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Annie Wilkinson

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Annie Wilkinson is an award-winning associate editor of the Long Island Press. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have run her features and cover stories.

Bay Shore Was ‘Hollywood East’ in Early Years of American Film Industry

hollywood east
Keystone Cops

In the early 1900s, rapt audiences sat in darkened theaters, mesmerized by the flickering dyed or tinted images projected onto a screen. The films had no sound track; movies were silent in those days, before the invention of synchronized dialogue. To mask the whirring of the film projector, a musician sitting at a piano by the screen would improvise music scores to match the battle, car-chase, melodrama, or slapstick scenes.

Such was the scene in New York and across the country, especially in Nassau and Suffolk counties. But Long Island went beyond showing shorts and feature-length movies: It took the action to the next level when it became location central for film production, not suspecting that after a few short years Hollywood would become the world capital of the commercial movie industry.

As Vicki Berger of the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum told News12“Long Island was the original Tinseltown. We were Hollywood East before the industry moved to the West Coast.”

SOUTH SHORE LIGHT

It all came about because American Vitagraph Company, a Brooklyn-based film studio, opened a location in Bay Shore in January 1916. That year, Vitagraph produced 26 silent movies. Before that, Vitagraph had established itself in 1897 in Lower Manhattan to compete with the projecting kinetoscope, the forerunner of the film projector created in 1896 by Thomas Edison. 

Vitagraph’s initial Lower Manhattan silents consisted of film shorts and newsreels about the 1898 Spanish-American War. Many of them did not include news footage: They were actually reenactments that would later become known as propaganda. But the paying public was hungry for entertainment and the studio thrived, feeding them a steady diet of its productions. By 1907, Vitagraph was known as the most prolific American film production company, producing hundreds of newsreels and famous silent films. 

In 1916, the normally peaceful hamlet became the go-to place for masters of comic timing and others who wanted to be seen on the scene. Film directors, producers, costumers, makeup artists, and all the creative talent of the silent-movie machine descended on the place known as “Slapstick City” to churn out silent films full of sight gags. The New York Times described how “the film technicians behind primitive movie cameras found that the South Shore, with its southern exposure, offered perfect conditions for filming.” 

The busy studio enticed such legends as beloved writer-producer-director Charlie Chaplin, known for portraying his character The Tramp in films that folded “pathos neatly into the slapstick,” as The Guardian wrote. Chaplin was so impressed with the surroundings that he bought an East Islip mansion off Suffolk Avenue with a hand-set bowling alley in the basement. Oliver Hardy, half of the famed comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, owned a home on Maple Avenue in Bay Shore, and stars like Mae West, queen of the off-color one-liners, rented summer cottages there. Another film star glimpsed around town was Fatty Arbuckle, who appeared in the popular Keystone Cops series produced by Vitagraph. Arbuckle’s claim to fame, according to History.com, was his talent for “comedic pratfalls and pie-throwing.” 

POLICE PRATFALLS

The bustling hamlet’s Main Street was full of the horns of automobiles and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages, a charming respite from New York City for the many affluent vacationers who flocked there. Vitagraph’s offices were located in the Vitagraph building at 94 Fourth Ave., formerly General Keystone Appliance Repair. The building was also used as the fictional policemen’s headquarters.

The bumbling, inept peacekeepers of the Keystone Cops films (also spelled “Kops”) were created by producer/director Mack Sennett, dubbed “The King of Comedy” by Turner Classic Movies, “a ringmaster for a motley crew of comedic talent that included Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and the Keystone Kops, who slid, slipped and slapped their way across American movie screens.”

Bay Shore locals got in the act, earning about $5 per day as extras. Some observers have said that the film directors invited the real Suffolk policemen to act as extras as well. Others said that the ideas for the early films were created by local Suffolk County scriptwriters after observing the local police force at work.

The farces about the ineffectual, inept cops were popular from 1912 to the early 1920s; the golden age of the silents thrived until 1927, fading away with the release of the first feature-length films with synchronized dialogue, known as talking pictures (“talkies”). With that invention, the genre of movies without a sound track went quiet — for good. After the cameras stopped rolling, Vitagraph closed up shop, and the Vitagraph building was converted into apartments. 

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Theodore Roosevelt’s Daughter, Alice, Was the Original Political ‘It Girl’

alice roosevelt
Alice Lee Roosevelt. (Courtesy National Park Service)

When Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1901, it brought his teenage daughter Alice Lee Roosevelt instant celebrity. Ignoring tradition, she cavorted until the wee hours, had affairs, placed bets with bookies, and pestered her father in the Oval Office. She was also politically influential and cultivated friendships with Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy. She behaved scandalously — to the public’s delight.

JOY AND SADNESS AT SAGAMORE

As a youth, Theodore “T.R.” Roosevelt had summered in and around Cove Neck on Long Island’s fashionable North Shore. Later, he was an assemblyman who returned to Oyster Bay with his bride, socialite Alice Hathaway Lee, honeymooning at Tranquility, the family rental. 

When she became pregnant in 1883, the well-to-do couple joyously planned for a large family and bought 155 acres of land nearby for a large home. He named the property Sagamore Hill, for the Native American chief Sagamore Mohannis who had lived there in the 17th century. 

Lee died two days after giving birth to their daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, in 1884. Grieving the loss of his wife and of his mother, who died the same day, he fled to his Dakota Country cattle ranch. “Baby Lee,” as the infant was called, spent her infancy without parents at Sagamore Hill, cared for by her aunt until 1887. When T.R. moved back there with his second wife, who had been a romantic rival of his first wife, sparks flew.

Young Alice was an obstreperous tomboy, the opinionated outsider in the nursery who clashed with her prim stepmother and jostled for attention with the children T.R. had with his second wife.

T.R. never mentioned his dead wife. He ripped pages about her from this diary, burned most of their love letters, and destroyed photos.

GREAT BEAUTY AND BITING WIT

Sagamore Hill became the president’s “summer White House,” although the family had homes in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan. Politicians and dignitaries frequented the home, impressing his 17-year-old daughter.

What to do with this rambunctious, outspoken adolescent? The writer Owen Wister commented on her frequent interruptions at the Oval Office to offer political advice. T.R. replied, “I can do one of two things, I can be president of the United States, or I can attend to Alice. I cannot possibly do both!”

Idolizing her father, Alice “used the adulation of the public … as a sort of a stand-in for what she couldn’t get from her father,” biographer Stacy A. Cordery told NPR. Alice became “a female caricature of her father’s most criticized traits — impetuosity, stubbornness, insensitivity,” according to Cordery.

Alice was a great beauty, a glamorous hostess, and a political wild child. The press had a field day with this “it girl” who was decades ahead of her time.

At her social debut, her gown was blue — not the de regeur white of the day. “Alice Blue” was all the rage, even inspiring a 1919 stage musical song, and she continued to set fashion trends.

She smoked cigarettes on the White House roof — despite the 1908 law banning women from smoking in public. She placed horse-racing bets with bookies, rode in cars with men, attended late-night parties unescorted, and wore her pet snake, Emily Spinach, wrapped around one arm. She said her “major preoccupation was to have a good time.”

She also exhibited political savvy, loving “the spectacle, drama and intrigue of politics,” writes author Bryan Cranston. While living in Washington, D.C., she was dubbed “the other Washington Monument” because of her political involvement. In 1905, her father sent her to accompany members of the House of Representatives on a mission to the Far East. Despite her stunt — jumping fully clothed into an ocean liner’s swimming pool with a congressman during the voyage — the president negotiated a settlement which won him the Nobel Peace Prize.   

In 1906 she married Ohio Rep. Nicholas Longworth. The marriage was shaky, with both having affairs. In 1925, her only child, Paulina, was fathered by Sen. William Edgar Borah, according to time.com.

After her father died in 1919, she criticized President Franklin D. Roosevelt in her syndicated column for his efforts to combat the Great Depression. She held court for more than half a century at her Dupont Circle Washington, D.C., home, which became a magnet where views were expressed and policies cemented by leaders in the scientific, literary, and diplomatic communities. She developed friendships with the Kennedys, the Nixons, and the Johnsons. She famously had a pillow in her salon that read, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” 

“ALL ROOSEVELTS ARE EXHIBITIONISTS”

Her many one-liners are often quoted: She described the public as “the great rancid masses,” and noted that “the secret of eternal youth is arrested development.” At age 90, she told Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn, “I must say, I’m always on stage. All Roosevelts are exhibitionists.”

A quote recorded by Michael Teague captured her opinion of herself. ”I valued my independence from an early age and was always something of an individualist,” she said. Well, a showoff anyway.’’

Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth died in 1980 at age 96.

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Remembering Ralph Norman: A Composer for Famous Performers

ralph norman
Ralph Norman Wilkinson conducting in the New York City TV studio in the 1950s; Sketch by unknown artist.

For many people, November summons up memories of Thanksgiving preparations — shopping, organizing, cooking, and decorating the table — all for the big reveal: the feast. Others, instead, cherish thoughts of loved ones who are no longer here to celebrate.

Ralph Norman wasn’t well known, because his contributions took place out of the limelight. As an arranger for popular bandleader Maj. Glenn Miller, his stylings of standards by crooners like Bing Crosby drew praise and lifted the spirits of American soldiers defending Europe against the dictator Adolf Hitler’s World War II onslaughts — and brought hope to civilians in America listening to the radio. 

When the war ended, Wilkinson returned to the States. An in-demand composer, conductor, and arranger, he moved his family from their Elmurst, Queens apartment to a new Levitt home in the Roslyn Country Club development. 

It was the site of many celebrations, including his birthday each Nov. 8 — but Thanksgiving was always his favorite. He was my father, Ralph Norman Wilkinson. 

LONGHAIR TO LATIN

Born in Brooklyn in 1912, Ralph Norman Wilkinson was a gifted pianist from a young age. He graduated at age 22 with a Bachelor of Music from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Although his training emphasized classical music, he could seamlessly segue from a Bach fugue to a Latin jazz number. Because of his versatility, upon his 1934 college graduation he became a staff arranger for CBS Radio in Manhattan, in those pretelevision years of live broadcasts. He also freelanced as an arranger for the 1942 Broadway show, Irving Berlin’s This is the Army

During World War II, in 1943 Maj. Miller drafted Wilkinson to be an arranger and assistant conductor for the 60-piece U.S. Army Air Force Band in the U.S. and later in England. Wilkinson, who was then known as Ralph Norman, was praised, notably his charts for Summertime and Stormy Weather. One reviewer called Wilkinson’s Stardust arrangement “one of the finest interpretations ever by this or any other orchestra.” 

Luxury liners the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth became troop ships carrying up to 15,000 soldiers. Wilkinson shipped out with the band, bidding farewell to his pregnant wife Evelyn Wilkinson, in June 1944. He was in Paris when their daughter — I — was born in 1945. 

One letter sent to his wife from across the Atlantic described wartime separation: “I love you and I miss you like hell and I want to put my arms around you and I want to hold your hand in a movie and I want to toast you with a Manhattan or two or three and I want to sit under a tree in Elmhurst on a Sunday afternoon and let you fall asleep in my lap…”   

MIDNIGHT WRITER

After the war, Wilkinson was hired as a staff conductor for ABC Network television programs, composer/conductor for CBS-TVs’ United States Steel Hour, and chief arranger for NBC-TVs Bell Telephone Hour. In the 1950s he also arranged songs for Frank Sinatra and other major performers including Benny Goodman, Robert Goulet, Pat Boone, and many more, working out of his home studio. 

For each U.S. Steel Hour production, Daddy would compose nonstop for several days before the live broadcasts. My room was down the hall from his studio, which was soundproofed —  but the notes from the Steinway baby grand would spill out. I would fall asleep hearing him struggling, experimenting, searching for the right melodies, chords, rhythms and tempos to fit a carefully timed show. On broadcast day, Mom would drive him into Manhattan as he pulled last-minute notes from his imagination, inventing and revising.

In the 1960s, he retired from network TV and taught at City College of New York, Columbia University, and Roslyn High School, where he also conducted the chorus and orchestra for 10 years. His student there, Larry Tarlow, who went on to become principal librarian at the New York Philharmonic, told Sid Cassese of Newsday, “He was an inspiration to me. This was a man who had cut his teeth in the commercial music business, and he knew what he was doing.”

Wilkinson was Bayside Glee Club’s music director and conductor for 10 years and choirmaster for the Floral Park United Methodist Church for 11 years. 

A MODEST MUSICIAN

Daddy had an irreverent and childlike sense of humor and especially loved limericks. He was the one who always came running to help. He had the patience to teach me the nuances of piano, voice, and performance when I studied music. He knew how to turn a phrase, be it musical or literary, and could examine all sides of an issue, which led me to gravitate to journalism. And he cheerfully washed the stacks of pots and pans his wife would use to make gourmet meals. He loved starches, gravies, rich sauces, ice cream, and chocolate; of course, he loved Thanksgiving.  

He was working on an arrangement for the Philharmonic several months before his death in 1990 at age 77.  

To listen to Ralph Norman Wilkinson conducting the live orchestra performing his music from the U.S. Steel Hour’s “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon,” starring Cliff Robertson in February 1961, visit the UCLA Film and Television Archive, at cinema.ucla.edu/collections/ussteel/clips/two-worlds-charlie-gordon

Tales of The Ghosts of Grey Gardens

grey gardens

In the dark of night, in a sprawling mansion just a block from the Atlantic Ocean, a woman in her prime awaited her sea captain lover’s return. At the stroke of midnight, he climbed a ladder to her upstairs bedroom, and they did what lovers do.

The seafarer had built the mansion where they romanced in 1905 on Long Island’s South Shore on Lily Pond Lane. She, a prominent socialite and model who sought show business fame, insisted that the visits did occur at the East Hampton estate, repeating the story throughout her life, until her 2002 death. 

But there was a problem: The night visitor she said she had the affair with had died, and his ghost was said to haunt the mansion. And other spirits have appeared ever since he first set afterlife foot in the house. Dubbed “the Witch House,” its ghostly visitors show no signs of leaving.

“ROMANCE, GHOSTS, AND OTHER THINGS”

The woman recalling the visits was Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”). Ever the aspiring entertainer, she performed memorably in the 1975 award-winning cinema verité documentary about her home, Grey Gardens

“Meet a mother and daughter, high-society dropouts … managing to thrive together amid the decay and disorder …” is how Little Edie and her mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”), are described on imdb.com.

In the production, filmed when Big Edie was in her 80s and Little Edie was in her 50s, the younger Beale said her home was “oozing with romance, ghosts, and other things.” She lived there for 25 years, caring for her mother, the pair surrounded by dozens of feral and domesticated cats plus possums and raccoons in a flea-infested, crumbling eyesore, smack dab in the middle of the ultrawealthy Hamptons.

Before the Beales bought the mansion in 1923, former owner Anna Gilman Hill, a famed horticulturist, poured her heart into beautifying the land. She imported concrete from Spain to shield pale-flowered plantings from the forceful Atlantic winds and sea spray. Hill wrote that she named the estate “Grey Gardens” because of the “soft gray of the dunes, cement walls and sea mists.”

Hill’s ghost likely haunted the Beales after witnessing the deterioration of the property she had beautified. As Big Edie and Little Edie aged, they had neither the financial reserves nor emotional stability to keep things up. The climbing, overgrown plants obscured the garden walls. The raccoons’ claws punctured the roof. The cat feces piled up and warped the floors.

In the mid-1950s, the Beales hired a local man, Tom “Tex” Logan, to maintain the estate. Known as a drinker, he would leave town for months. After his final excursion in 1964, he died of pneumonia in the mansion’s kitchen. 

His ghost’s drunken staggering was competing with the stomping boots of the sea captain’s spirit in 1971, when Logan’s successor, Jerry Torre, started working there. He later told PhillyVoice.com, “There’s a spirit in the mansion …. I felt a person in the kitchen with me.” 

Big Edie told Torre that it was the anniversary of Logan’s death. “And he died on the Army cot that you sleep on,” she added.

THE WITCH HOUSE

Gail Sheehy, the bestselling author of Passages, lived near the Beales in 1971. As she wrote in New York Magazine, her 7-year-old daughter saw a light at night in an upstairs window of the decaying house surrounded by growling cats. The child named the place “the Witch House.”

In 1979, several years after Big Edie died, journalist Sally Quinn and her husband Ben Bradlee, famed Washington Post editor, bought the property. They promised the Beales they would renovate the mansion to use as a summer house, ignoring the haunted-house gossip. No problem: Bradlee said of his wife, “She’s a witch,” because she believed in spirits and read tarot cards in a cottage on the property. 

Quinn told cnbc.com that she saw an apparition in her bedroom at night, one of two ghosts in residence. The ghost of Little Edie, who died in 2002, was a regular.

Every night around 9:30, Quinn said, the hall lights would flicker once. Guests heard noises, including Sen. Barry Goldwater, who wouldn’t sleep in Little Edie’s room, cautioning, “There’s a ghost in there.” 

Quinn observed, “Some people think it’s a man, clomping around in boots. I’m pretty sure it’s the sea captain.” 

A PACT WITH THE DEPARTED

Quinn and Bradlee made good on their promise with an extensive renovation. They viewed the ghosts as benign, especially one in particular who claimed to be Big Edie’s best friend. As Quinn told the New York Post, the apparition appeared from out of nowhere. 

“Big Edie sent me,” she said, though Big Edie was dead. “She wants you to know she is very happy you bought the house, and she will oversee everything. You will be very happy here.”

The Washington power couple spent 35 happy summers at Grey Gardens.

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Gail Sheehy, Hamptons Writer and Founding New York Mag Reporter, Broke Boundaries

Gail Sheehy
Gail Sheehy. (Credit: Bernard Gotfryd)

Cats crouched all around in the grass, rattling in their throats, mean and stricken.

“Are they wild?” I asked.

She called for Tedsy Kennedy, a Persian. “Mother bred them all. We’ve had 300 cats altogether. Now we have twelve, but they’re not wild. They’re fur people .… It’s true about old maids, they don’t need men if they have cats.”…. 

Then an operatic voice sang its lament through the upstairs window.

EeeDIE? I’m about to die.

“Oh dear, Mother’s furious because she’s not getting attention. I’ll be right up, Mother.”

This is how journalist Gail Sheehy described meeting the eccentric Edith Bouvier Beale at Beale’s decaying, animal-infested East Hampton home in 1972. Sheehy’s New York magazine piece, “The Secret of Grey Gardens,” employed the revolutionary New Journalism by freeing subjects from newspaper style, what she called the old journalism, with its who-what-when-where-why rigidity.” Her techniques recreated scenes, recorded dialogue in full, and treated protagonists like characters in a novel.  

She wrote about Grey Gardens while in East Hampton, her home away from Manhattan starting in 1971 (she told Newsday, “I wrote most of my books in my house in Long Island”). Sheehy’s bestselling fiction broke taboos and struck baby boomer chords surrounding menopause, divorce, remarriage, and later-life fulfillment. Her 1976 blockbuster Passages, Predictable Crises of Adult Life, was a New York Times best seller for three years and was named by the Library of Congress as one of the top 10 most influential books. 

She wrote 17 books and numerous articles. What inspired her?

FINDING HER VOICE

Born Gail Merritt Henion in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in 1936, her childhood storytelling talent — she wrote a biography of her grandmother — was cultivated by that grandmother, who bought her her first typewriter at age 7.

The budding writer later earned a bachelor’s degree in English and home economics from the University of Vermont in 1958. During her first job as a consumer representative for JCPenney, she wrote for the store’s magazine, learning the sacred journalism rule: Never miss a deadline. She also learned about speaking up, after moving to Rochester with Albert Sheehy, whom she had married in 1960. During a job interview at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the editor said he didn’t want someone to work for a year and then start a family. 

I said, ‘I didn’t expect a pregnancy exam,’” she later told the Democrat and Chronicle. In those days (the mid-1960s), women were categorized as either Holy Mother or Frigid Career Girl,” she said. 

She moved to Manhattan and found work at the New York Herald Tribune — a hotbed of New Journalism where writers … “used the tools of novelists … to create compelling narratives,” said The New York Times. Relegated to the women’s section (she called it “the estrogen section”), she ventured into “the testosterone zone” to pitch a story. Editor Clay Felker liked her idea and told her to write it as a scene. She was on her way.

In 1968, Felker founded New York magazine. Sheehy nailed Vanity Fair and Esquire assignments, profiling world leaders Robert F. Kennedy, both Presidents Bush, Hillary Clinton, and many more. She became a mother then divorced her husband in 1968. On fellowship at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970, she earned her Master of Arts in journalism and was mentored by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who taught her to be a cultural interpreter exploring culture shock. 

She followed Felker to New York as a founding staffer, reporting on issues such as the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings of peaceful protesters in Northern Ireland. Working alongside such New Journalism talents as Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, she often included anecdotes of East End life in her articles. 

PASSAGES

She was the golden girl of creative nonfiction but the sheen tarnished. She committed a major ethical breach in her 1971 New York article on prostitution by fabricating characters. Felker deleted her admission of the fabrication — he did accept blame — but the article was out there.  

In 1976, Passages was published, delving into cultural shifts and navigating life’s signposts during the prime career and relationship years. She was also sued for plagiarism by a psychiatrist; the suit was settled out of court. The next year, she bought an East Hampton house with earnings from Passages; she would live there for 30 years with Felker, whom she married in 1984. 

In 2007, she sold her house; her husband died in 2008. But she returned to the Hamptons to visit friends and Canio’s Books on Main Street, staying at a rented Sag Harbor house. She was a sought-after lecturer. talk show guest, and in 2019 became an Audio Podcast Fellow at Stony Brook University, creating and producing Kid Rebels with Gail Sheehy, a podcast series.

In August 2020 she was working on Millennial World, a book about 20- and 30-somethings inventing new passages while struggling with the rupture in gender roles and a mental health crisis. She died of pneumonia at age 83 in a Southampton hospital before finishing the book.

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The Life of Captain Kangaroo’s Bob Keeshan: LI’s Favorite Grandfather

captain kangaroo
From left, Dancing Bear, Bunny Rabbit, Captain Kangaroo, Grandfather Clock, Mister Moose, and Mister Green Jeans. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

One never knows where life’s early influences may lead. Before we had today’s internet to answer our questions, we would harness our imagination if we wanted to create, educate, or entertain. No one could have predicted that a boy who was interested in live dramas, romances, thrillers, and other 1940s audio entertainment would find success by clowning around and producing original plays.

That boy was Lynbrook, Long Island native Robert James Keeshan, who got encouragement — from parents who listened and a teacher who praised his nice voice and suggested he work in radio — that propelled him into a career as a world-famous television actor, producer, recording artist, and author. His creations were an eclectic mix of slapstick, animation, costumed characters, puppets, music, a sad-faced and silent clown, and celebrities, all gathered around America’s favorite grandfather: Captain Kangaroo. 

NO KARATE CHOPS

Keeshan was born in 1927 in Lynbrook; When he was 6, his family moved to Forest Hills, Queens. He displayed early chutzpah at Forest Hills High School, broadcasting his plays over the loudspeaker system. As a senior, in 1944, he worked nights as a page, seating radio program audiences, earning $13.50 a week at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center. 

He graduated early in 1945 and enlisted in the Marines, but World War II ended before he could see combat. He earned a bachelor’s in education at Fordham University, then returned to NBC. His desk was next to the office of Buffalo Bob Smith, a children’s program host whom Keeshan helped with research. When television came along, Keeshan made his acting debut on Smith’s popular Howdy Doody Show playing Clarabell, a clown who delighted in squirting Smith with a seltzer bottle. But Keeshan was fired after several years, because Smith suspected that Keeshan and the other actors wanted to unionize. 

Months later, NBC asked him to create a new show, Time for Fun, built around the soft-spoken Corny the Clown. Keeshan next appeared as the grandfatherly host of Tinker’s Workshop, which beat out The Today Show in the ratings.

But Keeshan was bothered by the commercials, which he saw as violent or featuring products he viewed as inappropriate for children. He told CBS’ 48 Hours, “On commercial television, their problems are solved with a karate chop,” and lobbied successfully to reduce the violence. CBS asked him to develop a show. 

Publicity photo of Bob Keeshan as Captain Kangaroo. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

KINDNESS, NOT GLITZ

Captain Kangaroo debuted in October 1955, the same day as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. Keeshan told Variety, “I was impressed with the potential positive relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, so I chose an elderly character.” The kindly host with the bobbed wig and walrus mustache got his name from the pouchlike pockets on his jacket.

As reported by The New York Times’ Richard Severo, Keeshan said to director Peter Birch that the goal was to talk to the child at home one on one during the program, with no studio audience. 

“The children should never be excluded … and should never have the feeling of being part of an audience,” Keeshan told Birch. “The Captain” engaged children in a gentle, nonthreatening way: Show good manners. Respect animals and playmates. Celebrate “be kind to mothers and others day.”

Captain Kangaroo “introduced millions of children to the notion of civility,” wrote The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik. “The emphasis was on kindness, not glitz.” 

The program conceived by the man UPI Hollywood Correspondent Vernon Scott dubbed the “world’s greatest babysitter” became the longest-running nationally broadcast children’s television program of its day, aired more than 9,000 performances in its nearly 30-year run, and won six Emmys, three Peabodys, three Gabriel Awards, and numerous other awards.

LONG ISLAND LIFE

Keeshan commuted to Manhattan after moving to Melbury Road in Babylon on Long Island, taking the 4:20 a.m. train to arrive by 6 a.m. His show featured celebrity guests and he appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sonny and Cher’s Christmas Special

But fame did not rule his life. He served on the boards of the West Islip School District and Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, and supported the Suffolk County Police Athletic League, Boy Scouts of America, and many other charitable organizations. Observers described the children’s advocate as completely reachable, generous, and dedicated to the community.

When not starring on Captain Kangaroo, recording vinyl albums, or serving the community, Keeshan spent time with his family of five, indulged in his photography hobby, studied French, played golf, sailed and fished on Long Island Sound, and dug in the garden surrounding his 24-room colonial house. When asked by The New York Times how he had time for all this, he replied, ”One of the big secrets of finding time is not to watch television.’’

The Captain died in January 2004 at age 76, in Windsor, Vt.

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Renegade Chef Anthony Bourdain’s Favorite Vacations Were on Long Island

anthony bourdain
Anthony Bourdain poses backstage with the Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" at the 2014 Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California August 16, 2014. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

Anthony Bourdain was a famous chef and respected journalist who was accessible and willing to rewrite — “an editor’s dream,” wrote Ruth Reichl, longtime Gourmet editor and former New York Times restaurant critic.

His friend Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin executive chef and co-owner, told People, “He was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many.”

But Bourdain was also an abrasive and arrogant renegade who slammed his fellow top TV food personalities, from Guy Fieri to Rachael Ray. A professional annoyance. A curmudgeon. 

He was called awkward and withdrawn; Reichl observed, “Behind that swagger, there was always that tortured shy guy.”

Bourdain was all of these, with conflicting emotions competing to dominate his personality. Which one won? He secreted that truth away when he committed suicide. 

DOING NOTHING ON LI 

As executive chef in Manhattan’s finest restaurants, popular television host, and jet-setter, “Tony” Bourdain defined the term “celebrity chef.” It was as though he was possessed by an unstoppable demon of adventure, which drove him to try every dish and travel anywhere.

But his favorite vacation meant doing nothing on Long Island every August, relaxing in “an area of the Hamptons that none of the cool people go to and I never see anyone I know,” he told the Boston Globe

The icon took “an indecent pleasure in feigning normalcy,” he told Drift Travel. Starting in 2012, he did “the suburban dad thing,” loading up the car with luggage and heading Out East with his third wife, Ottavia, and their 7-year-old daughter Ariane. As northjersey.com reported, he said he was happy with “a pile of to-be-read books, a hammock, and a nice, warm body of water,” in a place with no parties or openings — “It’s mostly old people and golfers.” 

He posed with Ripert for Hamptons magazine in 2012 at Shelter Island’s Sunset Beach, appeared at East Hampton’s Guild Hall in 2014 in Stirring the Pot: Conversations with Culinary Celebrities, and studied jiu jitsu with champion Lucas Lepri. He drove, shopped at farm stands, and said his life was ruled by a 7-year-old, telling northjersery.com in 2016, “A child changes everything. I don’t drink or smoke as heavily as I used to because I have a responsibility to her to at least try to stay alive a little longer.

He cooked steamer clams, to remind himself of his Jersey Shore childhood vacations.

A $6 PRESIDENTIAL MEAL

His upbringing helped him develop food appreciation. He was born Anthony Michael Bourdain in 1956 in New York City; his mother Gladys (G.S.) Bourdain was a New York Times copy editor on the culture and metropolitan desks and his father Pierre Bourdain was a classical-music recording industry executive. The family vacationed in Montauk and crossed the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary, visiting relatives in France. 

He later recalled in his 2000 blockbuster memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly that it was as a fourth-grader aboard the luxury liner that he became conscious of enjoying food — specifically, “vichysoisse, a basic potato-leek soup that held the delightful surprise of being cold.” 

After high school and several lackluster years at Vassar College, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978. He paid his dues, shucking oysters, washing dishes, and studying Cape Cod chefs.  

Throughout the 1990s his minute attention to detail drew Manhattan diners to the Rainbow Room, One Fifth Avenue, and the Brasserie Les Halles restaurants. Major TV series followed, including Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Parts Unknown; starting in 2010, he received numerous nominations and wins from the Emmy Awards and the James Beard Foundation.

In Parts Unknown, he turned the focus away from himself, sharing discoveries and interviews at unassuming restaurants serving unusual dishes. One conversation was with then-president Barack Obama in Vietnam, in 2016. They discussed American and Vietnam politics, Obama’s last months in office, and being a father.  

Obama described their $6 meal on Twitter: “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. That’s how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.” 

“THAT TORTURED SHY GUY”

Despite his success, his low self-esteem persisted. “I should’ve died in my 20s,” he told Biography, referring to his cocaine and heroin addictions. “I feel like I’ve stolen a car — a really nice car — and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights.”

His grueling travel and filming schedule helped end his marriage in 2016. He told People that living the dream was costly, but rejected retirement: “I just think I’m just too nervous, neurotic, driven … I might have deluded myself into thinking that I’d be happy in a hammock or gardening. But no, I’m quite sure I can’t.”

On camera, he told viewers, “… I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.” He sought psychotherapy in Argentina for his dark moods.

He was 61 when he hanged himself in a Paris hotel room on June 8, 2018.

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How Estée Lauder Built a Makeup Empire With Long Island Ties

Estée Lauder
Estée Lauder giving a makeover. (Library of Congress)

It’s the 1930s. You’re a woman having your hair done at a salon, sitting under a bulky contraption that’s blowing warm air on your wet head. In those pre-handheld dryer times, the hooded device was the only way to dry your locks. You have to sit there, thumbing through movie magazines or chatting with other women hoping their hair dries before boredom sets in.

Enter an enterprising young woman bearing intriguing wares. As the dryers whir and hum, she deftly dabs cream on your face. She is in her element, believing that touching the consumer and explaining the flattering results make the sale.

Not bad for someone who skipped college to whip up skin creams in a stable.

QUEENS’ QUEEN OF BEAUTY

That woman was Estée Lauder, a pioneering beauty industry titan who revolutionized how cosmetics were marketed and sold. Her motto? “Never underestimate any woman’s desire for beauty.”

Josephine Esther Mentzer lived a rags-to-riches American dream. She was born at home to Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents in Corona, Queens, around 1906. Her Hungarian mother Rose Mentzer was fascinated by beauty regimens, buying the largest jars of hand lotion, visiting spas, and protecting herself from the sun with gloves or a black parasol. “Esty” (later “Estée”) worked with her siblings to help make ends meet in the hardware store owned by their Czech father Max Mentzer. A petite blonde with fine skin, she always tried to look her best.

In 1924, when she was attending Newtown High School in Elmhurst, her Hungarian uncle John Schotz moved in with the family. A trained chemist, he created an array of concoctions, from freckle remover and embalming fluid to velvety smooth lotions, in the kitchen and in a stable out back. His niece was hooked, learning how to make creams and apply them. 

She married Joseph Lauder in 1930 and while raising her toddler son Joseph, built a business through personal demos. She possessed the ability to waltz into salons, smear creams and makeup on a woman’s face or wrist, tell her that the products gave her “a gentle glow,” and nail the sale.

JARS OF HOPE

Her chutzpah. Moxie. Gall. All led to the 1946 company launch of just four products. The couple manufactured them in the kitchen of a former restaurant, cooking and bottling products by night and selling them by day. Leonard stayed away from what he labeled “fiddling with other people’s faces” and handled the finances and production. 

In 1947, Saks Fifth Avenue ordered $800 worth of products; they sold out in two days. “We were selling jars of hope,” she later recalled.

She upended traditional marketing techniques by giving away samples and, especially, by promotions that created the “gift with purchase” concept. Her son Leonard wrote in his memoir The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty how she once interrupted a Salvation Army sister’s bell-ringing, saying she could help her skin look and feel fresher because “There’s no excuse for looking untidy.”

The empire builder trained women at sales counters and salons, teaching them to convey her philosophy that her products would help customers feel young. She knew what women wanted.

MOVING UP

In 1967, the first manufacturing site opened in Melville in Suffolk County, Long Island. The company added fragrance and haircare products to its lines and garnered as much attention as commerce giants including Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Disney. She hobnobbed with the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco, Nancy Reagan, and other celebrities. 

Lindy Woodhead wrote in The Telegraph in 1973 that meeting Lauder was like being in the presence of royalty: “Small, with orange-tinted hair, wearing bright blue crêpe de chine that matched her chlorine-blue eyes, she swept me up in the aura of her personality.”

Lauder became the world’s wealthiest self-made woman and kept going to work every day until her mid-80s. But she never forgot her family, buying vacation property in Wainscott in East Hampton to be close to her children and grandchildren, who lived nearby and helped run the business. 

Her granddaughter Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, who inherited the Wainscott home, told Harper’s Bazaar Arabia “how incredible it was … to have this passion and dream, and to create something out of nothing at a time when most women were not working.”  

Today, the company still leads the beauty industry, selling products in 150 countries and territories under brand names including Estée Lauder, Aramis (for men), Clinique, Origins, DKNY, Aveda, and others. Her company employs 48,000 people worldwide and the family’s net worth is $40 billion.

Estée Lauder died at age 97 in 2004 in Manhattan.

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How Daring Dancers Vernon and Irene Castle Shook the Industry

vernon and irene castle
Vernon and Irene Castle. (Library of Congress)

Young, attractive, talented, and in love, they twirled themselves into the hearts of audiences. America’s sweethearts — and trendsetters — Vernon and Irene Castle revolutionized dance and fashion. 

They kicked up their heels while standing their ground, challenging prevalent racist attitudes and advocating for animal rights. Even as World War I broke out, they brought the country a sense of fun and tolerance for all.

They were not always so fortunate: They started out broke and unemployed, living in a cramped apartment with three beloved dogs. Then success hit: Poor no more, they purchased a 5,000-square-foot waterfront mansion on Long Island’s Manhasset Bay, a fitting home for them and their resident animals large and small.

TWO TO TANGO

Vernon Castle Blythe was an Englishman performing in Manhattan as a magician, actor, and dancer when he met Irene Foote in 1910 at suburban New Rochelle’s Rowing Club. He was 23, she 17.  A New Rochelle native, she had grown up with show-business types, as her grandfather was a Barnum & Bailey Circus press agent. A high school dropout, she spent time dancing and singing in amateur theatricals.

They were married in 1911 and by 1912 were starring in a Broadway revue. They sailed to Paris and performed their first ballroom routine, to Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Ragtime, the African American forerunner of jazz built on syncopated rhythms, would never be the same. 

The Cafe de Paris hired them and their career took off, fueled by publicity, a new marketing tool. They sailed back to New York to perform and develop dances based on African American music styles — the one-step, turkey trot, grizzly bear, Castle walk, Castle polka, glide, hesitation waltz, bunny hug, innovation tango, and scads more.  

They bucked Puritan beliefs, as Douglas Thompson wrote in Shall We Dance? The True Story of the Couple Who Taught the World to Dance: “Fiery preachers across Europe and especially in America denounced ballroom dance as the devil’s work … The idea that men and women should dance so close together was evil.”   

But their appearance banished those attitudes, wrote Thompson: “You too could be slim and healthy and in love — if you danced.” Irene said she personified the girl next door, and they were “young, clean, married, and well-mannered.” They delighted in dancing together, their arms encircling each other, dipping, bowing, hopping, arching — and making it look simple. 

BEYOND BALLROOM

There was more to these stellar performers than fancy footwork. They skipped across upper-crust society with backstage behavior that elevated them as pioneers in social attitudes. 

Traveling with a Black orchestra, James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, the Castles believed that only Blacks could comprehend ballroom dance music’s rhythms. But segregation was prevalent. Blacks weren’t allowed to occupy whites’ train cars or enter nightclubs. Still, Castle persisted, and succeeded. The Castles introduced audiences to Black musicians through touring and endorsing their phonograph records. 

Over the next few years, the Castles opened a dancing school, Castle House, across from Manhattan’s Ritz Hotel; their supper club, Castles in the Air, was located on a Broadway theatre’s roof. They performed on Broadway and made films, splitting their time between the City and Long Island. 

They indulged their love of animals by purchasing Shorecliff House in 1914, a 4.5-acre estate on Manhasset Bay, with kennels and stables for 24 dogs, five horses, a donkey, and more, including animals rescued from the theater. The same year, they opened a resort/dancing school, Castles by the Sea, on the Long Beach boardwalk on Long Island’s South Shore (now the site of the Allegria Hotel). 

By 1915, Irene had become a fashion leader: She danced in long, floating skirts and distinctive headwear, bobbed her dyed-red hair, and discarded her girdle. When Vernon returned to England to support the war effort by flying combat missions, she continued performing but was unhappy dancing solo. He returned to America to train pilots, but died in a Texas plane crash in 1918.  

Her career mostly ended in 1923, except for summer stock, after she remarried and relocated to Chicago. In the late 1920s, she was labeled “The best-dressed woman in America,” but animal rescue was her passion. The antivivisectionist activist founded the Illinois dog shelter Orphans in the Storm. 

In 1964 she told The New York Times: “When I die, my gravestone is to say ‘humanitarian’ instead of ‘dancer.’ I put it in my will. Dancing was fun, and I needed money, but Orphans in the Storm comes from my heart. It’s more important.”

She died in 1969 and is buried next to Vernon Castle at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  

To see the Castles doing the Castle Walk, from the 1914 silent film The Whirl of Life, visit youtube.com/watch?v=qkqf9_Wr_Vs 

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How Long Island Suffragist Alva Belmont Helped Women Gain Equality

alva belmont
Alva Belmont on May 21, 1922.

In Washington, D.C., hundreds of flag-waving protesters rallied, displaying huge signs and shouting their message. More than 100 were arrested and jailed.

While this could be the narrative of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building by domestic terrorists who questioned election results, it unfolded 104 years ago. It marked the first time that protesters picketed in front of the White House. 

It was January 1917 when the group began their vigil, and they kept it up, whatever the weather, six days a week, for six months. Who were they?

Members of the National Woman’s Party, their cause was women’s suffrage: the right of women by law to vote in national or local elections. The NWP was formed by suffragette leader Alice Paul and by unexpected women’s rights advocate, wealthy Long Island socialite Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, the party’s president and primary benefactor.

Known for saying, “Pray to God. She will help you,” Belmont combined her wealth with public relations savvy. Working with Paul, she organized the White House protest and influenced major breakthroughs for women.

SOCIALITE/SUFFRAGETTE

In the early 20th century women were mostly perceived as demure second-class citizens. They were supposed to go along with the rules laid out by men. They were not supposed to be militant. 

Alva Ertskin Smith’s father was a prominent cotton trader in Mobile, Ala., where she was born in 1853. Her charmed life included summering in posh Newport, R.I., European travel, and a Paris boarding school education.

But key events shifted her beliefs to a bolder, broader worldview. When the Civil War devastated the cotton trade, the family moved to New York City around 1859. By the time she was a teenager, her parents had died. Insulating herself from poverty, in 1875, the 22-year-old married William Kissam Vanderbilt, heir to the enormous Vanderbilt family fortune.

“There was a force in me that seemed to compel me to do what I wanted to do regardless of what might happen afterwards,” Ava Belmont said.

To enhance her public image as Mrs. Vanderbilt, she cultivated relationships with journalists as well as businesspeople and politicians. The couple drew attention during the Gilded Age by building grand houses, including the lavish, 110-room country estate called Idle Hour on Long Island’s Connetquot River in Oakdale, a chateau-esque mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan which she helped design, and an opulent $9 million Newport summer palace they named Marble House. Later, she would build Sands Point’s Beacon House, described as a “gothic fantasy castle” by historian Howard Kroplick on vanderbiltcupraces.com.

But then she discovered her husband’s adultery. Their 1895 divorce yielded her a personal yearly fortune of $200,000 plus property. The gossips’ tongues wagged over the scandal, driven by chatter about her quietly taking a lover named Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, whom she wed in 1896. 

The New York Times reported that “Mr. Belmont’s attention to Mrs. Vanderbilt was talked about long before she secured her divorce from W. K. Vanderbilt …. The breach between Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt became so broad that a divorce seemed inevitable.”

Alva and Oliver Belmont had two summer houses in Newport and built the ornate Brookholt Mansion on 800 acres on Long Island off Front Street in East Meadow in 1897. He died at Brookholt of septic poisoning in 1908. 

SHIFTING TACTICS

Being divorced and widowed led to a deep depression; she took up charity work to fight it off, and attended suffrage meetings. She was so moved that she devoted her time, her fortune, and her home to women’s rights, especially suffrage and better standards of work and wages for working women. 

Her consciousness shifted: After witnessing a militant suffrage organization’s London rally, she wrote, “There was a force in me that seemed to compel me to do what I wanted to do regardless of what might happen afterwards.”

She became more confrontational and sanctioned stronger tactics. As reporter Karen Grigsby Bates told NPR, “Alva embraced feminism and was inclined to view the very notion of romantic love as a plot against all women.” 

Because of her financial and other support, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Aug. 26, 1920, putting women on an equal basis with men. She continued working for women’s rights by writing articles and became a noted architectural designer; she was one of the first women elected to the American Institute of Architects.

She died in Paris in 1933. Her casket was draped with a purple protest banner featuring a quote by suffragist Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible.” Belmont is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

A virtual photo exhibit on Alva Vanderbilt Belmont celebrates Women’s History Month at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum throughout the month of March. 

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