Infamous New York: Bosses, Burlesque & Mayhem

by Constance Schwartz



In a way all art is a form of advertising as it stands for a particular point of view. The Platonic ideals were truth, beauty and goodness -- not a bad set of ideals to live by. For thousands of years art was seen as a source of responsible moral ethical leadership. To its patrons who desired the power of art to be elevating of the spirit, the so called transgression of artists who painted the life around them was a strong dissenting voice.

The crisis in national and cultural identity precipitated by the Depression had a decisive effect upon the emerging generation of American artists. As the tenor of political and economic life became ever more oppressive during the 1930s, with poverty and unemployment hitting new highs, figurative painting along with Regionalism, Magic Realism and some abstraction continued as a familiar and accepted idiom often taking the form of social protest. Many of the artists were active in leftist or socialist politics during the thirties, mainly of a humanitarian Marxist persuasion, while others simply campaigned for basic human rights. The majority of Social Realists never assumed their art would automatically lead society to a higher plane, but by refusing to be a party to oppression and by protesting against it, they believed they could set an example for the masses and thus use their art as an effective social force.

In tandem with these social issues shown, there was glamour and entertainment too. The burlesque, which had come to the city after the Civil War, in those wicked days when the cancan was the rage, was the favorite of the lone male. Tony Pastor had initiated refined vaudeville for the whole family which featured acrobats and trained animals, comic songs, bicycle riders, jugglers, magicians, innumerable dancing acts-all the tricks and stunts that have always been a lowly adjunct of the legitimate stage. The low-down night life with its dime museums, dance halls, shooting galleries, beer-gardens, billiard parlors, saloons, and other more questionable resorts made up another whole world of entertainment whose glaring lights symbolized the lure of the wicked city. It was an age of notoriously corrupt municipal governments. The line between virtue and vice was hard to distinguish; perfectly respectable places of entertainment were actually notorious dives. New York City had its red-light district given over to saloons and sporting houses. Drinking, gambling and prostitution had become tremendous social problems as the size of the constantly growing city made control more and more difficult, particularly when politics formed its profitable alliance with vice. And, New York City had unchallenged leadership in music halls, concert saloons with music and scantily dressed girl waitresses. It was the time of Coney Island and Jimmy Durante, Fanny Brice and Ziegfeld Follies, the Heavyweight Boxers, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling..


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