Published: February 1st 2010April 19th 2009
(Warning: If you gotta have more cow bell then skip to the Saturday Night Live section*)
Loaded up with BLTs from our favourite local joint, we boarded a subway train to the financial district. With our New York passes we had booked on to the Alexander Hamilton financial district tour which had the following hype: "Our guide will bring NYC to life through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton. His rise from a penniless young immigrant to becoming our nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, epitomizes the immigrant spirit that defines New York City and the United States." It sounded just like my childhood in Palmerston North, and my future role as New Zealand's prime minister.
Our tour began in Battery Park, named due to the artillery battery that was stationed there at various times by the Dutch and British in order to protect the settlements behind it. At the edge of the park, along the shoreline sits Castle Clinton, which has gone through many reincarnations - fort, beer garden (my favourite), theatre and then when immigrants started pouring in - an immigration office (until Ellis Island was set up), an aquarium and is now a national monument. When in
use as an immigration office, Battery Park was full of squatters and in turn people trying to sell them wares, the day we visited the park was scattered with a modern version of this - buskers and market vendors trying to capture the tourists' dollars.
From the park we could see the Statue of Liberty. I'm sure you all know who that broad is. She was donated to the US by the people of France to represent the friendship between the two countries established during the American Revolution. The statue was created in France and then shipped over, it sat in 4 wooden crates until the US found money to erect it. Fund-raising for the pedestal proceeded slowly, so publisher Joseph Pulitzer (who established the Pulitzer Prize) opened up the editorial pages of his newspaper, The World, to support the fund raising effort in 1883 he would publish peoples names who donated money, be it 5 cents or $500 dollars. A good way to get your 5 minutes of fame. It ended up costing $250,000 - possibly one of the best investments in the world considering the tourist dollars it brings in.
We learnt so much, I'll try
and briefly recap a few of the interesting points: The Dutch were the first settlers in New York, we passed Delmonico's restaurant where Baked Alaska and Eggs Benedict originated, we visited the Bowling Green - New York’s first park and the site where the statue of King George was chopped up and melted into bullets soon after the declaration of independence was signed. We saw Fraunces Tavern - New York's oldest building (many were destroyed by fire in 1776) that is steeped in revolutionary history.
We visited the Federal Reserve where loads of gold is stored in the vaults 4 levels below ground, they couldn't hold it above ground due to its sheer weight, the security must be amazing as many countries trust the bank with their gold. Although ... movie buffs would recognise the building off the film Die Hard with a Vengeance, where it is robbed. The nearby Manhattan Municipal Building features in Ghostbusters, and they've probably filmed Sex in the City somewhere nearby knowing that floozy Samantha.
The famous Wall Street was our next stop, it has this name as the Dutch settlers constructed a wall to try and keep invaders out. It didn't really
work; the British just sailed passed the wall and took over. It would be amazing to go and watch the traders but since the 9/11 attacks that has been stopped. We passed 40 Wall Street (Now known as Trump Building) which was at one stage the world’s tallest building, well for about a month. It was in a race with the Chrysler building, and things were neck and neck, with Chrysler slightly behind. 40 Wall Street was declared the tallest building in the world, that is until tycoon Walter Chrysler used his secret weapon to win the race to the top; a stainless steel spire was clandestinely assembled in the Chrysler Building's crown and hoisted into place, surpassing 40 Wall Street by about 100 feet. Understandably the designers of 40 Wall Street were f'ing livid.
Throughout the tour we learnt about Alexander Hamilton, he was essentially George Washington's right hand man and did loads, if you want to know more read this: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_hamilton). What I found interesting was that when his federalist party lost to the Democrats he decided a duel was in order so faced off against Vice president Aaron Burr who shot and killed Hamilton. After his
death he has since been hailed as America's greatest ever Secretary of the Treasury and now features on the US 10 dollar note. We visited his grave at the famous Trinity Church, where people took refuge as the World Trade towers collapsed.
To round off the tower we visited Ground Zero, where the World Trade Towers used to stand. We learnt of an extraordinary case of bravery. A former soldier-come-security consultant for a major firm near the top of the second tower realised the threat posed to the buildings after a failed attempt to bomb the car park years earlier. Twice-yearly the firm would practice evacuating, running all the way down the stairs despite groans from employees. When the first tower was hit, he recognised the security threat, so started the evacuation, when about half way down the second tower was hit, so the lights went out. People were freaking out, so he calmed them by getting them to sing old Welsh mining tunes and songs from Zulu tribes. It seemed to work, most made it out - only 4 people from the huge organisation perished. Unfortunately he was one, he was returning to check for more employees whilst
talking to his wife on the phone when the tower collapsed.
* The American's can make some pretty crap TV shows, but one that has stood the test of time is Saturday Night Live. For those who haven't seen it, it's a live comedy sketch show that has featured the biggest stars from the movie and music business since it's inception in 1975. We were lucky enough to take a tour of the NBC studios to see where the show is filmed. The studio room where it is filmed used to be a soundstage for orchestras so it is almost acoustically perfect (Elvis used to practise at the studio), if your favourite band sounds bad playing here, then they truly are bad, or if they lip-sink like Ashlee Simpson got caught doing then they are worse than bad.
I was amazed at how small the studio is, only 19 people sit down near the stage, all crew or family members, whilst about 200 sit up the top. The wide angle camera lenses make it appear as though the stage is much bigger and there are considerably more audience members. This is probably why Gwen Steffani turned up with
a marching band, cheerleaders, and back up singers for her performance of Holla Back Girl, they all had to just stand still as there was no room to move, years later when she returned to perform not surprisingly she came alone.
There are three different stages, one for the band and two for the sketches to take place. Apparently former funny man Chris Farley was banned from the main set as in the heat of the moment would get carried away and run through set walls, ha ha. Each show has a budget of $2.5 million, so he'd have to run through a lot of walls to chew through that.
Many shows claim to be live but actually have a 7 second delay so they can bleep or cut objectionable material, SNL doesn't have this safety net, they are completely live. This has got them in trouble on a few occasions, most famously when Sinead O'Connor broadcast a political message. In the rehearsal show she had finished her set and held up a picture of a starving African child with the message stop world hunger. Producers thought it was poignant so decided in the live show they would
cut to the picture. So come Saturday night she finished her set but then held up a picture of the pope which she ripped in half and said "Fight the real enemy". She has been banned from the building.
To get seats is almost impossible, a ballot happens once a year, and if you are one of the lucky few, then you get allocated one date during the year which may be a Tuesday practice show or a live Saturday night show. If you can't make that date then tough luck.
To finish our SNL segment we visited a room full of heads. It was kind of creepy. All the hosts have head moulds in case they need to wear masks or appear, with say, an Alien head. Alex Baldwin has hosted loads of times and fluctuates in weight so much that he has 6 different head moulds. I was scared he'd been cloned 6 times, there's already enough Baldwin’s in Hollywood without that happening.
On our tour we were lucky enough to see other studios and NBC departments including the technical hub of operations where machines and technology were whirring with flashing lights, not sure what
it all did but it is behind bullet proof Kevlar glass. Incidentally this is where Howard Stern used to broadcast his radio shows; I guess you need security like that when you are a bit 'out there'. The room has back up power and if there was a power cut to the city they would have enough juice to keep broadcasting for 2 weeks and 40 minutes. If the power's not back on by then, then the robots have probably taken over the world.
We also saw where the news is filmed and Jaimee got to realise a life-long dream of presenting the weather, even if it was just to the tour group. The teleprompter in the video camera is on a two way lens so it appears you are looking directly at the audience. The map in the background however isn't visible to the presenter so you have to sort of guess as to where you are talking about or point in the general direction.
I've been a fan of the show for years, especially Will Ferrell whose career has taken off thanks to his start at SNL. I got myself a cowbell t-shirt from the gift
shop. Check out the sketch on youtube to see what it's all about: Gotta have more cowbell
After a quick feed and a drink at a nearby Irish bar we returned to the Rockefeller Centre to take the Top of the Rock Tour. I guess it's not really a tour; it's more of a take the elevator to the top and check out New York. We purposefully did this at night so we could see the lights of the Big Apple - with the lit up Empire State being the centre of attention. My camera takes good night shots if the camera and the image in focus are both completely still. We attempted to get a group shot with the lens open for 15 seconds. Any movement would blur the shot so we were trying to not even breath. In the end someone would laugh in all of the shots so all our hard work amounted to nothing.
Before catching the subway back to our hostel we had a look inside the huge M & M store. Everything you could think of is sold in this place with M & M logos emblazoned across it. It was ok,
perhaps a bit childish, maybe next time we'll go to the S & M store.
There are more photos below