The Cape Man of W51 Street:
Hell's Kitchen Miniature Carousel
Maker and Community Activist
I first saw him on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen on my post midnight walk in late July 1977, the summer when serial killer “Son of Sam” Berkowitz terrified the city.
He appeared from the shadows of West 51 Street a tree-lined street of dark chocolate-colored one hundred year old brownstones and five-and-six story tenements with handsome exteriors.
Even on the drug-infested, mugger-laden streets of Hell’s Kitchen peppered with half-naked prostitutes, knife-toting drug dealers, and Eighth Avenue pimps, straight out of the movie Super Fly, dressed in flashy colored suits with matching hats and shoes and driving Cadillac Eldoradoes of the same hue, Keith Staulcup stood out.
He walked slowly, draped in a black Victorian opera cape with a high collar held together by a silver clasp at the neck. He toted a walking cane with a white handle and tip. His cane thumped the sidewalk in cadence with each step he took and punctured the silence of this humid night.
Portly built, slightly balding with round sloping shoulders, full white bushy sideburns, and a thick walrus mustache Staulcup resembled a Dickens character in search of another time - one with cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and gas-lit street lamps.
Who is this guy? What is his story?
Fourteen months later I found out. I met Keith Staulcup at the monthly police community meeting I covered for a neighborhood paper. I arrived early carrying a reporter’s notebook when a man from behind me said, “Our recording secretary is sick. Can you take minutes?” The voice belonged to the caped man. I agreed. Within minutes 80 angry people packed the room.
Staulcup banged the gavel on the table to quiet the crowd. He yelled, “Let’s get started.” The noise continued. He hit the table hard two more times. “Save your gripes for the police.”
As president of both the West 51st Street Block Association and the Midtown North Police Precinct Council, he became one of Clinton’s (then called Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side) leaders fighting for a safer and cleaner neighborhood.
Not as scraggy looking as the Occupy Wall Street crowd this group had serious issues as well. They had grown tired of a despondent police department unable to deal with the surge in muggings, drugs dealings, and prostitution that overwhelmed their neighborhood.
Sitting on the stage alongside Staulcup, the council’s board members and the precinct’s commanding officer I saw Hell’s Kitchen diversity first hand; merchants, parents, singles, elderly, minorities, gays, unemployed, white and blue collar workers, clergy, actors and reps from local schools and nonprofits. New York had not yet become the city of multi million dollar apartments and glass towers. Once a place of promise, many critics back then called it “America’s Murder Capital” an ungovernable city in financial and social turmoil on the brink of collapse.
Staulcup’s reversible cape fitted him well in his dual roles as activist and miniature carousel maker.
Born in 1936 in Glassboro, New Jersey he loved theater and the arts and moved to New York to studying acting.
“When I stepped off the bus I was in awe of the city’s size and energy but after I took my second and third steps I knew this is where I had to be.”
He settled in Hell’s Kitchen in 1963 and got involved in neighborhood affairs ten years later out of desperation when his block’s (West 51st between 8 and 9th Avenues) quality of life disintegrated. A mini restaurant row with six well-known French eateries including Tout Va Bien (still open) and the long defunct Rene Pujol and Café des Sports the street drew theater-goers and business people. It also had a sordid side.
“People were shooting up on our stoops and having sex in our vestibules. Dealers sold drugs out of ground floor apartments,” he said.
“Some nights I called and called the precinct. The phone rang forever. When someone finally answered I was often told ‘this is Times Square. We’re too busy. Call back later.’
“The police wanted to see blood in the streets and garbage kicked all over it before they did anything,” he said. “I learned you needed to be dramatic to get their attention.”
Ninth Avenue, the spine of Hell’s Kitchen, famous for its International Food Festival Ninth Avenue, even in those days, attracted thousands of visitors to its annual two-day event in May, but many also came here for other reasons. Office workers, suburban college kids and cars with out of town license plates flooded Hell’s Kitchen for drugs and hookers.
“Ninth Avenue was a drug haven. Pot, pills, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin were available day or night,” Staulcup said.
“We spent months, years fighting with the city to close a drug supermarket, then we battled to close an illegal social club. We contacted every city agency from the mayor’s office on down, not once, not twice, but many times.”
When one closed another appeared. Pimps opened a brothel in an apartment across the street from his place. Then transvestites moved in. Staulcup said, “It was an everything goes club." Drug, sex, fights, stabbings occurred almost nightly. It took 18 months to close.
The block association stretched from Eight to Eleventh Avenues. When a local gang sold drugs from a vacant building near Eleventh, cops told him the operation would only cease when the building was torn down. “Guess what!” Staulcup said. “The city demolished it. The dealers sold drugs in the empty lot.”
This sense of dramatics is a far cry from his creative world. As part owner and founder of Brilar Carousel Works, Staulcup labored through the night making carousels costing $500 to $5000.
He worked and lived on the first two floors of a brownstone at 337 on 51st. As you enter you walk into a small foyer that led to an ample sized palor with burgundy colored walls, plush floral carpeting and thick drapes. From there you pass under an ornate doorway with large sliding wooden doors to reach his workshop. Both rooms are decorated with turn-of-the century furniture, vintage black and white photographs, and large gold-framed mirrors lit with candles and kerosene lamps. All windows including the door to his backyard were outlined with antique molding and covered with curtains made from fabrics he retrieved from the old Met Opera house on 39th Street. Classical music played from his Victor-Victrola. Static from his ham radio, used to track police calls in Hell’s Kitchen, occasionally disrupted the room’s serenity.
Making miniature carousels required immense detail. They measured 15 inches in height with a base of 18 inches. These collectibles featured moving horses wrapped in colorful sashes, tiny hand-sculpted figurines about an inch or two in height, and monkeys holding balloons dressed in formal circus frocks wearing knee high-laced boots. Couples dressed in Gay Nineties fashions stand and listen to the carousel’s music. Young maidens in fluffy dresses wear floppy hats with flowers sit sidesaddle watched lovingly by their beaus.
Even with plump hands and thick fingers he had the manual dexterity and nimbleness of a Swiss watchmaker. It is hard to believe he created these delicate forms from eggshells, toothpicks, threads, tiny shreds of cloth and clay.
Staulcup made carousels for the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and Marshall Field’s and for Rita Ford, his mentor. Ford once a fixture in antique and contemporary music boxes started here in 1947.
Staulcup’s passion for acting also included the theaters especially those on Forty-second Street. Originally built for theater and opera they were converted during the depression to meet the rising popularity of “talking films.” He knew the history of each building and the actors who performed there. The New Amsterdam, one of the city’s most magnificent theaters, was his favorite.
One Friday night in September 1978 after I pounded him with questions about the Amsterdam, Staulcup said, “We’re going to the movies. I’ll give you a tour of the New Amsterdam.”
That night TGIF, the hot disco flick of the summer, starring Donna Summer, Jeff Golblum, and Debra Winger played there. The film had already started when we arrived. We sat in the last row near the entrance. Within seconds no longer able to contain his enthusiasm he began his tour.
For years Forty-second street, the one-block strip between 7 and 8th Avenues, had a notorious reputation as the city’s most dangerous street. Its Wild West atmosphere attracted hustlers, murderers, pickpockets, rapists, pedophiles, junkies, dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and scam artists from all over the country.
Before we entered the theater police had raided a nearby porn shop. More than a dozen cops led a line of men in handcuffs that stretched from a prisoner transport bus parked at the curb right into the shop. Welcome to Saturday night on the “Deuce.”
Built in 1903 by noted architects Henry Herts and Hugh Tallants the New Amsterdam included an eleven-story office building and two playhouses, the 1700 plus seat two-balcony main stage and the nearly 700 seat roof-garden theater. Described as
an architectural gem by critics this grand art-noveau masterpiece not only possessed beauty but also the most advanced mechanical stage ever built.
Sitting with Staulcup I realized we did not come here for the movie. The building had top billing. Worn and ragged and decades past its glory days Staulcup unveiled its magnificence long hidden under layers and years of neglect. He raved about its perfect acoustics and unobstructed views, cantilevered boxes, elegant friezes, intricate plaster relief panels, huge stage with elevators capable of moving sections up and down 33 feet. He described the leather-upholstered banquettes in the clubroom, the richly designed lady’s boudoir, the illustrious paintings and the spectacular mural of Drama above the proscenium.
After about twenty minutes of his descriptive nonstop narrative he nudged me and said, “Come on.” He headed to the aisle at the far end of the theater where he turned and walked to the stage. When he reached the first row he made a right and continued to center stage and stopped.
I walked to the first row. I did not follow him. I knew better than to stand in front of a few hundred people watching TGIF in a theater on the “Deuce.” He turned to me and waved his white-gloved hand for me to join him. I shuffled forward and then froze. He waved again. “Oh man, I hope I survive,” I thought as I moved towards him.
Think of all the famous people who appeared on this stage,” he said when I reached him. His eyes widened and his hushed voice rose as he rattled off names: “Richard Mansfield, Marion Davies, W.C. Fields.”
After the third name I heard nothing. My mind blocked out everything he said. He continued rolling out names: “Fanny Brice, Basil Rathbone, Will Rodgers, Marilyn Miller, Fred and Adele Astaire, Bela Lugosi, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, Ziegfeld’s Follies.”
Although thrilled to stand facing this glorious and historical place I said to myself, “This is crazy. We should return when no one is here.”
Back then the Deuce and this one-block strip had a higher crime rate than many city precincts.
Several years before I saw the movie Shaft at a nearby theater with a tough and hostile crowd. A fight broke out. My friend and I squeezed underneath our seats as bottles went airborne.
Oblivious to how I felt Staulcup continued.
In black cape and large wide brim Cyrano De Bergerac hat with a black satin band and white feather, angled to one side partially covering his face, he pointed his cane from one end of the theater to other. I think he described the lavish cantilevered boxes, the spectacular domed ceiling, and the theaters elliptical shape.
Finally something seeped through. I heard the words “Last Dance” from TGIF’s hit song on the same name sung by Donna Summer.
Last dance for love
Yes, it's my last chance
For romance tonight
“Last Dance, Last Dance” bounced over and over in my mind except the words changed to “Last Chance to Live.”
I scanned the crowd intently waiting for a Malt liquor bottle, or a bullet to fly our way or for someone to rush the stage with a club or a knife. We stood there for 45 seconds, maybe 60, maybe longer. It felt like an eternity.
When Staulcup pointed his cane to his right hundreds of pairs of eyes followed. When he pointed left eyes again followed. When he swung his cane to the ceiling all heads bobbed up. But amazingly nothing happened that night.
A week later a shooting occurred outside the theater.
I had my first and last theater tour with Staulcup.
Staulcup left New York in the mid-nineties. He returned to Gloucester County. He died in 1996 at the age of 63.
Photos by Rudi Papiri; Carousel photo from Full House Antiques
Keith Staulcup’s carousel photo is available for $3500 at the following link: http://stores.ebay.com/FullHouseAntiques1407/_i.html?_nkw=carousel+&_cqr=true&_nkwusc=crousel&_sid=35736815&_rdc=1:
New Amsterdam: After years of decay the Disney Corporation with support from NYC and the 42nd Street Redevelopment Corporation spent $36 million to restore the New Amsterdam. Today it is once again the city’s most beautiful theater. The completely restored theater officially reopened with the concert King David in May 1997. The blockbuster play Lion King opened there in November of that year. It remained until 2006 when Mary Poppins took over the space.
West 51st: Now home to 12 restaurants, a boutique Hotel, the Washington Jefferson, and multi-million dollar brownstones. Tout Va Bien is the sole surviving French restaurant.
It is also home to a Single Room Occupancy hotel, St. Paul’s Chapel, a rescue mission and soup kitchen, and the Alexander Abraham Residence, a women’s shelter.