JAZZ TOUR INFORMATION          USA (718) 606-8442               Email

A Black History Month offering from Big Apple Jazz Tours
Harlem's Tree of Hope

Scroll down for history, video and more photos...

View of "The Corner" of 131st and 7th Ave in Harlem showing Connie's Inn, The Tree of Hope and the Lafayette Theatre circa 1920'sView of "The Corner" as described in Mezz Mezzrow's, Really The Blues.  Photo credit: Gordon Polatnick 7/7/20077th Ave and 131st Street. The Corner.  2014. Lafayette Theater and Connies Inn demolished.

Three views of the east side of 7th Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets in Harlem, New York City. Photo on left un-credited ca. 1930 /
Photo in center by Gordon Polatnick ca. 2008 shows Williams Institutional CME Church.
Photo on right by Gordon Polatnick ca. 2014 shows demolished site/initial-construction.
(Buildings demolished summer 2013 to make way for new church building, condos, and parking garage.)

An Accurate History of Harlem's Wishing Tree
- The Tree of Hope -
by Gordon Polatnick

That elm tree pictured above in the older photo on the left shows the original Tree of Hope, a lucky wishing tree, as it appeared circa 1930. Musicians and actors gathered there on the sidewalk between to major venues of the era: the Lafayette Theater and Connie's Inn (formerly the Shuffle Inn) on this street known alternately as The Boulevard of Dreams; The Stroll; or simply The Corner.

When the Tree of Hope was cut down despite public outcry in Depression-era Harlem during the summer of 1934, it was chopped up and sold off as souvenirs and firewood.  A now legendary section of the trunk was secured by Ralph Cooper, Sr., a former presenter at the Lafayette Theatre, who was retooling his popular "Amateur Night" for the stage of the new, more socially progressive, Apollo Theater.  The Tree of Hope remains an integral part of  the Amateur Night tradition.  To this day, Wednesday night contestants ritualistically rub the wood for good luck as they approach center stage to face the best critics in show business -- the Harlem audience.

On November 4, 1934  Bill "Bojangles" Robinson hosted a replanting ceremony for the decapitated stump on the south end of traffic island on 7th Ave. (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.) at West 131st Street.  A young tree was planted behind the stump to take over wish-granting duties for the lifeless stump.  The headline carried by the New York Times on November 5th 1934 declares, "New 'Wishing Tree' Stops Harlem Rain --- Substitute for Old Elm Shows Its Power at Once - 5,000 at Rhythmic Planting. --- Diggers Sing and Dance --- Bill Robinson, 'Mayor,' Conducts Colorful Ceremony-LaGuardia and Moses Attend." 

The first paragraphs of the article explains: "Harlem's new 'wishing tree,' larger than a sapling (the Park Department is doing its best to make amends) but bare of leaves, thinly branched, and wrapped as bandages, has already begun to carry on.  It began yesterday afternoon. 'We rubbed that tree and it stopped raining,' announced Bill Robinson, 'Mayor' of Harlem and tap dancer, into a double row of microphones.  The announcement was made just before the new tree was officially 'planted' by rhythmic shovelers at 131st Street and Seventh Avenue, near the spot where the old 'wishing elm' stood for so many years (some say thirty-five, some say longer) before the Park Department undertook to widen the avenue."  (A re-dedication of the original stump, spiffed up for the occasion, took place on the 1st of October 1941).

At the 1934 ceremony a bronze plaque was imbedded in the cement in front of the stump reading "The Original Tree of Hope Beloved by Citizens of Harlem. 'You Asked for a Tree of Hope, So here 'Tis and Best Wishes' – Bill Robinson."  The original plaque was later unimbedded by a freelance preservationist, and so was recast and presented to a crowd of about 100 in another tree-planting ceremony held on Saturday, June 23, 2007.  

During that ceremony (which was instigated by Bill Robinson's cultural progeny--a tap organization called Copasetics Connection) the current "Tree of Hope IV" was dedicated and planted on the sidewalk just 30 yards north of where the original tree stood.  It remains healthy and growing despite the sad state of the protective gate surrounding it, which appears to have fallen in the line of duty warding off any number of poorly trained parallel parkers. Since 1972, on the site of the vanquished original stump, stands an impressive, colorful half-tree metal sculpture dubbed, Tree of Hope III, created by community artist, Algernon Miller.  The recast plaque is back in place there for all to see.

Gordon Polatnick organizes walking tours of the area through
 Big Apple Jazz Tours ,  USA TEL. (718) 606-8442    


Quote from Herb Boyd's biography of James Baldwin, Baldwin's Harlem:


"A New Lafayette Theater would emerge for a brief spell in 1968, under the aegis of playwright Ed Bullins and director Robert Macbeth. Gordon Polatnick, owner of the Big Apple Jazz Club and Café, directly across the street from that historic site, dreams of restoring that vista. 'And I would put the Tree of Hope right back where it used to be,' he said.

 

People gather around the original Tree of Hope in Harlem

Billy Mitchell of the Apollo Theater with Tree of Hope.  photo by Gordon Polatnick

Bill Robinson and Mayor Laguardia with Tree of Hope stump

Bill Robinson

Tree of Hope stump with Tree of Hope II behind it.

Bronze plaque dedicating Tree of Hope 2 signed by Bill Robinson. Photo credit: Gordon Polatnick

Planting ceremony on June 23, 2007 of Tree of Hope 4.  Photo credit: Gordon Polatnick

Algernon Miller's Tree of Hope III sculpture.  Photo credit: Gordon Polatnick

Front of EZ's Woodshed depicting widow gate mural painted by Franco the Great.  Photo credit: Gordon Polatnick


Tree of Hope Coaster tile for sale

The following is a series of images and articles, some copied and footnoted from other internet sites. 
Many conflicting facts are presented from these disparate sources, so the reader (and especially the researcher) is advised to digest and regurgitate with care.

In researching for myself, I found the NY Times writers to be both careful and carefree with the facts, so they are not the last word on the subject.  A first-hand account from a survivor of those days would be great, and until that old-timer shows up we have Really The Blues (pre-Apollo days), The Last Leaf in Harlem, Amateur Night at the Apollo (Apollo days) and other authorities to flesh out the truth in prose.

A wonderful 1st-hand account of the goings on beneath the original Tree of Hope is provided by musician and author, Mezz Mezzrow in his memoir, Really The Blues.

It relates stories from when he sold reefer there in the days when the national prohibition was only on the sale and consumption of alcohol.  I highly recommend this book on that era.  Some facts may be challenged, but the tuneful humanity with which it was written, is pitch perfect.  Any sentence of  Really The Blues can stand alone in representing the generous soul of the author.

Books/Music relating to the Tree of Hope

          

 

The Tree of Hope, in front of the Lafayette Theatre, under the shade of which young Negro actors, singers and dancers waited hopefully to be spotted by the talent scouts, is now only a desiccated stump, surrounded by a small iron fence and a neglected plaque to remind future generations that this was once regarded as a shrine of showbusiness. ~ Originally Published 1959.  Found online at http://www.oldandsold.com/articles06/new-york-city-85.shtml

 

Archival photo of the Tree of Hope stump, courtesy of Hansel Mieth/Timepix.  1 Oct 1941 Stump re-dedication with LaGuardia and Robinson.  Photo Credit: Ralph Morse"Nestled between the Lafayette Theatre and the popular nightclub Connie's Inn, a tall [elm] tree was rumored to bring good luck to all who touched it.

During the Harlem Renaissance, aspiring performers such as Ethel Waters, Fletcher Henderson, and Eubie Blake were rumored to have visited the Tree of Hope.

When the tree was cut down in 1934 during the expansion of 7th Avenue, it was cut into logs and sold as souvenirs. One section was salvaged and found a home at the Apollo Theater, where today's amateur performers continue to rub the trunk in the tradition of their predecessors.

In 1941, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson joined New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia in a formal ceremony to rededicate the stump of the original tree."
~ http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/exploring/harlem/infocredits/credits/imagecredits.html


 

 

 

Bettmann/CORBIS image of Tree of Hope stump August 19, 1935 with Tree of Hope 2 behind it and Lafayette Theatre in backgroundPhoto credit: Aaron Siskind, 1937, Wishing Tree of Harlem




These details showing the original Tree of Hope are from the mural at the Lafayette Theater site and are still visible in the Winter of 2014.
As construction proceeds on the buildings going up, they will soon be obscured from view.

For the time being you can take a Great Day in Harlem Big Apple Jazz Tour and see this mural as well as Tree of Hope III - and Tree of Hope IV (seen below).


Current photos of Al Miller's Tree of Hope III (L) and the new Tree of Hope (R) photo credits Gordon Polatnick, Big Apple Jazz, LLC

This New Tree of Hope (#4) was planted on June 23, 2007 by the NYC Parks Department at the request of the Copasetics Connection.

 

     
 23 June 2007 Tree of Hope IV dedication.

Photo credit (R) Gordon Polatnick


EZ's Woodshed
Closed as of July 2008
Franco the Great mural still there.


The Big Apple Jazz / EZ's Woodshed
Keeping the tradition alive
Across the street from the Tree of Hope
2236 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd between 131st and 132nd Streets. 
LIVE JAZZ ALL DAY FROM 2PM  
NOW CLOSED
- It was a good ride.

Email us

2236 7th Ave. (Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd)
131st / 132nd Streets

Gordon Polatnick opened up Big Apple Jazz and EZ's Woodshed on this historic block at the beginning of 2006 as a living tribute to the spirit Harlem's legendary Tree of Hope.  With live jazz daily starting at 2PM and a great selection of memorabilia, EZ's Woodshed offers fans of New York City Jazz an inviting cafe atmosphere in which to celebrate the past as we thrill in the present scene among the world's finest jazz musicians. 
Click on this video below.

 

 

Big Apple Jazz / EZ's Woodshed in Harlem across from the Tree of Hope
Keeping the tradition alive
Across the street from the Tree of Hope


Tree of Hope History from the Hoofer's Club UK

"The elm tree became known as a kind of wishing well among the Harlem show people. It was believed that by touching, stroking or kissing the bark of the tree, your wishes would come true. This belief was mainly among the entertainment fraternity who would always hope to be hired in a club or much better a show some where which guaranteed employment for a period of time. It was also used as a good luck charm before you were about to perform. Performers would dance for money or dance and practice moves around the tree, it was almost like an open air Hoofers Club and so "The Tree of Hope" was born.
 
As the elm tree was in the heart of Harlem's club and theatre land it became a natural place where agents and people in show business would gather and as a result many entertainment jobs were handed out under the shade of the tree. It was also this reason that reinforced reputation of the tree's luck. The tree brought good luck, hope and fortune to all that came to know the importance of its majestic symbolism.
 
In 1930s plans were made to widen Seventh Avenue and the tree was to be cut down. Many actors, singers and musicians protested against this action, but the impending doom of the tree was final. The tree itself by that time was in bad condition and was not the prettiest of sites in Harlem. Many people desperate to keep some thing of the tree ripped off pieces of the bark and kept them as good luck charms.
 
The managers of the newly opened Apollo Theatre, knowing of the deep symbolism of the 'Tree of Hope', managed to obtain part of the stump and placed it beside the Apollo stage. It was for performers to touch for good luck and it actually became an insult if you did not rub the stump as you entered the stage. It was said that about eight out of ten amateurs who attended the amateur night to show their talent got lucky and found gigs. However, every one rubbed the stump so no comparison could be made with those who didn't touch the stump.

Bill Robinson, who at the time was an honorary Mayor of Harlem, also managed to preserve a section of stump from the original tree. He kept it by the stage entrance of the Lafayette Theatre, he then appealed to the acting Mayor at the time for help. After the work on Seventh Avenue had been completed a new tree was planted and the old stump of the original tree was placed beside it with a plaque that read. 'The original Tree of Hope Beloved by Citizens of Harlem. You Asked for a Tree of Hope, So here 'Tis and Best Wishes – Bill Robinson.'"    ~ http://web.ukonline.co.uk/tc/hoofersclub/


                                                       LEFT: "New York -Oddly Enough", 1938, by Charles G. Shaw ;            CENTER: WPA Photo, 1936;     RIGHT: 1940 photo by Carl Van Vechten
 

1939 Tree of Hope Mystery


 

The Savoy Ballroom Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair was apparently home to the Wishing Tree stump for a time before its mysterious disappearance.  According to this W.P.A. photo caption, "It was dedicated on May, 23, 1939...by Bill Robinson...An article on its disappearance from there was published in the New York Post of June 13, 1939.

 

THE LEGEND OF THE TREE OF HOPE
Apollo Theatre

Billy Mitchell leads tours of the Apollo Theater photo by Gordon Polatnick

The legend and tradition of The Tree of Hope began outside the famous Harlem Lafayette Theatre once located between 131st and 132nd Streets on Seventh Avenue, known as the Boulevard of Dreams. The Lafayette was then Harlem's top show biz venue featuring African-American talent. The Lafayette soon became the scene for aspiring actors, dancers and performers to mix, gather and exchange information and gossip.

The Tree of Hope stood between the Lafayette Theatre and Connie's Inn and black performers believed the tree to be the purveyor of good luck to those who stood beneath its branches. The tree came to symbolize the promise that Harlem held for millions of aspiring African-Americans.

Around the time that the Apollo Theater first opened in 1934, the City of New York widened Seventh Avenue and the trees that had once lined the Boulevard of Dreams had to be removed. One of the trees doomed to this fate was the famous Harlem landmark, The Tree of Hope.

The tree was cut up as firewood and pieces were also sold as good-luck souvenirs. Ralph Cooper Sr. bought a piece of the tree that measured eighteen inches across and sat about a foot high. He took it back to the Apollo and had it sitting in his dressing room. Just before the first Amateur Night at the Apollo show began, he asked one of the stagehands to sand and shellac the log and to mount it on an iconic column. The column pedestal was placed stage right, just outside the curtain so the audiences could see it.

As word spread that this unassuming log was part of the once great Tree of Hope, it became a tradition of Amateur Night to have each contestant touch the tree on the way to center stage. Since then, every single performer that has appeared on Amateur Night has touched that log. Within a year of its debut, its surface was as smooth as glass from all the now famous and not-so-famous hands that had touched or rubbed it.

Now, touching The Tree of Hope has become recognized as the famed Apollo ceremonial act carried out by all Amateur Night performers before they compete.  Rooted between a glorious past and an even greater future, the Tree of Hope links generations of performers together in an unbroken tradition of chance, desire and success.
~http://www.apollotheater.com/amateur4_5.shtm

LINK TO EXCITING AMATEUR SHOW CHANGES FOR 2010

 

"Tree of Hope III"
Before its facelift

Al Miller's Tree of Hope III photo credit: Gordon Polatnick
Photo credit Gordon Polatnick

 

"Tree of Hope III"
Today with sculptor Algernon Miller

Newly repainted Tree of Hope with its creator Algeron Miller, 2004, photo credit Jonathan Kuhn
photo credit Jonathan Kuhn

Sculptor Algernon Miller, 1972, restored 2004
Center median at Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard at 131st Street,
 Manhattan Painted steel ~ nyc.gov

Wednesday, April 07th, 2004

A Harlem treasure has finally returned home. After extensive conservation, the vibrantly colored abstract Tree of Hope sculpture returned to its original location last week at Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and 131st Street in Manhattan. The piece was reinstalled by Parks & Recreation’s monuments and operations crews. The sculpture’s artist, Algernon Miller, was at the site to oversee its placement.

"I’m happy that it's up," said Miller, of the installation. "It was up there in a terrible condition for so many years, and it wasn't helping my career any. I'm grateful to The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their grant. I'm just so happy to see it up, and I'm hoping that the community enjoys it."

Originally installed in 1972, this abstract, painted-steel sculpture by Algernon Miller (b. 1945) symbolically commemorates the original Tree of Hope that stood opposite the Lafayette Theater at 131st Street and Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard). Many celebrated performers, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, rubbed the original tree for good luck.

The restoration of the artwork was carried out by Mr. Miller, with the support of a $5,000 grant from the Fund for Creative Communities, a joint program of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the New York State Council on the Arts. Looking at original photographs and based on his own experience, Miller recreated the colorful painted surface of the steel tree and added a new protective coating. The Housing Development Fund Corporation of Harlem, a social service and transitional housing center, provided a work studio to Mr. Miller while he conserved and repainted the sculpture. Parks & Recreation masons rebuilt the concrete base for the sculpture to stand on.

Mr. Miller is engaged as one of two artists currently designing the memorial to Frederick Douglass at Frederick Douglass Circle (northwest corner of Central Park). The Tree of Hope was originally commissioned under the auspices of the Creative Artists Public Service Program in conjunction Harlem Cultural Council. ~http://www.nycgovparks.org

DATE: Wednesday, March 31, 2004

TIME: 10:00 - 11:30 a.m.

LOCATION: Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and 131st Street
Manhattan

EVENT & PHOTO-OP: After extensive conservation, the vibrantly colored abstract tree sculpture will be reinstalled by Parks & Recreation’s monuments and operations crews. The sculpture’s artist, Algernon Miller, will be at the site to oversee its placement.

CONTACT: (212) 360-1311

Mezz Mezzrow's Really The Blues

 

 


An independent anecdote about Lorenzo Tucker and the Tree of Hope


Lorenzo Tucker...Looking up cowboys in a book, a picture of Lorenzo Tucker passed his eye. After finding a large biography on Tucker, he wondered if he was still alive. Calling 411, Grupenhoff found out Tucker was living in Los Angeles. Grupenhoff called. Tucker answered.

Grupenhoff vividly recounted being with Tucker when he died. Grupenhoff went to visit Tucker in the hospital. He had lost a substantial amount of weight and was near death. By this time, the two had a very close relationship.

One of the last things Tucker spoke to Grupenhoff about was the Tree of Hope, which was a huge tree that stood outside a big theater in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s from which agents would cast people under the tree. “Tucker asked, ‘Did you go to to the Tree of Hope today?’ He was worried about his next job,” said Grupenhoff. ~ http://www.rowanontherecord.com/?p=500

 

  Essay by Theodore Grunewald, Chief Archivist Quadriga Art, Inc.
Posted to LISTSERV @ Miami University
15 Jan 2001

Dear Mr. Thomas,

You will be pleased to know that a photograph of the Tree of Hope will be found on p.143 of: "New York -Oddly Enough", by Charles G. Shaw, (Farrar & Rinehart, New York & Toronto, 1938, Library of Congress Catalog number 38011587), though now, long, long out-of print. Please bear in mind that this is a photograph of the second Tree of Hope replanted on, or near the same spot, which was donated in the 30's by the renowned tap dancer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson after the first was felled due to the exigencies of street engineering. Barely visible in the photo may be the faint outline of a brass plaque that Robinson had set into the sidewalk beneath the tree. Upon the plaque was inscribed: "The Original Tree Of Hope Beloved By the People of Harlem -You asked for a tree of hope so here it is, Best wishes," concluding with his signature. Unfortunately, I cannot tell the species of the tree from the photograph, nor do I know what became of the plaque.

This second Tree of Hope vanished in the intervening years, and a commemorative sculpture by the artist Algernon Miller was installed on the spot sometime around 1972. The second Tree of Hope, like the first, stood in the traffic island in the middle of Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.) opposite the Lafayette Theatre, at 131st Street; NOT in front of the Apollo Theatre at 253 West 125th Street, as is often erroneously believed. As you probably already know, the first Tree of Hope was the spot where out-of-work singers, dancers, and actors gathered to trade gossip and listen for news of gigs. From there, it's easy to see how the legend originated that performing in front of the tree was thought to bring good luck to African-American artists who had fallen on hard times.

In later years, Harlem residents believed that the tree would bring good luck to anyone who rubbed their back against it. I believe that confusion over the original location of the tree may have arisen because what remains of the stump of the second tree is kept onstage at the Apollo Theatre where aspiring stars rub it for good luck before curtain time. (Both Bill Bradley and Al Gore touched this relic before appearing onstage at the Apollo for a Campaign 2000 debate last year; not that it did either of them much good; perhaps they didn't rub hard enough.)

The Lafayette Theatre (now the Williams Christian Methodist Church) is still standing, at 2225 7th Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets. According to Norval White's AIA Guide to New York, it was the Lafayette Theatre that not long after its construction in 1912 became the leading black theatre for the nation and remained so for over 30 years. In fact, it was the sensational 1913 production of "Darktown Follies" that established the vogue for downtown New Yorkers to flock to Harlem for late-night entertainment.

He further states that the Apollo did not become a venue for black performers, nor welcome African-American audiences until 1934, when the color bar was lifted and the theatre re-named the Apollo after 20 years as Hurtig & Seamon's New Burlesque Theatre.

In November 1921, riding on the popularity of Noble Sissle's and Eubie Blake's hit: "Shuffle Along" the "Shuffle Inn" opened on 131st St. in a basement space adjoining the Lafayette Theatre. According to research done by Murray L. Pfeffer, the club was purchased shortly thereafter by Connie and George Immerman; German immigrants who had originally owned a Harlem delicatessen where, as a teen, Fats Waller had worked delivering groceries. In June 1923 a new entrance to the club was opened on the 7th Avenue side, at no. 2221 Seventh Avenue, and the Shuffle Inn was renamed Connie's Inn. The club became immensely popular throughout the 20's thanks to great jazz ensembles like the Don Redman Band.

Connie's place in musical history was guaranteed when Louis Armstrong arrived from Chicago and made the club his base in 1929. A photograph from this era, with the signage for Connie's Inn heavily retouched, shows what is reputed be the first Tree of Hope, in the meridian of Seventh Avenue**(editor's note: the photo actually shows the tree on the sidewalk between Connie's and Lafayette Theater - the larger perspective of the same photo at the top of this page shows its location in relationship to the meridian), with the Lafayette Theatre in the background. Although the Tree of Hope was said to have been outside of Connie's Inn; I do not yet know the origins of this photograph nor, the precise location of the tree relative to the Lafayette Theatre building. Whether this is the actual Tree of Hope is impossible to determine with certainty at this point. I am indebted to Sonny Watson of StreetSwing.com for this photograph; here is the link, so that you may assess it yourself. [http://www.streetswing.com/histclub/gif/1conies1.gif]  When you arrive on the page, click on the "S" in the top-of-page index bar, and scroll down the chart to the "Shuffle Inn". Move across the chart to the next column, and click on the "Connie's Inn" link. (A .jpg image is attached below for those without web browsing.) Any further light that you, or anyone else can shed on the date and origin of this mysterious photograph would be greatly appreciated.

One can deduce that the circumstances and lore surrounding the first Tree of Hope grew up not long after, if not in direct connection with the 1913 success of the production at the Lafayette Theatre, and the artistic triumphs of the 1920's at Connie's Inn. By the time of Bojangles Robinson's gift of the replacement tree in the 1930's, the mythic status of the tree was clearly well established. For more leads on the history of New York's black theatre community, Bojangles Robinson (and possibly more about The Tree of Hope) you might want to consult the collections of The New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center: http://www.nypl.org/research/lpa/lpa.html and the collections of The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture: http://www.nypl.org/research/sc/sc.html (You've no shortage of names to follow up!) For information on the theatrical lore of the tree, you might consult; "Hippocrene U.S.A. Guide to Black America" by Marcella Thrum, (Hippocrene, 1991), and "When Harlem Was in Vogue" by David Levering Lewis (Penguin Books, 1997) Best Wishes, Theodore Grunewald Chief Archivist Quadriga Art, Inc. Reproducta Co., Inc. Executive Headquarters 30 East 33rd Street New York, NY 10016 Phone: (212) 685-0751 x 244 Fax: (212) 889-6868


Photo credit (L) Ralph Morse

 

BigAppleJazz Home

Lower Manhattan Clubs

Midtown Clubs

Upper East and Upper West

Harlem Clubs

Club Reviews

Best Links

Shopping

Artists

Private NYC Jazz Tour Guide

Gallery

Obituaries

Guest Book

Email