Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In our little well-secluded cell of ceiling and walls...

...from a photographer's notebook

Does anything in this photo strike you as "odd?"

Tribeca, Manhattan on a rainy afternoon.

Regular visitors to this space know how the weirdly wired synapses that spark off messages behind the eyeballs and between the ears of your correspondent can go on a musically tinged tangent at the slightest provocation, often the mere click of a camera's shutter...

I am fortunate in being able to say that good music - and that covers a number of genres - has enriched my existence. I am reminded often of just how much that good music is imbued in me by just how easily I can be reminded of a song, by a serendipitous experience...such as the one I'll relate below. And in this case, it was a song that just had to be heard again.

Some narration recognition in the 2013 New York Festivals Awards led to a trip to the Apple for the Awards Gala last night (more about that in a future posting ;-)...and, considering it had been quite some time since I last enjoyed the City, I decided to carve out a celebratory week of it. Naturally, that would include the cameras.

I guess I've been auto-programmed (to use a camera term) over many years to stay at hotels in midtown. Convenient and all that...But in putting this trip together, I decided to cast a wider net, to ensure I'd be exploring at least one, hopefully camera-inspiring neighborhood not previously visited.

From my window, Freedom Tower
Fortuitously, this led to choosing the Tribeca neighborhood. TriBeCa stands for the triangle below Canal (Street). My hotel choice was the Tribeca Grand, which, interestingly enough, is triangular, situated in the three-sided block formed by Avenue of the Americas, Church Street, and Walker Street -- and was grandly cooperative when I requested a room with a view on an upper floor in booking my reservation. Indeed, the view that greeted me from my large top floor window encompassed the panorama of Freedom Tower (One World Trade Center) rising spectacularly just a few blocks downtown...across a cityscape of rooftop water tanks, lush roof gardens, and fire escape festooned dwellings...more modern buildings...and a clear shot to the Hudson and the Jersey City waterfront...all set off by a deep blue late day sky laced with wispy cirrus formations. What a terrifically photogenic introduction to Tribeca.

More cityscapes and individual examples of distinctive and/or unique architecture are to be captured in the days ahead, but if you're wondering about that title...and the inevitable musical tangent...

Well, you see, there's this building just a few blocks down Church Street from my hotel. At first glance, it most certainly fits one's expectations of modern Manhattan skyscrapers, often rising starkly amidst older, more traditional structures. It is known as 33 Thomas Street; but also as the AT&T Long Lines Building.

It is 550 feet tall, which would normally signify about 50 floors. But this is no "normal" building. It is a heavy duty telephone and data switching center whose twenty-nine floors measure much higher than those of typical skyscraper office buildings. But its real uniqueness has to do with how it can initially fool the eye into not noticing a notable architectural absence.

I actually had been shooting past it from my hotel "perch" as I composed certain downtown views toward Freedom Tower. Just looked like one of those modernistic monoliths.

Then, today, as I viewed it from the street plaza of the Tribeca Grand, while doing some rainy rush hour captures, it finally struck me - this 550 foot tall building has...no windows! I was chatting with Nikos, the hotel doorman, at the time and asked him about the windowless monolith down the street. When he told me it was the AT&T Long Lines building, it suddenly made perfect sense.

AT&T Long Lines Building as seen from the plaza in front of Tribeca Grand Hotel

Telephone companies often have such buildings, and they try to make them inconspicuous, such that they'll "fit in" with surrounding architecture. I've seen such structures closer to home and had easily figured out what they were. But New York has its own style - and scale - so it makes perfect sense AT&T Long Lines would require a skyscraper for its major switching center.

The building, designed by architect John Carl Warnecke, is in the Brutalist architectural style (think the futuristic cast concrete buildings  in Mexico City that director Paul Verhoeven chose as locations in the early scenes of "Total Recall.") but it does make more of a soaring statement, befitting Manhattan.

So...about that song that's been lurking in this narrative...a song I actually had not heard in twenty or more years, but which literally jumped into my stream of consciousness with such clarity that I could have been listening to it just yesterday, as I looked up at the AT&T Long Lines Building and took these shots...

In 1964, a musical opened on Broadway that was based on an acerbic novel written by Bud Schulberg in 1941 about a back-stabbing Hollywood scoundrel, who claws his way up the ladder of success from humble beginnings in 1930's New York. His name is Sammy Glick, and he uses people right and left. The name of the novel - and the musical - was "What Makes Sammy Run?"

Ervin Drake wrote a wonderful bunch of songs, which were superbly performed by Robert Alda, Sally Ann Howes...and Steve Lawrence, in his first role on Broadway, as the cad Sammy Glick. But this was the Broadway of 1964, and Sammy's character was softened accordingly. Certainly as played by Lawrence, a genuinely likable singer with genuine vocal chops, Sammy was oddly likable. 

A great thrill for me as a young man was seeing "What Makes Sammy Run?" at the 54th Street Theater in 1965 and meeting Steve Lawrence afterwards. Even got to say hello to the lovely Ms Howes.

But about that song brought forth so vividly in my mind's ear as I shot the windowless AT&T monolith...

My favorite song in Drake's rich score was the one in which Sammy seduces Kit Sargent (Sally Ann Howes) - you've perhaps guessed it by now? -  "A Room Without Windows."

It often amazes me how, with all the day to day detritus the brain must process, a great song lyric one hasn't heard in more years than can be counted on one's fingers can be tucked so securely in the gray matter nooks and crannies that it will spring to consciousness with near 100% accuracy - and such vibrancy - as occurred this afternoon.

It just had to be heard again - right away, if at all possible!

Satisfied with my rainy rush hour captures outside the hotel, I scooted up to my room, cranked up the PC, and did a quick search on You Tube with the hope of finding at least some audio for the cast recording of  "What Makes Sammy Run?"

No luck there, but I did find a nice clean upload of the song from a CD reissue of a Steve Lawrence album of that period, with Steve singing "A Room Without Windows," to a superb Don Costa big band arrangement.

As I immediately replied to Alan Glasscock, who had the great good taste to post this fine song, what can you say about Ervin Drake's lyrics - when one hasn't heard a song in so many years and it springs to mind almost word for word...Sadly, that kind of lyric writing craft is long gone.

A dreary, rainy afternoon in Manhattan perhaps, but not in Room 817 of the Tribeca Grand.

©2013 Steve Ember

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