I screen). Though published in 1932, it was
- apparently written about 1929, depicting an already vanished Manhattan of bald-headed millionaire sugar daddies, ready to bankroll lavish musicals to showcase their gold-digging girlfriends. This was the lost New York reﬂected not only in the 1933 film, but also in countless other 305 movies, which continued to celebrate a city that no longer existed offscreen.
Between 1899 and 1920, thirteen theatres opened in that one block. Of the nine still standing, by far the most elaborate was the magnificent New Amsterdam, now closed, which. though declared a landmark by both city and state, is also the most sadly dilapidated. This was the home of Ziegfeld’s Follies and was topped by the Roof, scene of the famous Midnight l Frolics, where stars like Maurice Chevalier would appear after their regular performances I elsewhere.
Its neighbours on the same side of the street |
include the Liberty, where the Astaires danced in Gershwin’s Lady be Good ( 1924). Among straight plays, at the Harris in 1922, John Barrymore first performed his famous Hamlet. .‘ At the Empire . Claudette Colbert appeared in Elmer Rice’s See Naples and Die ( 1929). On the north side of the same block, at the Selwyn. Noel Coward starred in his own revue, This Year ofGrace (1928). In the incredible last
. .3! ‘3, HEAT”. ., .. f ,, y a. ‘C". I ’ ‘1’ " ,1 I, 3.. I '6,
A scene tram the great days at Broadway.
AS David Merrick’s ; ven the most casual New York visitor Week 0f December 1927, 00165801811 CICVCD [amorous extrava anza must wonder whythe classic 1933 film shows opened on Broadway on 26 December g g musical, and its 1980 adaptation as David alone. NO WOHdef 8” fifteen New York 42nd Street Opens at ‘ Merrick’s long-running stage hit, should newspapers had to retain several drama critics.
On 27 December, the immortal Show Boat premiered, the same night as Philip Barry’s drawing-room comedy, Paris Bound. The following night The Royal Family (said to be
be named after 42nd Street. ofall unlikely Manhattan streets. True, starting at the East River. near the United Nations. the famous
Edinburgh’s Playhouse Theatre, native New Yorker and author,
Roger Dooley, draws
back the curtain to shed
a little light on this most celebrated
crosstown thoroughfare passes stately beaax arts landmarks like Grand Central at Park Avenue and the New York Public Library at 5th. In the still-respectable block between 5th and 6th Avenues. on the south side. the Graduate Center ofthe City University of New York faces Bryant Park (now being rehabilitated) behind the Library. Between 6th and 7th Avenues, one begins to see too many fast food outlets. discount shops and others perpetually ‘going out of business’.
But beyond Times Square. between 7th and 8th Avenues, the lurid block best known to the world oh, what a falling offis there! At one point in the 80s. this single block contained 32 peep shows and pornographic book stores, 21 XXX-rated movies, fifteen live nude shows and topless bars and 27 massage parlours — not to mention all the street hustlers, con artists, pimps and their teenage prostitutes of both sexes. and those openly buying or peddling drugs. An asphalt jungle ofurban squalor. even worse than anything shown in John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. it made the seediest street in London’s Soho look, by comparison. as well groomed as Mayfair. Despite periodic clean-up attempts and a decade of studies. reports. announcements ofgrandiose plans and lawsuits by current theatre owners against the forces of renewal, nothing so far has actually been accomplished.
Yet these same shabby. neglected theatres, which, ifstill open at all. now show horror films, kung fu epics or at best second-run features, once housed so many musicals that 42nd Street: even more than Broadway itself, came to symbolise the American musical stage.
The title 42nd Street was first used by Bradford Ropes for his frankly sexy novel (which included a number ofrelationships that even before the Production Code could not be shown on the
based on the Barrymores) opened at the Selwyn. At the Lyric, built in 1902, the Marx Brothers made their Broadway debut in The Coconuts (1925), and Cole Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen opened in 1929.
In the 70s both the Lyric and the Apollo were re-opened as stage theatres, with entrances on 43rd Street. but they did not prosper. The Times Square. built in 1910 for movies and vaudeville, was later used for plays like The Front Page (1928).
What started the long decline was Prohibition, which closed the profitable bars in the affiliated cabarets and roofs of some of the theatres - and yet they all hung on throughout the 19205. But the Wall Street crash of 1929 wiped out so many producers and backers that they could no longer afford to finance expensive shows. Unkindest cut of all, talkies were soon perfected, drawing a whole generation oftalented actors, writers and directors to Hollywood, usually for good.
At the same time, the Depression-stricken public saw no reason to pay as much as $6.60 a seat for a Broadway musical, which only a year or so later they would see, perhaps in Technicolor, with the original stars. at local movie theatres for less than a dollar. Thus in the 30s, 42nd Street was taken over by cheap dance halls, tawdry burlesque houses and penny arcades. And yet, as with the ‘one brief, shining hour’ of Camelot, to an older generation of theatre-goers who ‘hear the beat ofdancing feet’, ‘where the underworld can meet the elite’, the very name of‘naughty, gaudy. sporty. bawdy 42nd Street’ can still evoke the fabulous 20s, when the American theatre first reached its dazzling height. 42nd Street runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse from Thurs I 3 Dec to Sat 16 Feb. See Theatre listings for details.
The List 7 — 20 December 1990 9