Harlem’s 1920s Cotton Club – live in Second Life

Second Life's Cotton Club

I’ve been waiting months to write about Second Life‘s Virtual Harlem, a pair of sims that aim to simulate 1920s Harlem and two of its most historic landmarks, the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, Both locations are remembered for their contributions to American and especially African-American music, and to write about either building, even their virtual versions, without the music that brought them to life, would be to write in a vacuum. So I waited, and on Memorial Day weekend, it happened. Trowzer Boa and his Robot Band played the virtual Cotton Club.

 Although remembered for its stream of African-American music greats, the Cotton Club was a coldly racist place, as was most of America in the 1920s. Opened in 1923 by gangster Owney Madden, the Cotton Club offered a venue for great African-American musicians including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday to perform, but although African-Americans were onstage, they were rarely allowed to be in the audience. The Cotton Club closed in 1940.

Dancing in the Cotton Club

Second Life’s Cotton Club is happily not authentic in one way: blatant racism is absent. Unlike the historic Cotton Club, where African-American performers were regarded as exotic savages, in Second Life on Memorial Day weekend, the performer was white (accompanied by AI "robots"!) while African-Americans in the audience danced alongside other races. Playing from his Philadelphia area basement, Trowser Boa and his AI Robot Band were excellent. The music they played wasn’t entirely authentic, some of it having been composed after 1940, including some by Boa himself, but I doubt whether anyone cared. I didn’t. It was good.

Guests were asked to wear "1920s glamor" attire. Most complied. For women, this meant dressing in the styles of the 1920s and while I don’t know enough about style to judge their accuracy – some hairstyles in particular looked distinctly contemporary – the overall effect was one of glamor of a lost age. Men had an easier time dressing for the evening because styles for men on occasions like this haven’t changed much since the 1920s. Most men were suits – I wore a zoot suit – and one wore a sailor’s outfit. The few who didn’t wear suits nonetheless seemed to fit in. This was Second Life, after all, most of the musicians were robots, and the dancers were all avatars. This wasn’t a static museum display. It was the 1920s brought back to life, but in a new century and in a virtual world that no one in the 1920s could have imagined.

Dancing in the Cotton Club

I’m looking forward to future events in the two Virtual Harlem sims and in the third sim in the group, Montmartre. These sims are the only place I know of where you can walk out of Harlem, cross a bridge on foot, and find yourself in France, in an entirely different historic period! I expect I’ll be writing more about all three sims in the future. Candice McMillan, events manager for Virtual Harlem, told me that they are antipating about one event a month at the Cotton Club. Second Life members can be assured of learning about them by joining the Virtual Harlem Events and Activities group in Second Life. On Memorial Day weekend, I went as a reporter taking pictures. The next time, I may leave my reporter role behind and take a date instead of pictures. This is a great place to dance, to enjoy, and to get at least a taste of life eight decades ago in New York’s Harlem, minus the racial discrimination of those days.

You can hear Trowzer Boa and his Robot Band at his Second Life club, Firehouse 59; Second Life members can teleport to it by clicking slurl.com/secondlife/Absentia/197/90/22. If his Cotton Club performance is any indication, you won’t be disappointed.

Second Life members can teleport to the Cotton Club by clicking slurl.com/secondlife/Virtual%20Harlem/124/7.

Storm Eye

Entering Storm Eye

The activities in Second Life of the New Media Consortium (NMC) are too diverse and too numerous to do justice to by writing about it in a single blog, so over coming weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of its exhibits and features. This educational collaboration between 125 colleges and universities includes over 100 regions in Second Life.

My topic today is the Storm Eye immersive art exhibit, a creation of Desdemona Enfield and Douglas Story (Dennis Schaefer in real life). The exhibit consists of about a thousand primitives, each with a moviing picture texture, and accompanied by very rich sound effects that include thunder, rain, and chirping birds.

Storm Eye, blue sky

When you first teleport to Storm Eye, you are almost 500 meters above NMC’s Aho Museum. You are in a deep red world, with a red path winding its way upward to what looks like a blue and white vortex, except that it’s stationary. Before going any further, make certain you’ve followed the instructions to turn up your audio to max and to enable media playback. Without these, it won’t be much of an experience. Also be sure to get one of the free umbrellas if you don’t want your av to get wet! When you’re ready, walk up the path into the vortex, and be ready for an experience.

Storm Eye, rain

Once inside, you are surrounded by 1,000 prims of video and audio looping in a 4-1/2 minute cycle of rain, lighting and thunder alternating with blue sky and birds singing. If you have headphones, use them. The audio is key to enjoying this exhibit.

When you’re ready to leave, you can’t just walk back out. You have to find the tornado and click on it.. Its location isn’t immediately evident at first, just a semi-transparent image. Once you find it, click on it and you will be immediately teleported back to the red world immediately outside.

If you’re a Second Life member, you can teleport to Storm Eye by clicking slurl.com/secondlife/NMC%20Campus%20West/91/86/501. If you’re not a Second Life member, you can watch a shortened, 1.5 minute version of the experience on the Storm Eye blog.

A glimpse inside a rural America of the past, part two

gas station with hot rod

Yesterday in The Refuge and Expansion, we explored its house, barn, and the house’s upstairs work area.


In the cramped confines of the house’s attic, we find a boy’s desperate attempts to reach out to an outside world that, before radio, television, and finally the internet, was hopelessly unreachable to a farm boy who craved more stimulus than what his farming community offered.  On two sheets of plywood laid over the bare joists and illuminated by a single bare light bulb, there is a basic radio and headphones, the sort of rig that a boy around World War I might have built.  It reminded me of an aspect of my own youth, in an attic similar to this, trying to escape the confines of my own small town life by finding broken surplus Army radio equipment and cobbling it together to build a functioning ham radio I could use for communicating with people far away.


Going back outside to the road and walking past the stop light, we find ourselves at a Texaco station, the sort of gas station where local guys could be found chewing the breeze on the chairs set outside.  Inside the garage is a hot rod – here call a “Rat Rod”, which you can buy and, suspended from an engine hoist,  an optional higher performance engine that you can buy for your Rat Rod,.  This is another aspect of rural creativity, finding its expression in taking garden variety cars, stripping them down, and converting them into magnificently performing beasts.

tree and mysterious tube in middle of road

When we leave the gas station and walk a little further down the road, we see an ancient railroad locomotive rusting in a field and next to it, a shocking disruption to the carefully laid out reality we have seen until now.  It’s unexpected.  Everything else we’ve seen can be understood.  It’s all part of our culture, our background, a past that we know if only by reading about it and seeing it on film and TV.


But now cracks break through the façade of normalcy.  Big cracks.  near the locomotive, a large tree grows in the middle of the road.  It has obviously been here many years.  Even more incongruously, something unidentifiable, a tube of some kind, jabs into the road at the tree’s base.  At first I thought it was a missile, representing the fears of nuclear war that dominated the 1950s.  But that’s not it at all.  Not even close.

a lonely rural boy's fantasy world

Click on the “missile” and you are teleported without warning underground, to under the tree, and suddenly this well ordered simulation of the past turns surreal.  Hammers and instrument dials float freely in the air.  A rowboat is moored to a table.  On the table, we see radio like the one we saw in the cramped attic of the house.  But this is not a cramped attic.  Far from it.  This chamber is how the boy in that attic sees his world.  This is where he finds his freedom.  Instead of walls and piles of limit his world in the house, down here in this subterranean chamber, the walls all open to the stars.  In every direction, we see the vastness of the universe.  Looking up, we see the roots of that mysterious tree in the road and among them, we see what that mysterious “missile” really is: a telescope, the same telescope we saw in the house, but huge.  This chamber is the imagination of that solitary boy struggling to expand his mind in a small town where the best minds are more likely to build planes and modify cars.  This is where his mind roams free.


Is it also madness?  Perhaps.  I don’t know message the creator, AM Radio, intends with these two sims that mimic rural America of the past.  For me however, having grown up in a smallish town with some of the same constraints of the boy I imagine in that house’s attic, it evokes memories and feelings of my own childhood.


This is what I suspect AM Radio means by the place’s name, The Refuge and Expansion.  I might be totally off base, but to me, the upstairs room and attic are the boy’s refuge, and the subterranean chamber is the expansion, where he can let his mind run free, where he can expand, totally leaving behind the limitations of his small town world.


If you buy the Rat Rod or any of the other items for sale here, proceeds go to Heifer International Charity (www.Heifer.org), a 65 year old charity group that donates animals to poor families in developing countries.


AM Radio has created a well done and thought-provoking pair of sims.  If you’re a Second Life member, you can teleport there by clicking  slurl.com/secondlife/Wales%20Springs/251/113/24.

A glimpse inside a rural America of the past, part one

A rural intersection
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The first time I visited Second Life’s The Refuge and Expansion, it struck me as a well done reproduction of a quaint aspect of bygone America, but not worth a return visit.  Fortunately, I did return, because subsequent visits revealed deeper layers, both literally and figuratively.  For me, the underlying feeling of the place is the ways rural boys – and it does reflect entirely the traditional interests of young males – could express their creativity on a farm in the pre-internet and pre-television era.  It is a very male view of the world – the house doesn’t even have curtains in the windows.  I see the place as the story of several brothers, most of them fitting in well with their town, but one who does not, a boy whose imagination and creativity crave more than his rural world can provide.  Of course, this is only my own personal view.  The creator, AM Radio, might have something else entirely in mind.


Barn with plane and cars
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When you first teleport to The Refuge and Expansion, you are standing on a two lane road that appears to stretch as far as the eye can see, complete with power lines on wooden poles, surrounded by mid-America farmland.  A single 1940s car is on the road.  Not far away, a billboard stands at a blinking traffic light where another two lane rural road intersects.  Turning to your right, you see a farmhouse, not American Gothic, but reminiscent of it.  You almost expect to see the man and woman from that painting step out from the house and invite you inside for some fresh made apple pie.  In the hazy distance on all sides, barely visible in the simulated mist at sim boundaries, outlines of buildings suggest nearby farms.


Inside the barebones house, you find simple vestiges of a past age: stiff backed wooden chairs, a wood burning stove, complete with axe and firewood, and in the kitchen, a water pump in a wooden stand for pumping water from the well.  In the back, you’ll see doors leading to the storm cellar, but they are non-functional and there is no storm cellar.  I wondered, if a tornado struck while I was there, where would I take shelter?  Of course, this is Second Life and there was no tornado nor any risk of tornado, but the setting felt real enough that doors to a non-existent storm cellar were a letdown.


Study table and telescope in a cluttered attic
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The barn across the road contains some important aspects of rural creativity in a past era.  A 1912 airplane sits at the center of the barn.  On one side, a late 1940s style car sits near a racing car such as might have been seen in the 1930s.  In the right rear corner, what appears to be a 1960s MGB. In the center, you’ll see an old style band saw and on the back wall, airplane engine parts carefully laid out on tables beneath blueprints of an airplane.  The place reminded me strongly of visiting the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome when I was a child and flying in a 1930s plane that my favorite uncle had rebuilt himself – my very first flying experience was taking off from a rural dirt field in that plane. 


Returning to the house, if you go up into the second floor, you see another aspect of rural creativity – the solitary brother, bored by the mechanical things that excited his brothers and craving the education and intellectual excitement that his small town could not provide.  I could see his brothers finding outlet for their creativity by building planes and cars in the barn, while their more bookish carved out his own tiny workspace in the attic amidst detritis that other members of the family have stored there.  He has a work table with a microscope and a telescope pointed at the stars and on the floor, dozens of books stand in stacks scattered around the floor, surrounded by a pile of wooden chairs and a spare wind blade for the nearby windmill.  This is the first hint we have that The Refuge and Expansion is not just a paean to an idealized rural past.  The boy who sat at this desk, at a window overlooking the feverish activity of his brothers in the barn, was lonely and frustrated.


Tomorrow in part two, we’ll explore more of The Refuge and Expansion, and further down the road, we’ll see reality morph into something very different.


If you’re a Second Life member, you can teleport there by clicking  slurl.com/secondlife/Wales%20Springs/251/113/24

King Tut Virtual Exhibit

The King Tut exhibit is currently on a tour of the United States and Canada, but you can get a taste of it without leaving your home by visiting King Tut Virtual: SPECIAL PREVIEW in Second Life. It’s part of an experiment by Rezzable to explore the possibilities of using virtual world space. The "Preview" in the title suggests that there is more to come. What is there already is impressive.

When you first teleport there, you are on a landing pad over a globe showing Egypt and neighboring countrues on both sides of the Mediterranean. From there, you can teleport to Tutankhamun’s tomb, complete with an archeological dig outside, with tents, crates, and other items that might be found in a dig like this. An opening into the hillside leads down into the tomb, where you can see tomb paintings like those in the picture on the left. There are also a number of reproductions of ancient items, such as a chariot.

Besides the tomb, there are five other parts of the sim to which you can teleport. One is the Gallery, a museum-like display that cleverly implements the display of artifacts such as daggers, trumpets, and masks displayed in round display "cases". When you click on them, they enlarge outside the display case so you can examine them in detail. You see the trumpets and dagger in the third picture.

Another teleport destination is Amarna, a partial reproduction of an ancient Egyptian town. It’s moderately interesting. I hope Rezzable plans more for this. It would be interesting to see how some Egyptians actually lived. Just beyond Amarna, you’l find the Digital Alchemy Boutique, a shopping area where you can buy Egyptian-themed items such as clothing, jewelry, and skins.


The most impressive part is the least traditional as a "museum" display. In fact, it’s nothing like a museum display. When you teleport there, you are in space, stars all around, with a descending spiral of stars that you quickly realize is a walkway. Among the artififacts you can see floating among the stars is the Tutankhamun mask in the picture on the left above.

Rezzable’s done a good job so far. I hope they continue to expand this display. If you’re a Second Life member, you can visit the King Tut Preview exhibit in the King’s Rezzable sim by clicking slurl.com/secondlife/Kings%20Rezzable/199/157/23.