I did a little time traveling last Friday night. Yes, it’s possible if you have the right tools.
The first tool was a mystery novel written in 1951 (the year I was born), and which I found in this 1956 Dell paperback edition at the flea market a couple of weeks ago. By Friday I was well into it, and since it takes place in a seedy hotel in Times Square, I thought it might be fun to go to Times Square and get a cup of coffee somewhere and finish reading it while surrounded by the ghosts of bygone Broadway.
The cover painting, by William Rose, perfectly captures the ambiance of the novel, which contains a shady lady who’s up to no good in a sleazy hostelry somewhere between 6th Avenue and Broadway, maybe on 47th Street–which I know from my NYC history was noted for its number of dive hotels. Here’s the 1970s version of the same book, from a different publisher–compare them:
Although the latter cover is well executed, and actually includes a clever plot element (the dog), it is totally out of sync with the 1950s aura of the tale. I doubt I would have bought the book with this second cover.
Anyway…for info about where you can find the 1956 Dell version or the 1971 Paperback Library edition, go to the cool site Fantastic Fiction here. (I made a cover scan of my own copy of the book, but the Fantastic Fiction one looks better so I borrowed it.)
Where was I? Oh yes, time traveling. Well, I went to Times Square and I thought I’d have my coffee at the McDonald’s at 46th Street and Broadway, one of the few semi-seedy places still there. This McDonald’s just can’t help but retain some aura of existential angst, literally being situated right smack in the center of the legendary vortex of so many Gotham dreams, triumphs, failures and hopes. (It’s around the corner from Actor’s Equity, after all.) But the McDonald’s was so impossibly crowded last Friday night that I decided to go back home and finish my book there while having Chinese take-out.
It wasn’t as crammed as New Year’s Eve gets, but Times Square gets really clogged with humans around this time of year, and it can feel really lonely if you’re solo and not in a posse of your own friendly humans. So I ankled it back to my apartment. On the way, though, I walked by a souvenir store at 48th Street and Seventh Avenue that used to be a big porn theater where they held premieres back in the 70s and early 80s (yes, gala premieres of X-rated movies, complete with stars, red carpet, and Klieg lights). The only thing remaining that gave proof of that theater having once been there was the sidewalk in front of it, into which porn stars placed their hand prints and signatures–people like Gloria Leonard, Tiffany Clark, and Samantha Fox. Whenever I had visitors from out of town in recent years, I would walk them by that sidewalk and show them the foot-traffic-faded names. But last Friday I noticed, for the first time, that the handprints and signatures were gone, replaced by fresh pavement.
Here is a photo I made in 1995 of that location when it was still the Show Follies theater, with Peep Land next door. I met a couple of pretty hot peep show girls in that joint…but that’s a story for another time. Anyway, in the foreground of the pic I framed a current phone booth advertisement featuring Christy Turlington, one of the supermodels of the time. I always like the contrast of porn with mainstream media’s methods of titillation.
When I got home with my Chinese take-out (I prefer moo goo gai pan, aka chicken with mushrooms), I decided to watch a little something on the DVD player while eating. And this turned out to be my second tool for “time traveling”–a bizarre and cheesy 1959 exploitation movie about the white slavery racket called The Naked Road. Because would you believe it? At the very end, there was a great shot of Times Square back in the 50s, complete with a marquee for the Globe Theater showing something called “Spice of Burlesk.” Felt like I was right there on the Great White Way, as the lights of Broadway used to be called in those days.
So at least my eyeballs ended up traveling back in time thanks to The Naked Road, which is available in a six-movie set called Weird-Noir from Something Weird Video and Image Entertainment here on Amazon. (I don’t work for them, but I frequently see their movies and have written about them elsewhere.)
After I watched The Naked Road, I went back to finishing The Murder That Wouldn’t Stay Solved, which was a very entertaining and enjoyable mystery full of colorful New York dialogue and characters, written by an author I had never heard of before, but whose works I will seek out again. He wrote this book under the moniker Hampton Stone, but achieved greater renown as George Bagby–although his real name was Aaron Marc Stein. He lived from 1906-1985. Look him up on Wikipedia under George Bagby here. He wrote about a hundred novels.
So thanks to his book and the footage in The Naked Road, I felt like I got to spend a little time in 50s Times Square–and it’s my pleasure to share it with you.