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|Best thing I saw or learned
|In 1915, Theda Bara, about 30, so-so looks, minor acting credits, exploded into the Madonna of her time. She ranks as the first ever “vamp” in cinema, playing a succession of seductresses and destroyers of men. Every femme fatale since traces her lineage back to Ms. Bara, Bayside resident.
Bayside, Queens, is a neighborhood at the far frontier of New York City, just before it turns into Nassau County. Today it’s not known for much, except for nice houses and high property values.
But just in case anyone is curious about Bayside’s past, it does have a Historical Society, which occupies a little castle of a building on the grounds of nearby Fort Totten.
Originally the officers’ mess and meeting rooms for the Army Corps of Engineers, the building looks excellent today. It shows its age, but is clearly lovingly maintained. And it boasts a modern HVAC system, which I appreciated on a warm summer day. The museum tells essentially one story, that of Bayside’s sole claim to fame. Which is, in fact, fame itself.
A century ago, Bayside was home to a colony of Vaudeville and silent movie greats, including Rudolph Valentino, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Gloria Swanson, Theda Bara, and other even more obscure figures. For a while it seemed likely that a major movie studio would open in the area, so stars flocked to buy estates there.
The studio didn’t materialize. As Hollywood became the locus of the motion picture industry by mid-to-late 1920s, actors migrated west and Bayside slipped into quiet anonymity. But for a while, the gossip columnists and paparazzi flocked to Bayside to see what the stars were wearing and give the moviegoing public glimpses into their carefully publicity managed lives.
I imagine some other reality where Hollywood didn’t happen. Instead, all the major film studios gravitated to Bayside and Nassau County. Showbiz folks in that world read The Bayside Reporter. Tourists take photos under the Bayside sign. And Los Angeles is just, what, an earthquake-prone resort town and port? With charming streetcars.
Back to History
Alternate universes notwithstanding, the Bayside Historical Society tells the story via posters, publicity stills, full-size cutouts, and news clippings. Keeping on the theme of glamour it’s also got a small exhibit on dressing fancy in the 1910s and 1920s. It also talks about Bayside’s annual pageants: things like the parade of cars, the children’s parade, and the Queen of the Bayside Day.
The museum boasts a meeting room (with a truly ancient piano), an unexpected little gift shop, and two beautiful event spaces on the second floor. If I lived near Bayside I’d seriously consider throwing a milestone birthday party there. With a King Arthur theme.
Tucked away in the back I found a wall full of group pictures: clubs, school groups, and dinner attendees from long ago. The wall text observed that in many cases no one bothered to jot down names. We forget that photos will likely long outlive the people in them. The wall text argues that despite modern technology assists like tagging and facial recognition, the best thing is still to print out photos and write people’s names on the back. A plea on behalf of future curators of future historical societies.
The Historical Society didn’t address its building or Fort Totten more generally. That felt like a missed opportunity to me. I’m curious about how the military base related to the community outside its gates.
Should you Visit?
Should you seek out the Bayside Historical Society? If you happen to visit Bayside or Fort Totten for other reasons, absolutely. If you’re a silent film buff (are those still a thing?), then you may appreciate the pilgrimage. Otherwise, the Historical Society tells a small story about a small place in a neat building. That’s perfectly fine, but it doesn’t merit a special trip.
|208 Totten Avenue, Bayside, Queens
|General Admission: $5 (Suggested)
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