Ghosts of 42nd Street

Ghosts of 42nd Street

by Anthony Bianco

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Imagine shuffling down Broadway through the hustle and bustle right into the nonstop, neon heart of New York City: 42nd Street.

Once a quiet neighborhood of brownstones and churches, the area wastransformed in the early 1900s into an entertainment hub unlike any in theworld. No place has ever evoked the glamour and romantic possibility of bigcity nightlife as

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Imagine shuffling down Broadway through the hustle and bustle right into the nonstop, neon heart of New York City: 42nd Street.

Once a quiet neighborhood of brownstones and churches, the area wastransformed in the early 1900s into an entertainment hub unlike any in theworld. No place has ever evoked the glamour and romantic possibility of bigcity nightlife as vividly as did 42nd Street. It was the dazzle of "naughty, bawdy, gaudy" 42nd Street that put Times Square on the map and turned the Broadway theater district into the Great White Way. Ghosts of 42nd Street stirs your imagination as it takes you on a historical journey of this glamorized strip still known today as the Crossroads of the World. From the bold innovations of Oscar Hammerstein and Florenz Ziegfeld through the porn-laden 1960s and 1970s to the present-day "Disneyfication" of New York's bright lights district, Ghosts of 42nd Street is as fascinating as a tabloid frozen in time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Business writer Bianco (Rainmaker: The Saga of Jeff Beck, Wall Street's Mad Dog) evokes many wonderful "ghosts" in his moving and dramatic story of the block that runs between Broadway and Eighth Avenue on 42nd Street (although the book is about the entire Times Square area). He starts with impresario Oscar Hammerstein, the German immigrant who built 10 splendid theaters in Manhattan between 1888 and 1914 (and whose fame was eventually eclipsed by that of his grandson, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II). With dry humor and an admirable lack of sentimentality, the author surveys 42nd Street/Times Square from its heyday as an entertainment center, through its long decline, to its recent revival despite greedy promoters and reluctant politicians, whom he's not loath to name. Some readers may feel Bianco goes into too much financial detail about the deals that led to Disney and others transforming the street into the family-friendly place it is today, but theater lovers will find his comprehensive account the perfect house seat to a glorious past and a promising future. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Esther Newberg. (Apr. 13) FYI: Since 2004 is the centennial year of Times Square (formerly Longacre Square), it's no surprise to find another title on the same subject, James Traub's The Devil's Playground: A Century of Profit and Pleasure in Times Square (Forecasts, Feb. 16). Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Crisp, sociable cultural paleontology of New York City's fabled crossroads. In its heyday, 42nd Street was "the quintessence of the quintessential American metropolis-excessive, expensive, unpredictable, loud, fun, and a bit dangerous," Business Week staffer Bianco (The Reichmanns, 1997, etc.) writes. But not so expensive that it wouldn't serve as the birthplace of mass-market entertainment high and low, as the swath of theaters mixed comfortably with the naughty, bawdy, and gaudy, the classy burlesques tuned so as not to offend middle-class proprieties. What elevated 42nd Street above pure spectacle, explains Bianco in his always clear voice, was that it was not just a showbiz mecca, but also the home of the New York Times, a gathering place for civic events, a work of public art with its swirl of lights from the electronic signs and billboards. Pausing only to provide zesty portraits of significant players on the scene, from Oscar Hammerstein to the Disney Corporation, Bianco carefully digs down through the street's various layers: the closing of the theaters due to the Depression; its tenure as a haven for B movies; its sleazy apotheosis in the 1970s, when "42nd Street and the rest of Times Square had become so extreme in their degradation, so utterly despoiled, that they were perversely appealing." Then he tackles a more subtle and complex issue. When the city government ineptly flexed its muscles in an attempt to cauterize the Street's past, countervailing forces sparked by the Playwrights Horizons theater company sought to protect the ancient haunts from disappearing down the maw of corporate development. Will this harbinger of downtown rebirth reflect the government's politicallycynical notions about redevelopment, Bianco asks, or will it bespeak "private citizens practicing an organic kind of urban renewal, one small-scale project at a time"? The Deuce is where the city never sleeps, and this sharp blend of analysis and visualization keeps it jumping. (16-page b&w photo insert, not seen)Agent: Esther Newberg/ICM

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Ghosts of 42nd Street

A History of America's Most Infamous Block
By Bianco, Anthony

William Morrow & Company

ISBN: 0688170897

Fathers of Times Square

By all rights, Times Square should have been called Oscar Hammerstein Square. Hammerstein opened the first theater in what would become Times Square -- the magnificent, doomed Olympia -- in 1895, a full nine years before the New York Times moved into the neighborhood and bestowed its name upon it. In fact, by the time that the newspaper occupied its slender tower on 42nd Street in 1904, Hammerstein had completed two more theaters in the area, the Theatre Republic and the hugely successful Victoria. Times Square would have become the new theater center of America even if Hammerstein had never left Berlin; geography is destiny. But the fact is that the German-born impresario got there first, years ahead of his rivals, and planted the flag of glamorous fun in a part of Midtown Manhattan that had been defined by its many odiferous horse stables and brazen pickpockets and prostitutes. The mad brilliance of Hammerstein's genre-spanning pioneering went a long way toward establishing 42nd Street's intersection with Seventh Avenue and Broadway as the hub of the liveliest and most celebrated entertainment district the world has ever known. Hammerstein was hailed during his lifetime as the "Father of Times Square," but awareness of his seminal contribution faded after his death in 1919, and today he has been all but forgotten. He not only was denied the immortality that "Hammerstein Square" would have vouchsafed him, but he even lost pride of place within his own family as his fame was eclipsed by that of his grandson and namesake, Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics to many of the greatest Broadway musicals of the 1940s and 1950s.

That Oscar the elder could ever have been consigned to anonymity would have astounded his contemporaries. "In his heyday," wrote one biographer, "he was perhaps the best known man in the United States after the President." This has the ring of hyperbole, but coverage of Hammerstein's exploits was indeed a front-page staple of journalism in New York City for three decades. Hammerstein was not a modern celebrity, which is to say that his fame was solidly grounded in accomplishment. In his day, he was far and away the city's leading theater builder. Between 1888 and 1914, Hammerstein constructed ten theaters in Manhattan, most of which were spectacularly grand, yet all but one were located on the outer edge of established entertainment districts. Hammerstein also was New York's most daring and versatile impresario during this span. At a time of increasing segregation between high and low culture, he ranged across the full spectrum of entertainment, flouting category and classification with impunity while providing performers of all sorts with their proverbial big break. Hammerstein's passion -- his obsession, really -- was grand opera, and yet he also was acclaimed as the greatest vaudeville promoter of the 1890s. A more polished and family-friendly version of the ribald variety shows that had long been staged in saloons, vaudeville emerged in the 1870s and 1880s as America's most popular form of entertainment until the advent of the Hollywood movie in the 1920s.

In contrast to most rival impresarios, who were businessmen first, last, and always, Hammerstein was a polymath who put profit second. Conservatory-trained in violin and piano, he was a prolific if undistinguished composer, adept in many different musical genres. On a bet, he once wrote a three-act comic opera -- The Kohinoor -- in forty-eight hours and presented it onstage to hilarious effect. The opening-night audience "laughed themselves blue in the face" at the opening chorus, which consumed a third of the first act, one critic observed. "Two comic Jews, alternatively for half an hour, sang 'Good morning, Mr. Morganstern, Good morning, Mr. Isaacstein,' while the orchestra shifted harmonics to avoid too much monotony." Hammerstein collected on his $100 wager but happily lost $10,000 on the production. Although Hammerstein had no training in architecture, he designed all of the theaters that he built, displaying a particular talent for the nuances of acoustics. He also was a prolific mechanical inventor who seemed able to devise some clever new contraption at will -- or at least whenever he needed a big chunk of money. In 1895, an exceptionally fruitful year, Hammerstein was awarded thirty-eight patents, most of them related to the construction of the Olympia theater complex.

In business, Hammerstein had the Midas touch. He was an instant success both as trade journal publisher and real estate speculator, as well as vaudeville promoter. But money per se meant nothing to Hammerstein. Three times he made his fortune, three times he blew it on impossibly ambitious opera schemes, dying penniless at seventy-three. When Oscar II, who was born in 1895, was a boy he rarely saw his grandfather but felt his influence hanging heavily. "Members of the family had referred to him always as 'the old man.' They spoke of his predilection for grand opera as if it were a sickness. They told funny stories about him," the lyricist recalled. "To my child's ear, sensitive more to inflections than to the specific meaning of words, it was evident that my father, my aunts and uncles, and my stepgrandmother, his second wife, were all afraid of him. That made me afraid of him, too. It was equally evident to me that in a shy and guarded way they loved him."

Hammerstein endeared himself to the New York masses by adopting egalitarian admission and seating policies at many of his venues and by pricing his attractions to the working-class budget. He also did flamboyant battle with many of New York City's most powerful and elitist cultural institutions, refusing most notably to pay truck either to the Metropolitan Opera or the Theatrical Syndicate, which was to entertainment at the turn of the century what Standard Oil was to petroleum. In sum, Hammerstein vividly personified the American dream for several generations of European immigrants ...


Excerpted from Ghosts of 42nd Street by Bianco, Anthony Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Anthony Bianco is a senior writer at Business Week. He is the author of two books, The Reichmanns: Family, Faith, Fortune and the Empire of the Olympia & York and Rainmaker: The Saga of Jeff Beck, Wall Street's Mad Dog. He lives in New York City.

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