A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeye's fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from July 05, 2004
Damon Runyon (who never used “Big Apple")
It's not difficult to see how this would occur. Writer Damon Runyon (1880-1946) was noted for his underworld slang. He had a character called "Apple Annie" in one of his stories. In the musical Guys and Dolls, one character famously sings, "We got the horse right here."

The only problem is in finding "Big Apple" citations. Runyon never called New York City "the Big Apple."

The first recorded citation of this theory is in the New York Times, March 27, 1975, pg. 65: "Back in the nineteen-twenties, Damon Runyon popularized the term 'Big Apple' as the ultimate description of New York—the city that was the big time in all respects."

In the New York Times of May 19, 1975, "The Big Apple In a Big Pickle," William Safire wrote: "We call New York 'The Big Apple," a Runyonesque phrase lifted from racetrack lingo, meaning 'the big time,' where the high purses could be won. In the early thirties, the phrase was applied to Harlem by jazz buffs, and a nightclub called 'The Big Apple' flourished; a frenetic dance by that name popularized the term nationally. An apple is shaped like the world, and by synecdoche, the Big Apple has come to stand for the place where opportunities—and problems—converge. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere." (Note: This is before the song "New York, New York" popularized that last phrase—B.P.)

There was a New York Times obituary of December 6, 1995, "Charles Gillett, 80, the Creator Of the 'Big Apple' Ad Campaign: "He was also involved in negotiations to bring the Democratic National Convention to Madison Square Garden in 1976, the first national political convention held in New York since 1924. But perhaps his greatest success came with turning the term 'Big Apple' into a tourist draw. A jazz fan, he remembered that musicians in the 1920's and 30's had an expression for playing the big time after gigs in one-horse towns: 'There are many apples on the tree, but when you pick New York City, you pick the Big Apple.' Damon Runyon had popularized the term in the 1920's."

I immediately wrote a letter to the editor and to the writer of the article. How could they re-state this 20-year old myth on his obituary? Had the Times no knowledge of Gerald Cohen's monograph, published four years earlier? Did no one have a copy of the Encyclopedia of New York City? Gillett had praised my work in print in the New York Post, as recently as October 1995. Did the Times not know about my efforts for "Big Apple Boulevard" on Gillett's behalf?

There was no response and no correction. When the Times had a special address to correct past errors (following 2003's Jason Blair incidents), I mentioned this. No one responded. When a reader representative position was established early in 2004, I mentioned this again. The reader representative said he wouldn't deal with past errors. The Times and William Safire no longer believe that Damon Runyon is responsible for "the Big Apple," but it remains here, never corrected, electronically searchable, on the obituary of a person who can't defend himself.


Wikipedia: Damon Runyon
Alfred Damon Runyon (October 4, 1880 – December 10, 1946) was an American newspaperman and short-story writer.

He was best known for his short stories celebrating the world of Broadway in New York City that grew out of the Prohibition era. To New Yorkers of his generation, a "Damon Runyon character" evoked a distinctive social type from Brooklyn or Midtown Manhattan. The adjective "Runyonesque" refers to this type of character as well as to the type of situations and dialog that Runyon depicted.[4] He spun humorous and sentimental tales of gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters, few of whom go by "square" names, preferring instead colorful monikers such as "Nathan Detroit", "Benny Southstreet", "Big Jule", "Harry the Horse", "Good Time Charley", "Dave the Dude", or "The Seldom Seen Kid". His distinctive vernacular style is known as "Runyonese": a mixture of formal speech and colorful slang, almost always in present tense, and always devoid of contractions. He is credited with coining the phrase "Hooray Henry", a term now used in British English to describe the upper class version of a loud-mouthed, arrogant twit.

27 March 1975, New York (NY) Times, "Big Apple Polishers Brighten City's Image" by Albin Krebs, pg. 33, col. 1:
Back in the nineteen-twenties, Damon Runyon popularized the term 'Big Apple' as the ultimate description of New York -- the city that was the big time in all respects.

19 May 1975, New York (NY) Times, "The Big Apple In a Big Pickle" by William Safire, pg. 29, col. 2:
We call New York "The Big Apple," a Runyonesque phrase lifted from racetrack lingo, meaning "the big time" whre the high purses could be won. In the early thirties, the phrase was applied to Harlem by jazz buffs, and a nightclub called "The Big Apple" flourished; a frenetic dance by that name popularized the term nationally.

An apple is shaped like the world, and by synecdoche, the Big Apple has come to stand for the place where opportunities -- and problems -- converge. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

Because New York enjoys that reputation -- indeed, revels in it, with a booster campaign using an apple as its symbol -- residents of other cities look with wonderment and concern at the way the nation's largest city is rapidly going broke,

Newspapers.com
22 May 1975, Miami (FL) Herald ,"Action Line," pg. 27-A, col. 2:
No one's sure who coined the term Big Apple. Some claim it was Walter Winchell, others say Damon Runyon.

Newspapers.com
23 February 1978, Miami (FL) Herald, "New Yokers at Home In Cozy Copy of Sardi's" by Grace Wing Bohne, pg. 5-B, col. 1:
... Charles Gillett, he president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc., and syndicate columnist-TV figure Hy Gardner all sporting Big Apple lapel emblems.

Virginia Gillett is a distinguished painter. Her husband confided that he popularized the Big Apple nickname for New York, but credits the late Damon Runyon with being the originator.

Newspapers.com
30 April 1978, The Sunday Times (Scranton, PA), "Glad You Asked That!" edited by Hy Gardner, Next Week sec., pg. 3, col. 3:
QUESTION: We've heard many rumors that the late writer-columnist Damon Runyon, was the first to call New York City the "Big Apple." My father, a former acrobat, disagrees. He says to was a vaudeville term that went something like this: "If you haven't played the Big Apple, you haven't made the bigtime." Which is correct?
,, Bill Birch (an old vaudeville buff) San Diego
ANSWER: Charles Gillett (president of the N.Y. Convention and Visitors Bureau) told us that whenever he's asked who originated "The Big Apple," he answers: "Runyon -- not because it has any foundation -- but because it sounds logical." More likely the vaudeville version is closer to the truth. Especially when you consider that in the era of the two-a-day the struggling vaudevillean's goal in life was to play New York's Palace -- the heaven of his calling.

6 December 1995, New York (NY) Times, "Charles Gillett, 80, the Creator Of the 'Big Apple' Ad Campaign" by James Barron, pg. B17, col. 5
Charles Gillett, who was credited with creating the Big Apple tourism campaign when he was president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, died on Monday at his home in Great Neck, L. I. He was 80 and also lived in Palm Beach, Fla.
(...)
But perhaps his greatest success came with turning the term "Big Apple" into a tourist draw. A jazz fan, he remembered that musicians in the 1920's and 30's had an expression for playing the big time after gigs in one-horse towns: "There are many apples on the tree, but when you pick New York City, you pick the Big Apple." Damon Runyon had popularized the term in the 1920's.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityThe Big Apple1970s-present: False Etymologies • Monday, July 05, 2004 • Permalink