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Stories

The New-Old Albany

Every great city is filled with a thousand untold stories. Albany, New York, however, has none. In a bout of civic service, Tobias Seamon decides to concoct a few.

In the old Jewish Quarter of Prague, there’s a synagogue called the New-Old Synagogue. It was given its ironical name after a Renaissance-era synagogue was built atop an older, medieval building commonly known as the Old Synagogue. Thus, the New-Old Synagogue. During the course of researching an article on the history of Albany, New York, I came across several oddball tidbits regarding the city, none of which seemed to quite fit into the piece. Looking back at them, some neighborhoods seemed to tell their own stories, though never quite got around to telling them. Here, then, are some possible histories for Albany locales. Stories I would believe, were I not their author.



The Green Room

Among the multitude of tenements and dens of iniquity that used to flourish in Albany’s pre-war South End, perhaps the most interesting was a three-story brownstone cathouse known as the Green Room. Located along Green Street, one of the few avenues still in existence after the whole area was demolished to make way for a highway interchange, the Green Room was easily the classiest whorehouse along the strip. Set apart from the other red-light venues, the brownstone appeared from the outside to be a rather sedate home. Inside, however, was a bustling, upscale gentlemen’s club. Politicians, police chiefs, and gangsters alike hobnobbed, swilled beer and whiskey (bootlegged upstate by Dutch Schultz, then by Legs Diamond, then by Schultz again after Diamond’s mysterious murder in the Center Square section of Albany), and enjoyed the sumptuous pleasures offered within the upstairs bedrooms.

The Green Room took its name not from any connection to the theater, but because the madam, the widowed Mrs. Charlotte Copake, had decorated the entire house with green fabrics. The heavy curtains, the couches, the walls themselves—all were thick green velvet. She’d bought the fabric for literally pennies on the pound after an importer’s ship floundered at the port, its holds filling with water from the Hudson River. Though heavily stained and water-marked, the green of the fabric actually seemed to improve from its dunking, and many found the underwater allure of the Green Room enchanting. Mrs. Copake’s business was brisk, to say the least.

Along with the oceanic qualities of the house, the Green Room also boasted the finest floorshow of its time. Before Blaze Starr or Lili St. Cyr made their fame in burlesque, Lila Carlisle, ‘The Queen of the Seas,’ danced at the Green Room in a style unparalleled by any of her contemporaries. According to legend, Miss Carlisle—real name Meghan Dougherty, fourth daughter of an immigrant Irish father and a Russian mother—entered the small stage in the main parlor wearing nothing except for tiny mirrors all over her silver-painted body. As she danced, she would then remove the mirrors, one reflection at a time, until only a few remained in the typically ‘forbidden’ places. With her mirrors, silver skin, Slavic green eyes, and black Irish features, Miss Carlisle enthralled thug and cop alike into silence on a nightly basis. Whether she, like the other ladies of the house, availed herself afterwards to customers upstairs is unknown. A few old-timers insist she did, but at a price few besides Legs or the Dutchman could afford. Either way, there was no doubt that Carlisle was the siren of Green Street.

‘The Queen of the Seas’ eventually fell into ill health from the lead-based silver paint and disappeared forever into the slums of the South End. The Green Room itself continued to thrive but only under old Mrs. Copake’s direction. With her death in 1937, the place gradually fell into ruin and was already boarded up by the time the war rolled around. Later, when the wrecking balls came, a few of the workers at the site went up into the house to peel what they could of the old green velvet from the walls. Though derelicts had taken much of it to use as makeshift blankets, the memory of the flashing mirrors and river-washed greens of the undersea floorshow still had the power to mesmerize.



The Clown Palace

At the first stop on the West Albany bus line, amidst the myriad of empty sheds, abandoned railroad tracks, and quiet clapboard houses, you can still find perhaps the strangest office building anywhere in the country. Though the letters on the door inform visitors that the building is now part of the State Department of Corrections, above the door is a huge false-front that used to be the head of a clown. It turns out the building has a history as unique as its appearance.

Back in the 1920s, when the rail yards of West Albany bustled, a shill named Leonard Markhaus bought a large engine-maintenance shed, converted it into a movie house, christened it The Sultana, and erected a gigantic false-front. He emblazoned the false-front with the image of a winking Scheherazade, with camels and masked Bedouins leering behind her. The Sultana and Markhaus were successful for a number of years until a fire destroyed much of the theater interior. It was said Markhaus himself had accidentally lit the blaze when he fell asleep at the projector, cigar in hand. The movie showing that night, fittingly or not, was Gone with the Wind. The balcony was completely ruined, as were most of the floor seats, and Markhaus sold the building at a terrible loss to one James T. Snell, a failed insurance salesman who’d come into a bit of family money. Snell gutted the seats, dumped sawdust on the floor, and rented the space to traveling circuses and fairs, most of which were on the extremely shady side. Many said Snell booked freak shows as often as he could because the loathsome entertainments never failed to draw big crowds. In order to further attract traveling shows, Snell had the winking Sultana on the building’s false-front painted over with a laughing, grease-painted clown face, and the place was re-named The Clown Palace.

With the dual decline of the West Albany rail yards and traveling carnivals, The Clown Palace fell into disuse. A second fire, attributed to hooligans, took out the rest of the balcony, and Snell lost the building not long afterward to unpaid back taxes. The city of Albany later bought the building for $10 (one of city boss Dan O’Connell’s better buys) and eventually sold it to the State Department of Corrections in the mid-’70s. Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s notoriously tough drug laws had come into effect, and the state needed more and more office space for its correctional bureaucracy. For one reason or another, though, the false-front was never taken down, and the state merely whitewashed the front. Prison office or not, the laughing clown face had become a hallmark of the neighborhood, and residents specifically asked that it remain even if it now looked more like an oddly billowing cloud than anything else. Perhaps the best way to envision the sign is to stand across the street on the porch of an old-fashioned candy-store newsstand. There, at the newsstand, the faces of the old clown and the Sultana can easily be imagined smirking above the building’s plate-glass doors.



Masada Park

Just three blocks from my apartment is a small hilltop that, on early-summer evenings, crowds over with Little League players and their parents. The scene is as normal as anyone could expect: young kids race in and out of parked cars, popsicles in hand, while their older siblings shoot hoops on the court across the street. Parents mill at the hotdog stand and in the bleachers, sometimes startling those nearby with a sudden, loud cheer for their kid. The whole neighborhood comes alive during game nights, fueled by the action, the 50-cent popsicles, and the strangely delicious cheeseburgers sold at the concession stand. It is a scene so thoroughly American and modern that to see the name of the park on the big sign hung along one of the dugouts is immediately striking: Masada Park.

For those who don’t know, Masada was the ancient Jewish hilltop fortress where Jewish rebels and their families held out for two years against a Roman siege. Eventually, the occupying legion won the battle, but the Jews burned themselves—women and children included—rather than surrender. In the long, often desultory history of Judaism and oppression, Masada remains powerful testimony of will versus tyranny.

As a name for a baseball park, though, it mystified me with its grimness, so I investigated. It turns out that in 1962 one Irving Berman built the complex, a large diamond accompanied by two smaller ones set beyond the outfield fence. Berman, a Polish Jew raised in America, had lived most of his early life in Lewiston, Maine, where in high school he worked at a paper mill to support his widowed mother and siblings, all the while studying hard in hopes of earning a scholarship to college. During that time he also played shortstop for the mill’s semi-pro baseball team. Berman indeed earned the scholarship and attended Fordham University in the Bronx, where he became captain of the debating team. Still in need of money, however, Berman worked as groundskeeper for the Fordham athletic teams.

After chatting with the older woman working at the field’s concession stand, I learned that Berman’s widow, Mrs. Marcy Berman, was still alive, and in fact living right around the corner. I called, told her that I was interested in the history of the park, and she graciously agreed to have me over to talk about her husband. A tall, elegant woman, Mrs. Berman told me that he always said working at Fordham was one of the happiest times in his life—that he would go over debate points as he mowed the lawns, laid chalk lines on the diamond, and helped the pitchers warm up during practices. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Irving postponed his studies to enlist in the Navy. He served three years on a destroyer in the Pacific, where he survived two kamikaze attacks. He returned to New York, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Fordham, and studied law at NYU before relocating upstate to teach at Albany Law School.

Because the GI Bill paid for his schooling, and personal savings and investments during the war rescued his family, Berman never needed to work as a groundskeeper again. But he missed those sunny afternoons at the Fordham fields, so he purchased a parcel of land in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany and converted the whole of it into ball fields. In honor of the victims of the Holocaust, Berman named the fields ‘Masada Park.’ Berman enjoyed sitting in the bleachers during Little League games. You could always spot him: a smallish man—always in a suit—with a transistor radio held to his ear to catch the big-league scores.

‘It was odd,’ said his widow. ‘You’d have thought, after all he’d seen and done and accomplished, that he couldn’t be any further from that mill or his family’s poverty. But somehow, when he was at Fordham, mowing lawns and arguing whole debates in his head, I think he was far enough away from all that to understand or maybe just enjoy the experience. Like his old dreams and the new hopes were all in one place, at the same moment. I suppose a person needs to find a nice way to be sad about the things they’ve left behind, no matter how much they may have hated them. A sunset burning through a hilltop fence, points of order in his head, that just was his way.’

biopic

Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon