James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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Influence is like money in the bank, the more you use it the less you have. — James O. Betelle

All I Got is a Photograph

October 24th, 2006 · 2 Comments · Architecture, Diary, Miscellaneous

Chamber of Commerce BuildingI found this wonderful photograph of the Chamber of Commerce Building in the Newark Library’s photo archive. It works on a both large and small scale, from the full breadth of the building down to fine details at street level.

After visiting the building recently I was hoping to find a good period photo, and this one is better than I had hoped for; I’ve become accustomed to very sparse photos of Betelle’s schools, which were generally shot lacking any signs of life. This one, however, captures a vibrant and familiar urban landscape (the stores have since gained a certain tackiness, but it’s still as bustling).

I would like to have imagined that James Betelle is up in one of those windows, looking over the plans for some school or conducting any number of his civic-related duties. There was just one problem; I didn’t know when the picture was taken, it’s not dated. How would I figure this out? For this, we get into the tangential minutia of detective work that has been more and more the bane of my research (commonly known as yak shaving).

First, I wanted to get a general sense of the period the photo would have been taken. The Chamber of Commerce Building was built in 1923, and a quick look at the cars and people gives the general impression of the late 1920s, perhaps into the mid 30s. So, settling on the 10 year range of 1924-1934, I began to really Zapruder the photo.

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First, I perused the storefronts and street level for any clues. The shops in the foreground building are quite an array; L’Elegance gowns and wraps, Brentley Smart Clothes, The Branford Beauty Shoppe (featuring three kinds of waving), Mac Freedman’s eyeglasses, and the United Famous Luncheonette (get yer Cranes Ice Cream and Optimo Cigars!). Nothing in the windows is of any help. Theoretically I could have looked into these stores histories, but that would have meant searching property owners and somehow digging up their lessees, but that’s a ludicrous amount of work with questionable chances for success.

Detail of Chamber of Commerce buildingMoving over to the Chamber Building itself, we see a row of nearly identical parked cars. I took a look at popular automobiles of that era; the 1928 Ford Model A is a good example of this basic body type, but from the distinctive grille alone we can see none are Fords. Nevertheless, my perusal of car styles indicate a period likely between 1927-1931. Getting closer.

On the sidewalk, blurred men and ladies scoot about their business, oblivious to the photographer across the street capturing the moment. I’m no fashion expert, but the ladies attire certainly confirm the late-20s style, and their thick coats suggest it must be autumn or winter. The large corner retail space of the Chamber Building is taken by Salisbury-Jacobsen Hats; funny that such a once-standard accessory for men is now essentially extinct. Above the hat store are law and realty offices (how I wish one of those windows was stenciled “Guilbert & Betelle”…) The other side of the Chamber Building’s entrance has a barber pole, with the name “Lehigh Valley” above.

shubert-detail.jpgAll of those shops are interesting, but nothing that could easily narrow down the date. But then I noticed the next building down the street; a theater. The photograph cuts off on the marquee, but just enough is visible; it’s the Shubert Theater. The visible portion reads, “A NEW MUSICAL / THE QUEENS TASTE”. Now this was good stuff; certainly theatrical performances would be easy to locate in newspapers and such.

I quickly discovered that The Shubert Theater had a long and interesting history, from being a stage for the big talents of the day, to becoming a burlesque theater and then as the Adams Theater, a rundown movie house through the 1980s (in 2002 it still had the Adams marquee, but had been covered up with signage by 2006).

queens-nyt.jpgSearching the New York Times archives, I discovered To The Queen’s Taste, an operetta based on The Royal Family, premiered on September 24, 1928–in Atlantic City. It was produced by the Shuberts and starred Jeanette MacDonald. On the 30th, The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin noted it was “a romantic take of a beautiful young princess who would find her own lover rather than let her parents choose him.”

I then found that MacDonald had a short run in a musical titled Angela at New York’s Ambassador Theater, from December 3, 1928 to January 9, 1929; 40 memorable performances. It was also based on The Royal Family, so this is clearly a new name for the same show. So what to make of the Shubert marquee?

Digging deeper, I found that this troubled little musical (for which MacDonald was panned), had bounced to Philadelphia in November under the name The Right Girl, finally landing on Broadway as Angela in December. Nowhere, frustratingly, is there mention of a Newark run. However, given the short period of time this turkey was called To the Queen’s Taste, it must have popped up in Newark before heading to Philly, placing it somewhere in October/early November of 1928. Further digging revealed that as of November 4th, the production was at Brooklyn’s Majestic Theater; and something called “The Jealous Moon” was at the Shubert.

Given all that, I’m going to place The Queen’s Taste performances at the Shubert–and thus the photograph (remember the photograph?)– squarely in October of 1928. I could probably narrow it down further by digging into the Newark newspapers, but that’s an exercise of monumental pointlessness. Of course I have to wonder if Betelle took in a performance; from what a I gather about the merits of this production, I sure hope not.

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