The Bernard Olcott Story starts off 2016 with a rewrite of my post “THE LOST WEEKEND” (the original of which I have just removed from this site). When I wrote “THE LOST WEEKEND” last June, I reminisced about a picture of my Dad hamming it up with several friends in a photo booth heavy laden with cultural significance – see above picture. All of which was lost to me since I did not grow up in the 1940s. I shrugged off that photo booth picture, effectively asking if anyone recognized anything about it. Nobody did.
That photo, it turns out, is a window into the New York City of yesteryear. This essay, and the next three will use the above image as a departure point into a black and white world. I’ll take you back to New York City of the 1940s, my Father’s formative years as a newly minted Cooper Union graduate, and you’ll:
- Read about the biggest movie of 1945,
- Ride the El,
- Hear old style New Yorkers interact,
- Learn a valuable lesson at Cooper Union (a venerable institution dating back to the Lincoln Administration),
- Review a mysterious death in 1943 with what little facts are available, and
- Come back to a colorfilled present with a shared activity across time.
Why should you care? Well, somehow you found this blog. Perhaps in riding the El with my Dad, you may see some of yours in him. Maybe you like nostalgic stories about Gotham City which was, in some ways, a completely different city from today’s Big Apple.
It could be that you are intrigued with the backstory of the founding of a business or how the tremendous loss of a parent could leave so little trace behind. I still haven’t been able to figure out what happened to my paternal Grandmother, who passed away during this era.
Sometime in early 1946, my Dad Bernard Olcott was working as a 1st Lieutenant in the US Army Signal Corps Inspection Service. He was assigned to various businesses up and down the East Coast with government contracts specializing in radio and electronic technology. In today’s language, we would call Dad a Technology (or maybe an IT) Consultant.
I am intimately familiar with such a career track; by exposure to many different businesses, the consultant gets to wear many different hats. After working within numerous companies, it’s easy to see which businesses benefit from positive work practices and environments (and which ones don’t).
One weekend, Dad was invited to a soiree, quite possibly a reunion at his alma mater, Cooper Union. He decided to wear a snappy striped bowtie and tweed jacket. While many of his male colleagues that night were decked out in their military uniforms, Dad apparently decided against it. Perhaps, in a pique of contrariness, he decided to just be different. He didn’t need to prove anything – he already had a great ongoing series of gigs at companies like Bendix, Philco, Reeves Sound Labs, and Hytron from Boston to Washington.
At the party that evening, there were a series of amusements for the party guests. One of which was a photo booth that sent up the hit movie of the time – “The Lost Weekend” starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, who bore a striking resemblance to Dad’s 5th future wife, Rosemary. I found the picture below among his personal effects – Dad is on the far right.
To the left are two couples, each lady wearing the military cap of her boyfriend. Dad seems to like the girl in the white naval cap; too bad she doesn’t seem to be his date. (She’s cute; she looks like a Kennedy girl).
Jane Wyman as Helen St. James in “The Lost Weekend.”
Why the liquor bottles strewn around the picture? That’s a reference to the plot of the movie – which not only won an Oscar for Best Picture but also the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. “The Lost Weekend” was one of only two movies that has ever won both prizes. The “Trainspotting” of its day, “The Lost Weekend” is a gripping drama about addiction.
Ray Milland fighting addiction as Don Birnham in “The Lost Weekend.” Notice the Third Avenue streetscape through the windows.
As a backdrop, the haunting film gives a glimpse of a lost New York. Ray Milland stars as alcoholic writer Don Birnham who battles his demons against the backdrop of the up and coming neighborhood of the era, Third Avenue in the East 50s. The movie was filmed on location in Don’s apartment, a fourth story walkup at what appears to be (according to my analysis) 209 East 54th Street.
This is a neighborhood with which I am intimately familiar. However, if you go try to find that address today, you will end up looking at the side of 909 Third Avenue, a cement and glass 33 story tower built in 1968. In fact, if you watch the movie and try to identify local landmarks, at the street-level it can’t be done!
Don Birnham crossing Third Avenue in the East 50s searching for demon alcohol.
The movie starts with a slow pan from South to West from a rooftop adjacent to the apartment that Don shares with his brother Wick. It’s a classic black and white view of New York skyline from the mid-1940s. The Chrysler, Empire State, New York Central, and 30 Rockefeller Center towers feature prominently in the September daylight. The pan ends on the curious DuMont Building at 515 Madison Avenue with its signature television antenna (still visible today) before entering Don’s window, where he has hidden a bottle of Rye Whiskey from his brother.
After that point, the scenes filmed at street level display Third Avenue as if it were from an ersatz universe, unrecognizable to today’s New Yorkers. First of all, the neighborhood is full of walkups populated with back-to-back pawn shops, liquor stores, bars (at least THAT hasn’t changed), barber shops (these were ubiquitous), antique stores, fruit, vegetable, and fish shops.
Secondly, the hustle and bustle of Third Avenue is augmented by the trams of the Third Avenue Railway System (TARS) rushing both uptown and downtown. In 1945, all avenues and streets were still bidirectional; the current “east-even” and “odd-west” one way traffic pattern only came during the 1960s under the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay.
Thirdly, however, the most noticeable thing about street-level Third Avenue is that it’s dark! On an overcast day, it was darker still on the street. On a sunny day, the impressive structure overhead cast zebra-striped shadows on the roadway below. Every 5 minutes or so, an impressive roar could heard from on high as a multi-ton train plied its way uptown or downtown.
This behemoth was the Third Avenue Elevated mass transit line. Next week, we’ll take a ride on that lost line!