Friday, July 19, 2019

Celebrating the Little Church Around the Corner: a New York Oldie But Goodie

Postcard view-- The Little Church Around the Corner
New York is a forward-looking city, but also one that dotes on relics of past glories. During a recent visit, I was shown a place I’d heard about, but wasn’t sure existed. Its history is tied up with that of the American theatre, but it also gave its nickname to at least one movie, a 1923 silent drama starring Claire Windsor. And it shows up for real in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when Allen’s character, attempting to convert to Catholicism, attends a concert on the premises.

The official name for the Little Church Around the Corner is the Church of the Transfiguration. It’s an Episcopal parish church, built in 1849, that still enjoys a prime piece of real estate on East 29th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. Long associated with liberal causes, it provided sanctuary to endangered African Americans during the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863. But its enduring nickname arose in 1870, when theatre professionals were considered morally suspect. After the death of an actor named George Holland, a fellow thespian, Joseph Jefferson, appealed to the rector of a nearby Manhattan church to conduct a funeral service for his deceased friend. The rector turned him down, but suggested, "I believe there is a little church around the corner where they do that sort of thing." From that day to this, the Little Church Around the Corner has had a warm relationship with the acting community.

This connection between the church and the Great White Way can be seen throughout the charming building. One stained-glass panel puts Jesus front and center, but also sneaks in, at bottom, a small image of Joseph Jefferson in his once-famous portrayal of Rip Van Winkle. There’s also an impressive stained glass image of Edwin Booth, once known as the Prince of Players for his many classic Shakespearean portrayals on the American stage. (The brother of, John Wilkes Booth, Edwin never quite lived down the stain on his family’s honor. Following his death in 1893 at Manhattan’s Players Club, his quarters still remain undisturbed.)

Theatre folk memorialized with plaques in the church sanctuary include Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865-1932) and Cornelia Otis Skinner (1899-1979). The latter, daughter of matinee idol Otis Skinner, was a special favorite of mine. As a successful actress, biographer, and comic essayist, she did it all. Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a memoir she co-wrote with journalist Emily Skinner about their youthful travels in Europe, became a best-seller, then inspired several films, two Broadway shows, and a short-lived TV series. Another honoree is actor Rex Harrison. Though I hardly associate this  hard-drinking Englishman with church attendance, he served as an officer of the Episcopal Actors’ Guild, and the Little Church Around the Corner was the site of his memorial service in 1990. His plaque bears an image of him, dancing up a storm, in his most famous role, that of Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.

Tribute to Edwin Booth

Finally let me mention comic writer P.G. Wodehouse, who as a young English novelist and lyricist made his home in New York’s Greenwich Village. He married his wife Ethel in the Little Church Around the Cormer in 1914, then went on to set many of his fictional weddings at the church. The finale of the hit Broadway musical Sally, which he wrote with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, contains a musical tribute to the "Dear little, dear little Church 'Round the Corner / Where so many lives have begun, / Where folks without money see nothing that's funny / In two living cheaper than one.”
Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins

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