As a young man, Brooklyn-born Frederick “Primrose” Binseel traveled the United States and Canada on the Vaudeville circuit before settling in Albany. At first, he was part of a comic duo with James McIntyre, Jr., son of a famous blackface performer. Mr. Binseel probably took his inspiration as well as his stage name from George Primrose, another famous minstrel. From some of his clippings, Fred Primrose seems sometimes to have claimed kinship with the more famous performer—or at least, he did not strenuously correct his promoters’ misimpressions. Like their predecessors, McIntyre and Primrose performed in blackface. Primrose did not dispose of the burnt cork until ca. 1911, when he began billing himself as a monologist (“The Jolly Good Fellow with the Jolly Good Talk”).
In 1913, Mr. Binseel decided to leave the stage and settle down. He married Mary Van Antwerp, and the following year, the couple moved to Albany, where Mr. Binseel became active in the Masons, the Republican Party, and unspecified financial speculation. For a time he worked for the American Railroad Express Company, but he was laid off during the Great Depression. In 1941, after years as a salesman on commission, he found a stable job as a guard at the Capitol and Governor’s Mansion. Not long after, Mary died.
Mr. Binseel soon remarried—another Mary (Kelly). Both worked for the State. The couple moved into an apartment convenient to their work. They would live together in the apartment at 8 S. Hawk Street for the next 16 years.
Even after retirement and the death of his second wife, Mr. Binseel hoped to remain in what had become his home. But in December 1963, at the age of 83, he had little choice but to move. Mr. Binseel was typical of many South Mall residents—aging and alone. A March 1963 survey by the New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) revealed that in the take area, 42% of household heads were over 60 years of age. Most residents (77%) were tenants, and roughly 20% lived alone.
Rita Richey, an assistant to DHCR social worker Michael Nardolillo, found an apartment for Mr. Binseel at 48 Elizabeth Street and, in his words, “put pressure on” him to move. Mrs. Richey probably thought she did right by Mr. Binseel. After all, she found him a six-room apartment at a time when the city’s stock of affordable housing was on the decline due to South Mall evacuations and demolitions. The State paid Mr. Binseel’s moving expenses.
Nine months later, not knowing where else to turn, Mr. Binseel appeared at the offices of the Temporary State Commission on the Capital City (TC), asking for help. He was lonely and unhappy, still grieving the loss of his wife as well as his home. He complained that his new apartment smelled of gas or some chemical. He believed the drinking water was contaminated. He was convinced that someone was stealing his belongings bit by bit and had lifted his Social Security check from the mailbox. He distrusted his new neighbors and feared his new landlord, scared he would be killed if he dared to complain.
Mr. Binseel appeared stressed, unhappy, and disoriented to TC staffer William McGlone, who sympathetically recounted the old man’s story to Lt. Governor Malcolm Wilson. Mr. McGlone referred the case back to DHCR, recommending someone be sent to see Mr. Binseel in his Elizabeth Street apartment and to help him find a new home—possibly a room in a nursing home. It seemed to Mr. McGlone that Mr. Binseel’s memory was failing, but he was unsure whether this loss was a symptom of grief or infirmity. Mr. Binseel died of heart disease two years later at the Pleasant View Rest Home on Western Avenue, near the new SUNY campus.