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42nd Street in the twentieth century

Related: New York - red light disctrict

The "Main Stem" in the 50s. Note the two near-nude statues flanking the giant signage for Bond Clothes (upper center).
image sourced here.

42nd Street

42nd Street is a major crosstown street in the New York City borough of Manhattan, known for its theaters, especially near the intersection with Broadway at Times Square. It is also the name of the region of the theater district (and, at times, the red-light district) near that intersection. 42nd Street has held a special place in New York lingo since at least the turn of the twentieth century. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/42nd_Street [Jun 2005]

Times Square

Times Square, named after the one-time headquarters of The New York Times, is a neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan, New York City, which centers on 42nd Street and Broadway. It consists of the blocks between Sixth and Ninth Avenue from east to west and 39th and 52nd Streets from south to north. It makes up the western part of the commercial area of Midtown Manhattan.

Times Square quickly grew as a cultural hub full of theaters, music halls, and fancy hotels. "Times Square quickly became New York's agora, a place to gather both to await great tidings and to celebrate them, whether a World Series or a presidential election," writes James Traub in The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square. Names such as Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, and Charlie Chaplin were closely associated with Times Square in the 1910s and 1920s.

The atmosphere changed with the onset of the Great Depression during the 1930s. Times Square became a neighborhood full of "peep shows", erotic all-night movie houses, and stores selling cheap tourist merchandise. It was considered a dangerous neighborhood by many. The seediness of Times Square was a famous symbol of New York City's danger and corruption during the period from the 1960s until the 1990s. Influential and dark films such as Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver had many scenes in Times Square. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Times_Square [Jan 2005]

Times Square Smut [...]

By the end of World War II, Times Square was a general entertainment area in which tourists, young people on dates, gamblers, con men, street preachers, taxi dancers, frequenters of bars, prostitutes, panhandlers, readers of smut and fans of movie sex and violence all mingled. It had become a rival of Coney Island in providing energetic and raffish amusement for a mass audience. The media, politicians and clergy deplored the “honky tonk” atmosphere just as strongly as they did the hard core sleaze of the late 70s and 80s. Even in its most sinister state, many imaginative people–artists, predators, thinkers, even mystics--went to Times Square, with the promise of victims, converts, comrades, the release of sexual tension, and an escape from “should” and “ought to” very much on their minds. It was the outsiders’ America, and from it you could look up at the hard driving, busy, fashionable one as at a oversized billboard proclaiming gratification of the successful citizens’ needs. Down at street level, amidst the noise, con men, greasy food odors, and street people of many countries, colors, and social classes, you looked around, checked out what you were here for, wondering what you might experience, whether you wanted to or not. In that mood, you might duck into one of the bookstores or back date magazine shops. --Jay A. Gertzman, 2004 via http://home.earthlink.net/~jgertzma/BkshopsofTimesSq/ [Jan 2005]

Peep Shows [...]

Steven Ziplow wrote the 1977 book The Film Maker's Guide to Pornography. He writes: "I recently took a stroll around the area of 42nd street and 8th avenue in New York City, stopping to view a few peep shows whenever the urge hit me. It appears to me that the demand in this area seems to border on the bizarre and unnatural. At least 50% of the peep shows boasted of explicit sexual acts between women and animals. Older stag films are also put to good use. It is not unusual to see a sign advertising a stag film made by some great star in her leaner years. In one week alone I saw promotions for loops supposedly starring such names as Barbara Streisand and a collector's item, an early Jayne Mansfield.

Grindhouse Cinema [...]

Avon Theaters, New York (1960s - 1983)

Avon specialized in high frequency adult films that premiered at their string of theaters pocketed throughout Times Square.

Avon Theaters first gained a widespread reputation when they gave Andy Warhol films including My Hustler (1965), Vinyl (1965) and Flesh (1968) their first big commercial runs when they were still considered racy in the mid 1960s.

The homosexual elements of underground films proved to be a boxoffice draw, so Stella and Murray opened New York's first all-male theater, the Park Miller, on 43rd Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway. The Park Miller cut a striking figure in the gay lib Mattachine Society era of the late 1960s, with its three balconies and heavy sexual activity. It premiered Pat Rocco's softcore Hollywood shorts, and also presented packages of Kenneth Anger films for the cruise minded audience. --Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, http://www.alphabluearchives.com/avon.html [Jan 2005]

Avon Theaters took a cue from Oh! Calcutta!'s nudity on the Broadway stage and integrated it with Murray's grainy memories of pre-Castro Havana live sex shows. Avon struck Deuce gold when they presented New York's first live exhibition of male-female sexual activity. Early porno chic superstars Jamie Gillis, Marc ("Mr 10-1/2") Stevens and Tina and Jason Russell initiated their careers with hardcore loops and these simulated shows. You cold drop a quarter in a peep booth and then walk down 42nd Street to see the same people live on stage. Absurd socially redeeming interludes like Jamie Gillis naked, reciting Shakespeare, were used as a shield against vice raids.

By 1973 the live shows turned hardcore. --Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, http://www.alphabluearchives.com/avon.html [Jan 2005]

Fiorello Henry La Guardia

42nd Street: At the Crossroads

An excerpt from "Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World"

by Marc Eliot

The legendary La Guardia crackdown on 42nd Street was intended to make an example of those whose moral breakdown had helped to depress the city economically. One by one he personally padlocked the street's notorious burlesque houses, strip joints, game parlors, and houses of prostitution, among them the China Doll, Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, the Latin Quarter, the Versailles, and the Paradise. Such was La Guardia's at times juvenile manner that often, when speeding down the street holding on to the side of a racing fire engine, he'd stick his tongue out at whatever club owners happened to be standing outside, or raise his thumb to his nose and wiggle his fingers. He also removed 42nd Street's traditional trolley cars, because, he angrily declared, they were too provocative, allowing women's dresses to blow above their knees, and besides they slowed down his beloved fire trucks.

He made fingerprinting of all employees mandatory, outlawed such indigenous rituals as penny gin-rummy card games in the back rooms of restaurants, and threw audits on virtually every nightclub on the street, causing many to go out of business when they couldn't pay their exorbitant tax bills.

La Guardia's grandstand destruction of the shady side of 42nd Street resulted in his accomplishing little more than driving the strip shows, the gambling, the bootlegging, and the prostitution literally and figuratively ever further underground. With burlesque, for example, nothing much changed at first beyond the proximity of naked women's tassels to the street; whereas before they did their thing on little stages above the entrance of the nightclubs they worked, now they did it in basements where the entrance was at the bottom of metal double cellar street doors originally installed to roll down beer barrels. As for the jazz and combo clubs that had once been among the most identifiable signatures of 42nd Street nightlife, they found a new and relatively undisturbed home along West 52nd Street, while the floating gambling dens scattered throughout the Upper East Side before settling into the shaded-window walk-ups of East Harlem. La Guardia fought back, broadening his fingerprint policy so that only those musicians who had secured a city-issued cabaret license could play in any of the boroughs-which was said to be only slightly less difficult to acquire than a gun permit for any performer who'd ever gotten so much as a speeding ticket.

The last "legal" burlesque house on 42nd Street, the Orpheum Dance Palace, where the women were now called taxi dancers (the approximate equivalent of today's strip-club table dancers), was shuttered by La Guardia in 1942. By then it was the only form of live if not exactly "legitimate" theater left on the boulevard. At the height of the turn-of-the-century theatrical boom, seventy-six theaters of one type or another had thrived on or near the fabled street. By 1932, for a number of reasons, among them the Depression, the restrictive policies of the mayor, and the arrival of movies that "talked," the number had fallen to thirty-three. Ten years later, in 1942, with the closing of the Orpheum, it fell to zero. Fiorello's ferocious morality campaign left a cultural blight on West 42nd Street that, except for a brief upturn after World War II, would last a lifetime.

The end of World War II also saw the end of the La Guardia era. The same day that more than a million New Yorkers filled Times Square to celebrate the Allied victory in Japan, the Little Flower announced he would not be running for a fourth term. --Marc Eliot, Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World (2002) [Amazon.com]

Book shops in the Times Square area

The first book shop in the Times Square area was Concord, which opened in 1933, next to the Paramount Theater on Broadway. Allan J. Wilson (not the original owner) shepherded this well-respected place (in 1965, the New York Times did it the honor of a eulogy) through most of World War II, the gray flannel suit era, and the heady de-censorship period of the early 1960s. Allan was able to carry the first legal editions of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, Fanny Hill, and, earlier, the books of the “pinko” Citadel Press, which featured socialist analysis of American politics. Concord was one of the first shops to feature publishers’ remainders. Movie and theater patrons, and office workers, had visited steadily until paperback book stores drew them into their nets. --accessed and copied from http://home.earthlink.net/%7Ejgertzma/BkshopsofTimesSq/index.html [Jun 2004]

It was understandable why general interest bookstores were part of Times Square, with its proximity to bus terminals, subways, counter restaurants, bars, hotels, and round the clock “grinder” movies. Passersby wanted “how-to” and civil service preparation manuals, horoscope pamphlets, joke books, romances, war stories, westerns, and scandal and gossip items, as well as sexually oriented materials of many varieties. Erotica could be furtively scanned by readers whose body language indicated that they liked the anonymity the bookshops provided. On the streets outside, sexual adventurousness was part of the vibrant atmosphere. In the midtown night clubs, theatrical agents introduced wealthy men, often garment center executives, to glamorous dates with whom they visited swank East Side apartments to enjoy “sex circuses.” That cost a bundle. Men and women of modest means had to substitute the disreputable, more heavily policed entertainments of the bright light zone. Since the Crash, prostitutes had strolled the area, and a gay subculture had existed in rooming houses which had once been expensive homes. Booksellers learned to cater to the compulsions of the Johns and the “inverts.” Their stores were another phase, like the night clubs and prurient movies, of the “commercialization of sex” and the “eroticization of leisure time” which mark the business of popular culture in the 20th century. --http://home.earthlink.net/%7Ejgertzma/BkshopsofTimesSq/index.html [Jun 2005]

But soon other shops supplemented how-to books, astrology, and adventure fiction with above and under the counter erotica. Many, as did the back date magazine places--which were sure bets for racy photos and "art studies" photo books--stayed open until the wee hours. ?

White-collar and office workers, whose needs had been shaped and sanctioned by many showcases of mass spectating, and especially by the commercialization of sex on Times Square signage, store windows, movie marquees, and newsstands, were especially entertained by the erotic.

Men, and their dates, browsed in more privacy than the street could offer in any book store in which they could find a variety of prurient titillation. Where but in the prime entertainment zone of the country’s largest city could book publishers, distributors and sellers who served the general public learn in more detail about the ingenuity with which sex was insinuated into the “staggering machine of desire” which drove the economy? And where else could bookmen get better acquainted with the boundaries beyond which sex became illicit, and therefore more dangerous, and more lucrative to exploit?

These tourist book and magazine stores met the general-interest needs of the enormous crowds at the Main Stem. The hoi polloi wanted entertaining and practical books to read: historical novels, “how-to” (dance, hypnotize, play the stock market, win at the gambling tables, improve your vocabulary), civil service preparation manuals, horoscope pamphlets, joke books, romances, war stories, biographies of contemporary politicians and film stars, science fiction, speculations on alien life forms and their visits to earth past and present, westerns, and scandal and gossip items. A standard item was the “Dream Book” for policy players, a long-popular astrology booklet which attached number combinations to items in one’s dreams. For over a century, dreamers-and day dreamers-had played numbers and hoped to win the day’s jackpot). The general bookstores, often by retailing Max Padell’s items, provided these various steady sellers.

An "art study" booklet, c.1950, centerfold. "This publication is essential to the artist and sculptor whom [sic] cannot afford the expensive fees for the live models to continue their studies."

Examples were one of the two Broadway Book Shops (at 1543; the other was across the street), Midtown Books (Ben Friedman, 1105 6th), G & A Books (251 W 42nd), Harmony (112 W 49th), Abbey Books (259 W 42nd, later a pioneer in peep booths with film loops), Publisher’s Outlet (Edward [“Eddie”] Mishkin, at 254 W 42nd, was a partner of Finkelstein), Peerless (38 W 42), and Bob’s Bargain Books. The latter, near the corner of 6th Ave and 42nd, was special. --http://home.earthlink.net/~jgertzma/BkshopsofTimesSq/tourist.html [Jun 2005]

see also: Jay Gertzman - sex shop - Times square area


  1. Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square - Bill Landis, Michelle Clifford [Amazon.com]
    New York City's grindhouses (burlesque theaters gone to seed) are long gone, but sin-ema fans can relive the experience with this definitive study. Landis, founder of the eponymously titled cult classic periodical, and Clifford, his partner in grime, take readers on a tour of the Deuce, the psychosexual netherland on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the area was home to numerous theaters before being razed and overlaid with family theme restaurants and chain stores in the 1990s. Organized by film genre ("Blood Horror," "Eurosleaze," etc.), the book covers the venues themselves as well as industry personnel, 42nd Street habitu s, and, of course, the deliciously offbeat and perverse films-Black Mama, White Mama; Women in Cages; and, this reviewer's personal favorite, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Like Jimmy McDonough's The Ghastly One, an excellent biography on sexploitation auteur Andy Milligan, this book moves the chains down the field in grindhouse cinema's march for respectability. Great fetish film fun for all popular culture and film collections. --amazon.com

  2. Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World (2002) - Marc Eliot [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    In Down 42nd Street, Marc Eliot offers a fascinating and pugnacious history of what may be the most famous street in the United States--or at least the most famously decadent one. "By 1980, [New York's] fabled Manhattan crossroads had become ground zero for the manufacture, exhibition, and distribution of pornography, drug dealing, pedophilia, prostitution, and violent street crime," he writes. Eliot describes 42nd Street's development over time, and he's not afraid to go after a few sacred cows. Here's what he says about the "greatest generation" right after the Second World War: "GIs returning to the U.S. via New York City's harbors and ports were point men in the postwar sex and drug revolution." Today, of course, 42nd Street is a very different place, thanks to a conscious cleanup effort that has brought in Disney and other corporations. Eliot views this trend with a distaste that other may not feel: by the end of the 20th century, he notes with irritation, "42nd Street had become a horizontal Statue of Liberty, a place native New Yorkers avoided like Yellow Fever." All in all, Down 42nd Street is an excellent piece of opinionated urban history told with verve. --John Miller --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

    A rambunctious social and political history of Times Square and "the deuce" street slang for 42nd Street covers a lot of territory, but makes its points with wit and an insider's keen insight. Eliot, co-author of Erin Brockovitch's forthcoming advice book Take It from Me! and of Barry White's Love Unlimited, piles up fascinating historic details, from Revolutionary War battles on the nascent site of 42nd Street to the building of Grand Central Terminal; from the growth of New York's theater... --From Publishers Weekly

  3. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York - Luc Sante [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    There are very few classics in the field of pop culture--the academic stuff tends to be too dry and the fun stuff is too quickly dated. This book by Luc Sante is the exception--in fluid prose liberally sprinkled with astute metaphors, Sante tells the story of New York's Lower East Side, circa 1840-1920. The personal histories of criminals, prostitutes, losers, and swindlers bring to life the social and statistical history that the author has meticulously researched. Not limiting himself to the usual sources, Sante finds his history in old copies of Police Gazette as well as actual police, fire, and social service records. Above all, what really makes this book work is the writing, which brings to life a culture of the streets that continues to form a silent influence on our contemporary popular culture. --Amazon.com

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