Friday, December 14, 2018

Bank Night at the Keeney

by Erin Doane, Curator

In February 1936, the Keeney Theater in Elmira held its first Bank Night. Coloradan Charles U. Yaeger, a former booking agent from 20th Century Fox, invented the lottery-type game in 1931 and leased it to theaters. Other than to make money for Yaeger, the purpose of the game was to get people back into movie theaters during the Great Depression. By 1936, Bank Night was being played in 5,000 theaters across the U.S.

Here is how Bank Night worked. The theater owner would pay to run the event and would get a registration book and equipment to draw the names of winners. The registration book sat at the theater box office and anyone could write their name down for a chance to win, even if they did not buy a ticket to go into the theater. On a Bank Night, a person’s name would be announced from the stage. That person then had a certain amount of time – 5 minutes at the Keeney – to get to the stage. If they got to the stage in time, they claimed a cash prize. If they did not, the money would roll over to the next Bank Might.

The Keeney Theater held its Bank Nights on Thursday evenings and the drawings took place around 9pm. Things started out slowly with a few people winning now and then but there were no really large banks, or cash prizes. Three months into the game, however, things started to pick up. More people began to participate because the banks grew as people failed to make it to the stage in time when their name was called. The Star-Gazette started printing weekly updates of the drawings.

On June 4, friends of Robert Goodwin heard his name called at the theater and rushed out to a nearby business to tell him. He raced to the theater and was on stage within the 5-minute window but his friends had misheard. The name called was actually that of his uncle.

Star-Gazette, June 5, 1936
Miss Margaret Liddy had been present at every single Bank Night except for the one on June 25. She had spent that day at a picnic for the Delta Alpha sorority at a cottage on the Chemung River. She intended to leave the cottage in time to make it to the theater but she could not get a ride back to town and had to wait for the trolley. She arrived too long after her name was called and missed out on a $595 bank (which was just over $10,500 today).

By July 2, the bank was up to $635 and about 5,000 people had gathered within calling distance of the Keeney Theater. Automobile traffic jammed the streets for blocks around the theater and the area behind the playhouse was filled with people. East Gray Street from the railroad to State Street and Railroad Avenue between Gray and Market Streets had to be closed to traffic because the crowd was so huge. John Gunderman, whose name was called that night was, unfortunately, not among all the people gathered.

One week later, Edward “Bud” McCauley, a 23-year-old substitute postal delivery officer who lived with his widowed mother, had his name called. While he had arrived late to the theater after having trouble finding a parking space for his car, and was purchasing his theater ticket as his name was called, he did make it to the stage with minutes to spare. He won the $675 bank (or about $12,000 today) that had been accumulating for 16 weeks without a winner. Bud told the Star-Gazette that he would put his winnings into a bank account to be controlled by his mother and denied that the money would go toward a wedding. He said he had the girl but needed a steady job before thinking about marriage.

Star-Gazette, July 10, 1936
The banks never got that high again, though devotees of the game continued to flock to the theater for the next couple of months. In December, the manager of the Keeney announced that the time in which to claim the prize money would be reduced from five minutes to one minute, presumably to make things more exciting. In January 1937, the Keeney partnered with the Strand and Regent Theaters for Bank Night. Together, they offered two prizes a night. By 1937, however, Bank Nights throughout the country were starting to come to an end. People weren’t as enthusiastic about it anymore and movie ticket sales were coming up even without the game. After March 1937, there were no more mentions of Bank Night at the Keeney Theater in the Star-Gazette.

Monday, December 10, 2018

A True Story Word For Word As I Heard It


By Rachel Dworkin, archivist
It was summer-time, and twilight. We were sitting on the porch of the farmhouse, on the summit of the hill, and "Aunt Rachel" was sitting respectfully below our level, on the steps-for she was our Servant, and colored. She was of mighty frame and stature; she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. She was under fire now, as usual when the day was done. That is to say, she was being chaffed without mercy, and was enjoying it. She would let off peal after of laughter, and then sit with her face in her hands and shake with throes of enjoyment which she could no longer get breath enough to express. It such a moment as this a thought occurred to me, and I said:

"Aunt Rachel, how is it that you've lived sixty years and never had any trouble?"

That’s how the short story “A True Story, Word for Word as I Heard It” by Mark Twain begins. It was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1874 and it really is a true story. Less word-for-word true and more Lifetime-movie true, but true none the less.

Aunt Rachel in The Atlantic Monthly, 1874
 
The woman Twain called Aunt Rachel was Mary Ann Cord and she had, in fact, known trouble. She was born into slavery in Virginia on a plantation where she eventually served as a cook. She had a husband and seven children, the youngest of whom, Henry, was her favorite. When he was a toddler, he cracked his head open on the corner of a stove and bore the scar for the rest of his life. Now, remember that detail, because it will be very, very important later on.

Mary Ann Cord, image courtesy of Elmira College
 
In 1852, the family’s mistress went broke and she decided to sell them all. Mary Ann stood helpless as her husband and seven children were auctioned off one by one. As little Henry, only eight years old, was being pulled from her arms, he slipped a simple wire ring on her finger and swore he would escape and find her.  Mary Ann was sold to a plantation in New Bern, North Carolina. She thought she would never see him, or any of the rest of her family, ever again, but she kept that ring on her finger. Henry never forgot his promise and never gave up hope of finding her. 

In 1858, at age 13, Henry escaped and wound up here in Elmira.  It was here that he met Charles Hoppe, the barber at the Brainard House, who gave him a job and a trade he would practice for the rest of his life. During the Civil War, he joined up with a Colored regiment just as soon as he was able and found himself down in New Bern, North Carolina. And that, my friends, is where a miracle happened.

Henry Washington's barber shop

 Mary Ann’s plantation had been liberated by Union troops and pressed into service as a sort of headquarters. The Union officers had asked her to stay on and cook for pay, and she had. One night, a group of colored troops showed up, demanding food and making a mess. Well, Mary Ann wasn’t putting up with that nonsense and threw them right out. If the story ended there, Mark Twain probably wouldn’t have written about it. 

Luckily, it didn’t end there. In Mark Twain’s version of events, she was lighting the stove the next morning when she looked up and saw a young man with a scar and knew it was Henry. What actually happened was a bit more complicated. Henry had been one of the colored troops from the night before and he had been so strongly reminded of his mother, that he had come back. He sat down where the cook was serving breakfast and pushed his hair back off his forehead to see if she’d notice. And boy, did she notice. According to Twain, she started hugging him and crying, but in reality, she took one look at his scar and fainted dead away. It was when he lunged to catch her that he noticed her ring and that was how Mary Ann and Henry, separated by years of slavery and war, found each other. 

As soon as he was discharged, Henry took Mary Ann home with him to Elmira. He went back to his barber shop and she built a life here. She got remarried and ended up working as a cook at Quarry Farm. That was how she came to meet Mark Twain, and how he came to write a version of her story. 

Mary Ann Cord with the Crane-Clemens family on the porch at Quarry Farm

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Country Club and The City Club

by Erin Doane, Curator
"The Country Mouse and the City Mouse" by Scott Gustafson, c.2010
During the late 1800s, businessmen in Elmira were looking for places where they could socialize and recreate with people of the same class. From this desire, came the formation of a City Club and a Country Club.

The Elmira City Club

The idea of forming a city club in Elmira was first bandied about by a group of young businessmen who were socializing at Klapproth’s Saloon. They wanted a private place of their own where they could meet after a long day of work to just relax, rest, and share in good fellowship. So, on October 26, 1889, the Elmira City Club was incorporated with 45 charter members. The first membership list included significant names in local history; Charles J. Langdon, George M. Diven, J. Sloat Fassett, and John H. Arnot, to name just a few.

Their first clubhouse was the Flood residence at the corner of Lake and East Second Streets. After significant renovations, it opened on January 11, 1890. A steward and two waiters were hired to see to the needs of the club members and no tipping was allowed. On New Year’s Day 1894, they opened a new clubhouse at the corner of East Church and Lake Streets. The building was designed by Rochester architects Crandall & Otis and was built specifically for the club. The two-story brick building contained club rooms, a cafĂ©, reading and billiards rooms, and a ladies’ dining room. This building is still home to the City Club today.

The Elmira City Club, c. 1900
Fun Facts about the City Club:
  • The club restricts its membership to 200 resident members (those who lived or had businesses in Chemung County) and 40 non-resident members.
  • A roof garden was opened at the clubhouse in 1901 where people could have meals and socialize. It closed in 1914 due to the high cost of operations and because some parties on the roof were very noisy and things like food and bottles were sometimes dropped onto pedestrians below.
  • In 1935, George W. Emory, steward at the club for ten years, disappeared. His wife later received a letter in the mail telling her he was gone for good. Only a small amount of cash could not be accounted for at the club.
  • Women were not admitted as members of the club until 1986. Before that, they could be guests but had to enter the clubhouse through a side entrance.
  • The City Club’s building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

The Elmira Country Club

During the early 1890s, some local businessmen were introduced to the sport of golf. J. Sloat Fassett fell in love with golf during a trip to Scotland and he shared his love for the game with his friends back home. The Elmira Country Club was incorporated on October 21, 1897 to provide a space for these men to play. The club began with 317 charter members. It reached its peak membership in the 1970s with some 700 members.

The Country Club’s first clubhouse was built in 1898 on Underwood Avenue with a 9-hole golf course designed by Willie Dunn. In 1909, a new clubhouse was built on West Church Street. That building was sold in 1920 and a third clubhouse was built to accommodate the growing membership. It included formal and casual dining rooms and men’s and women’s locker rooms. Outside were a swimming pool and tennis courts. A second nine holes were added to the golf course in 1922. In 2000, the Country Club’s main building was torn down and a new $6.5 million facility was built on the site.

The Elmira Country Club, c. 1920s
Fun Facts about the Country Club:
  • When J. Sloat Fassett first returned from Scotland, he created a three-hole golf course around his home, Strathmont. It is said that as more and more people came over to play, his wife told him to get all those people off her yard, thus spurring him to found the Country Club.
  • In the early days of the Country Club, people would ride the trolley to the base of Underwood Avenue and then take a horse-drawn taxi up to the clubhouse. Some younger folks would walk up the hill.
  • The first clubhouse on Underwood Avenue became a Tuberculosis Sanatorium after the club moved into its second clubhouse in 1909
  • The site of the second clubhouse on West Church Street became the home of the Dominican Monastery.
  •  In 1935, in a time of nationwide financial turmoil, the Elmira Savings Bank foreclosed on the Country Club’s mortgage and purchased it at a sheriff’s sale. Seymour Lowman, president of the bank, commented that they would “plow up the golf course and plant it with potatoes.” John E. Sullivan headed a committee that formed the Elmira Golf Corp., which then purchased the property and continued operating the club.
Golfing at the Country Club, c. 1905


Monday, November 26, 2018

Iszard's Holiday Parade

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


In case you missed it, last Friday was Elmira’s annual holiday parade. The beloved community tradition began life as a crass marketing ploy. In 1957, the S.F. Iszard Company was looking to boost their pre-Christmas sales, and decided to borrow the idea behind the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For the next 31 years, Iszard’s hosted their annual holiday extravaganza on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Second Iszard's Holiday Parade, 1958
Preparation for the parade began months in advance and nearly every Iszard’s employee was involved in one way or another. Float construction began in the spring. The team from the display department would design and construct the floats at the company’s warehouse on Sullivan Street. Bill Warner, the display department manager, and Leonor Strauss, merchandise manager for ladies’ clothing, were in charge of selecting character costumes and recruiting staff and volunteers to wear them. Every parade had to feature recurring favorites like Santa, Santa’s elves, and popular cartoons like Mickey Mouse, but Warner and Strauss tried to keep it fresh, adding in new characters from the latest cartoon craze. New costumes and alterations were handled by the tailors and seamstresses of the clothing departments. 
Al Viele works on the story book float for the 1974 parade

 The day of the parade, staff would arrive hours in advance to get everyone into their costumes and in proper marching order. The whole procession was divided up into segments and, in turn, each one was overseen by a supervisor whose job it was to keep the whole thing flowing smoothly. The parade route varied from year to year, but the ending was always the same. Santa’s float at the tail end of the parade would stop at Iszard’s front door. Santa would dismount and take up his throne in the 4th floor Christmas Court. During the late-1970s, they changed things up. Under the original system, children were so eager to visit Santa that they would often swarm him, packing themselves into his elevator, creating a safety hazard. Under the new system, the parade Santa would be helped down from his float and whisked into the Mark Twain Building where he could change back into his street clothes, while a second Santa would be waiting in the store to greet his adoring public.

Santa parade float, 1969

The Iszard’s Annual Holiday Parade was an instant success. An average of 15,000 people attended each year, lining the parade route and flocking to the store. Coupled with an extravagant Toyland display featuring a Christmas Court and giant Lionel model train set up, Iszard’s was the place to shop for Christmas in the Twin Tiers.


Start of the Iszard's Holiday Parade, 1973

The last Iszard’s parade was in 1988, but the tradition continued. In 1989, the Elmira Business Association took over as the parade’s sponsor. All of the old parade floats and supplies were transferred to the old LeValley McLeod building where volunteers could work on them.  Despite changing sponsor’s multiple times since 1988, the parade is still going strong. Community Bank N.A. is currently the parade’s lead corporate sponsor.