Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
NYC's starry Woodlawn Cemetery an overlooked cultural gem
0 Comments
AP

NYC's starry Woodlawn Cemetery an overlooked cultural gem

  • Updated
  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}

NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Cumella, dressed in 1920s garb, laid his old Victrola record player down among the tombstones and turned to the small tour group assembled under the towering trees at Woodlawn Cemetery.

“She was the diva of her day. The Beyoncé of her day,” he said, brushing leaves off the modest stone commemorating vaudeville star Nora Bayes.

The group had to lean in toward the old windup Victrola to hear Bayes' big voice, necessary in the age before microphones, belting her biggest hit, 1917’s “Over There.”

The song's author, George M. Cohan, was also honored on this tour of jazz and vaudeville greats buried at Woodlawn, a grand old cemetery and arboretum in the heart of the Bronx. Cohan and his family lie in an imposing mausoleum with Tiffany stained-glass windows.

Other stops included the resting places of jazz pioneers W.C. Handy and King Oliver; dancers Irene and Vernon Castle; comedian Bert Williams; and, at a crossroads known as “Jazz Corner,” Duke Ellington, surrounded by Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton and others.

The tour ended at the grave of Irving Berlin, where the old Victrola played “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

“They called it ragtime, but it’s really proto-jazz,” says Cumella, who DJs and had a long-running radio show under the name Phonograph DJ MAC.

“Musicians and artists gravitated here, aspired to be here,” he said.

The Jazz Age musical greats are just one of the reasons a visit to Woodlawn can be fascinating.

Its 400 acres are the resting place of many influential people. including authors (Herman Melville, Dorothy Parker, E.L. Doctorow); business leaders (J.C. Penney, F.W. Woolworth, Madam C.J. Walker); women's rights pioneers (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt); musical stars from other eras (Celia Cruz); artists, mayors, civil rights leaders, journalists and more.

Other walking and trolley tours cover themes such as Black, Irish, Italian and women’s history. Recent events sponsored by the Woodlawn Conservancy included a tour of resting places of passengers on the Titanic.

In addition, the non-denominational cemetery is a trove of funerary art and shady, hilly beauty. Its trees include several specimens recognized by New York City as “Great Trees.” The cemetery can feel far removed from the busy city blocks around it.

As Bronx green spaces go, Woodlawn is something of an undiscovered gem compared to the better-known Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden nearby. (The cemetery is easy to reach by public transportation, too, with Woodlawn stops on the subway and Metro North Railroad.)

There are grand, castle-like mausoleums with statuary and stained glass, and also modest, flat gravestones. The cemetery and its crematorium remain active; people are still buried there.

Woodlawn was founded by a group of wealthy New Yorkers in 1863 in a spot easily accessible from Manhattan. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, “a popular final resting place for the famous and powerful.”

Cumella was a fan of early popular music living in New York City when he realized so many of his musical heroes were lying in the ground at Woodlawn. He started visiting the gravestones with his friends, and soon, he says, the Conservancy helped him set up his jazz and vaudeville trolley tours.

“I'm a big advocate for letting people see and hear what it was like to be a music listener 100 years ago," he says.

His tour involves a little time travel. The Victrola that Cumella sets up at every stop plays 78 r.p.m. records and is powered by a spring. He times himself with a vintage pocket watch, and amplifies his voice with an old-fashioned acoustic megaphone, like a director in an old movie.

He tries to keep the legacy of the era’s artists alive; Bayes, for example, actually had no headstone at Woodlawn until Cumella led an effort that got her one in 2018.

Lauren Hinton, who teaches second grade in New York City, took a recent tour and hopes to incorporate the music and musicians into her lessons.

“We learned to tap dance last year,” she says, noting that Harold Nicholas, one half of the famous dancing pair the Nicholas Brothers, is buried in an unmarked grave at Woodlawn. Efforts are underway to buy him a headstone.

“It’s important for people to know about the past so they (artists) don’t fall into obscurity,” she said.

Also on the trolley were Nancy Gerstman and Bruce Goldstein, filmmakers from Manhattan.

“I loved hearing the music, and putting all those people into context. People I wouldn’t have known about, and now I want to know more about them,” said Gerstman.

“There are so many clues about people from the gravestones,” added Goldstein. For instance, he said, he hadn’t known until he saw the family tombstones that Berlin’s infant son, Irving Jr., died at 1 month old, on Christmas Day 1928. “It tells you a lot about them.”

Woodlawn is a trove of cultural history, he said: “This is one of the wonders of New York.”

———

Online: https://www.woodlawn.org

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

0 Comments

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Sauk Prairie will get a glimpse of one of the two eclipses that will occur over the next thirty days. The total solar eclipse is only visible over the Atlantic Ocean ending toward the North Pole on March 20, and the total lunar eclipse is best seen in western North America on April 4. However, the partial phase of the lunar eclipse will greet those who rise before the sun on the morning of April 4.

The Full Moon occurs on April 4 at 7:05 a.m., but the moon sets just before this, around 6:40 a.m., as the partial eclipse is ongoing. The partial phase begins around 5:17 a.m., as the moon slips into the deeper part of Earth’s shadow and begins to turn a bit red. The moon will become close to completely eclipsed around 6:34 a.m., just as it is setting. This will make for a strange and wondrous view for those awaking to the day to find a “blood red” moon setting in the west.

At the same time that the moon is setting, the sun is rising in the east. Sunrise will continue to arrive earlier every morning and sunset later every evening from the spring equinox on March 20 through June. Spring arrives precisely on March 20 at 5:45 p.m.

Spring planets and constellations

On March 21, a day after the new moon and eclipse graces the far north, a crescent moon returns to the sky just after sunset. The moon will be right beside Mars, and the next night the moon rises a bit higher to float beside Venus. On March 29 the moon will be high in the sky and not far from Jupiter. The moon and Saturn keep close quarters around April 8, but they don’t rise until after midnight.

Back in the west, Venus draws attention as it shines at magnitude -4 and stays above the horizon for three hours. In early April, Venus closes in on the star cluster the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus. This grouping of stars is setting in the west while the spring constellations rise in the east. Leo, Virgo, and Libra rise up from the horizon, carrying along a slew of distant galaxies that can be viewed through large telescopes. Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, is taking on its spring look, with the bowl of the dipper turning upside down as it sends spring showers to Earth.

(Broadry) — This Sunday, get ready for — sundaes. National Ice Cream day is Sunday, July 18 and there’s plenty of ways to celebrate. Booking.com just launched a sweet experience for ice cream lovers, were you can book a stay in a custom Ice Cream Truck in...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alert

Breaking News