Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Shubert Theater

February 1988

June 2007

Not much really changes in the theater district over the years. Since the destruction of the original Helen Hayes theater in 1982 (where I saw my first Broadway show in the summer of 1977, a matinee of Equus, with Leonard Nimoy) most Broadway houses now enjoy New York City landmark status. This will (in theory) keep them from becoming skyscraper hotels, like the Hayes.

Landmark status usually means the building owners can't make alterations to the exterior of the structure without prior approval of the Landmarks Commission. This stricture would normally include any signage on the buildings, though I think because of changing productions, the theaters get a pass as long as the style remains the same. Like a lot of theaters, the Shubert uses the distinctive open-faced 'bare-bulb' type lettering for its shows.

The Shubert Theater opened in September of 1913.
It was named for Sam S. Shubert, who was killed in a train crash in 1905 at the age of 26. According to the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) the theater opened with eight productions in repertory. These eight shows, including three Shakespeare plays, ran a total of three months. (Repertory was not unusual for this theater, as October of 1919 saw three more of the bard's plays in rep, and March of 1930 saw nine plays in rep.)

Interestingly, those first eight shows opened on March 24th and ran for exactly three weeks. (Hmmmm...eight shows a week for three weeks makes 24 performances of nine shows for a total of 2.6 performances each. The IBDB doesn't go into much detail on this, and after 77 years I doubt anything new will turn up.) The Shubert then hosted its first musical, Three Little Girls; it ran for 109 performances.

But while Shakespeare never had a long run here, A Chorus Line ran for 6,137 performances, a record for the time, and still had more than two years to go when our first picture was taken in February of 1988. As you can see, even the cabs in New York were in sorry shape back then. Shubert Alley, the ‘heart of the theater district’ is to the right, leading to 46 Street and the adjacent Booth Theater, built at the same time as the Shubert.

Advertising posters now cover both outer walls of the theater, and the zipper display above the door is mercifully gone. I'll assume the wall posters are there with the blessing of the Landmarks Commission, and probably the encouragement of the Times Square BID.

I was always amused by the awning. It's at a ninety degree angle to the building, and a forty-five degree angle to the door. I also think it's the only canvas awning over the sidewalk of a legitimate Broadway theater.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Moondance Diner

August 1985

June 2007

If you're on Sixth Avenue near Canal Street, and you have a hankering for pancakes, I suggest you head up to Grand Street and stop in at the Moondance Diner. I'm not sure when it opened, (the NYC building department shows a structure here since 1972) but it was the Moondance when I first saw it, and remains so to this day. They had good food back then, and, though I didn't stop in this time, I remember fabulous pancakes, and coffee with a touch of cinnamon.

The brick wall of the building behind the diner still shows the outline of whatever stood on Sixth Avenue's corner in the years before the Moondance took occupancy here. The earlier photo shows the bottom of a mural which has been supplanted by what looks to be a conventional billboard in the current image

I also figure if the cops are eating there it must still be good. Although, as we'll see very soon, and very surprisingly, change often occurs quite rapidly.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

42 The River/The new New Amsterdam

July 1988

June 2007

It all comes back to 42nd Street, it seems. No matter which neighborhood we talk of in this changing city, the poster child of New York transformation remains one of the thoroughfares that make up the fabled crossroads of America.

We have two views this week, the first ones show us the Deuce at just about its nadir early on an overcast summer morning. David Dinkins was mayor, crack was king, and New York was on its way to a then-record 2,244 murders. (The record of 2,605 was set two years later.)

The New Amsterdam theater figures prominently in both pictures; by 1988 this original home of the Ziegfeld Follies had been abandoned for six years, and would fester for another five before being taken over by the city and state, then restored, at a cost of over $34 million, by Disney. Next to it, the building housing the Roxy theater would be replaced twice: in 1997 by a Disney store that served as an exit from the New Amsterdam (typical Disney marketing: leave the theater through the retail store) and finally by the Ernst and Young skyscraper in 2000. And while Kung Fu movies are hard to come by in Times Square these days, somewhere there's a steak vulcanizing at Tad’s.

People lament the 'Disneyfication' of 42nd street, but that term is misleading. Disney works its magic at 4/5th of life size: that's the scale that every single Main Street USA structure is built to. Disney does its best stuff working from the ground up. Times Square is more of a Potemkin village: fresh facades on century-old office blocks alongside the brand-new and easily-altered structures of steel and glass.

Of course, the street itself is another giveaway: Main Street USA never has to deal with any kind of real vehicular traffic upon its surface, nor does it act as part of the roof of one of the worlds largest subway stations, either. Times Square has not been Disneyfied. Especially not with all that litter in the street.

So all of the billions of dollars sunk into these blocks, private and public money alike, seem to have produced little more than overdone cosmetics. A recent Sunday morning finds as forlorn a scene as witnessed two decades before, now the gaudy neon pierces the softness of the early light like a lipstick smear on a chorus girl, the street litter scattered like mascara flakes on her cheeks.

I love the vanishing point perspective of the pictures on the left, and I especially like the shirt hanging from the lamp post in the top one. Note the lamp posts as they march in a line down the vanishing point in both pictures, broken in the newer shot with a new mid-block traffic signal. Prominent in the hazy black-and-white background you can see the McGraw-Hill building and the east tower of the Manhattan Plaza apartments. New apartment towers have joined the Plaza today, and the Madam Tussard's sign obscures the green deco tower.

And because I love vanishing point pictures, here's another relevant one, from October of 1988:

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Grand and Greene

June 1986

June 2007

I think of this scene as one where nothing has really changed, but actually everything has, and for the better. At least, for the better as long as you're not the one who has to pay the rents in this now-chic area.

Grand Street was a retail neighborhood in '88; a good place for home goods and furnishings at decent prices. Narrow sidewalks, with displays and wares spilling out of the storefronts, it, while not quite the mess that Canal Street has always been, has still never had the overall variety of goods that were to be found on Canal. (Rule of thumb: If you can't find it on Canal Street, it either doesn't exist, or, you probably didn't need it anyway.)

Grand is still a retail mecca, although the merchandise is a lot more upscale these days. It was good to see this corner in better shape now than the way it was 21 years ago, when the city couldn't seem to be bothered to even paint crosswalks on the pavement.

Today the streets have been repaved, and the sidewalks redone, the building's been painted, obliterating
the graffiti, and the dumpster is gone. The trash bin has a liner now, but the streetlamp has only been repainted; and its street signs replaced with the NYC standard for historic districts, white on brown.