The Great Washed Way

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To begin with, Times Square is not a square. It's actually more of a triangle, one created over the years by the convergence of Broadway, Seventh Avenue and every primal impulse — sex, power, greed, vanity, ambition — known to man. Or woman. Or, in these days of the sanitized 42nd Street, Mickey Mouse.

You might say that through history Times Square has been a cyclotron of social change, a place where sex and liquor and talent all spun around to produce some truly phosphorescent elements of the national disposition. That's the history that James Traub tells in The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square (Random House; 313 pages). It's a shrewd and rollicking account of a place that rose to glory as a playground for all classes, skidded into a chaos of drugs and porn, and has come back as a family fun center. Traub has a high time flying us through the Square's gamy saga, from the chorus-girl revues of a century ago to the corporate wheeler dealings that replaced peep shows with The Lion King and the world's largest Toys "R" Us.

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Times Square was conceived, really, in 1895, when Oscar Hammerstein, whose grandson would write The Sound of Music, opened the Olympia Theater, a gilded concert hall and playhouse that covered an entire city block on what was then called Longacre Square. The kind of man who once composed an opera in 24 hours on a bet, Hammerstein was also the kind who sold 10,000 opening-night tickets for 6,000 seats. Disappointed ticket holders broke down the doors. Within three years, he was bankrupt. But the idea of the neighborhood as a center of entertainment spectacle lived on.

Shortly after the New York Times moved its headquarters to the triangle's southern tip in 1904, the mayor proclaimed the area Times Square. Times publisher Adolph Ochs came up with the idea of dropping a ball down a pole atop the Times tower to mark the New Year, an event that began to make the Square nationally famous. When vaudeville caught on, Hammerstein's son Willie emerged with a new theater in which he booked performers like Don the Talking Dog, the Man with the Seventeen Foot Beard and the Cherry Sisters — also billed as "America's Worst Act."

By this time showy restaurants and "lobster palaces" were opening to cater to the new rich. The better places kept luxurious "bachelor apartments" upstairs to which the wealthy man about town, whether married or single, could retire after dinner with his latest eye candy. "A new unashamed morality was brewing," Traub writes, "in the democratic and ungoverned climate of Times Square."

In the decade before World War I, the ante was raised once more, by Florenz Ziegfeld, whose sumptuous follies — fast-paced revues with comics, singers and chorines — became the gold standard of naughty, but not quite vulgar, spectacle: shows where young women might change clothes behind translucent screens while a winking crooner sang I'd Like to See More of You. By the '20s, the culture of Times Square hit its stride. The world of the stage spectaculars converged with the new nightclub society that Prohibition did little to discourage. The evolution of Broadway theater brought forward Eugene O'Neill, George S. Kaufman and George Gershwin. Times Square became not just urban but urbane.

But the delicate social ecology couldn't last. Broadway declined. Hard drugs arose. Damon Runyon's Times Square became Ratso Rizzo's. In the 1970s, 42nd Street was overrun with porn shops, junkies and bus-station hustlers. Traub adroitly explains how a combination of municipal power and rising real estate values succeeded in driving out the rot. In a new world of tall towers and chain stores, the Disney company played both beauty and the beast — corporate pioneer in the once skanky wilderness but also chief symbol of the bland mass marketplace that the Square is today. It's not just the squalid 42nd Street of the '70s that has been wiped away. It's the rich, wild tangle of the prewar years. Traub is of two minds about "the stupendous contrivance" that Times Square has become. So are a lot of people. Nobody misses the junkies and peep shows. But can't we bring back some of that naughty bawdy, gaudy, sporty 42nd Street?