17 February 2007

Puppets and Stilettos on Union Street

Some time ago, a local real estate broker handed me xeroxed article from the Dec. 3, 1899, edition of the Brooklyn Eagle. It concerned a property he handled on Union Street between Columbia and Van Brunt. The building in question is presently an auto body shop, but, according to the story, was once an Italian-language puppet theatre called the Star Theatre, fashioned out of a former stable by one Charlie Pulvidente.

The article contained several sketches, including one of the theatre's front. I checked out the address, 101 Union Street. Sure enough, it was recognizably the same building. And there's no doubt the neighborhood was once heavily Italian and that the nearby intersection of Union and Columbia was a hub of activity, lined with shops, restaurants and movie theatres.

According to the item, headlined "Local Italian Theater Crowded Every Night," a show was presented every p.m, enacted entirely by life-size marionettes made of wood and brass. These were manipulated by the husband and wife team of Joseph and Mrs. Costa (who first name is never mentioned). The evenings lasted four hours long and were actually enactments of epic poems by the 15th-century Italian poet Tasso. Each play was presented in serial format and would take months to complete, and if you wanted to catch it all you had to pay your five cents and attend the Star every friggin' night.

It's a fascinating article, not least of all because of the unbylined reporter's thinly disguised racism toward the working-class Italian audience members. They are "dark-faced, mean-visaged Italians" and there is "a very uncanny suggestion of keen bladed stilettos in the very atmosphere of the place." He also suspects Charlie has a "reputation as a stilettist" since the guys pay him such respect. None of the men "wear a collar" (Egad!) and they "surely never wash." The drawing below bore the caption "Types."

It's clear the stiletto-obsessed journalist means to be respectful, in his condescending way, particularly when he notes admiringly that the theatregoers sit quietly for hours on end—even if they do drink beer, smoke foul cigars and get into fights. The account is a reminder that Italians, like the Irish before them, once occupied the lowest rung in New York City society.

This is how 101 Union looks today:


michelle said...

this is my great-grandfather!!!my father is gonna go nuts when he sees this! thank god for your website and people like you.you made my YEAR nevermind day!!!!!!!!

Greg Mc said...

great jam sessions there on monday and weds nights...real cool scene and easy going crowd. Great for musicians that would not want to play in front of a tight ass Manhattan crowd...