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My family’s first home in NYC was located at 25 Bowery–they arrived from Newry, Ireland in 1854–and was located just outside the lens of the photographer’s camera in this stereograph, which was taken in the late 1850s. A few years after my family moved to the Bowery, Stephen Foster known as the “Father of American Music,” and the composer of many popular songs including, “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” took up residence across the street from John and Maria Hale at 30 Bowery.
Foster, who had drinking problems and suffered from depression, was found with a gash in his neck and a bruise on his forehead and died of his injuries in 1864. In 1865, John and Maria lost their three-year old daughter Ellen, from bronchial pneumonia. Foster, who knew instinctively how to blend words and music into songs that became hymns to the sorrow of the human condition, had written a beautiful lullaby, two years before his death. I wonder if John and Maria crossed paths with Foster and I wonder if Maria ever sang this Stephen Foster lullaby to her dying baby, Ellen.
If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to see more of the same, check out my group on Facebook called, “The Musical History of New York City.”
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Years ago, after my grandmother died, I found the attached photo; clearly, it had been cut out of a magazine. I knew the ballpark in the photo. Its structure, including protruding beams, overhanging lights, a catwalk behind the lower deck, and the distance from the third base line to the field level box seats, indicated it was Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. That was the easy part. 

But what about the rest? When was the photo taken? The photo provides a number of useful clues: The boy is wearing a sweater and his father a jacket, indicating cool weather and they have a large picnic basket with them, indicating a long stay, perhaps for a doubleheader.

I researched the photo at the New York Historical Society. I’d narrowed it down to a number of magazines and soon learned that it had appeared in PIC Magazine as part of a two-page photo spread in their July 23, 1940 issue. The Dodgers and Giants were playing a doubleheader at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The Dodgers lost the opener to the Giants, 7-0, as Carl Hubbell pitched a one hitter. And the Dodgers lost the nightcap, as well, 12-5, to fall out of first place.

The boy in the photo is my father and the man with his arm around him is my grandfather. On a cool day in May–May 30, 1940—exactly eighty years ago today–my grandfather took my father to a doubleheader at Ebbets Field. It was my father’s thirteenth birthday. Today, I’d love to able to say to him,  “Happy Birthday, Dad.”

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Tune in tomorrow at noon when I’ll be featured on or WPKN 89.5 FM on the dial.
12:00 PM to 1:PM

It’s called: What a Story!

Here’s what host Ina Chadwick had to say about the show:

Tomorrow I am introducing new-to-my-show storytellers. A master of the genre: Charles R. Hale‘s Grandfather was a firefighter whose presence and then absence left a big hole in Charles’ life.

Circa Norman Rockwell’s Oeuvre:  Grandpa Charlie (right) and his firefighter buddies of the FDNY Engine 14. Painting by fireman Eddie Brady.

Do yourself a favor and visit Charles R. Hale‘s Musical History of New York City FB page. If his daily pictures and vignettes (all eras) and embedded musical references don’t t grab you by the heart, it’s time to buy one of those pulse-meters now flying off the internet.

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I was discussing the history of New York City with novelist and historian Peter Quinn recently and he said, “I rode on the Third Avenue El as a kid, but the city I write about is largely gone…the El, Penn Station, El Morocco…even Judge Crater!”

Peter continued, “When it comes to the city, like many New Yorkers, I’m a hopeless romantic…always pining for what was. Being raised in NYC, I feel I received an enormous gift. People travel all over the world to write in exotic places. But you grow up here in the boroughs…it’s like growing up in different worlds. The older I get, the more I’m struck by the drama of change that goes on around us. It’s a great gift for a novelist. You don’t have to search for drama…in New York…you just live it.”

As much as any other song, it feels as if New Yorkers’ Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s “Long Ago and Far Away” evokes what’s been lost. 

Photo by the wonderful Evelyn Hofer.


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(If you’re visiting here after you saw this post on Facebook, click here for the short video.)  
Being a kid in New York City was great fun. There was always so much to do…but Saturday afternoon….that was time for the movies… and many of us frequented a Loew’s Wonder Theatre. There were five in NYC. I spent more than a few hours in one….the Loew’s Valencia in Jamaica, Queens.
A few years ago, during a performance of “Crossing Boroughs” at the Museum of the City of New York, this three minute video, which I created and narrated, was presented. I pay homage to those Saturday afternoons at Loews. Looking for three feel good minutes…click here for this short video.
FYI: Crossing Borough’s cast included Charles R. Hale/creator and narrator, Niamh Hyland/music director and vocals, Jack O’Connell/theatrical, Shu Nakamura/guitar, David J Raleigh/vocals, Laura Neese/dancer, Jonathan Matthews/dancer, Shirazette Tinnin/drums, Mary Ann McSweeney/bass and Steve Okonski/keyboard.
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If you were a New Yorker in the late sixties and seventies, liked music and were a night owl…you definitely remember “The Nightbird,” Alison Steele.

A NYC native–Brooklyn–she was a member of a 1966 “all-girl” WNEW format. The show didn’t prove popular and all the “girls” except Alison were let go. She stayed on as the station’s night DJ–10pm-2am. Steele created a sexy, soulful “Nightbird” persona…WNEW became the flagship station for progressive radio in NY…and Alison was a big reason they succeeded.

She recited poetry, read Shakespeare and the Bible and more than anything she communicated…particularly with males. She played the Moody Blues, Incan tribal music, Andean flutes and other eclectic pieces.

“The flutter of wings, the sounds of the night, the shadow across the moon, as the Nightbird lifts her wings and soars above the earth into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird…” A number of you will remember her voice, her style, so unlike all the male DJs at the time. 

Do you remember the music Allison played to close her show…pretty famous group  


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Ireland’s Great Famine, which began in 1846, was marked by eviction, starvation and death. Many Irish peasants, tired of their hopeless existence, fled to America. The majority of Irish immigrants were poor, unskilled, often illiterate and predominately Roman Catholic. Their poverty and religion were considered a threat to Americans and, as is too often the case with immigrant groups, they were demonized and treated as an intellectually inferior race.

The Irish were mocked in caricatures that often dehumanized them; cartoonists such as Thomas Nast often portrayed the Irish as brutes with ape-like features. In addition, the belief that the Irish drank excessively, which often led to brawling and rioting, was widespread. In truth, a number of Irish did drink heavily, which created two powerful dynamics; it created a community among the Irish, which was good, but it provided a convenient stereotype for Nast, which wasn’t good—the brawling Irish drunk.

A number of years ago, I discovered a cartoon that was drawn by Frederick Opper, entitled “American Gold.” Opper’s cartoon, which appeared in Puck Magazine, depicts a group of Irish laborers at a work site. A number of the workers, particularly the man with the pick-ax, are depicted with simian-like features, primitive and seemingly less than human. These hardworking immigrants struggled to put food on their family’s tables; yet, the workers were often pictured with disdain.

I thought of these cartoons when I found the following article in the New York Times while researching the life of one of my ancestors.

The day after this story was published, on the morning of September 21, 1868, my great-great-grandfather James Tobin, an Irish immigrant, died at the age of thirty-eight.

James was hauling bricks to the top of the building, just as one of the men in the cartoon is. It was men like my great-great-grandfather whom Nast and Opper portrayed as an inferior species.

I think about James’s life: What was his day-to-day existence like? What was his last day like? How can I breathe of his space and time?

A number of years ago, I walked to the Lower East Side of Manhattan; I planned to trace the steps that James Tobin took on the last day of his life. I began where his tenement would have been located, at 62 Rutgers Street. I imagined the fetid smells of poverty. The cries of the animals and the stench of death emanating from the nearby abattoirs would have filled the air of the neighborhood known as the Place of Blood.

I walked north to Canal St and turned west toward Broadway, through what is now Chinatown. I pictured the sights and sounds: people spilling out from the tenements and streets lined with pushcarts and horse-drawn wagons. I continued along the sidewalk on the north side of the street, imagining the awnings that extended from the butcher shops and groceries that lined the streets. Horse drawn wagons rumbled along Canal Street, which was made of cobblestone taking workers to and from work.

I walked three blocks to Broadway, turned right, and walked a few yards to number 424, a cast iron building, in the Soho neighborhood. I stood in the lobby. The level of fright that James must have felt as his hoist plummeted into the basement of the building is inconceivable.

I left the building and turned back toward Canal Street. I crossed Canal and continued south on Broadway to Duane Street where the New York Hospital was once located. I visualized James’ broken body being transported in a horse-drawn ambulance, with metal wheels, pounding over grimy cobblestone streets. I imagined the sounds; the pain, however, is unimaginable. And I thought of the shock that my great-great-grandmother, Grace, felt upon hearing the news that she was now a widow, and her two-year-old son, Rickard, fatherless.

I wonder what my great-great-grandmother Grace thought of cartoonists who portrayed those like her husband, my great-great-grandfather James, as an intellectually inferior species, something less than human? I can only imagine.

I am, however, strengthened by my ancestors’ tolerance and moved by their suffering. My ancestors arrived in New York City during the mid-nineteenth century. Like many, I’ve spent years trying to uncover my family history in order to understand the nineteenth-century Irish immigrant experience and its impact on who I am. The personal stories of many famine immigrants, like mine, are lost; it’s now left to those like me, the descendants, to piece together shards of memory into a coherent and useful tale.

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I recently returned from France, which included a two-day stop in Normandy. I was pursuing the story of a Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City born soldier, John R. Simonetti, the son of Italian immigrants, who was killed during the Battle of the Hedgerows, on June 16, 1944, in the fields of St. Germain d’Elle, France. (Photo attached.)  

John’s name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France since his body was not recovered from the battlefield where he died. It was a tragedy that the family lived with for generations. In the years that followed his death, the family was in contact with the Army and pursued various paths to determine what had happened to their son and uncle on that fateful day. Finally, in May 2009, while doing some minor excavation work, the skeletal remains of an American soldier, with his dog tags still around his neck, was unearthed in the center of the town. It was John Simonetti.

It’s stories like these that will be included in my show, “New York City and WWII: Connecting Time and Place,” on October 26, 27 and 28, 2020 at The Cell Theatre, which is part of the series, “Classically Exposed: Musical Crossroads.”

For more information on the series and to purchase a subscription for all eight events at 25% discount CLICK HERE.

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 Thrilled to be presenting my new series, “Great Duets: Music, History and Story,” at Lehman College this Spring.  These are free events sponsored by the City and Humanities Program and Professor Joseph McElligott

Here’s the lineup:

Feb 13:         Pianist/vocalist Nicole Zuraitis and songwriter/vocalist Clare Maloney present “From Opera to Pop and Jazz,” 12:30pm at Lehman College, Lovinger Theatre, 250 Bedford Park Blvd, Bronx, NY.

March 26:   Violinist Jiin Yang, pianist Wayne Weng and narrator Charles R. Hale present “Connecting the Masters” at Lehman College. 12:30pm, Lehman College, Lovinger Theatre, 250 Park Blvd, Bronx, NY.

April 16:      Pianist Baron Fenwick, tenor Robert Anthony Mack, in “Performance and Discussion” with narrator Charles R. Hale at Lehman College. 12:30pm, Lehman College, Lovinger Theatre, 250 Park Blvd, Bronx, NY.

April 30:     Guitarist Yuri Juarez and pianist Renato Diz present “From Classical to Jazz.” 12:30pm at Lehman College, Lovinger Theatre, 250 Bedford Park Blvd, Bronx, NY.     


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