2017-01-04 / Star Journal

Great Depression & Holiday Cheer Make Strange Bedfellows In 1931

The Greater Astoria Historical Society presents pages from the Long Island Star Journal compiled by Dan McDonald

Welcome to January 1931!

With the world ushering in a new year, Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini offered greetings in an English language radio address to Americans. He extended a message of friendship and claimed he did not want war with the United States.

Meanwhile, Boston, Massachusetts greeted 1931 gripped by fear as the “Silent Sniper” wounded a sixth victim at North Station on January 2. The attacks continued into February, and no one ever faced justice for the shootings. In Washington, DC, Secretary of Labor William N. Doak urgently requested $12 million to deport all illegal immigrants residing in the United States. He estimated there were about 400,000 such people living in America, and felt that their expulsion would free up relief money and jobs for American citizens during the Great Depression.


Eddie Bracken left behind the dull hopelessness of Depression era New York for sunnier days on the silver screen. Signing a contract with Paramount Pictures, the Astoria native was well on his way to acting stardom. Eddie Bracken left behind the dull hopelessness of Depression era New York for sunnier days on the silver screen. Signing a contract with Paramount Pictures, the Astoria native was well on his way to acting stardom. Back home in Queens, “The Daily Star” headline proclaimed “Gibbous Moon Rises Over Tombstones to Cast White Light on Weird Rites of Maspeth Gypsies’ Christmas Feast,” as members of the gypsy encampment near Borden and 51st Avenues celebrated their Christmas in early January by the lonely cemeteries of Maspeth.

The roughly 300 remaining gypsies did not use the Gregorian calendar, so they celebrated the holiday in the New Year. Sheltering from the biting wind and cold in makeshift tents, children received gifts from Polizinek, the Romany Santa Claus, and adults slaughtered pigs in the weeklong moonlit feast. The Gypsy community resided there until 1939 when their swift eviction left behind nothing but a single tumbledown shack and memories of holiday festivities and ancient traditions.

Sadly, many in the borough were in no mood for holiday joy that month. In the depths of the Depression, many were out of work with few prospects for their next paycheck. With a Queens Emergency Relief Committee report stating there were 20 unemployed local men for every job opening, hope was a precious commodity in short supply.

The Committee mentioned they found jobs for 75 men the previous week, out of a pool of 1,500 applicants. Their unemployment relief fund received donations that week ranging from $1 to the whopping sum of $5,000, and they hoped for more contributions to get the idle workers and their desperate families through the unforgiving winter cold.

For some a famine, for others a feast. That month, 16-year-old Eddie Bracken left behind the dull hopelessness of Depression era New York for sunnier days on the silver screen. Signing a contract with Paramount Pictures, the Astoria native was well on his way to acting stardom.

In a movie and television career spanning seven decades and nearly 60 appearances in film and TV shows, Bracken earned a place in the hearts of Americans in World War II patriotic fare, romantic comedy and Westerns. He even endeared himself to a new generation of fans in the 1990s, still going strong in “The Golden Girls” and the 1992 Christmas comedy, “Home Alone 2” before passing away in 2002.

That’s the way it was January 1931!

Compiled by Dan McDonald, Greater Astoria Historical Society. For further information, contact the Society at 718- 278-0700 or visit the website at www.astorialic.org

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