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.
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.