Sunday, December 31, 2023

Ancestor #6: The Whole Metzger Mess

 

One of the pluses of annually repeating the research process of selecting my Twelve Most Wanted for the upcoming year is that I can revisit unfinished business. When it comes to my mother-in-law's Metzger family, we have been down that trail before: two years ago, we tackled the line of her second great-grandfather, Michael Metzger.

Michael was born in 1783 in Germany—or maybe Switzerland. Even though I tackled the records on this immigrant's life two years ago, by the end of the month's research, I was still stuck on several details. I knew that going in, though, having labeled my introduction as "A Messy Goal" right at the start. By the end of that month, having discovered three additional children of Michael and his wife Apollonia, I had to concede I was closing out the month's research goal without finding the answers to all the questions which popped up along the way. Yep, messy.

My task for tackling this last of my mother-in-law's ancestors for 2024 is simply to pick up where I left off in 2022. I'll be reviewing what I completed in that last quest, using that as a springboard to catapult into the big middle of the mess. A key part of this month's research will be to look for any Metzger DNA matches who descend from that one surprise son of Michael, a man known either as John or Johann Metzger of Indiana. That DNA exploration, of course, will involve building a descendancy chart for that one tentative branch of our Metzger family.

While we all have squared off with research challenges which, at the end of the designated time period, still seem as intractable as they were at the beginning, the key is to revisit the question at a later date—and to bring along fresh eyes when examining the mess we had left behind. That will be my task when we review the unfinished business for the immigrant family of Michael and Apollonia Metzger of Perry County, Ohio.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Ancestor #5: More Maryland Material

 

One problem with researching conveniently accessible ancestral records is that it speeds up the rate at which I run out of potential next projects. This is where I find myself, as I plan out the upcoming year's research on the branches of my mother-in-law's tree—where to go next?

As I had mentioned yesterday, the addition of more Maryland material to online resources may mean that I can revisit those Maryland ancestors I had worked on last year with better chances for successful outcomes. I certainly had not exhausted the resources available last year, and now there are new additions. Thus, for Ancestor #5 of my Twelve Most Wanted, it might be wise to revisit yet another Maryland branch of my mother-in-law's tree, the ancestors of her fourth great-grandfather, William Ijams, husband of the Elizabeth Howard we had discussed yesterday.

Examining the extended Ijams family of colonial Maryland could be helpful for many reasons. In addition to extending that branch of my mother-in-law's tree another generation or two, the effort will afford me the opportunity to broaden my understanding of the social history of the time in which her ancestors lived. While it is true I won't have access to the paperwork we are accustomed to utilizing for more recent generations—such as census records every ten years, or timely and detailed birth records, or even newspaper articles about their everyday life occurrences—gaining a broadened understanding of the times in which these ancestors lived might still help gain a picture of the events which might have filled their days.

This month's quest, like that for the previous month, will also require me to assemble finding aids by exploring some less-frequented research paths. Ferreting out reliable public-domain genealogy and history books will be the tasks going hand in hand with the more typical research techniques. Not only does the lack of key life details on these ancestors paint them a drab gray, but missing details from the overarching local and colonial history of their lifetime means their gray shadow is painted upon an equally fuzzy background. This will be my attempt to fill in some of the blanks and get clarity on these colonial ancestors.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Ancestor #4: Jumping Tracks Entirely

 

When it comes to number four of my Twelve Most Wanted, we jump tracks entirely by moving from researching my mother's ancestors to those of my mother-in-law. The challenge there is that, despite my mother-in-law's confidence that surely her grandparents were "just off the boat" only a few years before her parents' birth, it turned out that they were American residents for many generations prior to her grandparents' time. While it has been fairly easy to trace my mother-in-law's family tree owing to that detail, I've sped merrily along those family tracks until slamming into the colonial-records walls that had plagued travel-limited researchers up through the past few years. 

Then came the muscle-flexing researchers of this decade, who told governmental archivists, "Oh no you don't, either!" And voila! We now have online access to digitized versions of century-old records.

That, at least, is what I am hoping, now that the news about the Maryland State Archives has made recent headlines. Though many of the digitized records reach back only to the late 1800s, it's time to check out what I can find in that collection. More importantly, it's time to revisit my research on my mother-in-law's Maryland roots to see if any other resources have digitally materialized, as well. In this Internet age, more data become available with every passing month.

More to the point, for this month's Ancestor #4, I'll be revisiting my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother, Elizabeth Howard, to see what new discoveries I can make on her Maryland forebears. While any documents in which she'd appear would predate the recent release of Maryland records, thanks to Reclaim the Records, it would help to review the resources which might help paint a clearer picture of Elizabeth's life and times—and that of her Howard and Ridgely ancestors. 

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Ancestor #3: Farther Down the Line

 

When cousins marry cousins, reading that family's history can become confusing to an outsider. Hang on to your hats, then, as we press farther down the family line while jumping from one third great-grandmother's Taliaferro family roots to that of another.

For the first two of my Twelve Most Wanted for 2024, I chose my third great-grandmother Sarah Taliaferro's maternal lines of the Carters and the Chews. For this final selection from my mother's family for this year's Twelve Most Wanted, I'm going to add another cousin to the mix by jumping from Sarah to her cousin, Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro.

It was Mary Elizabeth's youngest daughter—also named Mary—who, orphaned, was married to her cousin, Sarah's son Thomas Taliaferro Broyles. We worked on his family for last year's Twelve Most Wanted. This year, though, I need to jump tracks and review what I don't know about his wife's matriline. After all, her matriline is also mine, making this a good chance to review some of my mtDNA matches a bit more closely.

Another opportunity for research success comes blended into this goal for March: Mary Elizabeth's roots connect to some historic names from colonial America, including the Gilmers, the Lewis family, and the Meriwethers.

I realize March may seem like a long month—at least comparing those thirty one days to the shorter month of February—but I admit I may be over-reaching for this one month's research goal. Let's just say we'll start in March with Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro's mother, Mary Meriwether Gilmer, and see where that research trail leads us.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Ancestor #2:
One Thing Leads to Another

 

One reason I have trouble wrapping up a research project is that, in family history, one thing always seems to lead to another. We may call what we are building a family tree, but in reality, it is more like a daisy chain. One family name always links us to another.

That's the way it seems to be for me as I lay out my plans for researching my Twelve Most Wanted for 2024. Yesterday, I may have mentioned that my plan for January is to research the Carter line on account of my fourth great-grandmother, Margaret Chew Carter, but that leads to the question: where did she get a middle name like Chew?

That, of course, means spending some time this coming February on the Chew family name and history. Chew, as it turns out, was Margaret's mother's maiden name. And that Chew line, as we'll find out, is connected with another colonial American surname, Beverley.

It will take some digging through old history books and documents to find information on this specific Chew family line during that time period of the early 1700s. Once again, utilizing what can be found on local history of that time period may deliver some insights regarding what we might otherwise miss about the specific family line, but it will be worth the effort of exploring that time period. There is still so much to learn, even if we come up empty-handed from a document search on this woman's family. However, based on what I've already observed, I'm sure we will find so much more.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

12 For '24

 

Basking in the afterglow of another Christmas, last night I sat looking out the window at our outdoor Christmas tree while also catching a glimpse of what is left of our inside tree after all the festivities. As usual, it was a day of gratefulness for the closeness of family. It also prompted thoughts of what can be found in the upcoming year's family history research. As we enter those peaceful twelve days of Christmas leading up to Epiphany, I now have the tradition of planning my research wish list for the upcoming year.

When I started that tradition four years ago—I call it my Twelve Most Wanted—it named one ancestor per month for my research focus. Back then, goal setting before January helped me get organized for my annual trek to attend the live version of the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. One could hardly imagine traveling all that distance without preparing to avail oneself most efficiently for research conquests at the nearby FamilySearch library just down the street from the Institute.

There was, of course, the rest of the year to benefit from organizing research plans, so the idea has stuck with me ever since. For the final days of this year and into the next, I'll be cataloging my research hopes for 2024, with one ancestral description per day.

For Ancestor #1, my hope is to stretch far back in American history to resurrect stories of one forgotten woman in my mother's ancestry. It seems so often that we research the men—especially those of Revolutionary War days—to learn more about the mark they made in our country's history. However, the women were there, too, making a difference in whatever way they could. This year, I'm hoping to delve deeper into the roots of those forgotten women, if not by outright mention in documents, then through inference as I study the social history of the era and their locale.

Zachariah Taliaferro may have been my D.A.R. Patriot, and I descend from not only one, but two of his sons, but it is the wife of one son whom I'd like to trace for this coming January. Patriot Zachariah had a son named after himself, who married a woman named Margaret Chew Carter. Margaret was barely five years of age when the American colonies made their Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, and lived to see the colonies through their struggle for self-rule and establishment as an independent nation. Born in Virginia, upon her marriage, she moved to South Carolina, where she bore the junior Zachariah four daughters, the eldest of whom became my third great-grandmother Sarah Ann Taliaferro Broyles.

Margaret's father was associated with a well-known family in Virginia, the Carters. While I have heard much about this extended family, I don't yet know exactly how Margaret's line is connected. This coming January will be my month to explore what can be found on Margaret's life and her family's connection to the early history of the colony of Virginia. 

Monday, December 25, 2023

Somewhere for Christmas . . .

 

No matter where you are this Christmas Day, I hope you are somewhere with the ones who mean the most to you. Whether family or close friends, these are the people who make a difference in your life—the ones who share your ups and downs, who share the experiences that shape you into who you are.

Somewhere for Christmas, there is someone who no longer has that privilege. Some of us have lost loved ones during this holiday season, and for them, this day will always bring memories. I hope those memories someday brighten from stark grief into warm remembrances.

Somewhere for Christmas, there are others who are alone. For the lonely, I wish the comfort of connection. No matter how hard life becomes, it always seems to be easier to bear when there is someone else there.

I think of all the life stories I've had the privilege to learn through this quest to discover my family's history. There have certainly been sad times and lonely times, but somehow, it helps to know someone before me has gone this same route—and made it through. There is much we can learn from what our ancestors endured. One of the best gifts they give us is hope.



Sunday, December 24, 2023

Your Mother's Christmas Music

 

Why is it that, around this time of year, I can hear Christmas music rerunning in my mind? Perhaps my brain has reached saturation level. After all, around here people start celebrating Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. But there is something curious about that holiday music that plays in my head: it's not my music. It's not even the current generation's music. It's music from the forties—my mother's Christmas tunes.

Take, for instance, the song twirling around the gray matter between my ears right now. It's "White Christmas," a piece made popular by Bing Crosby in 1942. My dad was thick in the middle of his big-band years, and my mom was still a teenager in high school. This is not my generation's music—and yet, somehow, it has achieved a timeless status, a place where many generations can join to share that same memory.

There are other realms in which, thankfully, we lose sight of those rigid walls of generational separation. I like to think that sharing stories of our family history can fit into that same category, especially when it allows people to see similarities across generations—that stubborn wave of the hair in grandpa's grade school photo, for instance, that shows up this year in the elementary school class photo of a great-grandchild. Or a penchant for telling corny jokes, or stealing third base with trademark flair. Sometimes, those stories can become timeless. And it's the holidays which seem to bring those stories out into the open at the least expected times. That's what happens when family gets together for holiday gatherings.

On my end, as we head into Christmas Eve, we've got the decorations up, all the packages wrapped, and the finishing touches prepared for our traditional cioppino soup this evening and tomorrow morning's homemade cinnamon rolls.

As for A Family Tapestry, I'm all set to tally my last biweekly progress report a day early—you don't expect me to do that on Christmas day, do you?!—and bundle up the year's series of posts. Beginning with the day after Christmas, I'll be celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas with my own genealogy tradition: planning ahead for research projects in 2024.

In the meantime, we're closing out the 2023 research year with 36,211 names in my family tree, and 34,091 in my in-laws' tree. In the past two weeks, I was able to include information on 283 family members in my tree, and an extra two in my husband's family. When I look back to my first tally in January of this year, my tree had 31,399 documented individuals, so this year has brought in 4,812 new family members in my ancestors' collateral lines—so helpful for DNA connections! And my in-laws' tree this year saw a growth of 3,433 names, having started 2023 with 30,658 relatives. That should be enough encouragement to keep me going for another year, wouldn't you say?

As for the holidays, that week between Christmas and New Year ushers me into my favorite time of year—a time for settling in, reflecting on the year, and planning ahead, something to look forward to. I hope the holidays bring you warm anticipation, as well.


Saturday, December 23, 2023

Busting the Family Legend Bubble

 

Do you have any relatives whose mission it is to "help" you reconstruct the family tree by sharing their ancestral stories? I have a genealogy friend who was rich in such assistance—until she learned how to research those details for herself. When she turned around to present the facts she had discovered to those ill-informed older relatives, one aunt actually told her she liked the family myth better.

I might be in such a bind right now, myself. My brother, much older than I am and, unlike me, privileged to have personally known our grandfather, has made it quite public that his grandfather was an entertainer. Specifically, my brother has mentioned that his grandfather was part of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show." While I have tried to find the source for such information, the more I look, the more I realize that might, in itself, have become a family legend.

While a name like that might mean instant recognition, Buffalo Bill's Wild West was an extravaganza which may have pre-dated my grandfather's earliest years, and certainly missed him by many miles. First of all, contrary to popular opinion, the word "Show" was never part of the touring act's name. The originator of this Wild West show, William Frederick Cody, founded the show in 1883; at that point, my grandfather would have been seven years of age. More to the point, that seven-year-old wasn't even living in the United States at that time.

Another complicating factor: the show was said to have been founded in the vicinity of Nebraska, far from the New York City region where my immigrant grandfather arrived as a child in 1884. Granted, Buffalo Bill's entourage was enormous, and the acts varied. Perhaps a juggler like my grandfather could have found a place in one of the acts, though the western theme—and location—might have made that less than likely. But the fact that the show, in its many iterations, made several European tours keeps me on the fence over whether this would be a likely family fact or fun family legend.

For now—and especially since I no longer have the option of asking my older relatives for more details—knowing that Buffalo Bill's programs centered on Wild West themes in western locations makes me disinclined to think a Polish immigrant would be a likely participant in a circus-like extravaganza such as that. While I can't find any smoking gun declaring the story convincingly false, let's just say it would be quite a stretch to envision my grandfather as part—even a small part—of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. 

Friday, December 22, 2023

Finding the Finding Aids

 

In searching for background information on personal family stories, delving into the social history of our ancestor's lifetime can bolster our research success. In the case of one report—or perhaps we should say, family legend—about my paternal grandfather, that search leads us to the history of American vaudeville. And because the vaudeville touring circuit involved so many people in a wide variety of locations, seeking  a resource like a finding aid is our best tactic.

With the many resources available now online, I was delighted to discover there was an entity known as the American Vaudeville Museum. If you haven't heard of it, no surprise there, as it was located in Edgewood, New Mexico. For ten years—from 1998 to 2008—the museum shared its resources by publishing a quarterly magazine, Vaudeville Times, which featured four to ten profiles of vaudevillians in each edition. Copies of those journals can still be found for sale today in locations from eBay to Amazon.

Better yet, after the museum's doors closed, founders Frank Cullen and Donald McNeilly made arrangements to donate significant portions of the museum's holdings to the Special Collections division of the library at the University of Arizona, some of which is available to search online. Articles explaining the essence of vaudeville through its history, key originators, and notable performers, combined with a searchable list of vaudeville names and topics, all made the transition to the library's website, but somehow, that wasn't enough for the founders, as judging by a note posted on the museum's original website. Instead, the museum's founders recommended researchers look to the archives of the Shubert Foundation, home of the records of the Shubert brothers, theater entrepreneurs well known for their efforts in the entertainment industry, first in upstate New York and extending into Manhattan and beyond.

Though the Shubert Archive is open to "qualified researchers" by application and appointment, there are other resources online which can help start the research process. While I look for clues as to my grandfather's involvement in vaudeville, I found simple lists of performers at Wikipedia to be a first step. True, that edges on needle-in-haystack status, but it's a start.

Still, the more I explore the history of the vaudeville entertainment genre, the more I tend to doubt this family legend. It's not so much the timeline, or even the enormity of the scope—thousands of performers in multiple circuits across America and into Europe—but one simple detail cited by my brother which just doesn't line up with history. We'll pop that family legend bubble tomorrow.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Tracing the Vaudevillian

 

If my grandfather was once a vaudevillian—or vaudeville performer—to trace his story back to any particular act, theater, or touring circuit would take a monumental research effort. Setting the stage for my effort, I took in a brief introduction to the live performance genre in hopes its history would guide my search. I'm not sure it will, but here's what I learned.

My grandfather, alternately called Theodore J. and John T., could have been credited for his act—if he had one on stage—under one of three possible surnames. The first, found in his earliest records in his homeland in what is now Poland, would be PuchaƂa. Once having arrived in New York, government records documented my grandfather's surname as Puhalski, or in one instance, Puchalaski. Yet, out of the blue, in 1915 he reappeared with his family under a different surname, McCann. Where did that come from? Perhaps that was the name he used in performances—if he used any name at all.

To think that I can pinpoint his involvement in vaudeville solely by the dates of his lifespan—or even by those few years between his arrival in the United States and the demise of vaudeville—would not be a likely research plan. Though classic vaudeville—according to its history—grew out of a form developed in France in the late 1800s, well within my grandfather's early adult years, its version in North America was actually a combination of several entertainment traditions. Some of these influences, such as the variety shows which existed since the time of the Civil War, certainly predated my grandfather, although coincidentally, one impresario in New York City first began substituting the term "vaudeville" for "variety show" the very year my grandfather was born—1876.

On the other end of vaudeville's history, at least in the United States, some attribute the rise of movies as a leading cause of the demise of the live performances of vaudeville. While some fix that date as the decade beginning in 1910, the date at which one key New York theater shifted from combined entertainment to exclusively cinematic entertainment—16 November 1932—is attributed as the shift which signaled the end of vaudeville.

With a time frame as ample as that timeline, it doesn't provide us any guidance in pinpointing my grandfather's possible participation in that genre of entertainment. That, however, is not the only reason such a search would be difficult. Just reviewing the history of vaudeville's run in America gives us other reasons to wilt at the prospect of researching this question. 

In order to build a successful business model, the live acts of vaudeville needed to tour from city to city. Often, entertainers on these circuits would be on the road for up to forty two weeks out of the year. This could have explained why I never found my grandfather in earlier census records prior to his marriage and appearance in the 1905 New York State census. However, another daunting fact about these vaudeville circuits was that, in their heyday, they employed over twelve thousand people throughout the entire industry. Finding the as-yet-unnamed act of my grandfather would be a formidable task, given such odds.

Still, there are some resources, should I be brave enough to attempt the search. As with all such endeavors, the more I search, the more resources I find. Let's take a closer look at where vaudeville resources can be found in tomorrow's post—just in case you, like I did, encounter a family story about an ancestor who was also a vaudevillian. 


Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The Other Question

 

There's another research question to grapple with before this month comes to a close. When I started this month's project, my hope was to track my father's music career from his early adulthood. After all, even though he was only one generation removed from me, there was a lot of life story that I didn't know much about. I was curious. Now that digitized genealogy and general history resources can be found at the click of a mouse, this was my golden moment.

Granted, I found a lot of newspaper reports on my dad, thanks to leads my brother provided. Not hints given to me, personally—hey, I was the kid sister; what would I know?—but to several interviewers documenting his own career over the years (for which I'm grateful), and also, once again, thanks to the archiving essence of our now digitized world.

Before I close out this month's family research project, though, there is one other question I need to answer. The month started out with me wondering what my brother meant when he said he descended from a line of entertainers—both his father and his grandfather. My dad I always knew about—but what about my grandfather? He was dead before I was born; I never met him. What little I had gleaned about his life and his personality from older siblings and cousins led me to understand they too knew little about his background. This would be my month to track down an answer to that other question: just what entertainment this grandfather might have provided in his younger years.

The trick in researching such a question lies in the fact that this was the man who changed his name upon arrival on American shores. Known in his homeland by the Polish equivalent of the name Theodore J. Puchalski, once in New York, he reversed order on his given names to become "John T." Whether he used his surname, originally Puchalski, or opted for a more streamlined American version for this entertainment diversion, I can't tell.

Theodore J.—or John T.—was born in 1876. Though the information on his petition for naturalization states he arrived in New York in 1884, I have not been able to find any trace of him in records before the 1905 New York State census. By that point, he would have been almost thirty years of age—hiding a good ten to perhaps twelve years of the possible work my brother alluded to.

After that point—state enumerations did not include information on occupation—the federal census records were of no help, though they did confirm some details my older sister had shared with me about our grandfather. He was either listed as a "machinist" or working at a printing press. For one census, he was listed as a "foreman" but the enumerator didn't follow instructions for how to enter the type of industry—and had sloppy handwriting on top of that. I think I can be safe in saying he wasn't serving as a foreman for any night club acts.

As for the most obvious possibility for how the man could have been an entertainer—if you guessed vaudeville, we are both on the same page—there may be some clues. Both my older sister and my cousin—the oldest of the surviving grandchildren—have told me stories of how John T. was a juggler and had a friend who was a professional wrestler. But before we get lost in conjecture, let's get the overview of the historical setting of the era in which vaudeville flourished, tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Demise of a Favorite

 

If you can believe a little girl's memories of conversations held long ago, it was the Roxy which was New Yorkers' favorite movie theater, but Radio City Music Hall which attracted the know-nothing tourists who flocked to the city. While the memory of that young girl might have been faulty, I found it somewhat vindicating to note a simple Wikipedia statement that Radio City Music Hall clocked more tourists in a year than the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building combined—or, closer to the time period we're discussing, that Radio City remained successful, regardless of the status of the city's economic, business, and entertainment sectors as a whole. Perhaps my mother was right, and it was the city's visitors who fueled the competition even though the true New Yorkers preferred the Roxy.

Whatever the case, it was the Roxy's demise which came before any problems overtook their competitor. Despite the size of a city like New York, perhaps it was the sheer numbers of tourists which turned the tables for the opulent and beloved Roxy, after all—or was it?

While my mother didn't share much about her work experience prior to settling down to mundane, suburban family life—nor did my dad add any commentary to fill in the blanks—I remember her fixing the blame for the Roxy's demise upon federal anti-trust laws. That, for a kid in grade school, was far more than I could take in, but somehow I remembered it. But I never saw any explanation of it that could bolster those childhood memories. Now, knowing how to research my family's history, it turns out I have the tools needed to ferret out those statements made so long ago.

To go back and explore what became of the Roxy, we need to also examine the timeline of their competitor, Radio City Music Hall. When Radio City staged its live show on opening night, almost ninety one years ago on December 27, 1932, reviews were negative. Early in 1933, the management opted to copy the Roxy's more successful formula of coupling live shows on stage with the showing of featured movies.

Embedded in that plan at Radio City was the decision to feature films produced by one company, RKO Pictures. From the start, the description of RKO's formation paints a portrait of mergers just daring government officials to cry "anti-trust." RKO became a film production and distribution company through the 1928 merger of three corporations: a theater chain, a "film booking" concern, and the well-known corporation, RCA.

Meanwhile, as the country clawed its way out of the Depression of the 1930s, the federal Antitrust Division of the U.S. Justice Department, influenced by key economists, entered an era of robust antitrust enforcement. Their goal was to "de-concentrate" large corporations and promote competition.

Changes were also happening, back at the Roxy. Though Samuel Rothafel—whose brainchild movie palace still bore his Roxy nickname—had long left the organization, by 1955 his son Robert Rothafel was back there, designated as the Roxy's managing director. One year later, the Roxy was acquired by Rockefeller Center, the same entity at which Radio City operated. The two competitors were now owned by the same corporation.

I first spotted that information through a curious entry within the holdings of the New York Pubic Library's archives. Apparently, an unpublished autobiographical typescript, along with several mementos, had been donated to the library by John Joseph North, a former usher at the Roxy in 1951. Currently held under the title, "Roxy Theatre Reminiscences," the collection at the Billy Rose Theatre Division included a note that the Roxy was "taken over in the late 1950s by Rockefeller Center, which ran it as a first-run movie house without a stage show."

By 1960, the archival notes continued, the Roxy was demolished "as Rockefeller Center expanded."

This, of course, helps me zero in on my father's career timeline, for without a stage show at the Roxy, there was no need for any musicians, and certainly no reason to keep a music arranger on staff. If I'm reading this collection of notes correctly, that means my dad was out of work at the Roxy by 1956. No wonder my brother had framed it as "after the Roxy" when he mentioned my dad's next gig was with the Versailles. There was no need to wait around for the soon-to-come wrecking ball at this theater.

For the larger picture—the social and economic history behind my own family's personal story—seeing one of two competing businesses cave to the other certainly could qualify as a possible target for antitrust legal action, yet I still can't find any actual statements to that effect. All I'm left with is a childhood memory of what my mom affirmed was the cause of the Roxy's demise. It may take many more hours poring over sixty year old newspaper headlines before I get the scoop.

Whatever the reason, that became the end of an entertainment paradise which flourished during a time period I can barely imagine. Times change, and I have no way now to experience what it might have been like to live the life such a milieu supported. But I can at least take a long look at what might have been and let it broaden my understanding of the people shaped by its influences.

Monday, December 18, 2023

After the Roxy

 

Some people can point to a specific pivotal moment in their life which changed everything that was to follow. In one way, it seems as if my father could have said the same of his own life, if only he were one to talk about himself. At least in my brother's recounting of my dad's music career, it would seem that way. I've been able to find interviews of my actor brother, posted online, in which he explained that after our dad had been the music arranger for the Roxy, he went on to work for another club, the Versailles. Specifically, he'd insert this comment to mark the timeline: "after the Roxy closed."

"After the Roxy" became not only an epitaph for my dad's career, but a running commentary over the years for my mother. Life definitely changed—but whether it was after the Roxy closed its doors at the last, or when the two left its employ, I can't yet tell. For the sake of delving further into the work history of these two people significant to no one else but my own family, I want to explore this turning point more closely.

The Roxy officially closed its doors on March 29, 1960. I'm certain my family had moved from the city to the more family-friendly suburbs by that point. By then, it would not have been feasible for my father to continue working for another theater or night club in the city, given a commute situation, even though New York train lines might have made that possible for city employees with the typical daytime work schedule. If he did take on another such position in the city at the close of the Roxy, such a commute doesn't seem reasonable for anyone keeping a performer's hours. I suspect the theater's timeline and that of my dad would no longer coincide.

Though my mother didn't provide many details about this former life, one thing I remember her mentioning was that the Roxy met its demise on account of something she called anti-trust laws

When I look for specific mentions of such a possibility involving the Roxy, I don't find any such explicit statements. However, though I am certainly no attorney, it doesn't take much digging to uncover what did impact the theater's timeline—and, ultimately, the career timeline of those who remained among the musicians, dancers, comedians, and supporting performers who made up the cast of the live shows featured at this once-renowned New York City movie palace. We'll take some time tomorrow to explore that history leading up to the Roxy's closing night.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Power of Remembering

 

Recently, the RootsTech blog heralded the launch of a new program in preparation for their upcoming event next February 29 through March 2 in Salt Lake City. The blog post, called "The Power of Remembering and Being Remembered," includes a video demonstrating the strength of such a process—especially how it felt for "everyday" individuals to be remembered by those most important to them.

Emphasizing that "Your Story is Worth Remembering," the RootsTech team slated "Remembering" as their theme for next spring's conference, a fitting choice. Further, they are encouraging all of us—around the world, as only an organization like that can do—to participate by creating our own videos with that same purpose. Their social media challenge includes your chance to share as well—and even use the RootsTech audio clip, "Out of Time," if you want to participate by posting your own version of this "Remembering" meme.

As I look back on my own dad's career years—and remember several of the others who were part of that same world—I can safely say I've been influenced as I now realize all there was to remember about his life. Though he never acted as if he were the one who accomplished all he did, it is inspiring to learn his story, even after all these years.

Watching the RootsTech video, I can see why the producers say there is power in being remembered. But I also think there is a great deal of power in the other part of their title—the power of remembering. As we go through the process of learning all there is to learn about our relatives and ancestors, it does something to us, as well.

As we learn about these people important to our own life, and realize that a small part of them is actually flowing through us as well, it can inspire us and shape us, separate and apart from our own life trajectory. Knowing we now know their story is a meta-knowledge beyond just the facts of knowing the story. To know that we know is the power of remembering.

The first part—to know—is to impart upon the other the recognition that they are remembered. That is powerful in its own right—for our relative. More than that, to step back and realize that we know that we know—the power of remembering—returns that gift back upon ourselves. It makes us different, it changes us, to know that we know our family's story, for the story of those others now becomes our story, too. And that can change us. 

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Family History Among Friends

 

I've often wondered what responses I would receive if, at our local genealogical society meetings, I'd ask what drew a member into the search for the family's history. It could all start as an open-ended question, like: "I started researching my family's history because...." 

Or, "I started researching my family's history when...." 

Perhaps I could shake things up a bit by posing this version: "I started researching my family's history despite...."

No matter what version that question would take, the answers most certainly would be varied. If we began that family history journey of our own volition, each of us most certainly took our first step for a reason different than the others in our group. I've love to hear them all.

Yesterday, I did have the chance to hear from one fellow society member's perspective, and it was a fully enjoyable two-hour-long visit at a favorite coffee shop. What we don't know about each other—even long-standing members of the same organization—can turn out to be fascinating. I'm not sure why we never get to that point of sharing our own stories, but hopefully I can remedy that, at least for one small group. 

Though genealogy is often a solitary pursuit, sharing our victories—and research escapades—can do wonders for each of us, as well as help us encourage each other to keep at the chase. Who knows? Perhaps we will even discover a previously-unknown family connection with our fellow society members in the process.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Timeline of a Dancing Line

 

It's hard enough trying to formulate a timeline for an ancestor's life, without adding the ever-moving picture surrounding that life's story. Yet, to understand our ancestors a bit more deeply, exploring the life surrounding theirs is an imperative.

I've been exploring the details I can find on my own father's life from reports shared by other family members. One of those people was my own mother, who also worked in the same "show biz" world surrounding my father, and later, my brother.

Placing my mother within the timeline of the family story is somewhat challenging. Though I knew she was part of the stage show at the Roxy Theater, specifically in the precision dance line featured at the Roxy's live shows, that line has been mistakenly labeled by other, incorrect names.

Let's take yet another detour from our story to examine the timeline of that named group, and see why my mother couldn't have been part of that particular retinue. For that exercise, we need to return to the story of the Roxy's impresario, Samuel Rothafel, when he first discovered an American dance troupe known as the Missouri Rockets. Impressed, Rothafel brought the ensemble to New York City to be the featured dance team at his new movie palace, called the Roxy after his own nickname.

Naturally, Rothafel had to add his own signature touch to that addition, and the Missouri Rockets became known as the Roxyettes. By 1932, however, Rothafel parted ways with the theater now known by his own nickname, and he headed to a competing New York venue, Radio City Music Hall. Many of the Roxy's star performers followed Rothafel's move, including the Roxyettes by November of 1932.

By 1935, the Roxyettes, now at Radio City Music Hall, became known simply as the Rockettes, possibly as fallout of a legal struggle to determine who, exactly, owned the rights to the nickname Roxy. (Apparently, Rothafel's new patron at Rockefeller Center lost that battle, for the movie theater adjoining the new Radio City Music Hall, which had also been dubbed a Roxy theater, subsequently changed its name to a more germane "the Center Theater.")

Placing all this in the context of my mother's own timeline, if she arrived at the Roxy in the late 1940s, that would have been long after the Roxyettes had moved on to Radio City Music Hall. She certainly never danced with the Rockettes, themselves, so that leaves me wondering just what it was that the Roxy called their new precision dancers. Using the troupe's own timeline to match up to my mother's tenure there at the Roxy tells me I'll have to look for another name for the dance company's identity.

As for my dad's work history there, I found a few more references—but wouldn't you know it, checking those stories against the stark history of the establishment doesn't seem to add up. Before the Roxy finally shuttered its palatial doors, there had to be more to their story.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

A Dancing Detour

 

There has been much written about the value of the so-called "FAN Club"—an acronym referring to the friends, associates, and neighbors of our difficult-to-research ancestors, but I don't suppose much has been said about its usefulness in helping to compose a life timeline for that mystery relative. In the case of reconstructing the timeline of my own father's career, that is exactly what I am doing, thanks mostly to the published interviews with his actor son who carried forward that entertainment legacy to the next generation.

Still, that technique, based upon only one other person, can only afford us so much of a glimpse of what we've been missing in our research. Like the concept of triangulation, the process works so much better when we have not just one vantage point, but at least two. In this case, that is where my mother's own career timeline comes in.

I already know that, because of her much younger age, my mother did not arrive in New York City until at least the mid-1940s. Because she was trying to break into show biz as an outsider, she started small, ever watchful for the next big break. A 1947 caption to a newspaper photo from the place where she was born in Iowa helped me pinpoint one of her earlier engagements at a place said to be New York's newest nightclub, called Vanity Fair. But I always knew that she had worked at the Roxy, so the Vanity Fair engagement must have predated that.

It is hard to envision the lavish presentation and surrounding opulence that was the experience of the Roxy Theater. If you are curious, I did find a blog post worth checking out which not only ran through the theater's history but provided several detailed photos of the venue from various perspectives.

With "world's largest" a seeming mantra guiding the theater's development and operation, one photo (below) from my mother's portfolio can give an idea of the "variety show" nature of the offerings during the live performances sandwiched in between the premiered movies at the theater. (Though she didn't dance en pointe, my mother sits just to the right of the middle in the front row, wearing toe shoes.)

Though you might assume, from her photo, that this was her gig with the Rockettes, there is an explanation for why, though she was a line dancer, that was not the correct designation for the ensemble when she was working at the Roxy. However, to explain that complex history, we'll need to save those details for another post.

From these brief details and scant information on dates, we can assume that from my father's contracts to play aboard trans-Atlantic steamships during the 1920s, to his brief gig as a resort musician in New Hampshire while the stock market melted down back in the city, to his wartime years at The Boulevard, he eventually became part of the immense orchestra featured at the Roxy by the late 1940s.


 

Above: Example of cast from a 1940s style variety show as featured at New York's Roxy Theater; from the private collection of the author.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Legendary Opulence,
an Unparalleled Trendsetter,
and a Nickname with Staying Power

 

Nicknames can sometimes define a person, but when we talk about the person to whom my father owed his future—and mainstay—place of employment, it was the man who bestowed meaning to his own nickname.

The Roxy—not the nightclub people talked about, up through the earlier years of our own century, but a previous hot spot well known to New Yorkers almost a century ago—started out as the dream of a film producer. Herbert Lubin—also called Bert Lubin—was known for his movies in the 1920s. Investing in his own dream to create the world's finest movie palace in New York City, Lubin brought in the talent to convert that dream into reality, including an innovative theater operator by the name of Samuel Rothafel.

If you didn't recognize the name of that immigrant impresario, it might be an understandable slip on your part. After all, it is likely you weren't around in New York City in 1927, when ten million Americans would tune in to his radio broadcasts every Monday.

At Lubin's invitation—not to mention, substantial financial enticement—Rothafel was free to implement Lubin's dream with his own ideas about theatrical design and production values. As we look back on Rothafel's achievement, he may be hailed as an "unparalleled trendsetter," but his opulent ideas cost Lubin a near brush with bankruptcy. While Lubin's original plan had been to make this the flagship of a series of six such theaters in the metro area, a week before opening day, he sold his controlling interest in the project to William Fox, founder of Fox Studios, and moved on. 

As for the brilliant—albeit lavish—Rothafel, he remained with his dream project from its opening day on March 11, 1927, through the 1929 stock market crash, and on until 1932, when he left the theater named for him and which contained so much of his innovative talent. Its lavish appearance—everything from the columned Grand Foyer with its "world's largest oval rug" to its immense theater-sized pipe organ—bore the fingerprints of Rothafel's inspiration. Despite Rothafel's ties to this historic theater, he left for a better opportunity at Rockefeller Center, where he opened another theater whose name may be more familiar to us today: Radio City Music Hall.

As for the movie palace he left behind, the theater continued to offer its featured combination of first-run movies and live shows. Both my father and my mother, having worked there, shared stories of performing at the once-glamorous venue that was, up until the end of March, 1960, a part of the city's heritage.

Now, I doubt many people at all would recognize the name of the innovative man, Samuel Rothafel, who made the theater the place it became. But some might recognize the nickname Rothafel was known by, the name by which the theater itself was called: the Roxy. That was the place where my musician dad played his trombone in the orchestra, and my mom eventually became a dancer with the "Roxyettes." It is through their stories that I know anything at all about the Roxy—but in learning more about that New York City fixture of the 1940s, it will help me understand more about my own parents. And it certainly helps me understand the origin of what seemed to me to be an unusual name for a movie theater. 




Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Next Move

 

Despite being in the midst of a difficult economic depression, any musician moving to New York City in the 1930s would still have had several choices for where to work in such a center of entertainment. When my dad returned to the city after a brief—and sad—moment in the entertainment scene in remote Manchester, New Hampshire, he could have grabbed a gig almost anywhere. Thankfully, reading through the many interviews of my brother, an actor in the next generation who followed in his father's footsteps, I can now piece together my dad's story.

One of the places where my dad worked, beginning in the 1930s, was with band leader Paul Ash. To get an idea of what the band might have been like, I perused old newspapers for any headings about Paul Ash. 

It turns out there were many mentions. What confused me was that the articles seemed to come from newspapers in many different locations, while I knew my dad's home base became solely New York City after his return home. From a brief biography of Paul Ash, I learned he was not only an "orchestra leader" but had performed in vaudeville and was also a composer and recording artist, perhaps explaining the widespread reportage about the man.

Looking further, I also spotted several newspaper reports as far back as the 1920s, indicating Paul Ash had previously worked in the Chicago area. Apparently, working relations there were rocky, for some newspaper articles mentioned his involvement in lawsuits and other legal action. However, a 1926 insertion in The New York Sun mentioned one detail keeping the Ash act in Chicago. Under the title, "$1,000,000 Contract Tied to His Long Hair," the stipulations for his continued work in Chicago were reported to include "his agreement not to change his flowing hair, get fat, or have his face altered." The contract was binding for five years.

By 1933, though, the million-dollar Paul Ash was advertising his "New Acts Reviewed in New York" in Billboard, and Chicago was a scene from his past. By then, my dad was back in New York, and though I'll probably never learn how he came to be part of the "orchestra" conducted by Paul Ash there, his tenure with the band was likely a long one—and, ironically, a run that was only ended thanks to legal action, not a waning audience.

That longstanding act with Paul Ash was featured at a place New Yorkers called the Roxy—a place from the city's past that we'll consider tomorrow. 


Monday, December 11, 2023

And Then There was a Son

 

In trying to assemble the details of my father's life—since so much of it happened before I was even born—I guess I should be glad that he had a son. Not only that, but be glad that he had a son who followed in his footsteps, for it was that son whose online biographical sketches have filled in some of the blanks in the saga for me.

With the son's arrival in 1934, that pinpointed the fact that my dad and his bride had left their first home together in Manchester, New Hampshire. Leaving behind some painful memories with the death of their firstborn Maureen—and, likely, a lackluster entertainment scene for the household's musician breadwinner—the couple returned to family in the New York City area.

From that point, I'd have had trouble spotting my dad's career trajectory, if it hadn't been for the fact that his son very shortly afterwards followed in his footsteps. Researching the story thus means I am following two story lines: both my dad's and my brother's. From clues gleaned years later from interviews posted online of my brother after his passing, I'll be taking keywords and key names and researching them to explore the work life of my father from the early 1930s through the point at which we had first found him in his successes during the war years.

Without that additional resource of parenthetical comments about my father, drawn from articles about my brother, I'd have been at a loss to know what was next for my dad. I wondered, at one point, whether he returned to playing for the bands on ocean-going vessels, as he had done during his single years. One photo from his younger years, sent to me recently by my cousin, had always stumped me, due to the enigmatic background—could it have been during a smoke break while on a ship? Hard to tell.

This week will see us taking a detour to scour newspaper mentions of possible bands with which my father might have played during that decade of the 1930s, after his return to New York City. The online resources now available to us can be a great help in becoming familiar with the social history of our ancestors' times. That fact will be no different for my father—or for any near relatives of the previous generation.


 

Above image: Where is this? My father, caught by the camera while on a smoke break at an unidentified location, probably in his twenties or early thirties, leaves me with many unanswered questions.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

What Could Possibly go Wrong?

 

For the third night of Hanukah, I thought it might be appropriate to add two factor authentication to my MyHeritage account. After all, it has been a while since the furor erupted over the "credential stuffing" attack at 23andMe, and though I had updated to 2FA at other DNA and genealogy accounts, I had yet to do so for MyHeritage.

Silly me. I thought this would be easy. What could possibly go wrong? Two factor authentication is everywhere now, it seems. I can do this.

I opened up the MyHeritage email inviting my participation while it was still a choice, and clicked through to the instructions on their blog post. I read through them, making mental notes that this was the same drill as the last time I had gone through the process. Then I logged on to my account.

As I was doing so, it occurred to me that, since part of the credential-stuffing problem was that people tend to, uh, repeat use of the same credentials, I might want to first update my own password.

That was my fatal error. Yes, I know I was making a wise choice to upgrade to one of those complicated computer-generated whiz-bang long strings of random letters and numbers, but I can now verify that timing can be everything. And this night, my timing was off.

Successfully changing my password, I patted myself on the virtual back and went on to conduct the business at hand—only now, the system couldn't recognize me. Apparently, it would only talk to me if I signed in using my old password. Never mind that I had given that up several minutes ago. 

Forget nanoseconds. Computer systems do not always do their magic in the blink of an eye.

I waited. Perhaps I needed to let the system catch its breath. Moving on to the next step in the 2FA process—entering my password so the system can make sure it's really me—stalled progress with a sickly yellow color overlaid on my plea to be accepted.

Perhaps the MyHeritage system was taking the night off to celebrate Hanukah. I will try again later...after sunrise.

Meanwhile, what was meant to be a simple process was also the mere prelude to today's post. After all, it's time for my biweekly count. As we all wrap up the year, my mind is not only on the numbers representing research progress, but is racing ahead to figure out what research projects should be attempted in the new year. 

This month has been slow for tree-building, since I decided to spend time researching my own father's life story. As for our family tree, I did add 199 new relatives, mostly the catch-up work of reviewing DNA matches in my mother's Tilson line. That family tree now has 35,928 documented names.

For my in-laws' tree, realizing I hadn't worked on my husband's DNA matches for months now prompted me to devote some equal time to the other side of our family. Adding fifty eight new names to that tree, it now stands at 34,089 individuals.

In two more weeks, I'll gather the numbers for a final count for 2023, and then it will be on to planning for the upcoming year's research adventures. But first, it will be back to MyHeritage again on a new day, to take care of that added security of two factor authentication. This time, I hope I'm recognized.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

What if There Weren't any Stories?

 

Learning the life stories of ancestors helps us understand them better. Perhaps that's why I feel such a need to focus on the stories. And it doesn't take long to find yet another story to share from the family tree—at least it seems that way.

Once I say that, though, someone inevitably responds to that statement with the question: What if there weren't any stories in their family's past? 

Most of the people who present me with that question usually rehearse their ancestral heritage: just "plain ol' farmers" who had no claim to fame, who spent their entire life working the land. What gets discounted with that frame of mind is the fact that, no matter how "average" or "boring" a life might seem to be, it can still come with the ups and downs, the disappointments, the hopes, the small triumphs, the perseverance-in-spite-of that made that person what, in the end, he or she turned out to be.

My dad, for instance, was a rather quiet man. I knew he had been a lifelong musician—well, except for one brief moment in his life when he tried to work at a "real" job—but because he never talked about himself, I never learned, for instance, about his chances for significant recognition for his talent, or even the sad episode in his younger years of losing a firstborn child. Now, of course, thanks to digitized records, I can find stories such as these—or at least learn how to read between the lines when the script remains silent—and begin to see him in a more three-dimensional light. Where no story seemed to exist, multiple story lines begin to appear.

When we examine the process of how a family member evolved into the person we may later have come to know them as, it makes it slightly more possible for us to understand—or, if you will forgive the term, how we can relate to that person from previous generations. That process, incidentally, is what is filled with stories. We just need to find the way to discover the details, follow the unfolding of the situation, ask questions and learn from what we observe—whether from family diaries and letters, from newspaper reports or old photo albums and scrapbooks, or even from dull, dry, government records. The story is there; it's our task to find it.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Shaped by the Times in Which we Live

 

We are all shaped by the times in which we live. Understanding our ancestors begins with discovering the challenges they grappled with during their lifetime.

Perhaps, in retrospect, it was poor timing to celebrate one's wedding less than three months before the start of the Great Depression. But if people had any idea what was about to hit them before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, they all would have made different choices.

As for my musician father and his bride, their choice as newlyweds was to move from thriving New York City to Manchester, New Hampshire—supposedly so my dad could take on a gig at a resort in lovely northern New England. That, at least, was the indication he provided when the 1930 U.S census was taken. He reported working as a musician for a band when the enumerator stopped at his door on April 9.

What would entice a New York City musician to move from a lively entertainment scene to set up residence in a remote city of less than eighty thousand people? When I first considered that question, I had the romantic vision of a scenario similar to the plot of the 1954 movie, White Christmas—a once-thriving resort now on the verge of bankruptcy but about to be revived by the influx of some talented entertainers. 

In reality, Manchester had already been on a downhill slide, by then a longstanding indicator of my dad's ill-fated move. Early in the 1920s, a nine-month strike by workers at two major textile companies had hit the city hard, and the textile industry in Manchester began its slow decline. By 1930, the population had shrunk by two percent over that previous rocky decade, not a good omen for the softer "industries" such as entertainment.

For Manchester, my dad's new home, there was more turmoil ahead. One of the two companies emerging from the strike ended up filing for bankruptcy in 1935. A year later, a devastating flood damaged city infrastructure as well as industrial complexes along the river's edge

By then, however, my dad was long gone from the area—and for reasons beyond the economic problems. In the winter of 1933, he and his bride had welcomed the arrival of their firstborn child, naming her Maureen, just as the economy had hit bottom and was beginning its long climb back to normal. 

The child was not to be welcomed into their home, however, for another set of devastating reasons having nothing to do with the economy: Maureen was born with spina bifida, compounded by meningitis, and spent the remaining twenty three days of her life in an institution—an "infant asylum."

Far from family members who could provide help for the new mother—or at least consolation to the couple following their tragic loss—their decision to return to New York City must have made sense on so many more levels than simply the economic.

Whatever the decision process and the timeline of the move, by 1934 it was easy to see that the young couple was back home in the city, for that was the arrival, in September, of their newborn son. Leaving a sad episode of their life, a less than successful career venture, but more importantly, a precious firstborn child, must have been difficult, but in those troubled times, it was best to be closer to the support of a family network.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Reconstructing the Story

 

Reconstructing an ancestor's life can be a challenging proposition, but for our more recent relatives, you'd think the process would uncover familiar stories. Not so with my father. 

While it was exciting to learn of his rising star in the New York City music scene during war years, I was aware that the 1940s marked a time in his life when he was also married and a family man. He had long been on the career trajectory that brought him to that point at the end of 1942 when he got in "on the ground floor" with a shot at leading the band selected to play a possible hit piece. It was those earlier years—the ones leading up to this war-time point—which I also want to explore.

Resources like Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com have been invaluable in helping me hunt through myriad blips of publicity over those earlier decades, but even so, it required painstakingly piecing clues together.

Here's an example. Fortunately, I did know a bit about this episode in his life—but only a very little, with just the foggiest of details. As a child, I remembered hearing that my dad had played in bands providing the entertainment aboard steamships headed to and from England. When, where, or how, I knew very little. All I knew was that at the time, he played the trombone, a good fit for a musician heading into the big band era.

A hint on Ancestry.com led me to a barely legible digitized passenger list which contained my father's name. His entry was one of many for which the occupation listed was musician. Above that long list of musicians on the USS Leviathan was another entry: "Musician Ldr"—musician leader. That band leader's name was Richard Kraetke. 

Seeing that entry, my immediate thought was to search for any details on who the band leader might have been. After all, there are now multiple online resources for digitized material from previous eras, including biographical sketches and other resources to piece together our ancestors' past. But for Richard Kraetke, there were only a few items. 

One resource contained only a couple sentences in a New York Daily News article entitled "Two Crew Vets Get Sea Burial." The May 15, 1959, entry noted that Richard Kraetke, one of the two whose ashes had been ceremonially consigned to the sea, had formerly been an orchestra leader aboard some of the U.S. Line ships.

One of those ships had apparently been the USS Leviathan, formerly the German ship Vaterland, seized from the Germans in 1917 by the United States after it entered the First World War, for it was the passenger list of that ship upon which my father's name appeared, ten years later. Another list, with an arrival date only a month after that first list, indicated that this might have been a regular gig for my dad in his twenties. Indeed, further searching revealed a similar list for August, and another for September of that same year.

As exciting as overseas passage to international destinations might have been—even for those working their way across the Atlantic—the thrill would eventually wear off. Sure enough, while there may have been more passenger listings than I was able to find—or than were digitized by genealogical companies—I imagine my father's name would not have appeared on such lists for much longer. Less than two years later, the traveling musician found himself saying "I do" to a woman whose family hailed from Manchester, New Hampshire—seemingly far from the entertainment capital of the east coast.

And yet, even there, my dad found a way to keep in the music world.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

At Harry and Mabel's Place

 

It was Harry and Mabel's place which was the only eatery in the neighborhood, ever since the new development, called Rego Park, went in back in 1925. Rego Park—a mashup of the name of the builders, the Real Good Construction Company—had plenty of new homes alright, but not many other conveniences at first.

Harry and Mabel called their new place Le Vay's Restaurant—not very inventive, considering that was their last name. Right across the street on Queens Boulevard, the boundary of the new development, the restaurant was technically situated in neighboring Elmhurst. It took them four years after ground was first broken for the development for Harry and Mabel to realize their opportunity, but by 1929, they were in business.

It was only a few years later when everything changed. December 5, 1933—yesterday marked the ninetieth anniversary of that date—was the effective date reversing national prohibition laws. Not long afterwards, Harry and Mabel applied for a liquor license for their restaurant, and made some major changes to their business plan. They expanded their facilities—big enough, eventually, to host wedding parties and even conferences—and scheduled nightly floor shows along with their dinner fare.

To note their new image, Harry and Mabel also changed the restaurant's name. Now they called it, simply, The Boulevard.

Over the years, the place's popularity grew. It became the spot for those in the know to gather. The wedding reception for actor Martin Landau, for instance, was held at The Boulevard. During his campaign for the presidency, John F. Kennedy met with party leaders at The Boulevard. But long before that, when only the residents of the local area knew about it, The Boulevard was a place to have a great evening out, taking in a show with dinner and dancing to some great music supplied live—at least for a time—by Val McCann and his orchestra.

"More good news from the same spot," the "Night Spot Notes" from the Long Island Star-Journal would continue to report: "Val McCann and his band have had their contract renewed." It was almost as if the reviewers were keeping track of how long the band would continue their stay at The Boulevard.

Toward the end of 1942—months after the news broke of the contract renewal—another headline announced the band would be the "first to play song hit," a piece called "Three Terrific Guys." Written by then well known twins Kay and Sue Werner, who years before were the creatives behind the hit "Rock it For Me" featuring Ella Fitzgerald, the buzz on their latest piece was that it was headed for the best musical number of the week status.

Granted, the song was designed to resonate with the times. The "Three Terrific Guys" referred to the soldier, the sailor, and the marine, three details on the minds of many Americans during those war years. Apparently, Kay and Sue Werner had been to The Boulevard to take in the "Varieties on Ice" revue. Impressed with my dad's band—a "smooth organization"—when the sisters sold the rights to their song, they stipulated that "Val's outfit...get first crack at it."

As the reviewer concluded, "So that's what Val's got that Kay [Kyser], Benny Goodman and Sammy Kaye haven't got—as yet."


Above: Ad placed in the November 7, 1942, issue of The Billboard on page 25, featuring two war-time songs from the National Music Corporation of New York City. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

New Year's Eve, 1942 Style

 

Planning your New Year's Eve celebration yet? How about an evening of dinner and dancing—plus an ice show—at The Boulevard for six dollars? And that's for the prime seats in the house.

That would be the going price for an evening out on December 31, 1942, when my dad's orchestra was the featured music for that evening out on the dance floor. The price, incidentally, included a steak dinner. According to an article only a day before in The New York Sun, reviewing all the celebration events "in the suburbs" of New York City, The Boulevard was only one of many options listed. 

We learn more, according to another such insert in the New York Post for the same December day. The Boulevard was located in Elmhurst, hardly what would be considered a "suburb" today. Part of the New York City borough of Queens, it is definitely within city limits.

An evening at The Boulevard ringing in the New Year promised to include a ten course steak dinner, noise  makers, souvenirs, plus a revue, "New Varieties on Ice." Oh, and Val McCann and his orchestra

Being 1942, the country was by then in the midst of war. New Year's Eve on December 31, 1942, was barely one year in from the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December 7, 1941. Not only might the local entertainment venues be wondering how business would fare that holiday season, but the entertainment staff was feeling the effect just as much. 

Noted one entertainment columnist for the Post earlier in November of that war-torn year:

The case of Val McCann, in his fourth month at the Boulevard in Elmhurst, Long Island, is pretty unique these days; he's about the only band leader we know of who thus far hasn't been affected by the draftall of his boys are either in 3A or 4F, and the crew has remained intact ever since the war started, quite in contrast to some one like Tommy Dorsey, who has lost seventeen men to Uncle Sam in recent months.

Continuing that commentary after the new year of 1943 was duly rung in, a blip in the Long Island Star-Journal's "Night Spot Notes" on Saturday, January 9, noted that "Val McCann and his orchestra are fast approaching the long-time record of Art Mooney, now in the armed forces."

The writer went on to mention that "Val is entering his fifth month at the Boulevard."

I'd like to think my dad's band enjoyed such a long run because of their great music, but taking social history into consideration can sometimes alter the impact of a family story.

I can remember from childhood wondering why my friends always had stories of their dads in World War II for their school displays and writing assignments while my dad had none to share. I figured he was too young for the First World War, and assumed he was too old for the second one. Still, his draft registration card, completed in 1940, indicated that he could have been called up for service. Somehow, that never happened.

Perhaps it was the musical ability after all which sustained his contract at The Boulevard. After all, noted the Star-Journal, he was "one of the fastest-rising band leaders in the East."


Above: Ad insertion for The Boulevard in Elmhurst, New York, in the August 29, 1942, Long Island Star-Journal. 

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