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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Cross-Dressers of Dyker Heights

Far down on the heights called Dyker,
Overlooking New York Bay,
Stands a school with a tall white tower,
Greeting ships that ply their way.
Her young, as they leave her portals
With visions of worldwide fame,
Carry with them the fight of Poly,
Where they learned to play the game.

So begins the school anthem for the Poly Prep Country Day School in Dyker Heights, one of the oldest private schools in Brooklyn. It’s a very Brooklyn song: it has ambition (“visions of worldwide fame”), it has spunk (“the fight of Polly”), and it positions itself against the big sister borough (“overlooking New York Bay”). Yet the “overlooking” here is most telling: when students sing this song we get the sense that they’re not looking up to Manhattan, but instead are filled with a homespun superiority to the residents of that all too self-important borough.

We also get the sense that no matter their age, Poly Prep students must remember The Great Mistake of 1898, when the City of Brooklyn was absorbed into New York City, thus becoming the Borough of Brooklyn. The tone of Poly Prep’s anthem stands in striking contrast to Will Carleton’s elegy, “The Passing of Brooklyn,” which was read at the ceremonial “observance” of Brooklyn’s absorption (it was not called a “celebration” by most Brooklyn residents) at midnight on December 31, 1897. Here’s a taste of “The Passing of Brooklyn”:

We are grieved that a maiden of sweetness,
Full of life's vigor and joy and completeness,
With the rich charms of young womanhood laden,
We are aggrieved that this fair, comely maiden,
At midnight must die.

It’s true that the City of Brooklyn died long ago. But, to extend Carleton’s metaphor, our comely maiden has flowered since 1898. Nowhere is this metaphor more apt than when looking through the program for one of Poly Prep’s theatrical performances, I’m for You, which was produced, designed, and performed entirely by Poly Prep students and alumni, and presented at BAM in March of 1921. In looking at these antique photos of the cast we’re looking at some of Brooklyn’s hothouse flowers, as this is a Dyker Heights prep school drag show.

Perhaps “drag show” is a misnomer. These are indeed boys and young men dressed as women, though Poly Prep was at that time an all-boys school. Thus, like the all-male casts of Shakespeare’s day, the Poly Prep boys had to play all parts. And play they did—with gender—as it’s clear in the photos that they’re having fun with it.

The preppies' fun is all the more poignant given the occasion of I’m for You. This being 1921, the first World War still cast a palpable social shadow. A prefatory note in the program remarks that this was the first Poly Prep production since Three Queens in 1917 (we can only imagine what that one looked like), and in the four years between, almost the entire cast served in the War, and one had died in service. With many of the same cast from Three Queens performing in I’m for You, this was a homecoming of sorts.

While the details of the play seem to have been lost, it can be surmised from the program that it tells a very New York story of class, love, and prestige, a story that encompasses Greenwich Village bohemians, downtown roughs, and country clubbers from Westbury. With musical numbers with titles like “You Can’t Keep a Squirrel on the Ground” and “When I’m Dancing with a Girl Like You,” we can imagine Poly Prep’s Debutantes Chorus dazzling BAM audiences with its homemade, Broadway-inspired, cross-dressing spectacle. It’s all lost to history, yes, but not to our collective imagination: Now we can look through these photos of Brooklyn boys who are girls and make up our own narratives about the hidden pasts and unknown presents of our strange and beautiful borough.


  1. That poster for I'm For You is so fantastic.

  2. ...and a fascinating post overall!

  3. We live in such a conservative lacunae.

  4. As a BAM supporter and Manhattan resident, I'm tired of the anti-Manhattan tone in your copy. It's getting old.....

    1. Right. Because anything that celebrates Brooklyn MUST be "anti-Manhattan." Your claims are baseless and self-absorbed.

    2. I too am searching for the anti-manhattan copy posted here? But regardless, Up With Brooklyn!

  5. Wow, this is so cool! I've been born and raised in Dyker Heights (and am still here) and never knew about this. Awesome that we made a contribution to BAM! Love you guys :-)