Author Archives: Ken Finkel

Pearls on Ridge

“Did you know,” asked the Tribune’s Joe Rainey in July 1931, “that never in the history of theatricals has one playhouse presented to the amusement lover as many stars as the Pearl Theatre…in the past six months?” “A vaudeville and picture house” at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue, the Pearl opened Thanksgiving Day, 1927. First up was […]
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Burning it up at The Lincoln: From “Mini The Moocher” to Hitler in Effigy

In the Spring of 1919, “Marian Dawley and a few other girls of color…went to the movie theater at 59th and Market Streets.” They lined up to buy tickets and were told “all tickets for colored people have been sold.” They left “disgusted,” according to the Philadelphia Tribune. Other than The Standard Theatre on the […]
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“Shuffle Along” Broad Street

“Fourteen Thousand Negro Actors in This Country Now Performing,” read a headline at the start of the 1922 theatrical season. “In vaudeville alone there are more than six hundred acts, of which are about sixty are now in Europe. There are twenty-two Negro minstrel shows touring the south.” According to Billboard, “368 theaters in the […]
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The Censor Mayor

The “People’s Mayor” or “political chameleon”? From his flamboyant, convention hall swearing in during a “howling snowstorm” in January 1936 to his indictment less than three years later, Philadelphia’s mayor wielded power with flair. As historian John Rossi put it: “Hardly a week passed that didn’t witness some dramatic gesture” on the part of Philadelphia’s […]
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America’s Better Bet: The Wooden Washington

William Rush, ship figurehead carver extraordinaire, had done it again. His “bold and striking likeness of the President” on the 250-ton ‘General Washington’” gave “pleasure to every spectator” according to the Pennsylvania Journal. This time, Rush had notched his game up from a tomahawk-wielding “Indian Trader” with a real, life-size, sitting commander-in-chief. So practical, so […]
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Misty Eyed for Market Shambles

As early Philadelphia expanded, the city’s spine of market shambles kept up. “The market could…be conveniently extended in the same plan,” wrote an observer in 1809, almost giddy that Philadelphia might be able to maintain its century-old shopping traditions in the new century. But 19th-century growth would outpace everyone’s expectations, rendering the last remaining shambles […]
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The Food Market Bubble of 1859

“The completion of the market between the two rivers will probably take place in the present generation,” wrote an anonymous commentator in 1809, adding “a uniform, open arcade mathematically straight, two miles in length, perfect in its symmetry… will never be a contemptible object.” But the coming generation of Philadelphians wouldn’t be so patient, or […]
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Is “Gentrification” Going the Way of “Slum”?

When it comes to talking about urban change, words serve their purpose, until they are considered inadequate, wrong or just go out of style. “Slum” and “urban renewal” for instance. Usage of these terms peaked in the second half of the 1960s, but then faded. Could it be we’re beginning to see a similar downturn […]
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No Coal; No Peace – The Story of Philadelphia’s 1918 Coal Famine

Every day in the depths of winter, coal cars trundled down Washington Avenue supplying the city’s lifeblood. You wouldn’t know it looking at the trackless six lanes of blacktop today, but locomotives once hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of anthracite to at least thirty coal yards between 2nd and 25th Streets. Coal powered nearly […]
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Life Finds a Way On The Locust Strip

The Top Hat Cafe opened at 1235 Locust in the early 50s, and almost immediately slid off the rails. Outside the bar, on March 1, 1952, Nicholas Virgilio “was slapping around a 16-year old girl…when a sailor grabbed his hand to stop him.” Virgilio, 23, known as “Lothario of the taprooms” a/k/a “Nicky the Blade” […]
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