December 31st, 2006 08:13 EST
Times Square a Focus of New Year's Eve Festivities
Washington -- If the beginning of a new year represents the chance to start anew, it surely is appropriate that millions of Americans associate New Year’s Eve with New York City’s Times Square. In a nation founded on the individual’s opportunity to reinvent himself or herself, its largest city always has been at the forefront of change, and supplied a nexus of energy, ambition and drive.
For much of the past century, the neighborhood, centered on the intersection of Broadway, Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street, similarly has been reinvented time and again, but remained always a place where New Yorkers -- in the words of the social commentator and Romanian immigrant Andrei Codrescu, that "quick, witty, generous but not stupid breed of citizen" -- come to play.
NEW YEAR’S IN TIMES SQUARE
With the 1904 opening of the subway through “midtown” Manhattan, some businesses moved there from the Wall Street financial district. One was the New York Times newspaper, which relocated to a new tower at the heart of Longacre Square, soon renamed Times Square. The paper responded with a New Year’s Eve party complete with fireworks. "No more beautiful picture," the next day’s Times recounted, "was ever limned in fire on the curtain of midnight."
In 1907, the city government outlawed fireworks but the festivities continued, centered on the "dropping of the ball," a custom derived from harbor time signals. At 11:59 p.m. each December 31, a six-foot wide, half-ton Waterford crystal ball is lowered along a pole atop the One Times Square building. It reaches the base of its tower precisely one minute later, signaling a new year. This seemingly mundane event is witnessed live by a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The images of these celebrants -- often young, always boisterous, and typically fortified by one means or another against below freezing winter temperatures -- are televised throughout the United States and in much of the world.
Meanwhile, In the surrounding blocks, thousands attend Broadway plays, enjoy music at B.B. King’s or dine at establishments ranging from long-established favorites to the latest in "theme cuisine." The Times Square New Year’s party has changed over the past 100 years, and will continue to do so, but this very special neighborhood offers a true story of American life, verve and renewal.
20TH CENTURY ENTERTAINMENT CAPITAL
Before the neighborhood became what author James Traub calls "the global capital of popular culture," it was home to New York’s horse and livery trades. With the 20th century, the horses gave way to the theaters. In 1895, the cigar manufacturer Oscar Hammerstein I (grandfather of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II) built the Olympia Theatre on Longacre Square. By 1910, Times Square boasted some 40 theaters, including the 5,200-seat Hippodrome, then the world’s largest. Illuminated by the theaters’ bright marquis lights, the strip of Broadway passing through the area became known as the "Great White Way."
Times Square theaters swiftly became the center of the nation’s vaudeville revues, eclectic multiact shows that featured music, comedy and novelty performers. 1907 saw the arrival of the Ziegfeld Follies, with their elaborate production values and beautiful chorus girls. As Traub recounts, it was in and around Times Square that many Americans "first heard ragtime music, and ogled chorus girls, and danced dangerous … dances … and sat right on stage in the thrilling Parisian import known as the cabaret."
With World War I, motion pictures became an important part of the Times Square experience. A number of stage theaters were converted to screen, while huge, ornate "movie palaces" rose nearby. The 1920s saw the development of the American musical, a form of theatre combining music, songs, dance and spoken dialogue. For several decades, the Broadway musical was possibly the most prolific source of American popular music, showcasing the works of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin and other craftsmen.
Even as Times Square emerged as an entertainment capital, the neighborhood retained a rougher edge. As far back as 1905, strollers could admire an electric billboard of the "Heatherbloom Petticoat Girl," her dress blown upward by a neon rainstorm, revealing her legs. The Great Depression that began in 1929 brought this hardness to the fore. The stories of Damon Runyon (1880–1946) depict the neighborhood’s Depression-era gamblers, petty thieves, actors and gangsters as colorful “wise guys” with names like "Nathan Detroit," "Harry the Horse" and "Good Time Charlie."
Millions of Americans associate the end of World War II with Times Square. Some recall the "Truman Announces Japanese Surrender" message on the plaza’s news "zipper," others the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a jubilant sailor stealing a kiss from a nurse also celebrating the war’s end.
ENTERING THE 21ST CENTURY RENEWED AND REVITALIZED
During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of factors changed the neighborhood in disquieting ways. Many Americans moved to the suburbs, and television absorbed more of their leisure time. Americans continued to jam the square on New Year’s Eve, but, increasingly, they shared the neighborhood with purveyors of more frankly adult forms of entertainment, and with increased drug use and crime.
Even as Broadway musicals celebrated themes of individual renewal, the surrounding streets came to experience a renewal of their own. Determined municipal efforts drove crime down and "adult entertainment" (mostly) out. Zoning and "landmark laws" encouraged new development while protecting classic theaters from destruction and, requiring use of the square’s trademark neon-bright signage.
Today’s Times Square differs in some ways from its predecessors but also remains the lively, quirky, diverse funhouse of old. In March 2005, the world championship of women’s chess was played in a windowed, street-level Times Square studio, on the very streets where Robert John Burck, also known as the "Naked Cowboy," poses in his underwear for photos with passersby, and the "Reverend Billy" of the "Church of Stop Shopping" spreads his gospel to Christmas bargain hunters. Among the bargains are the 1.5 million half-price theater tickets sold annually at the TKTS booth for the Great White Way’s dramas, musicals and revivals -- many of the Broadway classics return to the stage again and again. Visitors and residents also are attracted by the great shopping, the music clubs and movies -- the rush of the new and the memories of the old.
In the end, Times Square remains much as James Traub described it during an earlier era, "an incredibly democratic entertainment place … [home to] all the varying influences whose incongruous coming together made American culture possible." Come December 31, Americans sense this, as they resolve their own personal renewals and look forward to the future.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Michael Jay Friedman
USINFO Staff Writer