Saturday, November 18, 2017

Newsies Night Out Recalls a Grimmer Reality

The cast of Newsies at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theater are caught mid-leap in one of their signature dance numbers.  Although most of the historic newspaper street peddlers were 8-15 year tears old don't expect to  see an adolescent cast.  Te choreography is too demanding.  With the exception of one precocious boy, the ensemble members are athletic 20 somethings or maybe even a tad older.


Last night my wife Kathy Brady-Murfin and I on one of our periodic Date Nights caught the production of the musical Newsies at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theater.  As always this bastion of middlebrow theater catering to a rather senior suburban base—that’s us in spades—did a spectacular job with an attractive cast of talented Actors Equity professionals.  This dance heavy show also offered a rare opportunity for a large ensemble of male dancer to take center stage and shine in in muscular, athletic, and ballet heavy choreography. 
The leads were charming—Patrick Rooney channeled the brash cockiness of an Irish slum product a la young James Cagney, Eliza Palasz embodied the spunky independence with a dollop on naiveté of Judy Garland, and for our performance blonde Carter Graff conjured pre-teen Mickey Rooney.  It was probably no accident.  The reliance on these architypes if not stereotypes helped open up the story and make it accessible to an audience likely largely alien to both turn of the 20th Century slum poverty and a class conscious labor movement.
Before the show Kathy snapped Mr. First Nighter in all his suave sophistication in front of the convenient photo-op display in the lobby.
As a theatrical experience, we thoroughly enjoyed the show and would recommend it to anyone. But the play itself raised some questions beginning with its source.
Although I never saw more than clips from the 1992 film on which the subsequent Broadway show was based, the Disney Studio always seemed like an odd originator for this story based on an actual New York City newsboys strike in 1899.  After all Walt Disney himself had always shrouded the turn of the century in a gauzy glow of fond nostalgia in films from Pollyanna to Mary Poppins and in the Main Street America attraction that he made the centerpiece of Disneyland.  A gritty urban underbelly to middle class coziness was scarcely imagined.
Even more to the point, Uncle Walt was no friend of labor.  The Screen Cartoonist Guild strike at Disney in 1941 was one of the most bitter in Hollywood history.  Although a lengthy Federal mediation process eventually found for the strikers on every issue and forced Disney to accept a union shop and contract many top animators left the company in disgust and Walt could barely contain his fury or sense of betrayal.  He blame Hollywood Reds for his woes and latter would encourage and abet the House Un-American Activities Committee post-war investigations and in the subsequent Red hunt and studio blacklisting.  Even with Walt gone, the Disney company retained an anti-union culture that fiercely resisted any attempt to organize any parts of its far flung and growing empire.
None the less, the studio green-lighted a live action musical in which invested heavily and hyped intensively.  But Newsies was a big time flop at the box office  losing millions of dollars and generating a mini-crisis for the studio.  It turns out people would not pay to see singing and dancing urchins play out class warfare on the streets of old New York. 
Since then, however the movie achieved a cult following  through video releases largely because the intrepid young hero was played by Christian Bale, who grew up to be the Dark Knight.
After languishing mostly in obscurity for nearly twenty years, composer Alan Menken and  Lyracist Jack Feldman with the backing of the mighty Disney empire enlisted Broadway maven Harvey Firestone to write a new script.  It premiered to rave reviews at the at the Nederlander Theatre on March 25, 2012.  It went on to earn Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Menken and choreographer Christopher Gattelli plus a slew of other nomination.  The show ran for more than 1,200 performances.  

The creative team behind the Broadway version of Newsies, libretist Harvey Fierstein, lyracist Jack Feldman,  and composer Alan Menken made changes and choices that under cut the class struggle of the story and made it fairy tale with a male princes. 
Brilliant and edgy Broadway fixture Harvey Fierstein whose credits as an actor, writer, and deirector included Torch Song Trillogy.amd Legs. La Cage aux Folles, was the bold choice to completely overhaul the script.  And Fierstein turned out to be more conventional in his choices than would have been expected.  Although the first act sets the scene for the brutal conditions endured by the largely homeless street urchins who peddle the Big Apples papers and indulges in some bravado class war rhetoric, the second act pulls those punches.
The film’s romance between the tough swaggering and charismatic leader of the strike and the sister of his Jewish intellectual co-leader is jettisoned in favor of pairing him with a pretty young reporter channeling Nellie Bly who turns out to actually be the daughter of the Newsies’s exploitive boss, publisher Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World.  Even more egregiously and unbelievably she is abetted by the sons of two other power publishers including Pulitzer’s arch enemy William Randolph Hearst.  The inference was that wealthy liberal youth would erase the sins of their fathers.  Another cop out is depicting strike leader Jack Kelly as not just a street punk but as a secret and sensitive artist who Pulitzer becomes so impressed with after being forced to capitulate to the strikers that he magnanimously offers to hire him as a political cartoonist and waltz away with his stary-eyed daughter.  And everyone lives happily ever after. The End.  Fierstein remade the second act into a real Disney fairy tale with a male princess.
The real life Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 was less charming and far more dangerous.  It was another chapter in the grim class war that was a staple of turn of the 20th Century life, albeit with a somewhat happier ending than many conflicts.
The 1890’s was a period of heavy competition among the 15 major daily English language newspapers published in Manhattan and others in Brooklyn.  Respectable broadsheets like the Post, Herald, Tribune, Times, Morning Sun, and American were challenged by the more sensational Yellow Journalism sheets, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s Morning and Evening Journals.

Peddler of sensationalism rivals Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the Journal were the targets of the Newsboys' Strike when they hiked the price of bundles.  Both faux populists, each was first and foremost a ruthless capitalist.
The battle for circulation, particularly between the Hearst and Pulitzer papers, was often literally fought out on the streets with gangs of thugs hired to wreck delivery wagons, burn piles of papers at distribution points, and assault vendors on the streets.  Even the “respectable” papers engaged in this activity to one degree or another.
There were about 10,000 newsboys—and a few newsgirls—on the streets of Manhattan and thousands more in Brooklyn and outlying areas.  They were both cannon fodder and ground troops in the circulation wars.
Depicted in popular literature as plucky little businessmen rising in the world, most of the newsboys, some as young as six years old and ranging to their late teens, were desperately poor.  In fact the majority were homelessorphans, run-a-ways, abandoned cast offs.  Many slept on the streets.  Some found refuge in homes for waifs.  Some squatted in empty buildings.  Others slept dozens to a shared room in some of the city’s worst slum tenements.  Some still lived with large, impoverished and usually immigrant families who need all hands to eke out a living.

Documentary photographer Jacob Riis captured the brutal reality for the street urchins who peddled papers.
The kids were generally hungry, dirty, and cold.  They were also tough as nails and regularly brawled for control of the best locations both with and without the encouragement of company circulation agents.  Contemporary writers sneeringly compared them to feral dogs.
Kids lined up as early as 4:30 in the morning outside circulation docks.  They bought their newspapers by the bundle of 100.  That was about all smaller children could carry.  Some had wagons or carts and were able to take several bundles.  Before 1898 they paid 65 cents a bundle and sold them for two or three cents apiece, depending on the paper.  The papers were un-returnable and kids generally stayed out until the sold the last one.  Often on the streets for fourteen hours, a street hawker might make 30 cents a day, barely enough to eat.
Conditions had generated conflict for years.  The first recorded newsboy strike was way back in 1866 and there had been strikes, mostly for reduced cost for bundles, again in 1884, 1886, 1887, and 1889.  But none had been well organized or lasted more than a day or two.  Papers had no trouble using the natural gang-like rivalries among the sellers themselves, hired plug-uglies, and blackballing strike leaders to crush the strikes.
The Spanish American War was a bonanza for the newspaper business.  Hearst had practically created the war himself with dramatic accounts of the Cuban Insurrection and the explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harborLurid accounts of action caused papers to literally fly out of the vendors' grimy hands.  Taking advantage of the situation, all of the papers raised their prices to 85 cents a bundle.  Despite the increased costs, newsboys were able to marginally prosper on vastly increased sales.
When the war was over, newspaper sales plummeted to pre-war levels or even lower.   All of the papers except those owned by Pulitzer and Hearst returned to pre-war pricing.  The papers probably expected trouble, but were confident that they could handle it.  They were wrong.
The street urchins had evidently been learning something from watching labor struggles unfold in front of them on the streets, particularly recent street car and Teamster strikes.  They learned the value of mass picketing and of going after all avenues of the papers’ circulation.  And they may have been listening to street corner orators about the value of solidarity.

Another famed New York documentary photographer caught a glimpse of the sheer toughness of the vendors in this 1910 photo.  Don't mess with them.
Although sometimes portrayed as a spontaneous action, the refusal of newsboys to handle Pulitzer and Hearst papers on July 20, 1899 seems to have been well planned in advanceManhattan vendors secured the cooperation and support of newsboys in Brooklyn, then considered almost a different world.  For several days thousands of boys from both sides of the East River massed on the Brooklyn Bridge snarling traffic and blocking circulation to the entire of Long Island.  Similar actions around trains bound for New Jersey blocked circulation on the other side of the Hudson including markets in suburbs like Yonkers, Up-State New York, and Connecticut.
Almost daily rallies of as many as 5000 vendors clogged key points in the city

No photos of the real strike leader Kid Blink are known to exist and his real name remains showered in mystery, but Herald cartoonist caught him in sketches published on July 30, 1899.
Amused and delighted at the misfortune of their rivals, other papers, especially the Times sympathetically chronicled the struggle, particularly the rousing speeches of the strike leader identified only as Kid Blink for his eye patch.  Estimated to be 13 or 14, he was credited with the organizing skills of a mini-Napoleon.  Whether he was the strike true “leader” or just a colorful spokesperson, the Times loved to record his speech in exaggerated street argot:
Me men is nobul, and wid such as dese to oppose der neferarious schemes how can de blokes hope to win?
Friens and feller workers. Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind.
The papers fought back with everything they had.  Goons attacked rallies and tried to pick of individual strikersPolice were roused to bust heads and make arrests.  Calls went out for scabs, confident in the popular maxim of railroad robber baron Jay Gould that he could always hire half the working class to shoot the other.  But the strikers held firm.  And scab peddlers met with rough justice from the fists and clubs of strikers.
As the strike dragged on, circulation of the Pulitzer and Hearst papers plummeted while their rivals profited handsomely from their losses.  It was reported the circulation of the World dropped from 360,000 papers daily to less than 125,000.

You can imagine the editor's glee at the New York Sun for being able to poke a rival with this headline.
After two weeks the press tycoons ran up the white flag.  Although they refused to lower the bundle price, they did agree to buy back unsold papers, which made peddling them marginally profitable again.  The competing papers, with their lower bundle prices, also felt compelled to start buying back copies, lest the ire of the newsboys turn on them.
The reform was lasting.  Unfortunately the newsboys’ organization was not.  It disappeared along with Kid Blink and other colorfully monikered figures like Barney Peanuts, Race Track Higgins, Crazy Arborn and Crutch Morris.
But their victory lived on.  And, I guess, that is something to sing and dance about.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Anglo-Swedish War—Sound, Little Fury, Signifying Nothing

Since there are no heroic pictures of the bloodless Anglo/Swedish War, this is a depiction of Russian cavalry overrunning Swedish troops early in the Finish War of 1808.

What if they gave a war and nobody came?  That is essentially what happened in the Anglo-Swedish War which was declared on November 17, 1810 and dragged on for two years without a shot being fired by the belligerents.  It was a footnote to the international intrigue playing out in the background and on the periphery of the titanic Napoleonic Wars. 
It is so obscure that for a while the Wikipedia entry on the paper war was altered by some prankster to claim that the British invaded Stockholm by sea, executed Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and most of the government, and annexed Sweden into the British Empire from which the Nordic country did not gain independence until 1912.  This post was evidently up completely undetected for quite some time.  But within minutes of me beginning to write this post, it was corrected.  My guess is some history geek like me who clicked on the link from Wikipedia’s On This Day… almanac feature out of idle curiosity about a war they had never heard of, discovered and finally reported the ruse.
This is what really happened.
In the early 19th Century Sweden, the once the dominant power of Northern Europe, had fallen on difficult times.  As Allies of the British they were defeated by French, Dutch, and Spanish forces in the Pomeranian War of 1807-08.  They lost the eastern third of their territory—Finland—to the Russians in the Finnish War of 1808-09.  Sensing the weakness of its former master and under pressure from the French Denmark-Norway declared war on Sweden and began preparations for an invasion.
At this point, earlier grand coalitions against Napoleon having collapsed, Sweden was the United Kingdom’s only remaining ally and it was a basket case.  Pressured on all sides despite Britain being its main trading partner without which the economy might collapse, the Swedes were forced to look for ways to find accommodation with France and the nations in its orbit.
At home, a war weary and exhausted nation was also in upheaval.  A liberal coup d’ état deposed King Gustav IV Adolf and replaced him with King Charles XIII who accepted a new constitution.  
After his predecessor and uncle King Gustav IV Adolf was deposed in a liberal coup after badly bungling wars against the French and the Russians King Charles XIII came to the Swedish throne not much interested in the affairs of state.
The Swedes avoid having their country completely overrun when a British fleet arrived after the ice melted in the Baltic Sea—the ice Russian forces had marched across to attack the Swedes in the winter.  The Russian fleet was bottled up at Kronstadt and the Baltic became a British lake cutting off easy logistical support for the large armies in Sweden.  But in late summer, the fleet sailed away to engage the French and Spanish in the Atlantic.  Exposed once again, the Swedes were forced to sue the Russians for peace. 
In the resulting Treaty of Fredrikshamn in September 1809 Sweden not only lost Finland but was coerced into renouncing its British alliance, closing its ports to British shipping and subscribing to France’s Continental System.  Overnight the Swedes went from being a British ally to being—for the time being—non-combatant French allies.
Pacified, the Russians, then still French allies themselves, used their good offices to facilitate the Treaty of Paris signed in January 1810 by which the French returned Pomerania to the Swedes in exchange for further pledges end still flourishing trade by winked at smuggling with Britain and seize British property in Pomerania and in warehouses in Swedish ports. 
The reluctant Swedes dragged their feet on both counts and by back channels assured the British that they would stay out of the war and continue to allow sub rosa trade.

The hapless Dane Charles August only survived months as Crown Prince of Sweden before being felled by a stroke.
The new King was both childless without an apparent heir and disinclined to take much direct role in government.  After casting about Charles August, a Danish prince who had lately commanded forces against Sweden in Norway was proposed as Prince Regent and Charles XIII dutifully formally adopted the middle aged man he never met as his son and heir.  The new Crown Prince was expected to be the de facto ruler for a figurehead monarch.
The thinking was quite simple. The selection of the Dane was a signal to Napoleon of friendlier intentions and a possible avenue though which negotiations might achieve security from further attacks by surrogates or even direct dismemberment by France.  It also reflected, even at this late date the lingering reputation of Napoleon as a liberator that was still held by some Continental liberals.
Charles August became Prince Regent co-incidentally with the Treaty of Paris but barely had time to redirect Swedish policy to a stronger pro-French stance because he died suddenly of a stroke in May.  Scrambling again for a new heir, the Swedes made an even more astonish choice.
Jean-Baptist Bernadotte was a Field Marshal of France and once one of Napoleon’s most Napoleon had become rocky and contentious. In 1806 Bernadotte was one of three Marshalls Bernadotte who crushed Prussian General von Blücher.  In the process he trapped a large Swedish force at the Baltic port of Lübeck.  Not only did he protect them from his own rampaging troops, he treated them with kindness and humanity and allowed them to be safely repatriated with their arms.  In doing so Bernadotte seems to have become seen as a hero and savior by some in the Army.

Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, former Marshal of France, was one of Europe's great commanders before being elected Crown Prince Charles John of Sweden.
In 1808 Bernadotte was entrusted with a planned invasion of Sweden via the Danish islands but due to the withdrawal of Spanish troops from his forced and a lack of transport, the invasion never came off.  The Swedes seem to have believed that Bernadotte had mercifully spared them out of sympathy.  Most historians dismiss that as wishful thinking. 
The surprise offer of being made Swedish Crown Prince stunned Bernadotte, but after giving it some thought, he accepted it.  He had already tried to retire from the Grand Armee as his relations with Napoleon soured.  This seemed not only an unbelievable opportunity but an escape.  For his part Napoleon was likely glad to be rid of his Marshall but probably believed that as de facto ruler, he would be a loyal satrap.  He badly misread his man.  Bernadotte had no intention of being an Imperial puppet like some of the monarchs Napoleon had set on European thrones.
On August 21, 1810 Bernadotte was elected by the Riksdag of the Estates the new Crown Prince and was subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces by the King, conferring real authority to go with the title and honor.  He took office under the name Karl Johan—Charles John but continued to be known as Bernadotte throughout Europe.  He became immediately immensely popular in Sweden and centered his policy on wresting control of Norway from the Danes and unifying the Scandinavian Peninsula.  This policy put him at odds with the Danes ally, France.
But before he could act on any concrete plans, the Crown Prince was compelled to respond to a French ultimatum to enforce the earlier commitments to halt trade with Britain and to officially declare war.  Not yet ready to face a potential two front war against French, Danish/Norwegian forces on one hand and the Russians of the other, Sweden declared War on the United Kingdom in November.
But it was, from the beginning, a phony war.  Bernadotte had no intention of committing forces to action against the British and for their part, the British understood that.  Although trade was somewhat curtailed, especially through southern port where it might easily be detected, it continued further north.  It fell by less than half in 1811, a blow, but not a knock-out punch to the economy.  More over the British were allowed to land unopposed on the island of Hanö in the South Baltic and use it as a base of naval operations unopposed.
Swedish farmers armed only with farm implements paid a heavy price for their rebellion against conscription at Klagerup in 1811.  More than 40 were gunned down by the Army in the only bloodshed associated with the Anglo/Swedish War.
Although there was no armed conflict, Bernadotte did use the war as a pretext for expanding and modernizing the Swedish Army for the day it could be used in the conquest of Norway or incase either the British or the French should decide to move against the country.  He instituted an unpopular draft which led to the only violence associated with the war.  When farmers in Klågerup near the southern tip of Sweden rose up in revolt against conscription more than 800 of them were attacked by Army forces with two cannons under Major Hampus Mörner killing more than 40 and arresting nearly 300.
As 1811 passed with no action by Sweden to join in actual combat and with ample evidence of collusion to continue trade and allowing the Royal Navy to operate from Hanö Napoleon became increasingly angry at his former Marshal and the Swedes.  When Napoleon was preparing to invade Russia in January 1812 citing Swedish breeches he re-occupied Pomerania and the island of Rügen to protect his flank.  Bernadotte later said he would never have taken up arms against France but felt duty bound to protect his new country. 
In April Sweden signed a new mutual defense pact with the chief victim of French aggression, Russia and both nations jointly engaged in negotiations that led to the parallel Treaties of Orbero ending the Swedish-Anglo War and the Russo-Anglo War which were signed July 18, 1812.
Bernadotte and the Swedes would take a much greater role in fighting the French than they ever did in the faux dust up with the British.  In 1813 Sweden officially joined Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria and others in the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon.  Later that year he was appointed commander of the Army of the North consisting of Swedish, Russian, and Prussian troop and notched victories against French Marshalls Oudinot in August and against Ney in September at the Battles of Großbeeren and Dennewitz.  
Swedish officers in the War of the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon.
After the turning point Battle of Leipzig in October Bernadotte turned his attention on the Danes in a quick campaign that led to the Treaty of Kiel by which Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden in exchange for Pomerania and switch sides to join the Sixth Coalition. 
Although Bernadotte’s dream was somewhat thwarted when the Norwegians rebelled and declared a republic with liberal constitution, when Bernadotte was promised them autonomy under the constitution, they agreed to personal union with the Swedish Crown,  Sweden refused to hand over Pomerania to the Danes because the terms of the treaty were not fulfilled.  They only kept Pomerania until the post-Napoleonic Wars Congress of Vienna re-drew the map of Europe and handed Pomerania to Prussia in a complex territorial swap.
By that time King Charles XIII had died in 1818 and Bernadotte ascended to the throne of Sweden as Charles XIV John and the throne of Norway as Charles III John.  He ruled both countries as a successful and popular monarch from 25 years until 1844.  Among his many achievements was developing the policy of strict neutrality that has kept Sweden out of war ever since.

The Arms of the House of Bernadotte of Sweden.
He founded the House of Bernadotte that ruled Norway until its independence in 1905 and still reigns in Sweden—however modestly in a low-key Scandinavian manner—under King Carl XVI Gustaf.