Friday, July 30, 2010

The Vanderbilt, Ambassador...and Savoy 'Plaz'...

Central Park Summer Impression

Somewhere back in the ‘60s, New York café singer Ronny Whyte penned some very witty lyrics in which he invited the listener on a tour of his beloved Manhattan. The catchy little tune was called “Let Me Show You My New York.”

Ronny’s inspiration was a Charles Addams cartoon he saw in the New Yorker, in which a spectral sign-board guy (remember those?) touted a tour of all of those landmarks in Manhattan that had either closed or come out second-best in a contest with the wrecker’s ball.

Among the erstwhile NYC attractions Mr. Whyte offers up are the Stork Club, Lindy’s, the Hickory House (a steak and jazz venue if you’re old enough to recall)…the hotels The Vanderbilt, Ambassador, and Savoy ‘Plaz...’ 

Well you get the idea. I played the song regularly when I did programs devoted to songs of New York on the radio. As with present day radio, one wonders if New York is quite the wondrous place it once was. Oh, but of course it is.

Good music, especially when married to intelligent lyrics is such a part of my life that it is never far from my consciousness when engaged in other activities…like photography. Often when I’m shooting, some appropriate music is playing somewhere in my head in the process. How well I remember photographing along the Seine while the long September sunset yielded its heady palette of hues, as the sky slowly transitioned through vermilion to twilight…and hearing, in my “mind’s ear,” Maurice Jarre’s theme “Paris Smiles” from the film “Is Paris Burning?” I still hear that music, whether playing on my audio system, or in the equally high fidelity of the music player that sits behind my eyes and between my ears, when I view those images.

But, back to that “Savoy Plaz” reference…

Over the past several months, I have been enjoying a most inviting voyage of “rediscovery” … of hundreds of photographic images, mainly on color slides that have languished in boxes in drawers or transparent sleeves in binders in my photo workroom. It’s the “fate” of many of us who shoot images of our travels, or subject matter closer to home, and have done so for…decades. There is the excitement of capturing those special moments or works of nature in the viewfinder…the second shot of delight when we find the capture to film was as grand as we hoped, when those boxes of slides or sleeves of negatives come back from the lab. A third little shot of pleasure, when sharing them with others, whether in a portfolio or slide show or in a gallery exhibit.

But there are only so many images one can afford to print and frame for display. And, so, the numbers tell the story. The greatest number of one’s photographic captures suffer the ignominious fate of…oblivion, consigned to dark drawers that are rarely opened. After all, the shooting does go on, and one’s “darlings” are often the ones most recently shot…or those benefiting from the contented glow in returning from the latest trip to Europe or the Canadian Rockies.

Well, all that began to change, when I finally ceased my procrastination and purchased a high quality film and slide scanner last summer. The actual impetus was a client wanting to purchase a small print of a photograph she had purchased perhaps ten years earlier from one of my exhibits. But it focused me on the desire I’ve had to integrate more of my legacy (film) images into present day work flow, including my line of photo note cards.

Bingo! Next I knew, I was attempting to master the learning curve of professional scanning of film images. It’s very much like buying a new digital camera and learning all of its benefits (and traps for the unwary!).

Nonetheless, every journey begins with that first step, and the Whee! Factor quickly set in. I call it the “kid on Christmas Morning” feeling, wherein he doesn’t know which Lionel box to open first. Logic, of course, dictates…the locomotive! But, what next? The streamlined passenger car? The white dairy car with its tireless milkman bringing forth countless silver jugs of milk like the Sorcerer's Apprentice? Or is it the lumber mill? Don’t get me wrong: my childhood wasn’t that privileged…I mean, usually it was more like one Lionel box! But you might understand the progression of events after confirming that my new Nikon scanner had said hello to my computer and each liked the other.

Boxes of slides, unopened for years, gave up their contents of cardboard- (or plastic-) mounted slides, bearing the iconic names of Ektachrome, Fujichrome, Agfachrome, Perutz, and, of course, the many evolutions of Kodachrome, sixties onward.

Bruges! Paris! Iceland! The Berner Oberland! Moraine Lake! And, on deeper probing into drawers and boxes, late teen emerging photographer’s takes on Manhattan, Chicago, the Caribbean…Hel-lo again, dear little slivers of silver-coated celluloid. Into the scanner you go, and let’s see what we have! Were the years a bit unkind? Did you fade a bit? Did that “High Speed” Ektachrome have grain the size of golf balls? Did the dreaded Mildew Monster spew his nastiness right in the middle of Michigan Avenue, 1964, or put a splotch on the bright white paint above the windows of a shiny new United DC-8? Well, that’s why we love our photo software so bad!

Fortunately, 95% of the slides I unearthed in my “Christmas Morning” celebration that began in July, stood the test of time just fine. I knew those Kodachromes would, and my delight was complete at seeing those Fujichrome Velvia renderings of my beloved Alps and Rockies, and the heavenly coastline of British Columbia, with Vancouver and Howe Sound as its sublime centerpiece.

Do I feel a persistent tug at my sleeve…as in what about that “Savoy Plaz?” business?

Back during the winter, I was recuperating from shoulder surgery. It required wearing a sling 24/7…a definite physical hindrance, especially as the shoulder in question is my left…and I’m left-handed. Anyhow, housebound for two weeks. No driving. No lifting heavy EOS-1 type cameras. Ah, but right-handed typing and photo-editing…now that works!

Stir crazy? Not this Christmas Morning kid. On my desk sits a stack of slides, from one of the orgies of random slide box opening that followed my scanner purchase last July. Naturally, most of those images I purposely sought out have now joined my electronic image bank.

But sometimes, random is…fun!

So, here’s a slide in the cardboard mount of a now probably defunct lab in New Jersey, where I sent most of my slide film in the ‘sixties. The mount bears my roll number 15 EH. The low number is consistent with the fact I was just getting serious enough about my photography to make an effort toward organization and methodology. My current roll numbers – yes, I do continue to shoot film alongside digital – are in the mid-fifteen hundreds. Oh, yes, the EH part signified “High Speed Ektachrome.” (That was one of Kodak’s first “High Speed” films, and I guess it showed. Things later got much better in terms of grain and image quality in the ensuing years, although I still favor “slow” films for serious work.)

OK, let’s forget all that stuff about “vintage” slide mounts and film stock…and look through the transparency, shall we?

It was a late summer day, in September 1963. That date is significant for what follows, although the month of September 1963 was joyous for me in other ways…my first airliner trips…and, as written about elsewhere, falling in love with the Lockheed L-188 Electra, one of the most remarkable airliners ever built. And that first Electra whisked me on her turbine powered magic carpet from Buffalo/Niagara Falls to Manhattan, via LaGuardia.

It was not my first visit to NYC, nor was it the first one with 35 mm hardware hanging off my neck. I believe this one would have been a trusty Pentax (metal throughout, don’t you know!), probably the Model H1A, with a right good Takumar (Pentax) lens screwed into it. Yep, the old Pentax/Praktika screw mount…Great for embarrassing oneself with co-eds as one refines his portraiture on the C&O Canal towpath on a chilly day, misses the mark in aligning the thread of the lens with that of the camera body (we aspiring pro’s do not limit ourselves to one lens, you know!) Plop! Splash! Lens sleeps wid da fishes...

Ah, but clumsy though they might have been, those Takumars were sharp! Another “curiosity” of this era of Pentax was that, unlike more modern SLRs, this system made you stop down the lens to meter. Thus, if you cared about such things, you always knew your depth of field while composing and metering.

That’s beside the point in the case of this image, just a bit of historical “color.”

So, back to that re-discovered slide from 1963. It’s a Central Park scene, looking west-to-east across to the Fifth Avenue skyline at Central Park South. That much is clear from a cursory look before the shot of air to be certain no lint or nasties lurk. The slide gets slid into the Nikon. The machine comes to whirring, clicking (and all the other-worldly sounds scanners make) life, and several seconds later, the image pops up on my screen.

Whoa! Something’s different in that scene – very different! There’s the roof of the Hotel Pierre rising above the trees on the left…the iconic spire of the Sherry Netherland Hotel at the northeast corner of Fifth and 59th Street…and on the far right, one recognizes the equally distinctive architecture of the Plaza Hotel peeking through the trees. But that elegant looking building to the right of the Sherry Netherland, with its green copper mansard roof with its two chimneys…is it an apparition of my romantic nature? Has my slide taken me into the “Twilight Zone?”

A photo taken today from the same vantage point would show the modern tower of the General Motors Building, soaring high above the neighboring structures at this southeast corner of Central Park.

Looks like I was at that vantage point “Not a Moment Too Soon” (to quote another Ronny Whyte tune) in terms of capturing a slice of New York history.

But, now, to identify the mystery structure sitting exactly where the GM building (should?) be. OK, 40-some years can dim some aspects of one’s memory. I’d visited New York a number of times since September of 1963, but I’m guessing I must not have been in the vicinity of Fifth and 59th on the next two visits…but I do remember lunching at the Autopub restaurant…smack dab in the GM building…on a visit in 1972.

Back to the photo…That “mystery” building just had to be a hotel, thought I, from its location, style, architecture, and so forth. And a Grande Dame hotel, at that.

But which one?

Back to that magical Ronny Whyte tune, “Let Me Show You My New York” Didn’t I remember a line in the song…where he’s mentioning hotels that were no longer around? Hmmm, the 'Da-Da-Da,' Ambassador, or Savoy ‘Plaz’…

I retrieve the LP from my shelves, and place it on my trusty Technics SL-1015 with its superb EPA-500 tone arm. Ah, vinyl, lovingly cared for…the music lover and audiophile’s “comfort food.”

Yes, of course, it’s “The Vanderbilt…the Ambassador…and Savoy ‘Plaz’!”

So…remembering the locations of the Vanderbilt and the Ambassador…it’s gotta be the Savoy “Plaz,” er, Plaza.

But, just to be sure, some web research,  to establish both the location, and appearance, of the Savoy Plaza. 

As the original of this scene, captured on that old Ektachrome, "rediscovered" while scanning long-unviewed slides, no longer exists in reality, I followed my "Digital Muse" with the desire to depict a New York moment that lives on in romantic reverie.

©2010 Steve Ember 

P.S: A sampling of my New York images, impressionistic and literal, can be viewed here.

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