This month's party
in memory of native NYer Roxanna Rose Mennella
Welcome to 2005! If you've never been to a party, now's the time to start! It's a celebratory MAGIC GARDEN - four years of decadence and patriotism. What better way to indulge than by holding this auspicious event on Fat Tuesday, a.k.a. Mardi Gras, a.k.a. drink and eat and wear beads and live large - girls gone wild style. The Mardi Gras festival takes place on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday - the first day of Lent, a period of fasting and penance for many folks. Mardi Gras is a legal holiday in New Orleans and has been an annual event for two centuries, except during the two World Wars. It was an annual event in my house that David's Cookie's would be given to at least one family member as a Christmas gift. My favorite was coffee walnut chocolate chunk. David's Cookies started in Manhattan in 1979 and by the mid 80s were everywhere in NYC. Most closed by the late 80s, though one store remained on 79th and 3rd until last year. The only way to eat these treats in NYC now is by mail order - www.davidscookies.com - hint hint.
While I encourage hedonism in most forms, there was a dark period in American history when bad people tried to place limitations on a fundamental human right - boozing. The 18th amendment to the Constitution, known as the Volstead Act, banned the manufacture, distribution, sale, and use of alcoholic beverages from 1920 until 1933 - the era known as Prohibition. National Prohibition was defended as a war measure, arguing that grain should be made into bread for soldiers and not for liquor. Anti-German sentiment contributed to Prohibition's approval - many breweries were owned by German-Americans. In 1933, recognizing the political and social costs, and the ineffectiveness of its enforcement, Congress passed the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition. It gave each state the right to restrict or ban the purchase and sale of alcohol. Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi were still "dry" in 1948. Mississippi, which had made alcohol illegal in 1907, was the last state to repeal prohibition, in 1966. There are still some dry counties and communities in the U.S. of A, but that really just means people have to drive a little farther to get their liquid goods.
There still exists a Prohibition Party, founded in 1867, which is responsible for the passing of the 18th Amendment. It is the longest-lived American political party after Democratic and Republican.
Back to NYC, where laws are meant to be broken. At least in old-timey NYC. Critics argue that Prohibition failed to eliminate drinking, made drinking more popular among the young, spawned organized crime and disrespect for law, encouraged solitary drinking, and led beer drinkers to hard liquor. Secret underground watering holes known as speakeasies sprung up all over the place; they were called that because of the secretive, "shhhh, speak easy" when entering. There were often secret knocks and passwords to get in - just like the MAGIC GARDEN. A door that appeared to lead to an ordinary apartment, deli, or store would open into an entertainment paradise. Speakeasies were often referred to as Blind Pigs, Blind Tigers, Blind Rabbits. Bling bling?
It is said that in 1929, there were 32,000 speakeasies in NYC - about double the number of legal drinking establishments before Prohibition. Lots of alcohol was smuggled in from Canada, and many gangsters got their start by becoming bootleggers. 52nd Street between 5th and 6th.032 Avenues was considered to be one of the "wettest" areas of America. The most famous spot was "Jack and Charlie's 21," or the "21 Club," founded by Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns.
The club was raided numerous times, but Federal Agents were never able to pin anything on them. At the first sign of a raid, they would activate a system of pulleys and levers, which would sweep bottles from the bar and toss the smashed remains down a chute into the city sewer. To keep the alligators company. And then they built a secret wine cellar in the borrowed basement of the building next door. A two-ton door in the basement was actually a wall that led to a bounty - 2000 cases of wine. The door was operated by placing an 18 inch wire skewer into a tiny hole in a specific crack in the cement wall. Did anyone see "The Apprentice" this season, where Sir Donald and some wannabe Donalds got a tour of the club, including the meat skewer demonstration? (Side note - in 1965, during Coney Island's economic decline, George C. Tilyou's family was forced to sell its Steeplechase Park to developer Fred Trump - Donald's dad, who wanted to build high-rise apartments on the land. He was unable to gain the requisite planning permission. HA HA! The property was subleased to small ride operators and concession vendors, who ran the once famous Parachute Jump until 1968. In 1969 the City acquired Steeplechase Park. In 1980 the Parachute Jump was put on the National Register of Historical Places and in 1989 was designated a City landmark. The Jump is the last remnant of the original Steeplechase Park. Go see it. Now!)
Another important speakeasy was the Minetta Tavern, at 113 MacDougal St. at Minetta Lane. It was called the Black Rabbit during Prohibition and was the starting place of De Witt Wallace's "Reader's Digest" in 1923. The magazine was published in the basement of the Minetta Tavern in its early days. Tons of existing bars in NYC were speakeasies.
an alcoholic beverage as one with an alcoholic content of 0.5 percent
or more by volume. So some brewers produced "near beer," which
contained less than 0.5 percent alcohol. It was
produced and brewed in the same fashion as regular beer except that a
de-alcoholization step was added to the process to lower the alcohol to
the legal limit. Near beer was bland and not very popular. In 1921 the
nation's breweries were producing about 9 million barrels of near beer
per year. By 1932, less than 3 million. In 1927 the Prohibition Bureau
estimated that Americans were making 700 million gallons of homebrew per
year. Before Prohibition most beers had about 6-7% alcohol. Here's an
estimate as to how much alcohol is in a typical beer today:
Prohibition had a notable effect on the brewing industry in the United States. When Prohibition ended, only half the number of breweries reopened as they had existed before. Many small breweries were out of business for good. Anheiser-Busch made it through Prohibition by making ice cream, near beer, corn syrup, ginger ale, root beer, yeast, malt extract, refrigerated cabinets, and automobile and truck bodies.
Prohibition quickly produced bootleggers, speakeasies, moonshine, bathtub gin, and rum-runners smuggling supplies of alcohol across state lines. Many people made beer and wine at home. Finding a doctor to sign a prescription for medicinal whiskey was relatively easy. Prohibition also fostered corruption and contempt for law and law enforcement. Al Capone's Chicago organization reportedly took in $60 million in 1927 and had half the city's police on its payroll. The Prohibition Bureau sent out thousands of operatives to raid - the most famous were NYC guys Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, Izzy and Moe, two retired vaudeville performers who disguised themselves and became the most effective agents of the force. They got too much attention from their theatrical antics and were removed from the force. Their story was made into a movie with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney called, surprisingly, "Izzy and Moe."
With alcohol production pretty much in the hands of criminals and unregulated home manufacturers, the quality varied tremendously. There were many cases of people going blind or suffering from brain damage after drinking stuff made with industrial alcohol or various poisonous chemicals. One notorious incident, and the topic of some southern blues tunes, involved the medicine Jamaica ginger, known as "Jake." It had a very high alcohol content (upto 85%) and was mainly popular amongst poor southerners. The Treasury Department mandated changes in the formulation to make it undrinkable. Sleazy vendors then adulterated their Jake with an industrial plasticizer to fool government testers. People continued to drink it and the plasticizer resulted in tens of thousands of victims suffering from paralysis of their feet and hands. Some victims could walk, but the muscles controlling their feet did not work, and so they walked by throwing their legs high in the air and flopping their feet onto the ground. Think of Monty Python's funny walks. This bizarre gait became known as the "jake walk" and those afflicted were known to have "jake leg." The first cases were observed in 1930 and within a few months the contaminant was identified and production ceased.
After the stock market crash of 1929, legalizing alcohol was seen as a way of creating jobs and generating tax revenue. In 1932 Beer Parades were held throughout the country, supporting beer's legalization with the slogan, "Beer for Prosperity." In NYC, Mayor Jimmy Walker led a day-long parade with an estimated 100,000 people on May 14. During his presidential campaign in 1932, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who loved his booze, adamantly called for Prohibition's repeal. He made converts out of former dry supporters, like John D. Rockefeller Jr., and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who preached the pros of repeal in his nationwide chain of newspapers. After Roosevelt's landslide victory in 1932, Hearst's newspapers carried a celebratory article entitled "Beer by Christmas!" It didn't happen so quickly, On April 7, 1933, beer containing 3.2 percent alcohol was legalized, and breweries resumed production. NYC movie theaters celebrated by playing a newly released film called "Beer Is Back!" Prohibition officially ended on December 5, 1933. Across the nation, 1.5 million barrels of beer were guzzled during the first 24 hours. We can top that at the MAGIC GARDEN on Fat Tuesday.
Come to the 4th Anniversary of the MAGIC GARDEN and celebrate your right to manufacture, distribute and drink alcohol.