This is the first in an occasional series I plan to do on Thursday nights, celebrating both #ThrowbackThursday and the upcoming weekend by giving you a “you-are-there” taste of what a weekend night in America was like at various times in the past. Because I have to pick somewhere, and I’m particularly enamored with the historical geography of New York City, I’ll pick New York. Everything in this article is accurate to the exact date: the prices, the menus, the shows playing, the addresses etc. For this first attempt we’re going to go back to the eve of World War II, both a troubled and a fascinating time in American history. So get your evening clothes out of mothballs and let’s go out on the town…in 1938.
It’s Friday night, November 18, 1938. Thanksgiving is in six days. The Munich Agreement in Europe, signed on September 30, has averted war–for now, so long as Hitler keeps his word. The midterm elections, 10 days ago, posted big gains for the Republicans. FDR’s New Deal may be running out of steam. The New York area is still a little on-edge from Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, three weeks ago. But tonight you can go out. You don’t have to worry about the weather tonight; it’s light clouds and the high today was 52°.
Obviously a night out must start with dinner. Manhattan is full of restaurants. Jack Dempsey’s, owned by the boxing champion, is one of the favorites. Located across from Madison Square Garden, Jack himself often greets guests; if you go tonight he might shake your hand. You can get a full-course dinner for $1.50. Probably it will be full of people just about to go to some Broadway shows. Or, if you don’t feel like fighting the crowds and you like German food, you could go to Janssen’s Hof Brau in Midtown, Lexington Avenue and 44th Street–basically in the shadow of the Chrysler Building–which is one of the best-kept secrets in town. They serve frog legs, venison steak, pheasant and even partridge in weinkraut. I bet you can get a good glass of Moselle there too. Dinner costs $1.40, a dime cheaper than Jack Dempsey’s joint.
The Metropolitan Opera House (the “Old Met”) was pretty impressive when filled to capacity in the 1930s, as this photo attests. On November 17, 1938, Verdi’s La Traviata played here.
You could probably get a table at a German restaurant tonight, because business is kind of tough for them. Just today the newspapers are full of stories and photos from Kristalnacht, the horrible pogrom against Jews in Germany. Many shop windows were broken and synagogues burned. Hitler and his gang of criminals are mouthing outrageous justifications for this crime. What’s happening to the Jews in Germany is egregious, and it’s front-page news. Depressing.
So what to do after dinner? If you like opera, La Traviata is performing at the Met tonight. The show is at 8:30 and tickets are from $1 to $5 depending on seats. If that’s a little highbrow for you, there are plenty of live theater options in Manhattan, and some great shows. At the Plymouth Theater (45th Street) Raymond Massey is performing as Lincoln in the acclaimed play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. It starts at 8:30 and orchestra seats are $3.30. Or, noted British character actor Robert Morley is playing the title role in Oscar Wilde. That’s at the Fulton Theater, also on 45th street. That show is at 8:40. No price listed but my guess is it’s about $3. Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town is playing at the Fulton Theater, also 45th and Broadway. The show is at 8:40 and tickets are $2.20. I hope you got tickets in advance for any of these shows, such as from a concierge at a hotel; it’s always tough to get Broadway tickets the day-of.
Here’s a scene from Submarine Patrol, one of the movies you have to choose from.
What’s that? You didn’t? Well, there’s always movies. Submarine Patrol, a new adventure thriller directed by John Ford, opens tonight at the Roxy, Seventh Avenue & 50th Street. Tickets are 25 cents. The picture stars Richard Greene and Nancy Kelley. (Who?) If you can wait until tomorrow, Little Tough Guys in Society opens at the Rivoli, Broadway and 49th. That picture stars Mischa Aver, whoever he is. I’m not sure what the second feature is, but I bet the newsreels will be full of Krystalnacht footage. The movie offerings don’t look that good tonight, to be honest, with one exception. Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, starring Robert Donat, is playing at the 55th Street Playhouse, east of 7th Avenue. It’s been out a while but has good notices, so maybe that’s the best option.
How about a drink? The Hotel Taft, 7th Avenue and 50th Street, has a famous Tap Room. Cocktails start at 25 cents. Actually, this one sounds better: the New Circle Bar at the Hotel Governor Clinton, Seventh Avenue and 31st Street, features live music, Jay Coe & his Trio. Cocktails are also 25 cents. Prohibition was repealed five years ago so we can go get bombed legally. This is the height of the swing era, and although I’ve never heard of Jay Coe, I bet he rocks.
This performance by Tony Martin aired on the Burns and Allen comedy radio show in January 1938, and is typical of radio fare for that time.
Of course, this is still the Great Depression. Maybe you can’t afford to go out–in which case you’ve got plenty of company. You can drink at home. A pint of G&W Five Star Gin costs $1.19. While you’re drinking your cheap gin–hopefully not alone–you can listen to the radio. Lucille Manners, a soprano, is going on WEAF tonight at 8PM with a concert orchestra. I’m not sure what she’s going to be singing but I’ll be she’ll be doing it while wearing white gloves. At 9PM there’s a radio play called “Tovarich,” starring Luise Rainer (she won an Oscar last year for The Good Earth) and William Powell (star of the Thin Man movies). That’s on ABC. There’s a gameshow, “Guessing Game,” on WOR at 8, and George Burns and Gracie Allen on ABC at 8:30. A little later WEVD is airing a special on the German crisis–presumably Krystalnacht–with Mortimer Hays, an attorney, and Professor Max Winkler of City College New York. Then you can chill out with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra, on WEAF at 10PM. If you’re the type that stays up late, the radio stations stop broadcasting at different times, a few at midnight, some at 1:00, one at 1:35. WEVD stays on the air until 4AM. Hopefully you’ll be in bed by then.
So, that’s an evening in Manhattan in the late 1930s. This article was fun to research and write, so I’m sure I’ll do a few more of these. Enjoy the music!