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.
eclipsed by Wal-Mart, which also sold toys as commodities, but sold them even cheaper. Toys “R” Us hired Eyler in 2000 with the hope of regaining the market share it had lost. Eyler recognized that Toys “R” Us could not compete with Wal-Mart on price and instead needed to forge a new and distinctive identity, more service-oriented, more fun, more dramatic. Eyler and his team retrained salespeople, changed the layout of stores, forged exclusive relationships with prestigious suppliers like Steven
commercial. The images bore an intentionally tangential, sometimes almost a mocking, relationship to their sponsor. The piggybanks and the apples constituted a wry, children’s-book version of the global marketplace in which Morgan operated. Kevin Kennon, the architect chiefly responsible for the sign, was delighted to see that people would walk by the building, look up, startled, and then stand and stare, as they had half a century earlier, in the glory days of the spectacular. Kennon had hoped
mustered. In fact, he christened the block behind the Palace Theatre “Dream Street.” There, he wrote, “you see burlesque dolls, and hoofers, and guys who write songs, and saxophone players, and newsboys, and newspaper scribes, and taxi drivers, and blind guys, and midgets, and blondes with Pomeranians, or maybe French poodles, and guys with whiskers, and nightclub entertainers, and I do not know what else.” And all of them “sit on the stoops or lean against the railings of Dream Street, and the
the songs people played on the piano at parties. Think of just a few of the songs from the shows listed above: “Beautiful Mornin’,” “June Is Busting Out All Over,” “Too Darn Hot,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Old Devil Moon,” “Almost Like Being in Love.” Only a few musicals took anything like the thematic risks associated with serious Broadway theater. Most of them were fantasies designed to reaffirm the conventional world of the viewer. Beautiful girls walk
burger and you go to a movie.” This was, of course, the same street where, according to The Times, bored teenagers had chased a man to his death on the subway tracks a few years earlier; but now it was seen in a different light. To the critics, the 42nd Street plan was an urban nightmare they thought had long since been put to rest—“a back-from-the-dead example of the thoroughly discredited bulldozer urban renewal of the 1960s,” in the words of the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. Thomas