As the second part of our Manhattan Monday double feature, we’ll take a look at the most famous part of New York: Times Square. Intimately connected with Broadway, Times Square is roughly defined as the area where Broadway and 7th Avenue overlap between 40th Street and 48th Street. Times Square is also the heart of the Theater District, namely home to productions “On Broadway.” So what does it mean when we call a show a “Broadway” show? The answer has nothing to do with geographic location relative to Broadway and everything to do with seating capacity. Any theater with at least 5o0 seats is a Broadway theater – thus any show playing in a Broadway theater is a Broadway show. While most theaters are located within 1-2 blocks of Broadway, the term applies exclusively to seating capacity. Likewise, a theater is “Off Broadway” if it has 100-499 seats, and an “Off Off Broadway” theater has less than 100 seats; I’ve seen a few Off Off Broadway shows that were smaller in scale than high school productions with only a few dozen seats for the audience.
Therefore, while New York theater is a different topic altogether it is very closely linked with Times Square, the epicenter of the Theater District; to attend a Broadway show, you must go to Times Square. When people think of Times Square, among the lights and people they see the large marquees for a variety of shows. The Times Square Information Center is effectively a theater info center, acting as a starting point for many guided theater tours. And all the Broadway theaters except for the theaters at the Lincoln Center are within a few blocks of Times Square. Thus Times Square and New York theater are closely linked.
Not long ago – less than 150 years – Times Square, Crossroads of the World, was a muddy array of carriage houses and stables as home of the American Horse Exchange. Owned by John Jacob Astor, the area was one of the least desirable places in town because of its foul smell and dirty streets in the late 19th century. But as New York expanded northward along Broadway, the lots around Longacre Square (at that time called the Long Acre, after a similar horse and carriage district in London) began being sold and eventually hotels and brownstone residences began to appear. The first theater was built 1895 – the massive Olympia – by Oscar Hammerstein I. As the theater district moved up Broadway from its center in Madison Square, more massive theaters began to arise.
Filled with prostitutes and petty crime, Longacre Square was a place to enjoy the theater, but not a place to linger. Thus its development was somewhat stalled until two major events coincided to jump-start the area’s progress. The first event was the construction of the The Times Tower. Unique for its irregular shape on a small island between 7th Avenue Broadway along with its very deep basement floors (to house the printing presses for the New York Times), the tower was the second tallest in the world at the time of its completion in 1905 (Park Row Tower in lower Manhattan was the tallest), and could be seen from 20 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. Shortly afterward the owner of the Times, Adolph Ochs, successfully lobbied for the name change from Longacre Square to Times Square.
The second major event was the design of the subway (Interborough Rapid Transit, or IRT) and elevated train system (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, or BMT) that made the Longacre Square hub the most prominent in the entire city (it still is today). Thus the area around Broadway and 42nd Street became the most easily accessible place in Manhattan for people from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, as well as Uptown and Downtown Manhattan. It was the one transit hub that connected the major lines from each borough, meaning hundreds of thousands of people passed through the area every single day. So with a landmark building, a transit hub, and the emerging heart of the Theater District, Times Square was ready to explode.
And explode it did. Starting with the first New Year’s Eve fireworks display in 1904 and the first ball drop in 1907 (the ball was an improvisation due to a fireworks ban), Times Square has been a key gathering place in New York for over a century. With the first ever news ticker placed on the Times Tower in 1913, Times Square has been a key place for major news announcements of everything from the results of presidential election to major sporting events to the end of surrender of the Japanese and the end of World War II. The influx of crowds for news announcements and celebrations led to the rise of the entertainment venues, particularly theaters and later movie houses, along with upscale restaurants and hotels. The first trans-American road, the Lincoln Highway, was completed in 1913, connecting Times Square (from 42nd Street) to Lincoln Park in San Francisco – it still exists today, albeit obscured by the modern highway designations.
While a comprehensive overview of the history of Times Square is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say the area has seen a series of up and down periods over the past 105 years. During the boom years of the 1920s and the Jazz Age, Times Square saw the construction of nearly 100 theaters with hundreds of shows released yearly. Massive new theaters (some seating more than 4,000 people) were built, soaring luxury hotels were developed, and opulent restaurants were opened.
The earliest musicals were staged as variety shows featuring a host of chorus girls (often topless and occasionally nude – scandalous in that era but immensely popular) interspersed with musical and comedy acts that saw the rise of stars like Will Rogers in shows like the Ziegfeld Follies in the New Amsterdam Theater and Midnight Frolic, an edgier show in the New Amsterdam’s rooftop theater.
From the boom era of the 1920s Times Square saw a predictable decline in the 1930s and 1940s as the Depression and War led the once-ritzy area into a hotbed of crime and prostitution. The refined Ziegfeld shows devolved into bawdy burlesque, with strip shows and movie theaters taking over the grand theaters. The New Year’s celebration continued unabated throughout this period, though the famous ball wasn’t dropped during World War II due to the blackout. The Times Square area saw a resurgence in the post-war 1950s and early 1960s, with an invigoration of good new productions and restoration of many of the old theaters.
Yet, along with most of the country, the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were the dark days for Times Square, as the area was riddled with prostitution, pornography houses, and crime. Forty-second street was particularly bad off, with the beautiful old theaters virtually destroyed from vandalism and neglect as they mostly housed adult films. The New Amsterdam’s magnificent Art Nouveau interior – one of only a handful in the world – was painted over with black paint, and the rooftop theater was filled with water and decayed beyond repair. In the predictably short-sightedness and poor taste of the 1960s, Times Tower was covered from top to bottom with a metal exterior, and was used to the hoist the massive electronic signs and banners. With no tenants above the retails stores, the once unique and original Times Tower – home to the world’s most influential newspaper – became nothing more than a billboard support. Tourists from around the world came not to marvel at the grand theaters and apex of cultural influence, but to gawk at the brazen debauchery at the Crossroads of the World.
But like most of New York and America as a whole, Times Square saw a resurgence in the early 1990s. Largely due to the efforts of groups like the 42nd Street Development Project and the policies of Rudi Giuliani, Times Square is almost unrecognizable from its dilapidated condition just 15 years ago. With the pornography houses and sex shops abolished, reputable businesses have moved back in and business is booming. The New Amsterdam was leased to Disney for $1, and in turn Disney renovated the New Amsterdam Theater to its present glorious state. The AMC cinema franchise purchased and renovated the Empire Theater – preserving the lobby but transforming the building into a 25 screen complex that is the nicest and best-run movie cinema I know. Toys R Us, Planet Hollywood, MTV, and Virgin all opened massive stores in Times Square, along with Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Some have lamented the “Disney-fication” of Times Square, and I see their point. But an over-commercialization of the area is certainly preferably to the filth of just a few decades ago.
Personally, I enjoy taking a stroll through Times Square and its surrounding streets now and then. New Yorkers often regard Times Square with the disdain usually reserved for cyclists or Republicans: they view it as a crass, Vegas-like tourist trap, overly crowded and obnoxiously commercial. All true. But there is an energy and excitement in Times Square that is like nowhere else I’ve ever visited. Taking visitors to Times Square for the first time is always enlightening: they are more excited and intrigued by the lights, sounds, scents, and overwhelming sensory experience than by anything else in all New York. One gets the sense that when you’ve been to Times Square, you’ve really seen something unique – not much else in the world compares in terms of its history, multicultural relevance, contemporary appeal, and global influence. Tokyo has more lights and London has an equivalent theater district in the West End, but nowhere else do you feel like you’re at the center of the world. An ancient historian once said of beautiful Corinth of antiquity: “See Corinth and die.” In many ways, the same could be said of New York, particularly Times Square.
Often called the “Crossroads of the World,” Times Square welcomes about 30 million visitors every year. For our out of town guests, seeing the unique phenomenon that is Times Square is a must. You can’t really experience New York until you’ve experienced Times Square.