History of The Square and The Deuce (part one)

 Times Square and the Deuce 

Ain’t nothing square ‘round there.”

Street Hustler

Times Square Building early 1900.

Times Square got its name from the cheese wedge-shaped building situated at the intersection of Seventh Avenue, 1475 Broadway and 42nd St. There THE NEW YORK TIMES newspaper called the crossroads building home from 1904 until 1913. The Times building is what most people associate with Times Square’s long tradition of dropping the NewYear’s lighted ball. Tracer lights race in ticker tape fashion around an upper floor sign with current news and stock updates. The area North of the Times building, the “Bowtie”, up to 49th St., comprises most of the bright light advertising and tourist businesses that make up this particular area called “the crossroads of the world.” 

The “Grid” refers to the main section of Manhattan where streets are laid out like a football field with Broadway cutting diagonally from the bottom of the island and running up to the Harlem River. Originally Broadway was an Indian trail that connected Manhattan Island with the Boston Post Road trade route to New England. Manhattan Island has long been the point of trade for Long Island, New Jersey, New England and beyond. Interestingly enough, Native Americans traded not only in pelts, food, baskets, and weapons but also in a currency called Wampum recognized nationwide by the native Americans.

Whampom belt

Made from a small rare purple shell into an ornate belt, these conk like shells were found only on Long Island. They were much prized by all the tribes as a currency. The main place the Wampum Belts were traded is in the same area that is now Wall Street.

 Some things are consistent about New York City, George Clinton, the first Governor of New York, was known to dress in women’s clothes and parade around the ramparts on the southern tip of the Island. A prelude to the sexualy liberated Manhattanites.

The fable of Peter Minuit buying the Island from the Lenape Indians for $24 dollars is true, except the tribe that sold him the property did not live on the island but in what is now Yonkers, north of the Bronx. The tribe was passing through at the time Minuit encountered them, they had no concept of the European idea of owning land. They, no doubt, thought the beads and hatchets were gifts from Minuit.

Times Square is the focal point on Manhattan Island. It has been the epicenter of trade and commerce since the Native Americans Wigwams, situated on a dusty footpath used the junction for trade.   Just as major cities grew because of some geographical advantage, a sheltered harbor, a river or a trail intersection, so did Times Square develop into a major trade point because of the intersection of avenues and because most subways, built in the nineteenth century, converged there. Located in what is the center of the grid, Times Square, was a natural place for people and merchandise to be transferred to other modes of transportation. At the tip of the west end of 42nd Street, a ferry moved people and goods across the Hudson River to Weehawken, New Jersey. There the Lincoln Highway began and connected the East to the West Coast 3,000 miles away, terminating at Lincoln Park, San Francisco.  Originally called Long Acre Square, Times Square was the natural place for restaurants, bars, theatres, and shops of every description to converge around the hub of the city. By 1900, it was the center of the entertainment trade in Manhattan.

The sophisticated East end of 42nd St is in sharp contrast to the raunchy West end’s entertainment quarter, East is polite, West is promiscuous. East is NY Public library, Grand Central Station and the United Nations building on the edge of the East River. West is humanized and fun. Sex and grease are synonymous with 42nd St, sleaze and french fries go together well.

Forty-second Street gave birth to the catchphrase “The Deuce”.

As the city grew the abiding reputation of New York is synonymous with crime. From the days of Five Corners, one of the roughest places on earth, the broken down bums of the Bowery, the grit has been part of the grid. The eventual glitter of Times Square, the scaly underbelly of New York City and the highly polished veneer at the top have attracted hucksters and hacks, genuine’s and geniuses, all depositing their residue on the island.     

In the Deuce, you might be hoodwinked by any number of cons; scams are common. Murphy Games, where a fast-talking con artist gets you to hold money for him, then the slight of hand trickster switches his money for yours. This was the gag that was used in The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman.  George C. Parker did actually sell the Brooklyn Bridge to some gullible buyers. Parker convinced suckers or “marks” that they could make a fortune charging tolls with bridge access barriers. Even Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Sherman, who wrote the novel TIMES SQUARE, was able to shift ownership of the Empire State building into his own name. In this case, he was illustrating how simple it is to take over someone else’s property with a little skullduggery and some poorly forged papers.

Forty-second  Street, west of Broadway and Seventh Ave spurred an outcropping of theaters in the 1910’s and 20’s.

Longacre Square at Broadway and 42nd St., which is now Times Square. Horse drawn carriages drive in the street. On the left, a theater sign advertises “burlesque, ballet and varieties”

This was before the Great Depression and business was booming. Broadway shows and Vaudeville were popular entertainment and just a subway ride from any borough. Dance halls or Taxi Halls, as they were known, plus Vaudeville shows abounded.  Entertainment is one business that has always done well during financial downturns. Even though the country was brought to its knees in 1928, when Wall Street crashed, theaters still managed to supply the relief people sought to escape the grim conditions that were imposed on most of the country.

A lot of live entertainment houses along 42nd St. and in Times Square were turned into movie palaces. Motion pictures were an inexpensive way to run an affordable enterprise that people could enjoy and escape the drudgery of everyday life.

Once TV became popular after World War II, a new dilemma faced the successful operation of movie houses. Films now competed with the cathode-ray tube of television. Theaters on 42nd  St. weren’t getting the first run blockbuster movies anymore in the early Fifties. Big release films originally built those Celluloid Palaces but the suburban sprawl movie houses post-WWII impacted greatly the former gothic playhouses.  Hollywood “B” movies and foreign films took the place of first-run films.

The iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made his debut on 42nd St. with the risqué MONIKA, THE STORY OF A BAD GIRL (1953). Bergman owed his American entrée to no other than Kroger Babb, who exaggerated the promise of seeing more than was actually delivered in a skinny-dipping scene. 

One advantage theaters had was the introduction of air conditioning; a big plus for theaters as the TV set preceded the home air conditioner by a decade.

 Because of the heavy traffic in the Square, there was every type of vice available, and since the trains, buses, and cabs all led to Times Square, the merchants plied whatever they could to capitalize on the throngs of customers that were looking for any diversion that the big city had to offer. Different theaters got reputations as the place to see skin. Tame at first and then progressively more explicit over the years, they became more and more bold, until one could see the most graphic sexploitation available in the country. Some of the theaters became pick-up parlors for both gay and straight’s and most movie houses ran films until 4:00AM. Not all of the theaters were sex-oriented, and one could see very good foreign films there inexpensively.

I worked on a film with director Chuck Vincent in Italy in the 80’s.“The film is showing in a theatre on 42nd St., where tickets are cheap and life is cheaper”, a film reviewer quipped in his review of WARRIOR QUEEN, with Sybil Danning, and Donald Pleasence. 

I was staying with a friend from college when I first moved to New York, and when his girlfriend moved in, I moved out. I slept, like many homeless persons, in the 42nd St. theaters at night for a few nights until I found another place to stay. I saw a lot of movies and slept through a lot more. It was easier in those days to find a job than an apartment.

By 1970, Times Square was considered the sleaze capital of the world. Pimps, prostitutes, bookstores, and bars abounded. Any pleasure one was looking for, be it sex, drugs or just plain entertainment could be found on the “Deuce”. Eighth Avenue north of 42nd Street became the underbelly of the Square, and flourished with Peep shows, Bookstores, XXX-rated movie houses and cheap bars and hotels that ran up as far North as 50th  Street. This comprised the main action “square” back to Broadway one block east. At one point there were so many prostitutes along Eighth, that an inept person was said to: “Not to be able to get laid on Eighth Ave. with a fist full of fifties.”

There have always been a lot of runaway teens that disembarked just south of 42nd Street from the steady stream of buses that flow into the Port Authority Bus Station.  At one point during the 70’s, a section of Eighth Avenue from 42nd  Street was called the “Minnesota Strip”, because so many teen runaways found themselves turning tricks along that stretch of the avenue. It was commonly believed that there was a rash of kids coming to NYC from Minnesota. In reality what was happening was that a vice squad detective, Vinnie from Brown Goose, Minnesota, talked so much about returning home to go fishing, the kids he was busting, who never gave their real name or hometown when booked, started using Brown Goose as a goof. The cops couldn’t figure out why such a small mid-western town was having such a large juvenile runaway problem.

Rudy Giuliani, while serving as district attorney for NYC, led a concerted effort to “clean up” Times Square. As the self-proclaimed abature of morality, initiated sex trade “zones” away from the Square and to some extent was successful in his bid to sanitize the Time Square area. Today most of the former grit is gone and the area has taken on the glass and chrome structures familiar to most large cities worldwide. The unique quality of New York’s Times Square has been replaced with sterile buildings but in time they too will become old and possibly create a new kind of “Funky Broadway”.

Both books are for sale in print or e-book at Amazon.com. 


All other electronic formats can be purchased at Smashwords.com.


~ by Larry Revene on December 2, 2017.

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