Monday, April 13, 2020. Easter Sunday was mostly sunny, and the temps hit the low 60s although it didn’t seem warmer. The walking traffic on the avenue was not as busy as it usually is on a sunny Spring Sunday. Although the buds and blossoms are festooning all around this quiet, seemingly abandoned city.
I say abandoned because looks that way — I still get a memory’s glance at a film starring Harry Belafonte called The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. An “unknown nation had used radioactive sodium isotopes as a weapon producing a dust cloud that spread around the world and was completely lethal for a five-day period.” In New York City.
It made an impression that remains in memory to this day (it came out in 1959-60.) Block after block after block of closed-up businesses, restaurants, everywhere you look (except we’ve got the corner variety store and markets open). Back then it was just a horror movie.
This past week the local Ottomanelli (butcher, baker, pasta) on 82nd and York was taking all orders by phone with the doors closed. I called on three different days and each time I got the machine telling me that they weren’t taking any more orders by phone that day because they already had so many phone orders to fill. I’m not surprised. The family has been in business for more than a century with generations of loyal customers.
I went over to Zabar’s. The ride mid-afternoon Saturday was quick; no cars or buses on the transverse and only a couple of cars crossing 79th on both sides of the Park. There were no parked cars on Broadway across from the store.
Zabar’s before a holiday is usually its own traffic jam. Saturday there was a line outside — everyone standing 6 feet apart — stretching around the corner all the way down to West End Avenue. It wasn’t that long a wait — maybe ten or twelve minutes. And then inside there were maybe fifteen customers. It was conveniently roomy but there was no sense of a coming holiday.
What is notable about this pandemic which is now also a social crisis is that people in general are staying away from each other. I understand we are living the fear, but it takes on another priority which naturally alienates. We’re all in this boat together; we need each other, now more than ever.
Nevertheless it was Easter Weekend although it felt like it could be any day of the week, under the current circumstances. It doesn’t seem to matter since almost everything about life in the city has stopped. Once upon a time — and it is now long ago — Easter Sunday was a major religious (and fashion) holiday in New York and most of the rest of America, ultimately a celebration of Goodness.
JH was reminded of a Diary we did two years ago on this week. It was a celebration of the celebration, as well as a history of the Day here in New York more than a century ago, and now. It’s also a celebration of the man who also had a lot to do with the 20th century version of the holiday. Mr. Irving Berlin.
Mr. Berlin was a legendary character in his lifetime. He was the most successful and prolific songwriter of the 20th century. It made him rich, it made him famous, and he made himself a legend – not only from his talent but from his personality: he was a kind man. I knew several people in Los Angeles who did indeed know him and his wife Ellin. The mention of his name always evoked a smile, a delighted memory of the man’s personality. Respect and self-respect.
In your Easter bonnet,
With all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady
In the Easter Parade …
Irving Berlin wrote that lyric in 1933 for his song “The Easter Parade” for the Broadway musical with a book by Moss Hart, “As Thousands Cheer.” In 1948, MGM came out with a film they called “The Easter Parade,” with an entirely different book starring Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Peter Lawford. It was MGM’s highest grossing musical film that year. It featured Berlin’s famous songs and depicted an early 20th century fashion parade up and down Fifth Avenue which traditionally took place after the church services.
I’m not sure anyone took me to see the picture when it opened because I was a little kid, but I’ve seen the film more than once on television, and was mainly interested in watching the musical numbers of Garland and Astaire.
The Easter parade has been an American cultural event dating back to the end of the 18th century in Pennsylvania when German immigrant farm families observed Easter Monday and changed into some kind of finery to observe the Resurrection of Christ.
The tradition dates back to early Christianity in Europe when Christians would gather at a certain place in their towns and make a solemn walk to their church of the still new religion. You might even call it political at that time for it was the “Christians” demonstrating their solidarity with this new religion publicly as well as perhaps interesting new members.
By the 1890s in New York, however, when Fifth Avenue was an almost entirely residential avenue from Washington Square to 58th Street with the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, the Easter Parade became a social tradition with participants like the families who lived in the mansions along what was then upper Fifth Avenue (from the 30s up to Central Park). Persons participating in an Easter parade traditionally dressed in new and fashionable clothing, particularly ladies’ hats, and strove to impress others with their finery.
Although the Easter parade was and is most closely associated with Fifth Avenue in New York City, Easter parades were held in many other cities. Starting as a spontaneous event in the 1870s, the New York parade became increasingly popular into the mid-20th century — in 1947, for example, it was estimated to draw more than a million people. Since then its popularity has declined significantly, drawing only maybe a thousand or two this year.
When I was a kid growing up in a small town in Massachusetts, Easter was noticeable to me because all of the women and girls who went to church on that day, dressed for the occasion. We boys wore suits and ties, and polished our shoes. In memory, even the young girls wore outfits that said “Easter,” in colors like those we dyed on the eggs for our Easter baskets. Interestingly, this “habit” can be attributed to early Christianity with the introduction of elaborate Easter ceremonies — including gaudy dress and display of personal finery — to the Roman Emperor Constantine I in the early part of the 4th century, when he “ordered his subjects to dress in their finest and parade in honor of Christ’s resurrection.
From the 1880s through the 1950s, however, New York’s Easter parade was one of the main cultural expressions of Easter in the United States. In the mid-19th century, these and other churches, for example, began decorating their sanctuaries with Easter flowers.
As Mr. Berlin continued his lyric …
On the avenue, Fifth Avenue,
The photographers will sap us,
And you’ll find that you’re
In the rotogravure …
Beginning in the 1880s, the annual procession had held an important place on New York’s calendar of festivities, The press publicity had become very important. The Easter parade was a vast spectacle of fashion and religious observance. People would stroll from their own church up and down the avenue. People from the poorer and middle classes would observe the parade just to learn the latest trends in fashion.
By the beginning of the 21st century, the culture had changed dramatically. Christianity itself had faded from the intensity of its presence.
In 2001 when JH and I started the New York Social Diary online, we covered the now so-called Easter Parade down in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Surprising to these eyes, the procession had mainly narrowed to a number of drag queens got up as “fashionable” women on parade. I specifically recall one who in an soft sky-blue dress, coat, hat and heels that distinctly recalled Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. It was quite an affecting portrayal of England’s then still living Queen Mother, and was not only amusing but also reverant especially because so many of the actual women present were wearing leisure clothes.
Two years ago, Easter 2018, Pierre Crosby covered the “parade” here in New York. As you can see, change is not only in the air, but it has enveloped the culture entirely. It speaks as all creativity speaks today, of a far different world and society, a sign of the times.