Interviews

Anthony Bianco, author of Ghosts of 42nd Street

 

 

 

 

Beginning in 1899, a burst of construction on the mid-Manhattan block of West 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue created the greatest concentration of theaters America had ever seen, giving birth to today’s Broadway theater district. When the New York Times built a slender twenty-five-story tower on an odd, triangular site formed by the convergence of 42nd Street, Broadway, and Seventh Avenue, the city named the square facing the tower Times Square, which quickly became New York’s gathering place for all important civic events.

In its heyday, 42nd Street was excessive, expensive, unpredictable, loud, fun, and, at times, dangerous. Forty-second Street’s Golden Age of entertainment ended by 1930 and the street quickly devolved from the nation’s first show business capital into its first retail porn center, becoming even more infamous for its squalor. Its denizens rechristened 42nd Street as “Forty Deuce” or simply “the Deuce.” This downward trend continued into recent decades, when 42nd Street was largely demolished and rebuilt in the largest urban renewal project in New York history, creating the Times Square of today — still known far and wide as the “Crossroads of the World.”#

Anthony Bianco’s Ghosts of 42nd Street is the dramatic and definitive story of this legendary strip.  He joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a December, 2004 conversation about this neighborhood’s history, its impact on the city of New York, and America’s imagination of it as a culturally important thoroughfare.

 

 

 

 

 

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“[Times Square is] the only New York possessing a thrill. It is…the carnival supernal.”

– J. George Fredericks, author of Adventuring in New York, published in 1923

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– Listen to Christopher Columbus, by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra

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JJM  You wrote, “Who does not know Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Wall Street, or Broadway? But 42nd Street in its heyday was the quintessence of the quintessential American metropolis — excessive, expensive, unpredictable, loud, fun, and a bit dangerous. No place in America has ever evoked the glamour and romantic possibilities of big-city nightlife as vividly as did 42nd Street in its Golden Age.” What was 42nd Street before Oscar Hammerstein opened the Olympia Theater in 1895?

AB  It was a dusty center for the carriage and horse trade, on the edge of inhabited Manhattan. The history of Manhattan is that it was civilized, or occupied, by the southern tip and worked its way up. Oscar Hammerstein took a leap beyond the current northern boundary in his day, which was 40th Street — into what was then called Long Acre Square — an area that had nothing to do with entertainment until he got there; it was where people stabled their horses or bought carriages. It wasn’t lit, and at night it became a center of prostitution. This area was beyond respectability then, it was the frontier. Because Broadway ran through it, you could imagine how one day entertainment would extend into Long Acre, but it was Hammerstein and his audacity that pulled it off.

JJM  Hammerstein became known as the “Father of 42nd Street.” How did he earn that title?

AB  He built the Olympia on 44th and Broadway, and then, on the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, he built the Victoria. It was the second proper theater on 42nd Street, but the one that really established the street as a theatrical address. The Victoria actually didn’t last that long, but it had lots of really interesting incarnations, and it became the first great national center of vaudeville in America. Hammerstein built a second theater next to it, the Republic, which was a theater of a very different sort — a drawing room of drama. He then built two more theaters down the street. He built four theaters of the ten on 42nd Street at its theatrical peak.

JJM  So he promoted a whole variety of shows within these theaters.

AB  Yes, although his love was opera, and he himself was musically talented, he had a democratic notion of entertainment. Within one theater building, he had an ability to offer different forms of entertainment to appeal to different segments of society, and they were priced that way, especially when the roof of the Victoria was opened. Because his venues were priced for all classes and to all tastes, they established the basic character of 42nd Street as a place where everyone would go for excitement and entertainment.

JJM  Yes, it was like a one-stop shopping center for entertainment at the time.

AB  Its appeal was enhanced by the fact that so much was pushed together in essentially a block or two. It was really over-the-top night time glamour and excitement concentrated in a small area.

JJM  It was written of Hammerstein that he was a modern day folk hero. How did he win over the New York audience?

AB  He was an eccentric character, for real, and then he also played to his eccentricities; for example, he only dressed in formal evening wear at all times of day. He also really knew how to cultivate the press. Reporters liked him, and he was accessible to them. So, in his day, he was one of the most famous people in America and his every foible and exploit was duly recorded by the press. Although he was a product of high culture, he had a genuine connection with the little guy, and he spanned the gap between high and middlebrow cultue, which was especially hard in that era, when the gap was larger than it is now. He understood all segments and had something that appealed to all of them, and everybody read about him all the time.

JJM  He had a streak of independence that seemed to appeal to the immigrants of the era who wanted to find success as well.

AB  That’s right. He was an immigrant himself. While he was from a pretty affluent background in Germany, he had come to America with nothing. Since he then made a series of fortunes on his own, it’s easy to see why he had such appeal with those who were struggling and trying to imagine a better life. He epitomized that to a generation of immigrants.

JJM  You wrote that he had “defiantly expensive booking policies” that assisted independent producers. Did his independence change the face of theater at all?

AB  Hammerstein was the first major independent producer to stand up to the Theatrical Syndicate, which meant, in part, that he was paying entertainers more than the Syndicate would, and was also allowing them a latitude the Syndicate’s tightly controlled scheduling wouldn’t. He caved in for a bit, and backed off from his fight, but then came back at them. That certainly gave exposure to theatrical talent that might never have been able to get into the syndicate system, so it had a broadening, democratic effect on who was doing the entertaining. Hammerstein didn’t break the syndicate, though; it was the Schubert Brothers who did that. They also emerged on 42nd Street, and then acquired many theaters in New York and across the country. They took on the Syndicate head on and really bested them. But they coexisted on the street at the same time, and since Hammerstein and the Schuberts were friendly, they were sort of spiritual allies.

JJM  Of Hammerstein’s downturn, you write, “Utterly broke, Oscar had to borrow $500 from son Arthur to buy food. The elder Hammerstein seemed to take a certain perverse pride in the totality of his ruin. Meeting a friend on Broadway, he offered him a cigar. ‘I have lost all my theaters, my home, and everything else,’ he said. ‘My fortune consists of two cigars. I will share it with you.'” What was the cause of his downfall?

AB  I think that period you are quoting from is after the fall of the Olympia, which was a huge financial failure. He was overextended commercially.

JJM  And he came back after that…

AB  Yes. That story is very much quoted about him, and it could be true. He wasn’t that interested in making money. Like many great promoters, he was more interested in the venture than the profit, and he had a compulsion to do things first class. So from time to time, he would get overextended financially and collapse. But he had so much drive, imagination and personal appeal that he could always pick himself back up and start over again.

JJM How did the emergence of the subway affect 42nd Street?

AB  The subway expanded 42nd Street into a hub of entertainment for the whole city. The first subway stations opened in 1904, and one of the first important ones was at 42nd Street, Seventh Avenue and Broadway — the “crossroads of the world” intersection — which made this area accessible from distant parts of the city for the first time. It also created a tremendous amount of traffic through there, which is of course vital for a popular entertainment district.

JJM  Why was the subway station on 42nd Street and not three blocks down, or four blocks up? In other words, how did it get to be there?

AB  It was mainly determined by the street grid of Manhattan. The grid was laid out well before this time — I believe it was 1868 — and at intervals, there were double-wide streets. There is one on 42nd Street, then as you go toward downtown they are found on 34th, 23rd, and 14th Streets. These double-wide streets, of course, were bigger thoroughfares, so 42nd Street’s fate partly was decided by that mapping. The midtown nexus of the subway system was there, and just a few blocks to the east is Grand Central Station, which also had concentrated traffic. All this mass transportation brought many thousands of New Yorkers through the site every day.

JJM  You write, “The Great White Way was steeped in sex from the outset, onstage and offstage — especially off.” How so?

AB  The whole Times Square area was a center for prostitution. There is a long history of theater districts doubling as red light districts, and part of it has to do with the prevalence of aspiring young actresses who can’t get the work they want. This was certainly true of Times Square, which was home to hundreds of brothels in the early 1900s.

42nd Street really began to flourish at the turn of the century, and very quickly there was a parallel evolution of prostitution. There was this dovetailing of theatrical entertainment and prostitution — nightlife in all its forms. It was quite open and public in many ways. The most popular brothels had people lined up outside them on a Saturday night. It was tolerated because New York was a real open city for a while. The story of 42nd Street is a series of moral crackdowns led by the police and other independent reformers against open vice.

JJM  The original concept Hammerstein and some of the other visionaries had for 42nd Street began to transition as the market changed. How successful was the assimilation of vaudeville into this area known for theater?

AB  Vaudeville came on the heels of the legitimate theater and coexisted with it on 42nd Street for two decades. A huge theater boom occurred along the blocks going uptown from 42nd Street, especially on 44th. 42nd Street was really where the modern Broadway district started, and the street was pretty quickly filled by 1910, although there was some building later. Then, on 43rd, 44th, 45th and up, larger and more modern theaters by the dozen were built. So, in a technical way, the theaters on 42nd Street were pretty quickly outmoded and not very cost effective to operate compared with these other theaters, which did not have a third balcony and had better sight lines. After a time, then, the theater owners and impresarios of 42nd Street were stuck with outmoded theaters. Although it resulted in a lot of good entertainment, as a business strategy, being on 42nd Street fairly quickly became a disadvantage for theater producers.

JJM Some of the vaudevillians who performed on 42nd Street were the “who’s who” of entertainment then. W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, Buster Keaton, Harry Houdini…

AB  Yes, and many of them also appeared directly across the street at the New Amsterdam in its heyday.

JJM  Who were some of the freak acts that earned the Victoria the reputation as vaudeville’s great nut house?

AB  The Cherry Sisters were three sisters from some parts distant, who thought they were pretty good singers but in actuality were absolutely awful. They were so awful, in fact, that people took a liking to them. Hammerstein booked them a number of times, and they succeeded, so theirs was entertainment that was so bad that it was good. Part of the ritual of appreciating a performance by the Cherry Sisters was throwing rotten fruit at them — which I believe started at the Victoria — and even then, according to Hammerstein, the performers didn’t get it. Of course, Hammerstein in his persuasive way encouraged his performers to believe that rotten fruit was a form of appreciation. The Cherry Sisters were kind of a freak category to themselves.

JJM  Hammerstein also hired people who weren’t necessarily entertainers, but who gained notoriety through bizarre circumstances, criminal acts…

AB  Yes. The term “freak act “goes beyond the circus freaks. It included giants, malformed people of different sorts, as well as notorious people in the headlines — accused murderers, disgraced playboys, boxers, and famous athletes of all kinds would be included in the term “freak act.”

JJM  Jack Johnson was in vaudeville and must have performed in these theaters.

AB  At the ignominious end of his career, I believe he appeared at Huber’s, the dime museum down the street. So the term “freak act” was very broad, and it reflected Willie Hammerstein’s great feel for what we would today call “tabloid journalism.”  Willie, who was Oscar’s son, was a great promoter in his own right. Willie had a talent for finding all the misfits and notorious headline grabbers of the day. Perhaps the ultimate one was Evelyn Nesbit, who was in a famous murder triangle with Harry Thaw, a playboy from Pittsburgh, and prominent New York architect Stanford White. Nesbit had a series of salacious incarnations on 42nd Street, and ended up at the Victoria. She was another person who fancied herself an entertainer, though she really couldn’t sing or dance — not that it mattered, because her notoriety was such that she packed the house just with her presence.

JJM  Were people able to earn middle class incomes from this kind of work?

AB  The stars did much better than middle class money, and even some of the rank and file strippers made a working class salary. Someone like Gypsy Rose Lee did considerably better than that in burlesque, which followed the vaudeville era.