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A Black History Month offering
from Big Apple Jazz Tours
Harlem's Tree of Hope
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Two views of the east side of 7th Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets in Harlem, New York City. (Photo on left uncredited ca. 1930 / Photo on right by Gordon Polatnick ca. 2008)
An Accurate History of Harlem's
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
Quote from Herb Boyd's biography of James Baldwin, Baldwin's Harlem:
Tree of Hope Coaster tile for sale
The following is a series of images and articles, some copied
and footnoted from other internet sites.
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|
"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
2236 7th Ave. (Adam
Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd)
Tree of Hope History from the Hoofer's Club UK
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
"Tree of Hope III"
Before its facelift
Photo credit Gordon Polatnick
"Tree of Hope III"
Today with sculptor Algernon Miller
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
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
Mezz Mezzrow's Really The Blues
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.
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