Tiger Stalks Woodside Streets In May 1939
Get into a conversation with a longtime Queens resident
likely to discover a subscriber of the Long Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper's name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).
Welcome to May 1939!
A 400-pound tiger escaped from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Long Island City. Scores of residents in Sunnyside and Woodside were terrorized before it was captured in a tree in a yard at 38-29 53rd St., Woodside.
The man-eater, as he was billed by the circus, bolted to freedom at 5:40 a.m. after gnawing his way out of a wood crate in the main tent near Woodside Avenue. As he burst out of his prison with a terrific lunge against the weakened bars, attendants screamed and scattered in turmoil while a dozen handlers ran in pursuit.
A milkman and several motorists stood petrified with fright while the big cat sprinted off towards Roosevelt Avenue. Finally an officer spotted the animal in a tree behind the house where he was ultimately captured.
Circus personnel summoned from their tents at Northern Boulevard and 44th Street where the circus was encamped made the capture with their nets. A half-hundred policemen with rifles at their shoulders looked on.
Although the officers stood ready to shoot should the tiger make another attempt at flight through the jungle of tightly barred residences in the neighborhood, it was all over as the beast, deftly bound, was carried by circus workers to a new crate. A wide-eyed Mr. and Mrs. Gus Mazzari, owners of the damaged flower garden and rear yard looked on behind closed windows.
The following day the circus opened in the first air-conditioned big top in history. Led by a menagerie and lorded over by the terrifying gorilla called "Gargantua, the Great," a cast of 2,800 performers traveled to town in 80 railroad cars for the one-week engagement.
In its first three days, between April 29 and May 2, more than 40,000 cars crossed the Whitestone Bridge. Newspaper headlines trumpeted opening day ceremonies when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the Triborough Bridge Authority Commissioner Robert Moses shared in the honors. At the event that dedicated the span, civic leaders waxed poetic, "There she stands, in all her beauty and usefulness, a symbol of municipal efficiency and the city's never-ending progress," read one speech.
Moses, who was also Parks commissioner, made a speech lauding the work of engineers, the mayor, and the federal government. "I cannot pay enough tribute to the working men on this project for their invaluable aid in completing the job on time. We said that we would open the bridge in time for the [1939 World's] Fair, and we did, despite criticism to the contrary."
The official ceremony, in Whitestone, was the greatest fete ever staged in the community. The bridge was the grand realization of a 20-year civic dream. More than 5,000 persons attended the event.
The following day the New York World's Fair opened. President Franklin Roosevelt gave his opening remarks at 3:12 p.m. Governor Herbert Lehman, Mayor LaGuardia and Fair President Grover Whalen headed the list of speakers from 60 participating nations. The event was topped by a parade of 20,000 marching soldiers, marines, sailors, and costumed representatives of foreign nations. Their ranks formed at the Perisphere and tramped majestically through Constitution Mall to the site of the speechmaking.
Whalen expressed satisfaction with the turnout. He said, "Our fondest dream and expectations were fully realized today. The tremendous assembly of people and the great enthusiasm of the public indicate that the New York Fair has passed its crucial test with flying colors. It was a marvelous turnout."
On opening day of the World's Fair, Queens took the visit of President Roosevelt, his entourage, and other world celebrities in stride. Carloads of fairgoers streamed into the borough until dusk. Visitors who came from all over the world arrived by train, airplane and boat. The exposition opening was one of the most orderly and colorful events of its size in history. On the first day more than 600,000 visitors flocked to the World's Fair premiere.
That first week was also dubbed "Queens Week" and the first Monday was "Borough Day" where school and civic groups took part in performances.
But the fair had hardly started before World's Fair president Grover Whalen's face turned red when Sheriff Maurice FitzGerald paid an official visit on the spicily ballyhooed girlie show. While adjective slingers had been building up the World's Fair's "nude lane" as "sensational", "shocking", "nerve tingling", etc, to draw in the suckers from Corncob Corner, the sheriff took a peek and observed: "Why they're no better nor worse than 90 percent of New York's night club shows. I can't see how they'd even corrupt a kindergarten."
On a more chaste note, hundreds of young ladies lined up for the "Typical Queens Girl" contest. Representing the borough's girlhood, there were girls in gingham dresses and low heeled shoes, girls statuesque in evening clothes, girls smartly clad in fur capes, and business girls, school girls and models. They climbed the dais one at a time then retired. They lined up for the judges, removed their hats, and smiled bright, hopeful smiles.
Festivities for "Queens Week" continued briskly. Balmy weather the first week let four musical concerts go off on schedule along the fountain-splashed, tree lined malls of the Fair grounds. Two score drum and bugle corps of veterans' organizations from Queens (and their junior affiliates) were at the Court of Peace. The 140-strong Bayside High School band and chorus gave a rousing chorus. The day before the Flushing High School band and chorus gave their concert at the Washington Statue in Constitution Mall. That same day, the Choral Society of the Women's Club of Queens Village held forth in the Court of Peace. Other groups giving concerts that week included the Masonic lodges, Knights of Columbus, trade unions and civic groups.
In closing that week's review of events, perhaps we should turn back to President Roosevelt's stirring words. The surroundings of a modern-day fairyland provided the setting for the president's renewed pleas for world peace as he stood before a crowd of 40,000 in the Court of Peace. "Our wagon is hitched to a star," declared the chief executive who, for the first time, was both seen and heard by millions of radio and television listeners the world over. He continued, "It is a star of good will, a star of promise for mankind, a star of greater happiness and less hardship, and above all, a star of peace."
He then declared the fair open to all mankind.
That's the way it was in May 1939!
At 7 p.m. on Monday, June 4, at 35-20 Broadway, the Greater Astoria Historical Society presents "Neon - The Art of Light Industry" with local artist Kenny Greenberg. Neon is a part of our community's heritage with icons such as the Long Island City Pepsi sign. Greenberg has been making neon in Long Island City for over 25 years and his studio, Krypton Neon, produces neon sets for Broadway, Film, and television. He is also the part owner of Art-O-Mat, a store on Vernon Boulevard featuring crafts and merchandise with a community theme. The lecture will be at Quinn's Gallery, 4th Floor, 35- 20 Broadway, Long Island City. For more information, call 718- 278-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org. Open to the public, Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. at Quinn's Gallery, 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City.