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A Sign Recalled a Vanished Jazz Era in Harlem;
Then the Sign Vanished
By A. G. SULZBERGERPublished: July 7, 2009
The Big Apple was never more than a minor player among the many clubs that swung and bopped their way into the Harlem jazz scene in its heyday. Nobody seems quite sure when it closed; many don’t remember it was there in the first place.
The club’s most enduring legacy appeared to be the sign set in the fake stone exterior of the building — a brown stucco coat of arms featuring an upside-down apple painted red and overlaid in white letters — which trumpeted the club decades after the music stopped.
From its perch on 135th Street off Seventh Avenue — opposite the better-known club Small’s Paradise, which, after a number of owners (including the basketball great Wilt Chamberlain), closed in 1986 — the sign bore witness to the death of the Harlem jazz scene a half century ago, and its revival over the last decade, dulling slowly with the city’s grime during those silent years in between.
Then, three years ago, the sign — this relic from the days of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Count Basie — suddenly vanished. It was chiseled out of the wall as the building was transformed into a Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits. The loss has been a source of frustration for the handful of amateur historians who noticed its disappearance, particularly since so much of that history was already gone.
“The sad thing is that virtually everything from that era was demolished,” said Hank O’Neal, whose book, “Ghosts of Harlem,” chronicles the faded jazz scene but who said he knew little about the Big Apple.
In 2006, when Gordon Polatnick learned the building was being turned into a Popeye’s, he approached the franchise owners. “I tried to tell them that the sign was something to be cherished,” said Mr. Polatnick, who ran a short-lived jazz club on the block and now offers “Big Apple” tours of the neighborhood’s jazz history. “I was interested in preserving it in my place.”
Soon afterward, Mr. Polatnick received e-mail from a stranger who said he had been given the sign as compensation for renovation work done on the restaurant. That person asked for $30,000 for the sign. Mr. Polatnick declined.
Barry Popik, an amateur etymologist who researched the roots of the term “The Big Apple,” also received an unexpected message from the same e-mail address. The sender explained that he was in possession of the sign, which he was planning to sell. “I have gotten some offers but I really would like to find out for myself how much is it actually worth,” the sender wrote.
Mr. Popik responded that the club played an important role in popularizing the term “the Big Apple” — a phrase used by jazz musicians and horse racing enthusiasts before the club opened — as a nickname for New York City. He said that he could not estimate the value of the sign, which he believed dates to the 1930s, but added, “I can tell you that it’s an important part of our city’s history.”
Soon the item appeared in an auction on eBay.
Since then, Mr. Popik has been complaining about the disappearance of the sign in periodic blog posts, letters to politicians and e-mail messages to newspapers, including one this week to The New York Times, upset that no official efforts had been made to preserve the artifact.
“I have no idea where it is now,” he said on Monday. “I’m sure it’s still out there somewhere.”
He was right.
“I forgot all about it,” said Luis Maldonado, speaking from his home in Florida on Monday night.
In the summer of 2006, Mr. Maldonado had just finished six years with the Navy and was working part time in demolition. While ripping down an old facade to make way for the fried chicken franchise, he stopped his stepfather — who had helped him get the job — as he was about to tear into a strange old sign of an upside-down apple.
“He was actually going to destroy it — I said, ‘No.’ It seemed like something of interest,” said Mr. Maldonado, 31. “I spoke to the landlord and I asked if it was O.K. for me to take it down off the wall and he said sure.”
As he researched the sign, Mr. Maldonado said he became excited that he had found something valuable.
“I thought I had a piece of New York history,” he said.
But his attempts to sell it — first for tens of thousands of dollars, then for more modest sums — provoked little interest, he said. When he got less than he was seeking on eBay, he tucked the plaque into his stepfather’s closet in the Bronx.
Shortly afterward he moved to Florida, where the memory of the strange artifact faded. He still hopes to sell it, he said on Monday, adding that it was more important to him that it “go somewhere meaningful.”
Photo: Courtesy of Barry Popick
The old sign outside the Big Apple jazz club on 135th Street in Harlem.
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