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Searching for a lost art...

Apr 26, 2012 4:12 PM | 1 comment

Late last year, I had the pleasure of watching the documentary, Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy at BAM, which was shown as part of the "Puppets on Film" festival.  The film followed actor and Brooklynite John Turturro as he visited his ancestral homeland of Sicily to study the traditions of Sicilian puppetry with puppeteer Mimmo Cuticchio.  It was an interesting film that included great scenes of a master "puppa" at work.

I found the art of Sicilian puppetry, or Opera dei Pupi, fascinating.  The art form, passed down from generation to generation within families, was once a critical component of Sicilian culture.  The puppets can weigh up to 100-pounds and require extensive training in both manipulation and voice projection.  The plays, which combine to tell a single story over the course of 10-13 months of performances, are based on Sicilian lore from the era of Charlemagne and have remained unchanged over the centuries.   

Given that Turturro was raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents, the documentary touched upon the great waves of emigration from Sicily to America, and its impact on the cultures and customs of people on both sides of the Atlantic.  But, much to my frustration, the film never specifically addressed whether the tradition of Opera dei Pupi made it to America.

From prior research for a school lesson, I knew that the 1912 atlas identifies an "Italian Theater" in the heart of "Brooklyn's Little Italy" on Union Street between Columbia and Van Brunt.  What, I wondered, were the chances that Opera dei Pupi was practiced here?


The 1912 Directory had a listing for the Regina Margarita theater at 55 Union Street.  The address was right, but there was still no hint as to the theater's format.  Then, with the 1900 Directory, I found my answer:

From here, I took a step back and consulted Cezar Del Valle's The Brookyln Theatre Index.  I learned that there was not one, but three, Italian marionette theatres on Union Street in the 19th and early 20th centuries:

35 Union Street - Teatrino Marinette - 1886

52-55 Union Street - Royal Italian - 1898 to 1912

101-103 Union Street - Italian Star Theatre - 1896 to 1930s

I searched through the Eagle and discovered that its reporters were as enthralled with these theaters as I am:

Several articles described and celebrated the tradition, which was a significant part of Brooklyn's growing Italian community.  These illustrations, in particular, capture the artists and audience mid-performance: 


Just as I was about to declare my research complete, I decided to take one last look through the catalog to see if we had anything else on Italian marionettes.  I was shocked to discover that the Brooklyn Collection owns a copy of a 16mm film entitled It's One Family, Knock on Wood, which tells the story of the Matteo family of New York, who practiced Sicilian Puppetry from the 1920s to the late 1990s:

The filmmaker, Tony DeNonno, studied under the Matteos and continues to speak on the art form.  And the family's puppets, which date from the 1920s, are now in the collection of the Italian American Museum in Manhattan's Little Italy.  The 20-minute documentary, which was made in 1982 and aired on PBS, has been transferred onto DVD and can be viewed here in the collection.  It's a perfect complement to the film I viewed at BAM. 

Sadly, despite the efforts of filmmakers and historians to bring attention to Sicilian puppetry, the art form appears to be dying.  The Matteo family no longer practices in the city, and, according to Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy, there are even few performances available in Sicily itself.  Mimmo is one of the few great masters of puppetry still living, and he is often travelling the world presenting his art form outside of his homeland.  Although apprentices and students study his technique, it is unclear what will happen to the tradition when he retires... making the films and materials in the Brookyln Collection and other repositories all the more important.

Baseball in Brooklyn: Author talk with Andrew Mele

Apr 24, 2012 11:27 AM | 0 comments

Andy Mele, author of The Boys of Brooklyn:The Parade Grounds-Brooklyn's Field of Dreams, and The Brooklyn Dodgers Reader will be with us tomorrow evening, Wednesday, April 25th at 6:30 p.m, for our monthly series. He'll talk about the many players - famous and not so famous that played at the Parade Grounds, and of course those Brooklyn Dodgers.  Please join us. 

The Brooklyn Collection is on the 2nd floor mezzanine of Brooklyn Public Library's Central branch, at Grand Army Plaza.  A wine and cheese reception, as well as distribution of tickets is at 6:30 p.m. Seating is limited to 40.  Author talk begins promptly at 7pm.


                       illustration by June Koffi 

The Letters of James W. Vanderhoef

Apr 18, 2012 12:09 PM | 0 comments

Avid followers of the Brooklyn Collection's activities over the last several years --we know you are out there--may be familiar with a web site by the name of Brooklyn in the Civil War, funded by an LSTA grant and created by Brooklyn Public Library staff. This week I'd like to dust off one of the collections at the core of that site, the Letters of James W. Vanderhoef.

new finding aid for the letters, containing a few nuggets of information recently mined from online sources, can now be accessed via our web site, and the biographical note is reproduced for you here:


"Sources of information on the life of the author of these letters are few. His appearances in census records are only occasional; military records provide a richer lode, but they stop around 1866; and City Directories yield but little information.  For some events, the letters themselves provide our only source to date.


James Wilson Vanderhoef was born around 1837 in New York, to Peter S. and Mary Vanderhoef. Peter S. Vanderhoef was born in New Jersey around 1795 and served in the 1st Reg’t. (Dodd’s) NJ Militia in the War of 1812 in the rank of Private. Peter is listed in the 1850 census and in the Williamsburgh directories as a “carrier” or “Letter carrier.” In 1853-4 the family lived at 511 Grand St, moving to 62 Eighth St (Eastern District) by 1856. In one of the final letters dated 1865 he is reported as having died. Mary Vanderhoef too was of New Jersey origin.  The family included a daughter, Caroline born around 1840, and the married sister, Mary Ann (Molly) Guillan, to whom the letters are addressed.

Letter written on battlefield, 1st Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861

Like his father, James entered upon a military career.  Described as 5 ft 7 inches tall, with fair hair, a light complexion and blue eyes, at the age of 16 he enlisted as a musician, joining the N.Y 1st Artillery Reg’t,  Co. B,  during the War with Mexico.  


On 6 Sept. 1861 he re-enlisted for a period of three years “or war” with the 45th Reg’t (German Rifles) N.Y.S.V. at the rank of 1st Sergeant. The regiment saw action in several battles, including Cross Keys, 2nd Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, after which 224 men were reported dead or missing—among them James W. Vanderhoef. Vanderhoef's notes written on the battlefield at 1st Bull Run can be seen above--click on the letter for a transcription.



Pickett's Charge, Battle of Gettysburg


On April 24th 1862 Vanderhoef was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and then again to 1st Lieutenant on Sept 1 of that year.  On May 11, 1863 he was promoted to Captain, Co. E. It was at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1st, 1863 that he was captured and taken prisoner, being held at Libby Prison and other camps. According to the Regimental Descriptive Book, he was returned to his regiment in an exchange on May 13th, 1865.

 Libby Prison


A note dated 1892 confirms that from June 8, 1863 to June 30, 1865 Vanderhoef held the rank of Captain, after which  the position ceased to exist “by reason of the consolidation of  the 45 and 58 NY Vols.” A report of May 16th 1865, a few days after the exchange, reports him “sick.” 


Yet another Register of Enlistments places Vanderhoef back in uniform as of Nov 13, 1866, when he signed up under a Capt. Quimby for a further three years in the regular army.  By this time he is 30, a seasoned soldier—and according to his letters, a married man, having at last married his “pett” Jenny (a marriage apparently disapproved of by some of his friends.)  Yet despite this hopeful start, the future that Vanderhoef imagined in one of his letters as a Commissioned Officer in the Regular Army, seems not to have come to pass. The record seems to speak of a desertion, on Feb 3, 1867. And indeed, by the time of the 1870 census he has, perhaps even literally, gone underground; for there is a James Vanderhoef age 32, born in New York, residing in Little Cottonwood, in the Salt Lake territory of Utah, occupation described as “works in mines.”


To date we have no further information."

Not my family's story

Apr 17, 2012 1:23 PM | 2 comments

A beginner in genealogy, I recently set out to explore my family's history. Knowing they have lived in Brooklyn for generations, my first idea was to head downstairs to "the morgue," the dead files of the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper that closed its doors in 1955. (Library staff will do similar searches for anyone who wants them. Just call the Brooklyn Collection during our open hours 718 230 2762.) When the trip led me to a clipping titled "Dahl, Theodore--Dead," I thought I had found information on my great-grandfather, Theodore Dahl.  But it turned out instead to be another man of the same name, and when I delved a little deeper, the clipping led me to a convoluted story involving the transit system, a New York City Mayor, an assault and a suicide.

Gerhard Melvin Dahl, 1938 

To start, let me introduce Gerhard Melvin Dahl, brother of the Theodore Dahl who was NOT my great grandfather. Gerhard was a transit executive from Cleveland and later New Orleans who moved to New York City in 1912.  In New York, he landed several jobs including Vice President of the Electric Bond and Share Company and Vice President of Chase National Bank. In 1923 he was elected Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) Corporation during its reorganization.  Later he was named Director of the BMT serving until 1943.  His position with BMT would prove to be a successful albeit controversial time in his career and personal life.  

Transit Truths

 In 1924 during his first year as chairman, Gerhard penned Transit Truths, where he explained the problems the BMT faced and laid out plans for new subway construction, extended bus lines, and justified the need for unpopular fare increases.  He blamed Mayor John Hylan for the issues the BMT faced.


It was said that Mayor Hylan had a grudge against the transit system.  Before his tenure as mayor, while he was studying for his law degree, he worked as a locomotive conductor for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT).  In 1897, he was caught reading his law books while at the helm--some say he almost ran over his supervisor--and was fired.  According to some observers, Hylan took his revenge when he became Mayor. Gerhard Dahl thought that Hylan deliberately starved the BRT of city funding and would not allow an increase of the longstanding 5¢ fare, which would have funded new subway cars and construction.  After the demise of the BRT, Hylan went on to attack Dahl and the BMT.  Dahl fought back in his book stating:

     "Almost from the very beginning, however, the BMT has met with the bitter, personal and unfair opposition of Mayor Hylan with the result that there is no other alternative for the Company than that of continuing its dual program of giving the best service possible with existing facilities subject to political manipulation and at the same time giving full information to the public.  The people themselves will settle the transit problem with they understand the facts." 

Hylan was not against all transit initiatives, arguing for a tunnel between Staten Island and Brooklyn.  Construction began in 1923 and was quickly abandoned due to financial and logistical issues.  The entrance holes, which still remain in Bay Ridge and Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island are now referred to as "Hylan's Folly" or "Hylan's Holes." (Some also lay blame on Hylan for delaying the construction of Brooklyn's Central Library--but that's another story.)


Controversy continued to follow Gerhard Dahl throughout his career.  In 1924, his name was connected with the murder of Louise Lawson, a young actress who was bound, gagged, robbed, and left for dead.  In 1927, he was accused of insider trading; and in 1933 he was accused of receiving illegal bonuses.

That same year, he was accused of assault.  The alleged victim claimed Dahl hit her in the face, arms and neck, kicked her and tore her clothing resulting in her becoming ill and disabled.  The case was dismissed, and Gerhard Dahl was proven innocent three years later.  In 1948, his name was once again thrown into the headlines--with the disappearance of his brother, Theodore.

Theodore Dahl lived a rather quiet life in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife.  He was a reserve Lieutenant Colonel for the United States Army and an Executive Vice President of the White Motor Company of Cleveland.  In 1948, while vacationing in Miami, Theodore went missing.  The New York Times and The Eagle reported the chain of events that led to his death.  Dahl complained to the boarding house owner, Mrs. E. Strong, that he lost a lot of money and was worried about his financial situation.  Two days before he disappeared, he told Mrs. Strong he was going to Palm Beach.  Upon his return, he claimed he was robbed of $1,500 and was thrown into the ocean.  Later that night, he left a note in his room indicating that his remaining belongings should be donated to the Salvation Army.  That was the last anyone heard from him.  On March 23, 1948, The Eagle reported, he "disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Miami." 

In February 1948, a body was found next to train tracks, apparently struck by a train.  The body had no identification and was buried in a paupers grave.  It was not until a missing persons report was filed on February 27 that the body was identified as Theodore Dahl, based on Army records and fingerprints.  Theodore was 61-years-old.

So that is the story of the other Dahls.  As for my great-grandfather--I will just have to keep on looking.

Digitized City Directories

Apr 10, 2012 3:15 PM | 2 comments

I'm writing today to introduce you to one of the underappreciated workhorses in our collection -- the city directories.  These are the ancestors of the big, cumbersome yellow page directories that land on your doorstep and often linger there, unused, until you finally carry them to the trash bin.  These days the print directory may seem an outdated relic of the past, what with geolocating, dynamic, user-specific directory services like Yelp and GoogleMaps just a few clicks or finger flicks away.  And who lists their telephone number in the white pages anymore?  Who even has a landline telephone anymore?  Although it may seem that the white- and yellow-pages are only useful for demonstrating our strength in feats of paper-ripping, a trip through the pages of our newly digitized city directories from the 19th and early 20th centuries shows the wealth of knowledge that can be found in pages upon pages (upon pages) of lists.

My fellow Brooklynologist, June, already demonstrated the narrative power of directory listings in her fascinating series of blog posts and accompanying interactive map that traced Brooklyn's Black community through information listed in the 1863 Brooklyn directory.  But that isn't the only story contained in the pages of these tomes.  The size alone of the directories tells a very compelling story of explosive growth in Brooklyn through the 19th century.  In 1858 the listing of Brooklyn residents ran some 425 pages, from Abadie to Zwick.  By 1877, just 19 years later, the residential directory listings ballooned to a heaving 1042 pages. 

The directory publisher, Lain & Company, highlights this very correlation between population growth and directory size in the preface to its 1889 directory, remarking that "Nothing shows the growth of a city better than its Directory, and reference to the number of names contained in each edition is a matter of general interest."  This chart followed:


In addition to charting Brooklyn's impressive growth rate, the directories also document the construction of the borough's street system through the Street and Avenue Directory that is found at the end of every year's listings.  The Municipal Register, which is in earlier volumes referred to as the Appendix, gives a listing of the borough's civil servants, its banks, its churches, its social clubs, its hospitals, its public schools, and all the rest of the infrastructure upon which the city hums along.  The Business Directory arrived in 1869 to neatly categorize and index the various button makers, distillers, gunsmiths, lace repairers, lard refiners, preservers of fruit, and dealers of guano who did business in the borough. 

And then there are the advertisements.


Printed on color-saturated yellow, pink, and blue paper the advertisement pages of the directories stand out for their plethora of fonts and illustrations. Above, a L.J. Hoyt, dentist at 395 Fulton Street (near the intersection of Adams Street and Fulton Mall, on our modern grid), declares his shop the "headquarters in this city for the painless extraction of Teeth with Laughing Gas."  After a visit with the dentist, it was just a short walk (or crawl) down the street to visit Drake's Patent Artificial Limbs at 326 Fulton (at the intersection of today's Cadman Plaza West and Pierrepont Street). 

One could round out a day of dental- and limb-work with a much-deserved rest at the (electric!) Turkish bathhouse at 81 Columbia Heights.

The directories are most obviously useful for people doing genealogical research.  We get several requests every week from people all over the world who are looking for some trace of an ancestor who passed through Brooklyn.  There is something marvelously concrete about seeing one's great-great-great-somebody listed in print and even the few details included in the directory listing -- typically name, occupation and home address -- give form and substance to an otherwise irretrievable past.  One can't help but wonder, how will our children's children's children make that same connection with our lived reality 150 years from now?  With print directories rendered obsolete, will we leave behind enough digital detritus to give our descendants a trail to follow? 

In the coming weeks we will be preparing and uploading more of our digitized city directories on the website, so check back often.  For those who like to let their fingers do the walking the old fashioned way, we also have beautiful new preservation copies of the directories in the Brooklyn Collection.