Editor’s note: Just as New Yorkers try to shake off the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, the city shifts its attention to today’s presidential election. While most of us will be glued to the television or to our handheld digital device tonight, waiting to see whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be our next president, it’s worth recalling the way Election Day used to play out on the Lower East Side. Writer and filmmaker Laurie Gwen Shapiro takes us back to the year 1912:
At the start of October, my lifelong political junkie father and I were anxiously weighing Obama’s chances en route to Café Petisco on East Broadway. I was keeping pace alongside his moving electric scooter when Dad curiously slowed to a halt in front of The Forward Building, former headquarters of the once powerful Yiddish newspaper, and more recently the site of luxurious condos owned by the likes of Tatum O’Neal.
“I bet you didn’t know how the Lower East Side got our election results before TV? Before the internet? On the Forwartz building. They projected the results on the side of the building. On a giant white screen. You can’t believe what a big deal it was.”
I am a New York City history junkie, and pressed Dad for details, right in the middle of the street.
“Ah, I don’t know anything. Let’s eat lunch, I’m not a historian.”
Believe me, it’s a Herculean effort getting tidbits from the past out of Julius Shapiro, the wisecracking nonagenarian who lives with my family half the year so that he may safely escape the Florida hurricane season. (This strategy obviously did not work during Sandy, but that’s another long story.)
My father was the rare older parent when I was in grade school. Age-wise he could be my grandfather, and in one family album there are precious photos of him as a boy in knickerbockers. Although the physical handicap he endured as a young man has worsened in his senior years, his memory is far from gone; the correct adjective for his mind is keen.
Dad has plenty of important history to remember too: he was a 1940’s chemist who interviewed for the Manhattan Project, a 1950’s color television engineer on the Paramount team that invented the Trinitron system, and the 1970’s Manager and then Director of Computer Operations for New York City, back when computers, straight out of the early James Bond movies, took up an entire floor of the Municipal Building.
Still, the past is verboten. He’s a committed Futurist who never pities himself or sentimentalizes his own history, despite outliving two wives and becoming partially paralyzed in 1940, after a staph infection during the dearth of penicillin, at the start of World War II. His greatest pleasures include his three grandchildren, extensive reads about the latest developments in artificial intelligence and brain research, and political news shows. The past is not such a picnic for him.
Once we were seated and ordered, I asked again about the film projection against the building. That’s not what he wanted to talk about anymore, even if it’s what I wanted to talk about as a documentary filmmaker. He wanted to tell me what he just remembered about the Lower East Side-born candidate, Al Smith, running for president in 1928 (when Dad was eight).
“Everybody in New York City was rooting for him, the Catholics, the Jews, the Protestants. We were sure he would win. There were teens lighting bonfires on every corner celebrating his victory the day before. Let’s say Al Smith did not play in the rest of the country. You can’t believe what a vicious attack was led against him. They said he would be subservient to the Pope. My parents were heartbroken when the result came in. It was a real wake-up call how much prejudice existed in the rest of the nation.”
I grabbed a small notebook I always keep in my purse, because I knew he may never offer this additional historical morsel again. “And the film projection?” I proceeded hopefully. “How did that work exactly?”
“I’m not a film historian. Go find a film historian.”
“C’mon, I’m not going to go find a film historian. You’re sitting right in front of me. Tell me more.”
“So call Peshie. She was there, she’s the big rememberer.” By Peshie he means my Aunt Paula, who is two years younger than him, the next in birth order of the four surviving Shapiro siblings. My father’s much older brother Sol was a professor at the University of Minnesota, and died in the 1970’s. Sol was born in Jerusalem before my grandparents emigrated from the Holy Land to New York in 1920. (My three lively aunts, Paula, Eva and Estelle, were all, like Dad, born and raised in the Lower East Side.)
I finally gave up on my pop when he was midway through his hamburger with no further information to share. That night I reached Aunt Peshie in her apartment, and she was delighted to be consulted as a family expert. Paula Goldstein used to work in the accounting department in the Garment District, and she is famously “on-the-ball.”
“Wow! I do remember the elections there! And this is what would happen,” she said, “the whole family would go down to the square for the night, even Esther, who was a baby. Of course we were Democrats, but the Abba and Ima (the Hebrew words for Father and Mother) occasionally voted American Labor Party. The Abba struggled to get a job to make ends meet, he was shy and a bookworm, and not so hot as a door-to-door suitcase salesman, and eventually he used the Ima’s connections to specialize in menswear piping. The Labor Party was the more progressive party garment workers leaned to. It wasn’t like now; there were many more parties to choose from.”
“There were thousands of people, the crowd was overwhelming,” she continued.
Did she remember the Al Smith disappointment too?
“No, no, I only can think of the Roosevelt elections. But I don’t remember the politics as much as the cartoons. Throngs of people standing while they projected Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck movies on the screen. The cartoons were to entertain the kids until they got the tally, until they knew something. No kid would miss election night. What kid would miss free movies? Oh, and this may be good for you, there were trapped audiences, so local businesses handed out fliers. When the hour got dark, the wives and children would go home, and the men would kibitz until the final results.”
“Do you remember the businesses that handed out fliers?”
“I don’t know, kosher butchers, pickle men, that sort of business.”
“Was it cold?”
She laughed. “What do you think? It was November. But there were movies. We were kids, we were fascinated with seeing a big white screen. We put a coat on.” She couldn’t remember any more, so I thanked her profusely for her small contribution to Lower East Side history.
Later that night I searched the Internet but couldn’t find any mention of these film projections and massive crowds. I ended up contacting author and historian Joyce Mendelsohn, an authority on “all things Lower East Side.”
Joyce suggested checking Irving Howe’s book, World of Our Fathers. “Or you could contact historian Shuli Berger, she has written a lot about the Forward,” she wrote in her email reply to me. I cursed silently at my decision to rid my bookcases of a lot of the “Too Jewish” books I wasn’t interested in after my mother’s death, including World of Our Fathers.
To speed things up, I emailed Shuli Berger, or as she is known professionally, Shulamith Z. Berger. Shuli is the Curator of Special Collections at Yeshiva University, and quite amazingly offered to pore over old Forward Yiddish articles over the weekend and translate them to English. I eagerly responded with three exclamation marks.
On Monday I checked her next email on the matter:
First reference I found in my material is from Nov. 1912, which is right after the Forward Building at 175 East Broadway opened. The cornerstone laying for the 10-story building was in Nov. 1911, the building opened to some extent in May 1912, but it was not complete until close to Nov. 1912. But on Nov. 5, 1912 the Forward had a small article on its front page, “Come see the election returns at the Forward Building!” This is a rough translation of the article:
“Tonight the election return will be given from the Forward Building with stereopticon pictures and moving pictures – returns from the votes of the of the socialist candidates on the East Side, and information about the candidates of the socialist and all other parties of the entire country. The Forward made arrangements with the Postal Telegraph Co. and the vote will be available directly to the Forward from the polling places, and through the stereopticon pictures and moving pictures from the Forward Building thousands of people will learn the results of the vote. Our impressive 10-story building will be lit and beautifully decorated. In addition to the assembled seeing the returns, they will also be entertained by the moving pictures and beautiful pictures and the beauty of the building.”
Another email from Shuli came an hour or so later:
On Nov 6. 1912 the Forward had a long article on page 8 entitled “50,000 people at the Forward Building” – the article describes the scene at the Forward Building, the crowd waiting impatiently for the results to appear on the white screen. All of Rutgers Square and Seward Park from East Broadway to Hester Street, from Essex Street to Suffolk Street, and a part of nearby streets, were absolutely packed with people.
And the next email from Shuli described a November 6, 1912 article:
It sounds like other newspapers also announced or projected election returns, for example – “At times another comrade comes from Downtown where the English papers are and looks down from the windows of our editorial offices on the 10th floor to the Square and park, and cries out with surprise – the crowd is perhaps 10 times greater than there.” The article notes that the crowd reacts in particular to election returns of socialist candidates, deafening cheers heard.
Unfortunately the only other mention I have is from Nov. 5, 1914, when Meyer London was elected to congress, and here’s a drawing of Meyer London standing in front of the Forward building, but alas it doesn’t show the election returns or the projected screen, but you do get a sense of the crowds. The article describes that when the returns were projected with a stereopticon lantern on a white screen hanging from the Forward Building. I have nothing on the 20’s and 30’s elections. I have no clue when the Forward stopped projecting election results at their building on East Broadway. If I remember correctly, the Forward moved out of the East Broadway building in the early 1970s.
I was excited to find actual mention of any the election results in front of the building, and even more excited that it seemed for now, my own father and his oldest sister were able to fill in missing decades that followed with firsthand recall. But one thing was nagging me.
I simply didn’t understand what any of this stereopticon stuff meant.
As luck would have it, I didn’t have to contact a film historian. I ran into film historian David Walker Leitner at a friend’s film premier party here in the neighborhood.
“Facebook me the curator’s translation,” he said over the din, “I’m very surprised at the idea of film projection in 1912.”
Two days later I got a very informative message from David:
Stereopticons used photographic glass slides. Two projectors were employed not for 3D effects but to be able to dissolve between images. They were powered by limelights and could be bright enough to throw a big image on the side of the building at night. In 1912, motion picture projectors were hand-cranked and not very large compared to what they would become in the movie palaces.
If this report is accurate, what I suggest happened was that short silent movies depicting popular candidates were shown on a smallish screen to pump up the crowd, and that the election results themselves, as soon as they became available, were quickly photographed onto glass slides, developed, dried, and projected. Since there was no instant media aside from telegrams, it would have been received as breaking news. Keep in mind that motion pictures required that a negative be developed, then a print struck, then a positive developed, then physical leaders added by an editor to form a reel. There would be no time to do any of this on an election evening.
In one unguarded moment my father had pried open up a forgotten door onto our neighborhood’s past.
I called Aunt Peshie back to check on her after Hurricane Sandy, and to let her know that despite my research, she was one of two living sources so far on the election projections. She sighed when I told him how unwilling her brother was to contribute more. “Your father can’t stop the fact that when you live long enough, you simply become history.”
To date, I have found nothing more about these raucous election nights. I would love to hear from local residents who may have been there, or maybe from their older relatives in retirement complexes. Right now I just have a toehold on the history, so please do send word to The Lo-Down (here) if you know more.