The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square
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As Times Square turns 100, New York Times Magazine contributing writer James Traub tells the story of how this mercurial district became one of the most famous and exciting places in the world. The Devil’s Playground is classic and colorful American history, from the first years of the twentieth century through the Runyonesque heyday of nightclubs and theaters in the 1920s and ’30s, to the district’s decline in the 1960s and its glittering corporate revival in the 1990s.
First, Traub gives us the great impresarios, wits, tunesmiths, newspaper columnists, and nocturnal creatures who shaped Times Square over the century since the place first got its name: Oscar Hammerstein, Florenz Ziegfeld, George S. Kaufman, Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell, and “the Queen of the Nightclubs,” Texas Guinan; bards like A. J. Liebling, Joe Mitchell, and the Beats, who celebrated the drug dealers and pimps of 42nd Street. He describes Times Square’s notorious collapse into pathology and the fierce debates over how best to restore it to life.
Traub then goes on to scrutinize today’s Times Square as no author has yet done. He writes about the new 42nd Street, the giant Toys “R” Us store with its flashing Ferris wheel, the new world of corporate theater, and the sex shops trying to leave their history behind.
More than sixty years ago, Liebling called Times Square “the heart of the world”—not just the center of the world, though this crossroads in Midtown Manhattan was indeed that, but its heart. From the dawn of the twentieth century through the 1950s, Times Square was the whirling dynamo of American popular culture and, increasingly, an urban sanctuary for the eccentric and the untamed. The name itself became emblematic of the tremendous life force of cities everywhere.
Today, Times Square is once again an awe-inspiring place, but the dark and strange corners have been filled with blazing light. The most famous street character on Broadway, “the Naked Cowboy,” has his own website, and Toys “R” Us calls its flagship store in Times Square “the toy center of the universe.” For the giant entertainment corporations that have moved to this safe, clean, and self-consciously gaudy spot, Times Square is still very much the center of the world. But is it still the heart?
From the Hardcover edition.
still 1913—requiring cabarets to close at two A.M. But the law was no match for unleashed appetite. Cabaret owners simply opened up private “clubs,” which came to be called nightclubs, and which could remain open all night long. One could dance at Castles in the Air, the rooftop cabaret of the 44th Street Theatre, to which the Castles moved in 1914, and then go down to the “Castle Club” in the basement for still more drinking and dancing, perhaps with Vernon and Irene themselves. And so before
city’s ruling. Gude’s most stupendous achievement came in 1917, at the very end of his career as Times Square’s master spectaculator. One of Gude’s prize locations was the space atop the Putnam Building, on the west side of Broadway between 43rd and 44th Streets. William Wrigley agreed to pay $100,000 a year to lease the space, and Gude designed for him the largest electric sign on the face of the earth, two hundred feet long and almost a hundred feet high. Here is the indispensable Tama Starr
“I. Berlin” and “J. Kern,” and “G.S.K.” for George S. Kaufman, and “H.B.S.” for the publisher and gadabout Herbert Bayard Swope. Variety, the trade journal of the entertainment industry, was already ancient, having been founded in 1907, but by the mid-twenties Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Smart Set were all anatomizing the Broadway life in a snappy new Broadway patois for the benefit of readers marooned in Dullsboro. The great dailies’ theater columns, once a backwater for broken-down
promoters includes Hockticket Charlie, a booking agent who on the side sells pawn tickets enabling the holder to redeem objects that are, in fact, trash, and Lotsandlots, who sells phony land lots secured by phony deeds. But the noblest figure in the rogues’ gallery is surely Maxwell C. Bimberg, known as the Count de Pennies, owing both to his waxed mustache and his reputation for tightfistedness. The Count is a publicity agent who cons everyone he comes across, including such otherwise
matter. To which one might well say: So what? Simon himself says, “I wanted to be part of the resurgence of Times Square, and especially Forty-second Street.” And he plainly is (though he complains that the rent is stratospheric, the local businessmen don’t patronize his “corporate space,” and he is besieged by the “Eighth Avenue crowd”—that is, black kids). Forty-second Street had become the kind of place where many New Yorkers, and certainly many tourists, wouldn’t set foot in an arcade. Now,