Signs of a city: Times Square, from in­can­des­cence to HDTV

WODE­HOUSE: A LIFE By Robert McCrum Nor­ton & Co., $27.95, 530 pages RE­VIEWED BY JAMES E. PER­SON JR.

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

De­scribed by its pub­lisher as the first com­pre­hen­sive pic­to­rial his­tory of New York’s most fa­mous neigh­bor­hood, “Times Square Spec­tac­u­lar” is, as we say in the trade, lav­ishly il­lus­trated. Darcy Tell has as­sem­bled a gen­er­ous port­fo­lio of images de­tail­ing the color­ful de­vel­op­ment of the hour­glass-shaped acre formed by the in­ter­sec­tion of Broad­way and Sev­enth Av­enue be­tween 42nd and 47th streets, known as Long Acre Square be­fore Mayor Ge­orge McClel­lan changed its name to honor the New York Times’ trape­zoidal sky­scraper in 1904.

As her sub­ti­tle sug­gests, the au­thor builds her nar­ra­tive around the flam­boy­ant sig­nage that has graced this en­ter­tain­ment dis­trict for more than 100 years, chron­i­cling suc­ces­sive waves of in­can­des­cence, neon and, most re­cently, LED phos­pho­res­cence and HDTV plasma.

Times Square’s first elec­tri­fied sign, spell­ing out the name of Os­car Ham­mer­stein’s enor­mous Olympia Theatre, lit up Broad­way be­tween 44th and 45th streets in 1895, fol­lowed by the ef­fer­ves­cent grif­fin that adorned Rec­tor’s renowned restau­rant one block south. As the newly built sub­ways brought ev­er­larger crowds into the area, le­git plays and fine din­ing gave way to cabaret, nearly nude re­vues and so­called tea dances, where un­escorted ladies could find hand­some part­ners with whom to tango. Not that Times Square was ever as high class as de­vel­op­ers might have wished.

“Pros­ti­tu­tion was ev­ery­where,” writes Ms. Tell. “Con­cert sa­loons fre­quented by ‘wait­resses’ op­er­ated all along Sixth Av­enue, one block to the east of Broad­way. Dozens of broth­els lined the side streets sur­round­ing the Broad­way the­aters.” Even up­scale lob­ster palaces traded on the neigh­bor­hood’s tawdry rep­u­ta­tion. “In a deluxe, rit­u­al­ized at­mos­phere, men and women drank, gam­bled in the private rooms up­stairs, gos­siped, flirted and made deals.”

Deals, in­deed — Times Square has al­ways been about money, com­mer­cial to its ap­ple core, so it was seemed right that the daz­zling new bill­boards quickly de­vel­oped into an en­tre­pre­neur­ial art form. Os­car J. Gude, a sign-hanger who had worked his way into the ad­ver­tis­ing de­part­ment of a soap man­u­fac­turer, pro­duced some of the ear­li­est and most imag­i­na­tive “spec­tac­u­lars,” the gi­gan­tic cin­e­matic light shows hawk­ing ev­ery­thing from pickles to pet­ti­coats. His pop­u­lar Heatherbloom girl, for ex­am­ple, swished her lu­mi­nous lin­gerie ev­ery few sec­onds to re­veal a tit­il­lat­ing an­kle.

“Gude’s net­work of signs dom­i­nated the rapidly grow­ing nightscape and helped cre­ate the ex­tra­or­di­nary vis­tas that sealed Times Square’s im­age as the shim­mer­ing cen­ter of Broad­way’s Great White Way,” writes Ms. Tell, not­ing that the lat­ter phrase was coined by a Philadel­phia news­pa­per­man to de­scribe the street’s bril­liance. “By 1911 or 1912, beau­ti­ful spec­tac­u­lars ap­peared to float against the evening sky as if on a stage set.”

Ms. Tell pro­vides nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of Gude’s work — the kit­ten toy­ing with a spool of Cor­ti­celli silk was his most en­dear­ing cre­ation — as well as his con­tem­po­raries, in­clud­ing Samuel “Roxy” Rothapfel and Mor­timer Nor­den, who en­vi­sioned the bea­con-like dis­plays that be­came de rigueur for movie palaces. She also ex­pli­cates the enor­mous in­flu­ence Chicago’s Columbian Ex­po­si­tion and, later, the New York World’s Fair had on Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, and she du­ti­fully chron­i­cles the changes brought by Pro­hi­bi­tion, the De­pres­sion and World War II.

Im­por­tant dates get due recog­ni­tion — the first New Year’s Eve ball dropped in 1907, the Times Tower’s news ticker de­buted in 1928 — as do oblig­a­tory but in­ter­est­ing sta­tis­tics. “The av­er­age sign had two miles of wiring,” she notes. “Sign rental rates . . . com­monly ex­ceeded in­te­rior rents by two or three times.”

But Ms. Tell, an ed­i­tor at the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s Archives of Amer­i­can Art, is most en­gag­ing when de­scrib­ing the work of an un- sung ge­nius named Douglas Leigh, who took out­door ad­ver­tis­ing to new heights, lit­er­ally, and cre­ated Times Square’s most fa­mous signs. A self­made sales­man born and raised in Alabama, Leigh sparked a sen­sa­tion with his first spec­tac­u­lar, a steam­ing cup of A&P Eight O’Clock cof­fee.

Spe­cial ef­fects be­came his trade­mark, em­ploy­ing state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy like neon gas and pho­to­cell banks to an­i­mate out­door com­mer­cials for Bal­lan­tine beer, Camel cig­a­rettes and Four Roses whiskey. He in­cor­po­rated foun­tains, sculp­ture, even live dance per­for­mances into his monumental drama­ti­za­tions.

His imag­i­na­tion ap­par­ently lim­it­less, Leigh con­ceived the Em­pire State Build­ing as a gi­ant cig­a­rette and fleets of fire­boats out­fit­ted with mul­ti­col­ored search­lights end­lessly cir­cling Man­hat­tan Is­land. “He en­vi­sioned some­thing be­yond ad­ver­tis­ing signs, more like city galas or world’s fair spec­ta­cles de­signed to ex­ploit the city’s street canyons, sky­scrapers, vis­tas of rooflines, and stray ae­rial perspectives,” writes Ms. Tell. “Leigh’s vi­sions show him to be a kind of en­vi­ron­men­tal artist avant la let­tre, see­ing Man­hat­tan as if from above as a site for su­per­scaled works.”

Later in his ca­reer, Leigh de­signed the dec­o­ra­tive light­ing that re­de­fined New York’s sky­line, light­ing up city land­marks like the Wal- dorf-As­to­ria, the Citi­corp Cen­ter and, most fa­mously, the Em­pire State Build­ing, start­ing a craze that spread across the coun­try.

Mean­while, how­ever, Times Square had de­volved into a gaunt­let of drug deal­ers and porn par­lors, and de­vel­op­ers were threat­en­ing to tear the whole lot down to make way for a cov­ered mall along 42nd Street and a mas­sive con­ven­tion cen­ter. The scheme was nixed by the Mu­nic­i­pal Art So­ci­ety, the very group that had vig­or­ously protested spec­tac­u­lars 50 years ear­lier.

Af­ter years of in­fight­ing, spec­u­la­tion and po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver­ing, through sev­eral real-es­tate booms and busts and nu­mer­ous com­mis­sions and stud­ies, Times Square rose from the dead, re­splen­dent with ren­o­vated the­aters, glasssheathed sky­scrapers, ki­netic video dis­plays and, above all else, cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship.

To­day, mid­town is safe, clean and fam­ily-ori­ented — Dis­ney­ized, to re­peat an oft-used pe­jo­ra­tive, a bustling sub­ur­ban shop­ping cen­ter lined with Toys “R” Us me­ga­s­tores and Hello Kitty bou­tiques, Loews and AMC mul­ti­plexes, Ap­ple­bee’s and McDon­ald’s, the same stuff Amer­i­cans can find any­where in the United States.

About all that re­mains of old Times Square is the Edison Cof­fee Shop on 47th Street, where the signs are dog-eared and hand-let­tered. There have been in­ter­est­ing at­tempts to re­vi­tal­ize the elec­tronic land­scape, in­clud­ing a sky­scraper erected at 49th Street and Sev­enth Av­enue fea­tur­ing a four-story video fa­cade in­tended for pub­lic art. The build­ing was bought by Lehman Brothers in 2001, which now uses the gi­ant bank of screens for cor­po­rate ad­ver­tis­ing.

Ms. Tell, how­ever, isn’t dis­cour­aged, be­liev­ing that Leigh, who died just be­fore the turn of the mil­len­nium, would have been pleased with its latest in­car­na­tion. “When he died in 1999,” she writes, “the square was again es­sen­tially the same fan­tas­tic ad­ver­tis­ing car­ni­val it had been be­fore its de­cline — a me­di­a­genic, il­lu­mi­nated blur of peo­ple, cars, lights and mov­ing elec­tric sur­faces.”

There is, yet, a dif­fer­ence: “Many of the hun­dreds of sign pro­duc­ers work­ing in Times Square made free out­door pro­grams that were care­fully timed, of­ten play­ing at a snappy, car­toony pace pitched to the av­er­age passerby. By con­trast, to­day’s signs are a blend of prod­uct, re­tail, and in­creas­ingly sen­sa­tional cor­po­rate in­for­ma­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.” Can it be pos­si­ble we miss the kitsch?

Rex Roberts is a writer, ed­i­tor and graphic de­signer liv­ing in New York City.

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