George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was performed for the first time at a concert by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra called An Experiment in Modern Music.
Whiteman had previously worked with Gershwin when he conducted the original performance of Blue Monday, a one-act ‘jazz opera’ composed by Gershwin with lyrics by Buddy DeSylva. Although it was a Broadway flop, Whiteman was impressed by Blue Monday and had a conversation with Gershwin in which they discussed the idea of composer writing a jazz concerto.
According to legend Gershwin forgot about the conversation until early January 1924 when his brother, Ira, read an article in the New York Tribune that said Whiteman would perform a jazz concerto by Gershwin at a concert on 12 February. His musical Sweet Little Devil was due to open in Boston at the end of the month, yet Whiteman was able to persuade Gershwin to write the piece after promising he only needed to submit a piano score. Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé orchestrated the piece, while the band added their own touches such as clarinettist Ross Gorman who turned the opening solo into an extended glissando that has since become the accepted way to open the piece.
Gershwin himself played piano when the piece was premiered at Aeolian Hall in New York City. He hadn’t scored the piano part and so performed from memory, improvising some parts. The audience, which included composers such as John Philip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff, responded enthusiastically to the piece but critics were divided. It has since gone on to become one of Gershwin’s most famous pieces and a vital part of American musical history that proved how jazz elements could be used in so-called ‘serious’ music.
Although numerous suspension bridges had been built prior to the Brooklyn Bridge, nothing came close to the almost 1,600 foot span across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. German immigrant John Augustus Roebling was attracted to the challenge after he developed a system to stabilise large span bridges using a steel web truss down each side. He was appointed chief engineer but, six months before construction began, died of a tetanus infection after a boat crushed his toes while he was surveying the site.
Roebling’s son Washington took over the project but he too suffered a terrible injury while inspecting the foundations. In order to secure a stable foundation for the towers of the bridge, large watertight timber caissons were sunk to the river bed. These enormous upside down boxes were filled with compressed air to keep out the water, and men known as sandhogs then entered to dig away the sediment until they reached bedrock.
The compressed air inside the caissons gave the workers terrible headaches but, more dangerously, dissolved high levels of gases into their bloodstream. Exiting the caisson caused these gases to expand, leading to incredible pain, paralysis, and even death. Washington Roebling himself was struck down with ‘caisson disease’, now better known as ‘the bends’, and was confined to his home for much of the bridge’s construction. His wife, Emily, took over many of his duties and successfully oversaw the completion of the project.
The bridge was officially opened on May 24, 1883, 13 years after construction began. The total cost was over $15 million, more than twice the original estimate, but well over a century later it still remains a vital link for New Yorkers.
Earlier in 1826, the academy’s strict superintendent Colonel Sylvanus Thayer had banned the purchase, storage and consumption of alcohol due to concerns about drunkenness among the cadets. However, the new rules were ignored by cadets who sought to continue the annual tradition of drinking homemade eggnog on Christmas Eve.
Late on the 22 December three cadets crossed the Hudson River and bought whiskey from Martin’s Tavern. Having paid the security guard at the academy to ignore their smuggling efforts, they hid the alcohol in one of their rooms in the North Barracks while another cadet successfully obtained another gallon from another local tavern.
The party began at around 10pm on the evening of 24 December in North Barracks room No. 28, followed by another party in room No. 5. Jefferson Davis, who was later elected President of the Confederate States of America, was one of the cadets in attendance.
The party continued without much incident until around 4am, when noise from the increasingly drunken revellers woke teaching officer Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock who went to investigate and ordered the cadets back to their rooms. Incensed, at least 70 drunken cadets instead launched the infamous riot in which they brandished weapons, broke windows, and assaulted two officers.
Of the rioters, only 19 of them faced disciplinary action. Beginning on 26 January 1827, the trials resulted in guilty verdicts for all the defendants although eight of them were saved from expulsion.
On the 23rd December 1823, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” was published anonymously in the New York Sentinel. It is significant for being the first source to give the names of Santa’s reindeer, as well as establishing the image of the jolly fat Santa that we know today. Reprinted a number of times in subsequent years, the poem became attributed to the academic Clement Clarke Moore who eventually acknowledged authorship in 1844. However, debate over the author continues to this day with Major Henry Livingston, Jr. being other potential writer being put forward most regularly.
Legend says that Moore wrote the poem while on a shopping trip, and read it to his children on Christmas Eve 1822. A year later a copy found its way to the offices of the New York Sentinel who published it along with a message in which the editor expressed “his cordial thanks to whoever had sent him these Christmas verses.”
Moore’s reluctance to be associated with the verse apparently stemmed from his career as a professor of ancient languages, since he didn’t want the poem to undermine his academic credentials. It was his friend, Charles Fenno Hoffman, who first publicly attributed the poem to him in the Christmas 1837 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier.
One interesting aside relates to Santa’s reindeer in the poem. When reading it to children, they’re often surprised to find that Rudolph isn’t mentioned. This is because Rudolph didn’t appear until the story by Robert L. May was published in 1939.
On the 21st December 1913, the first modern crossword puzzle was printed in the New York World newspaper. Created by British-born journalist Arthur Wynne, his diamond-shaped puzzle was originally called a ‘word-cross puzzle’, but due to a typesetting error the name was accidentally changed to a ‘cross-word puzzle’ and the name stuck.
Although examples of crossword-like puzzles had begun appearing in the mid-19th Century, Wynne was the first to include various features that we associate with modern crosswords such as a box for entering each letter and a symmetrical design. His first ‘word-cross’ was actually shaped as a symmetrical diamond with a hollow centre, but he soon went on to design other versions. Wynne was even the first to incorporate shaded black squares to allow the creation – and separation – of rows and columns of words that allowed more and more complex designs to be created.
Surprisingly, the ‘word-cross’ was just one of a number of puzzles developed by Wynne for the 21st December issue of the New York World’s ‘Fun’ supplement. However it caused a sensation and, before long, crossword puzzles had spread beyond the New York World to other newspapers in America and beyond. Within less than a decade they had begun to appear in comic strips such as Clare Briggs’ cartoon ‘Movie of a Man Doing the Cross-Word Puzzle’, and in 1924 the first collection of crossword puzzles was published by Simon and Schuster. This is also the same year that the first crossword appeared in a British newspaper, when the Sunday Express printed an adapted Wynne puzzle in November 1924.
Saturday Night Live was originally known as NBC’s Saturday Night to avoid any confusion with the ABC show Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. Having been developed to fill the gap left by the Johnny Carson’s request to stop showing The Best of Carson reruns of The Tonight Show at the weekend, the new show was intended to be a variety show featuring a mix of comedy sketches, political satire, and guest musical performances.
Dick Ebersol had been brought in by NBC president Herbert Schlosser to create the show, and he in turn approached Canadian television producer Lorne Michaels to oversee the show. Together they refined the show’s concept and recruited a number of young comedians to join the cast who would later become household names. Comedians such as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Chevy Chase had been recruited from The Second City improvisational theatre troupe and The National Lampoon Radio Hour. The original theme music was composed by Howard Shore, who has since become a renowned film composer and Academy Award winner.
The very first episode was hosted by stand-up comedian George Carlin and featured music from Janis Ian and Billy Preston. Comedy sketches featuring the cast, known as the ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ were not a prominent feature, although the episode did begin with a cold open sketch which has become a tradition.
The show was renamed to Saturday Night Live in March 1977, having gradually developed the format and built a dedicated following. It has continued to be broadcast from Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Center ever since.
Alexander Hamilton was made the first United States Secretary of the Treasury by President George Washington.
Alexander Hamilton was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis to a Scottish-born father and a half-British, half-French Huguenot mother who had left her husband and son on the Danish-ruled island of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Alexander’s parents were consequently unmarried when he was born, and he became an orphan around the age of twelve following his mother’s death. His father had left the family a number of years earlier, and Hamilton moved to live first with his older cousin and later a wealthy merchant.
Hamilton secured work as a clerk at a local shipping company, where he developed an interest in writing. A letter to his father recounting a violent storm was later published in a newspaper, and this attracted the attention of wealthy locals who provided funds for him to continue his education in New York City.
Hamilton believed strongly in independence for the Thirteen Colonies and, following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, he joined a local militia from which he rose to become the senior aide to General Washington. The end of the war saw Hamilton elected as New York’s representative to the Congress of the Confederation, where he argued for a strong central government and the creation of a new constitution.
Hamilton was a highly influential member of President Washington’s cabinet, and was appointed as the first Secretary of the Treasury on 11 September 1789. He continued in this role for almost five years, during which he had a key role in defining the structure of the government of the United States and created the country’s first national bank.
On the 17th June 1885, the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbour on board the French steam ship Isère. It arrived disassembled, and remained in its 210 separate crates for 10 months while construction of the enormous pedestal it was to stand on was completed.
The statue was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, who claimed that he was influenced by a conversation with the president of the French Anti-Slavery Society to construct a statue commemorating the Union’s victory in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. The proposal was that France would pay for the statue itself, and America would pay for the pedestal. The project was announced in September 1875, when the name of the statue was revealed – Liberty Enlightening the World.
The internal structure that supports the statue was designed by French structural engineer Gustave Eiffel, who is arguably better known for the iconic Eiffel Tower that he built in Paris a few years later. Eiffel created a wrought-iron skeleton, onto which the 350 separate copper plates that make up the skin were attached. The construction enables the statue to move slightly in the harbour’s strong winds, reducing the risk of cracking or other damage.
The completed statue was finally dedicated on the 28th October, 1886. As the celebratory parade, led by President Grover Cleveland, made its way past the New York Stock Exchange the traders inside spontaneously threw ticker tape onto the streets below in celebration. This was the first occurrence of a ‘ticker tape parade’ in New York City.
The British ship RMS Lusitania sank after being attacked by the German U-boat U-20 off the coast of Ireland.
The Lusitania was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906 and was one of the largest ocean liners of its time. It undertook its first voyage in 1907 and went on to win the Blue Riband, the unofficial award for the fastest transatlantic crossing.
The outbreak of the First World War saw Britain impose a blockade on German ports, which prompted the German Navy to attempt the same on the British Isles. However, the Royal Navy limited the impact of Germany’s blockade so the Lusitania was able to continue its journeys between Liverpool and New York City.
On 4 February 1915 the commander of the German High Seas Fleet announced that German submarines would begin unrestricted warfare and sink allied ships in the waters around the British Isles. Prior to the Lusitania’s scheduled voyage from the USA on 1 May, the German Embassy in Washington took out newspaper adverts warning that passengers undertook the voyage at their own risk.
1,962 people and around 173 tons of war munitions were on board the Lusitania when it left New York under Captain William Thomas Turner. Having crossed the Atlantic, the ship was hit on its starboard side at 2.10pm by a torpedo fired by U-20. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes and 1,198 people lost their lives.
The German government attempted to justify the sinking, but it was met with outrage in the Allied countries. Despite the deaths of American civilians, President Wilson chose to remain neutral in the war. Germany abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in August, but resumed it in early 1917. This, and the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram, led to Wilson’s decision to declare war.
On the 19th March 1962, American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan released his eponymous debut album.
Dylan had arrived in New York from Minnesota the previous year, but had quickly worked his way into the coffee houses and folk clubs of Greenwich Village. It was here that he became known to established folk singer Carolyn Hester who invited him to join her as a harmonica player. While rehearsing in her apartment in September, Dylan met Columbia Records’ talent scout John H. Hammond who stated he decided to sign Dylan “on the spot” although in reality the contract wasn’t finalised until the end of October.
The album was recorded over six hours of sessions on the 20th to the 22nd of November. Legend has it that the album cost $402 to produce, but this figure was only stated as a joke by John Hammond – the true cost is unknown. Although there were a couple of false starts, five of the final recordings were the first take as Dylan refused requests to do a second.
Only two tracks on Dylan’s debut album were his own compositions and it failed to hit the Billboard 100, selling less than 5,000 copies in its first year and earning Dylan the nickname “Hammond’s Folly” from record executives. Despite this set-back, however, he returned to the studio shortly after the release of his first album to begin work on his second, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which consisted almost entirely of original songs. Opening with the now-classic Blowin’ in the Wind, it was this album that established Dylan as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.