Imagine walking through the era of vaudeville and burlesque, phantasmagoric play of magical lights and larger-than-life show business stars. Imagine a fast paced urban adventure brimming with opulence and squalor, magnificence and modesty. Imagine having an unforgettable brush with the events that shaped America’s entertainment industry.
All this and even more can be experienced during one of the many walking tours that take you deep into the heart of Broadway’s theatre district in New York. Walking around the impressive neighbourhood is like finding the patterns in a puzzle or weaving together the clues scattered around on every block. And the thrill quotient increases manifold in the company of the perfect guide – a master raconteur who brings the place alive through his compelling narrative.
The walking tour I have booked commences from Times Square with a brief orientation of the legendary place. Known for breeding of horses and sale of carriages in the 1800s, Times Square was formerly known as Longacre Square after Long Acre in London. By late 1800s, Oscar Hammerstein I, who is credited to have kindled public interest in opera, had built a big theatre complex in Longacre Square and set off a trajectory of business growth. In 1903 the first New York subway was built; in 1904 the New York Times moved its headquarters to a new skyscraper and held the first ball drop ceremony on New Year’s Eve to celebrate their relocation. That’s when Longacre Square acquired its new name Times Square.
Walking around Times Square is synonymous with gawking at the brightly gleaming billboards. And in between the gawking, the Broadway baptism happens with the Paramount Theatre, made famous among other things, by a young Frank Sinatra singing to a packed house of hysteric teenage girls. Turning left on to 45th Street brings us to the Lyceum Theatre, Broadway’s oldest continuously operating theatre. With its handsome gray limestone facade and its ornate Corinthian columns, the Lyceum is indeed an architectural marvel. Producer-manager David Frohman is known to have built an apartment offering a bird’s eye view of the stage. Legend has it that Frohman used to wave a white handkerchief to his wife, actress Margaret Illington, whenever he found her overacting!
It is a fine day for walking; the sun’s rays are mellow and the air feels crisp. We manoeuvre our way across three more streets and turn right onto 42nd Street, little knowing that we are about to step foot on a legendary strip of land. This street boasts of 10 Broadway theatres – the New Amsterdam, the Lyric, the Apollo and the Empire being a few that we walk past. But it is really the dramatic history of 42nd Street that lends the place its definitive character.
In its heyday, 42nd Street was the piece-de-resistance of the entertainment world, attracting not only the city’s elite but also top media houses, property developers and businessmen. However, by 1930s, the place had lost its glamour and degenerated into a retail porn centre, becoming infamous for its nefarious practices. The guide’s storytelling holds everyone on rapt attention; it’s almost as if he has recreated that loathsome world of squalor and vulgarity, inhabited by pimps, whores, porn stars and drug dealers; a world that the American gentility avoided during the day but surreptitiously frequented under the garb of darkness.
The walking party continues its expedition, making its foray into west 44th Street. By now I have acquainted myself with Manhattan’s grid system, unravelling the array of streets and avenues with surprising ease. So when our guide announces that we have to make our way to 44th Street, I find myself showing the way like a traffic policeman!
44th Street is really where all the current Broadway action is. The Imperial, the Broadhurst and the Shubert form a cluster of three Broadway theatres, bearing testimony to the theatre building enterprise of the Shubert brothers. At the end of the 19th century, three brothers Sam, Lee and JJ Shubert from New York founded the Shubert Organization; their dream was to revitalize and rejuvenate the American theatre industry. Many of the theatres built by the Shubert brothers are the brainchild of architect Herbert J. Krapp, with the distinguishing features being Greek style cornices and display of floral and geometrical motifs.
All three are busy theatres. The Imperial has signboards of Phantom of the Opera displayed conspicuously all around; it is the longest running musical in the history of Broadway, running successfully for over 25 years. Next door, Mamma Mia’s historic fourteen year run at the Broadhurst is due to come to a close with its final Broadway performance scheduled on September 12, 2015. And the Shubert has theatre lovers queuing up for the Tony award winning Matilda, the Musical.
Around the corner is the Booth Theatre, named after celebrated actor Edwin Booth, brother to the infamous John Wilkes Booth who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Playing at the Booth is Hand to God, supposed to be a satire on religion and already earning a lot of critical acclaim. This is where the tour ends and the group disperses. Some get busy in taking photos, some head to the theatre souvenir shop while some stay back and speculate the chances of Hand to God winning this year’s Tony. I have a few leads on ticket booths that sell cheap Broadway tickets. I locate those on my map and start walking – all hail the Manhattan grid system!