2015-03-11 / Star Journal

Nazis And KKK; Music And Movies In 1923 Queens

The Greater Astoria Historical Society presents pages from the Long Island Star Journal.

Welcome to March 1923!

The month was a momentous period in current events, both at home and abroad. In Germany, the Supreme Court outlawed a growing political group known as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or the Nazis. Closer to home, President Warren Harding became the first US President to pay income tax, and in New York City the entertainment scene was as lively as ever. Frank Silver and Irving Cohn released the hit song. “Yes, We Have No Bananas” from the Broadway revue, Make it Snappy, and further uptown in the Audubon Ballroom, 32-year-old Alma Cummings set a world record dancing non-stop through 27 hours and six partners. Dance marathons soon became one of many fads in a decade of reckless, wild abandon and fleeting extravagance.

Far off in the South American nation of Ecuador, College Point native Reverend George Geres had seen more than his share of carefree, reckless living and easily squandered a fortune. After a childhood running with street gangs and shooting craps for a quick buck, he found a higher calling when, as a young boy, he was taken in by an elderly man living in a small shanty who prayed for him, saying “Oh, dear Lord, here is a fine young man you can call to your service...call him to the foreign field, where there are so many dying without knowing you.” Based in the capital city of Quito, the reverend’s missionary work took him to remote mountain villages over two miles into thin air and isolated, indigenous tribes, who proudly displayed shrunken human heads for their exotic visitor.

That month, not everyone in Queens heard a true divine calling in their lives. Some received a quite different message when the Ku Klux Klan launched a recruiting drive in the Jamaica neighborhood in March. The KKK sent invitations to neighborhood families advertising “membership in the Junior Ku Klux Klan is open to all American born between the ages of 16 and 21,” and inviting those interested to reply to a PO box. Although the hate group was soon disbanded after its initial founding in the 1860s Reconstruction South, they experienced a nationwide revival in the 1920s as a reaction to migration of African Americans to northern cities and continued immigration of European Catholics and Jewish people.

One chilly Tuesday afternoon that March, Gustave Hardy of Astoria heard the call of a warm jail cell after a drunken escapade in a local movie theater brought the police running. The silence of the theatre was broken when Hardy began waving a bottle of alcohol over his head shouting “Come on boys, drink up. This one’s on me!” After greeting a patrolman of the Astoria precinct with a cordial “‘Lo, officer. ‘Ave a drink, will ya,” the disappointed Hardy was taken to the Prohibition-dry local hoosegow, where he opted to stay for five days in lieu of a $5 fine for violating the liquor laws.

For those in a state of sobriety sufficient to take in the entire show, March was as fine a month as ever for a movie at any of the local theaters. Patrons flocked to the Forest Hills Theatre on Continental Avenue to see Charlie Chaplin’s latest comedy, The Pilgrim. Meanwhile, Loew’s Astoria was showing Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood and the Charles Melford romantic drama, Java Head, along with a performance of local children billed as the Loew’s Astoria Frolics.

March was a joyous month for two Romanian families from the gypsy colony near Maurice Avenue in Maspeth. That month, Peter George and Emily Stevens, both members of the encampment were married by a Deputy City Clerk at the Marriage License Bureau. The groom, who was born in Buffalo, and the bride, who was born in Nebraska, celebrated their union with a joyous celebration with family and other members of the local gypsy community. Their compact, homey settlement sprung up the previous year near the Mount Zion Cemetery, and stood until 1938, when the city evicted them. The Queens-Midtown Highway now runs through their former campsite.

Back in March 1923, a well-dressed, cheerful young man became a familiar sight among the daily morning rush of commuters thronging the Queensboro Bridge Plaza station. Although the man was blind, he maintained a smile on his face and an air of confidence and determination as he made his way through the multilevel structure and out into the streets. One day, the youthful veteran readily shared his story with a Daily Star reporter who caught up with him on his way to work. After sharing his account of being blinded by a sadistic German guard in a World War I POW camp, he related an inner strength that helped him thrive in a world of darkness.

“I was invalided home, heartbroken. But as time went on, I found I had the use of all my limbs and was shy only one of my five senses, so I decided to be happy. I have my own legs to walk on and ears to hear with. I can eat and sleep, and I always find someone who is willing to lend his eyes and guide my steps when I need help, and so, you see, it is not so bad after all.”

That’s the way it was in March 1923!

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