The Healer and the Pirate

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Flashback Friday - Winter Garden Fire; terrorist threats - April 1-2, 1921

Just a few stories today. (If you like history, I just started a blog on Coney Island history, too.)

Old tyme terrorist threats:


Hundreds of Uniformed Men and Detectives Sent Out When Vague Threat Is Found.
Circulars scattered Broadcast in Brooklyn Say "It Will Happen on April 2."

--The New York Times, April 2, 1921

The notes were apparently distributed around 10 PM on April 1, raising the possibility of an April Fool's prank. The cryptic messages were signed "K.K." which the police (like myself) interpreted as perhaps being meant to stand for "Klu Klux." The police suspected anarchists may have used the initials to instill "a feeling of dread" yet not give any clue to their identity. The police seemed to simultaneously doubt the authenticity of the threat, and yet take the threat very seriously, just in case. Like many bomb threats today, I didn't see any indications that anything actually happened.

Here's a disturbing story:

Man Aflame Tries to Leap From Fifth Floor--Another Walks Narrow Ledge.
Explosion, After Matinee, in a Drug House Storage Room Puts Actresses in Panic.

--The New York Times, April 1, 1921

This accident was at Broadway and Seventh Avenue, at the theater that once housed Cats and is currently showing Mamma Mia. It had just celebrated its tenth anniversary where they celebrated their most famous star, Al Jolson (!), who was the star of what's considered the first "talking" film, The Jazz Singer. You can see some info about the history of sound movies on this site.

As an aside, in school when they said "The Jazz Singer" was the first talking film, they never mentioned that Al Jolson appeared in blackface (!!!!) during the film. WOW. Makes my stomach hurt. You can read more about Jolson and his relation to Winter Garden at Parlor Songs (note that one of the song titles from the 1910s has an offensive term).

Getting back to Winter Garden, it appears the theater was probably playing "The Passing Show" (see here and here). Though the theater's website notes it was remodeled in 1922-1923, it doesn't mention this fire, which evidently was fairly confined, though water damage was estimated at $35,000.

The article is pretty twisted--like the headline, the first paragraph first mentions the "thrills and amusement" to spectators, before eventually mentioning a man was severely burned. The fire originated in a drug storage room for the nearby pharmacy of Tor & Ornstein.

28-year-old pharmacy employee William Mathews' clothes were on fire and a "negro porter, known as 'Sam'" and two actors pulled Mathews back from the ledge and put out his flames.

The article mentions that actors and actresses left their dressing rooms initially, remembering "a serious fire in the building a few months ago". (But when the fire didn't spread, they went back to their rooms!)

The only previous serious fire I saw on the New York Times site was this four-hour fire in October 1920, though the Winter Garden was only damaged by water, not flames.


Sweeps Three-Story Structure, Menacing Winter Garden, Capitol Theatre and Car Barns.
Seven Firemen Face Death from Back-Draught--Risk Lives to Save Two Kittens.

--The New York Times, October 25, 1920

("Face Death from Back-Draught" is an odd way of apparently saying that the men were caught in a backdraft but not hurt.)

Floyd Grant's antique shop and storerooms were destroyed, and several other shops. Fireman J. Feeley of Engine 14 heard a strange sound in the basement, and he and two other fire fighters found a pair of kittens "floating on a clapboard." They rescued them.

And I'll have some Casa Grande news tomorrow!

(All articles believed to be in the public domain per US law.)

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