent home --- still incredibly dazed, in taxicabs.

Although news reporting wasn't anything remotely similar to what we're accustomed to today, it wasn't as slow as we might suppose -- or would like to, either. Powered by radio, telephone, telegraph and that most powerful of all mediums, the spoken word --- carried by automobile, subway, trolley, truck, taxi and foot ---news of the tragedy spread throughout the city with speed approaching or nearly exceeding that of the fire itself.

We can only imagine the scenes enacted as taxicabs unloaded their human cargo at points all throughout the city and adjacent boroughs, and given the fact that many an expected taxi would never arrive at addresses where dwelt family, friends and neighbors beside themselves in panic --- it's just as well there weren't camera toting reporters at the ready to jab microphones under noses so as to ask "What are you feeling?"

While I'm reluctant to do so, a detailed list of those who lost their lives in the Pathe fire on December 10th 1929 seems somehow in order, if only for the fact I feel it's been far too long since these names have been spoken by those who knew them, or read by those who didn't. The chasm of time and memory still remains, but perhaps grows a bit smaller by doing so.

Joseph Bishoff, a make-up man, of 20 West 120th Street, NYC (Trapped)

Anna Buford, 20, chorus girl, of 206 West 99th Street, NYC (Suffocated)

Norine Burne, 24, chorus girl, of 549 39th Street, Brooklyn (Stampeded)

Charles Koerble, an electrician, of 141 Halsey Lane in Leonia, NJ (Burned)

Carl Kramer, an electrician, of 1631 Grand Avenue, the Bronx (Burned)

Robert Nussman, an electrician, of 617 East Fordham Road (Collapsed in death at scene)

Catherine Porter, 21, chorus girl, of 50 West 65th Street, NYC (Stampeded)

Jack Quinn, a property man, of 56 Dean Street, Brooklyn (Burned)

Jola Sparks, 16, chorus girl, of 1520 Sheridan Avenue, the Bronx (Trapped)

Earnest Wilson, bookkeeper, of Amsterdam Avenue and 113th Street, NYC (Trapped)

One of the last musical two-reel films to be produced at the Pathe Studio prior to the fire was in general release at the time of the tragedy. Titled "After the Show," and written and directed by Harry Delmar (who was also at the helm of the film in production at the time of the fire), the 20 minute short featured vaudevillians Jack Pepper (married to Ginger Rogers), Jack Wolf (the father of living legend NYC sportscaster supreme, Warner Wolf,) Si Wills (also in the film being produced when the blaze occurred,) Joe Ray and Paul Garner. Not least of all, the film also featured (no picture material survives for this title --- only one half of the film's sound, on disc) a great many singing and dancing girls --- certainly many of whom were present at the scene of the disaster, and possibly all four of those who perished.

Although "After the Show" was widely booked at the time of, and after the fire, newspapers, theaters and film exchanges wisely avoided drawing attention to the fact. There was one exception however, and that was in a Danville, Virginia newspaper which seemed to be caught between promoting the appearance of a local citizen in the short film and touching upon a tragic situation. They attempted to do both, carefully and somewhat successfully. Both are reproduced below.

Also offered here, is the audio of the surviving Vitaphone (type) disc that accompanied "After the Show," a lost film, as noted above. The ten or so minutes that comprised the length of the first reel has been split into two sections to facilitate listening.

It's difficult to determine who exactly is whom in disconnected audio such as this, but I believe the harried stage manager who banters with a marvelously obnoxious fellow as the film opens is Jack Wolf.

The musical number that concludes the first reel, "The Jig-a-Boo Jig" has so much in common with a similar number in the 1929 Warner Bros. Alice White vehicle "Broadway Babies," titled "Jig-Jig-Jigaloo" that I'm surprised a lawsuit never evolved. But, truth be told, Pathe never would or could pose a threat to the mighty Warner Bros., and then too, Warner Bros. -- as every film studio worldwide, would have been all too aware of the events of a day that we've long since forgotten or --- when infrequently mentioned --- is quite without the voices or names of those who lived through it, and those who didn't.

The song "Here We Are" was very much a hit of the day at the time both "After the Show" and the ill-fated musical short that followed later were in production. Heard in a piano rendition during the dance rehearsal sequence of "After the Show," a commercially released 78rpm version of the tune --- and a sweetly melancholy one at that, is offered here, recorded in mid-1929 by the singing team of Ed Smalle and Jerry Macy.



Unknown said...

Ben checking the 'Varieties' out for over a month...great work! You have a marvelous style of writing that fits perfectly with the subject matter. And, of course, you know the facts backwards & forwards.
on Paul Garner...the name rang a bell with me, so I checked IMdB. As I thought I recalled, Paul "Mousie" Garner was a Vaudevillian who, when Howard, Fine, & Howard left Ted Healey & His Stooges to form their own act (The Three Stooges, as they will forever be known), Mousie Garner was one of the three guys Healey hired to replace them. Garner worked as a solo & with various others (under such names as "The Gentlemaniacs") for many years &, with Moe Howard's permission, toured with Joe DeRita & another guy as "The Three Stooges" during the Sixties & Seventies. Amazingly, Paul "Mousie" Garner performed into his Nineties, and died in 2004.
And the earliest entry for him in the IMdB listing IS "After the Show"!
Again, wonderful work Sir, & I'll be watching to see what the New Year will bring!
Love & Peace, Clarence

Jeff Cohen said...

Thank >you<, Sir!

Although I can't admit I was aware of Garner's connection to Ted Healey (and the Stooges) until writing this piece, it was one of those little nuggets I felt best to omit --- if only because of the somber mood of the subject. I'm therefore rather glad you chose to mention it! If nothing else, it serves to prove that so much of the familiar entertainment history usually focused upon is, invariably, intertwined with the shadowy corners of the early sound era.

Thanks much for writing!