Preserved on Film
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice – or so the old joke goes. But this documentary about the artist studios that used to crown the famous concert hall is pretty serious, a look at how office spaces managed to displace the 165 historic studios.
Carnegie Hall was built in 1891. Four years later studios were added on top. These studios had been inhabited for over 100 years by painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, musicians, dancers, actors and acting teachers, and a concert pianist who played with Duke Ellington.
Photographer Josef Birdman Astor was a newcomer, having resided there only 20-some years. When he realized that oldtimers were dying off and big business was forcing others out, he began documenting this lost Bohemia. Knocking on doors, he began filming his neighbors one by one. “Our secret world,” he called it.
Isadora Duncan had lived here. Rudolf Nureyev practiced in one of the rooms. Enrico Caruso recorded his first record here. The Actors Club was frequented by Mark Twain. Paddy Chayefsky and Norman Mailer wrote in these garrets. Judy Garland could be seen singing on the roof. Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando studied acting at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. Ginger Rodgers came by all the time. Robert Redford and Joanne Woodward and Edwin G. Robinson had studios atop Carnegie Hall. Bob Fosse practiced his dance moves here. Photographer Bill Cunningham maintained a studio. The list goes on and on and on.
No two alike, the studios contained ballet barres, pianos, easels, racks of costumes, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a massive pipe organ – “chockablock with history.” But it was still a building with steam pipes and peeling paint, arched doorways, endless hallways, fire doors, checkered parquet floors, cast-iron staircases, and skylights. Prime real estate in the center of New York City.
In 1960, developers wanted to tear down Carnegie Hall and erect a red skyscraper. Violinist Isaac Stern led a public campaign against demolition. Finally, the city bought the building for $5 million and designated it as a landmark. A 60-floor Carnegie Hall Tower was built next to the hall on the same block.
In 2001, proposed renovation again threatened the tenants. Creating a music education center was the excuse. Eviction notices were tacked to the doors. Desperate, the tenants took to the streets in protest. They appealed to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, citing Andrew Carnegie’s original charter as a moral imperative for the studios’ existence.
However, no one listened. They lost in Supreme Court. They lost in Civil Court. And eventually the machinery of big business ground them into dust. In 2010, the last holdout tenant was forced to leave the affordable studios.
“Lost Bohemia” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – is a poignant portrait of a lost historic landmark ... the people … the talents … the eccentricities … the dreams.
The Carnegie Hall Corporation declined to be interviewed for this film.