Bootleggers and booze
David Eisner recently stepped down as president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, but he believes the center has a bright future with exhibitions such as American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
At a recent press preview, Eisner called it a “must-see exhibition.” He believes the American public is interested in the subject, pointing to the popularity of the HBO show Boardwalk Empire and the recent movie Lawless, along with the much-anticipated movie The Great Gatsby, which will star Leonardo DiCaprio and debut on the big screen next May.
“Prohibition is an exciting, fun, compelling, amazing story, and we’ve told it really well in this exhibition,” he said.
The exhibition will run through April 28.
At the press luncheon, a trio from the Society Hill Dance Academy gave a 1920s performance, and prohibition enforcement officers made a surprise “raid.”
The exhibition is the story of two amendments to the United States Constitution.
The 18th Amendment, which went into effect in 1920, outlawed the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States. The 21st Amendment, enacted in 1933, repealed the 18th Amendment. It’s the only amendment to repeal another amendment.
The exhibition chronicles the improvement in the nation’s moral and physical health during Prohibition, but also details the radical rise in crime and corruption.
Stephanie Reyer, the center’s vice president of exhibitions, views American Spirits as engaging, fun and educational.
The 5,000-square-foot exhibition features more than 100 artifacts, and Reyer said planners had fun designing it.
One of Reyer’s favorites is a re-created speakeasy, complete with a bar, dance floor, bandstand and powder room. She’s also partial to an Amazing Amendment Machine, which is a 20-foot-long, 8-foot-tall contraption that traces how the temperance movement culminated in the 18th Amendment.
As part of her job, Reyer gets to tell the story of all 27 amendments, but expects the 18th and 21st amendments to especially interest visitors.
“These are by far the sexiest,” she said.
Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times editor and author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, explained that he spoke with Reyer four years ago as he was writing the book.
Okrent, the exhibition curator, said the 18th amendment lasted 13 years, yet merits only a sentence or paragraph in school textbooks.
“It’s an extraordinary story,” said Okrent, who collaborated with filmmaker Ken Burns on the 2011 PBS documentary Prohibition.
The exhibition is funded in large part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
David Weinstein, its senior program officer, explained that the exhibition’s innovation and creativity wowed the NEH.
Outside the entrance to the exhibition is a modified 1929 Buick Marquette, known as a “Whiskey 6” of its day. Bootleggers would speed away in six-cylinder cars, usually Buicks or Studebakers.
Inside the exhibition, artifacts include copies of the ratifications of the 18th and 21st amendments; a hatchet used during a barroom-smashing raid; a Prohibition Bureau Badge issued by the U.S. Department of Justice; pamphlets, school lesson manuals, speeches, hymnals and other temperance propaganda; a wiretapped phone used by bootlegger Roy Olmstead; women’s and men’s fashion accessories from the 1920s; manufacturing items used for making moonshine and homebrewed beer; Prohibition agent Eliot Ness’ signed oath of office in which he swore to support and defend the Constitution; Al Capone’s 1931 guilty verdict; and a crate of Budweiser produced after repeal of Prohibition.
Visitors also can take a quiz in a church pew, where the Anti-Saloon League gained strength in the early 1900s; take part in an “Is It Legal?” touch-screen game; learn how to dance the Charleston; play the role of a federal Prohibition agent chasing rumrunners in a video game; and have their picture taken with gangsters in a criminal lineup. ••
Drink to that . . .
The cost is $17.50 for adults, $16 for senior citizens and students and $11 for children ages 4 to 12, and includes admission to the center’s main exhibition. Active military personnel and kids 3 and under are admitted free. Group rates are available. Admission is free on Sundays. Call 215-409-6700 or visit www.constitutioncenter.org
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org