In the 1890s, the bright lights of Broadway ribboned their way north through Union, Madison, and Herald Squares, illuminating ambling throngs of theater- and restaurant-goers, until reaching 42nd Street where, all at once, the Gay White Way winked out. Ahead in the gloom lay Longacre Square, lair of footpads by night, and by day the manure-redolent center of the city’s horse and livery trades. In 1895, the impresario Oscar Hammerstein I crossed the frontier and planted a theatrical complex at 44th Street, but his foray failed, victim in part of an ongoing depression. In 1899 and 1900, the economy surging again, he erected two theaters on 42nd Street, this time barely ahead of a herd of leisure-time entrepreneurs thundering up from downtown, as New York’s entertainment district whooshed into the square, bright lights and all.
Playhouses sprouted along (or shifted up to) 42nd Street and on in-to Longacre itself—forty of them by 1910. Electrified billboards and many-bulbed marquees banished the darkness. Elegant hostelries arrived—led by the Knickerbocker and Astor hotels—as did a slew of fancy “lobster palaces”—theme restaurants done up in Sun King or Roman Imperial style. And the publisher Adolph Ochs relocated his New York Times to a brand new skyscraper at Broadway and 42nd Street.
Two developments drove this transformation. In lower Manhattan, expanding corporate office and garment manufacturing districts sent land values above them soaring, forcing recreation venues to leapfrog up island in search of cheaper terrain. And those northern places had been made newly alluring by the construction of New York’s first subway (commenced 1900, completed 1904), which turned a once distant Uptown into an eminently accessible Midtown. Great crowds from around the metropolis could now flash- flood the Longacre, as they did first on December 31, 1904, when the promotionally savvy Ochs put on a New Year’s Eve fireworks display atop his Times tower, attracting 200,000 people to the square recently renamed in his paper’s honor.
That event’s centennial has occasioned two books commemorating Times Square’s initial remake and chronicling its subsequent ones. James Traub, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, highlights the district’s rich cultural history, profiling its leading showmen and journalists, while Anthony Bianco, a writer for BusinessWeek and author of a study of the Reichmann real estate clan, emphasizes the story’s entrepreneurial aspects, but each provides a full analysis of the century-long interplay between culture and commerce in these symbolically freighted blocks. Both books are well written, with Traub’s the more mellifluous and reflective (particularly about Times Square today) and Bianco’s the more solidly detailed (twenty pages on Hammerstein to Traub’s three). Both offer rise-fall-rise dramas: a glittering first act (peaking in the 1920s), followed by a 1930s–1970s decline, and a post 1980s renaissance. Yet for all the overlaps, their reviews of the square’s hundred-year run are at times distinctly different.
Since the Civil War, Gotham had been the center of the nation’s theatrical industry. Touring companies assembled shows in the Union Square Rialto, tried them out on New York audiences and critics, then sent them on the road “direct from Broadway.” At the turn of the century, when Wall Street was merging myriad industrial firms into a handful of giant companies, show biz too went corporate. The Theatrical Syndicate and the Shuberts developed nationwide theatrical circuits and competed to build ever more lavish showcases in Times Square.
The dense theatrical complex acted as a magnet as well as a launch pad, pulling tourists from around the country to Midtown hotels and shops. The ever vaster crowds inspired a novel form of advertising as the new national corporations began using electric billboards to etch their images in the Midtown nightscape. (Traub pays a lovely homage to O.J. Gude, the promotional genius who pioneered these “spectaculars,” his first masterpiece a fifty-foot-long pulsating green pickle for the Heinz company.) Times Square entrepreneurs welcomed such technology because their profits depended on maximizing the flow and mix of customers, in contrast to their staid commercial counterparts on Fifth Avenue, who banned flashy signs lest they offend their well-to-do patrons.
Broadway businessmen proved equally willing to use sexuality as an attraction, though it took a while to calibrate the degree of acceptable carnality. In the 1880s the entertainment world below 42nd Street had been bifurcated into separate but adjacent districts: the “legitimate” one on Broadway, with opera, genteel theater, elite hotels, and “clean” vaudeville houses (those which “a child could take its parents to”); and the Tenderloin, its bastard relation, where males sampled raunchier fare at concert saloons and brothels. After 1900, when both Broadway and Tenderloin rushed into Times Square, it seemed the latter might overwhelm the former, as perambulating prostitutes worked the avenues, and side-street brothels drew queues of patrons. By 1916, concerted reform drives had damped down such public displays, but a more refined sensuality triumphed on the boards.
The spectacular on- and offstage success of the Casino Theater’s six Florodora chorus girls (each married a millionaire) spawned a host of chorus lines and drew a flood of would-be Cinderellas to the square. The impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, himself a great ladies’ man, set bevies of beauties parading across his Follies stage, but kept the sexuality quotient within bounds, making his shows acceptable to upper-class women newly restive with corseted domesticity. Nice ladies seeking to be naughty also joined the ragtime dance craze of the 1910s, turkey trotting in the square’s hotels, restaurants, and cabarets, with dance instructors like Vernon and Irene Castle serving as cultural transformers, stepping down the sexual voltage, shielding society ladies from the dance’s black, Latin, and working-class associations.
The working class itself, however, if white and sufficiently well behaved, was more than welcome in Times Square—less in the upscale theaters and lobster palaces than at “clean” vaudeville houses and at the movies, the new entertainment technology that shed the stigma of its storefront origins by relocating to grand and decorous picture palaces. In adopting this policy of guarded openness, Midtown leisure entrepreneurs took their cues from their Coney Island counterparts who had recently upscaled the raffish midway by erecting lavish amusement ventures like Luna Park and Dreamland, which swiftly demonstrated the tremendous profitability of low-priced, high-volume entertainment.
The Twenties boom sent capital sluicing into show business. Film companies built ever more opulent palaces in Times Square, and attendance jumped at decade’s end after the addition of sound. For traditional theater, however, the Twenties proved complicated. True, as Bianco notes, thousands of investors who had made a killing in stocks decided to gamble on Broadway, driving the number of productions to record levels. But film had siphoned away theater audiences, in New York and on the road, and by 1926, declining demand left nearly three of every four plays failing to cover costs.
Prohibition brought further difficulties, wiping out liquor-dependent lobster palaces, night clubs, and roof gardens, spawning a rival district in Harlem, and ushering in organized crime. Traub argues that gangster-run clubs and speakeasies gave an edge to Times Square night life. And he suggests that a revolt against the Volstead Act (and Victorian sentimentality) helped to produce the era’s outpouring of witty, urbane, and distinctively “modern” work by Broadway journalists and playwrights, much of it focused on Broadway doings and characters. His portraits of Texas Guinan, Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon, George S. Kaufman, and the Algonquin wits are fond and perceptive. But these collateral advantages were not enough to keep a bloated stage afloat.
Worse still, Times Square (like the Rialto before it) was under siege from an expanding office district. Mid-town real estate values exploded in the Twenties, driving up rents beyond what most producers could afford, even after jacking up ticket prices. Skyscrapers (among them the Chrysler Building) sprang up on 42nd Street from Second to Sixth Avenues. On Broadway, at 43rd, Paramount Studios raised a skyscraper-cum-theater headquarters in 1926, suggesting the possibility of combining offices and playhouses, but no one followed suit. Bianco argues plausibly that had the Twenties boom roared on, many theaters (including nearly all on 42nd Street) would have been turned over to the wreckers. And by this point, there was nowhere for the entertainment district to run.
The 1929 crash saved Broadway’s physical stock—hard times as ever the great preservationist—but dramatically altered its audience, particularly on 42nd Street’s theater-laden block between 7th and 8th Avenues (the Deuce, as it would become known).
On 42nd Street, in a bid to reverse sagging attendance, some entrepreneurs raised the level of sexual explicitness. Burlesque arrived in 1931, along with barkers and steerers and giant posters of half-naked girls. Fearing a re- Tenderloining, the 42nd Street Property Owners and Merchants Association counterattacked, with support from a puritanical Mayor La Guardia, and managed to close down salacious competitors. But shorn of sex, live theater couldn’t compete, and Deuce playhouses switched en masse to an all-movies, all-the-time, cheap-seat policy. These “grinders” offered second-run, male-oriented action films (not por-nography), and proved spectacularly successful.
Patrons also crammed the street’s cheap eats—the hot dog stands, soda fountains, and all-night cafeterias (Chase’s, Bickford’s, the Automat) that replaced the classy restaurants that Prohibition had shuttered in the Twenties. Cheap amusements blossomed too—shooting galleries, gypsy tea rooms, dance halls, and Professor Heckler’s flea circus in Hubert’s Museum. The block lured working people on their way home to the Bronx or Brooklyn, and growing numbers of the unemployed and homeless, attracted by the anonymity of the crowds and the network of sheltering institutions where a nickel bought a meal, and a dime an all-night stay in a grinder. Among the new arrivals, Bianco observes, were a disproportionate number of blacks (themselves a disproportionate percentage of the unemployed). There was also a sharp increase in the number of prostitutes working the street—a standard concomitant of depressions—though unusual here in being mostly male (the theatrical district had long been relatively hospitable to gays).
Traub laments this transformation. Where the street “had long lived in a fine balance between the mob and all that was inaccessible to the mob,” now “the rabble was laying siege to the street’s fabled charms” and the elite was heading for the exits. As “cheap and crude” replaced “expensive and refined,” the Ziegfeldian tension between erotic abandon and aristocratic restraint was lost. The arrival of burlesque seemed a “shocking” proof of decline, a “menace,” an “ecological danger,” though Traub admits that A.J. Liebling and Joe Mitchell found much to admire in the era’s “picturesque impoverishment” (and he might have mentioned other honky-tonk enthusiasts, such as Reginald Marsh).
Bianco suggests that what some mourned as the street’s deterioration “could just as plausibly be celebrated as its democratization.” He salutes the “flair and resourcefulness” of the new promoters, and finds goofy fun in burlesque’s whimsical marquees (Panties Inferno, The Sway of All Flesh), its standup comics (like Abbott and Costello, whose “Who’s on First?” routine premièred on the block in 1936), and even its over-the-top sexual spectaculars (like one in which two topless cowgirls, firing cotton bullets, rode white horses racing toward the audience on treadmills).