For New Year’s Eve: The Story of Times Square

We pen this on New Year’s Eve, the one night of the year more than any other when all eyes are pointed in the direction of Times Square, the Crossroads of the World. I used to have a post on the topic; I have no idea where it went! But it’s fairly fresh in my mind, having prepared a walking tour of the area, and so I’ll draw from that for your edification. Read it now — you’ll have a headache tomorrow!

Depending on what you count, Times Square is New York’s third or fourth or even fifth center of theatre and entertainment. The first, dating to the early 19th century, was the area around the Bowery, where there were countless saloons, dime museums, pleasure gardens, opera houses and legit theatres. By the last couple of decades of the 19th century it had migrated north to the area around Union Square, nicknamed the Rialto, and this is where some of the earliest vaudeville flagship theatres were located, such as Tony Pastor’s, and Keith’s Union Square, and Huber’s Museum. Then, very rapidly it kept moving up Broadway: the Flatiron District (23rd Street) and Madison Square Park where the Eden Musée was located as well as the original MSG, Proctor’s Fifth Avenue, Tin Pan Alley etc. Then it crept into the ’30s, finally arriving at Longacre Square, 42nd and Broadway.

It was still called Longacre Square when Oscar Hammerstein I built his massive theatrical complex the Olympia there in 1895, followed by the big time vaudeville flagship the Victoria in 1898 (more about him and those theatres here).

In 1904 the New York Times moved its headquarters to the block and it was renamed Times Square. The construction of a major subway station there sealed the deal. Most of the lines connect there; it’s extremely accessible from the farthest reaches of the city, and its right in the middle. In short order, hotels, restaurants, theatres and shops went up. In no particular order, some of the major institutions associated with that highly glamorous and yet frequently tawdry neighborhood. I am 100% certain to keep adding to this post over time!

The Palace Theatre

Loew’s State

The American Music Hall (briefly the flagship of the William Morris opposition vaudeville circuit)

New Amsterdam Theatre (home of Ziegfeld Follies etc)

New Victory Theatre (hosted Abie’s Irish Rose, Minsky’s Burlesque etc)

The Hippodrome

Belasco Theatre (HQ of the theatrical auteur and impresario)


Algonquin Hotel

Damon Runyon

Joe Franklin

The Lambs Club

The Latin Quarter

Hubert’s Museum

Times Square Area Magic Shops

The Peppermint Lounge

Mark Hellinger Theatre/ Times Square Church

Background on Madame Tussaud’s

A legit question: why didn’t the Broadway district continue to move northward? Answer #1: it kind of did, especially in the earlier 20th century. There were many more theatres all the way up to Central Park and Columbus Circle. Today the district is anchored at that end by Lincoln Center, duh! And up in that neighborhood, there’s still, for example, The Ed Sullivan Theatre, where Late Night with Stephen Colbert is produced. The other answer is, even so, Columbus Circle lacks the crosstown subway lines that feed into Times Square. Still, one can envision a scenario (as once pretty much existed) in which the finite amount of real estate meant that new theatres HAD to move uptown, because there was no more room downtown! But then there was the Depression in the ’30s, and the advent of television in the ’50s, and these were downright theatre killers — live legit theatre, vaudeville, burlesque and even MOVIES suffered in those decades. Most of the theatres were demolished. Many of the remaining ones were porn theatres by the ’70s. Some people miss that. I sure as hell don’t! I love the rehabilitated Times Square as it exists now — though not on New Years Eve. (Oh, and here’s my post on Dick Clark)! Happy New Year!

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous