Abstract: This work attempts to apply the insights and theories of Marshall McLuhan and other media ecologists to the evolution of media within Times Square over the last 110 years. We suggest a framework for comprehending media evolution based upon the competition and cross pollination that occurred in the dense, teeming environment of Times Square and continues physically within its confines as well as in similar ways across the internet. We analyze major works of art, commerce and entertainment that evolved here, including electric light, vaudeville, cinema, The New York Times, the integrated musical, Studio 54 and a more recent experimental film.. By demonstrating how Times Square accelerated humanity into a more mediated existence just as the internet continues to do so today, we reveal how this has propelled unbound creativity as well as very destructive forces. We conclude with a journey through Times Square where we can more easily recognize the changes brought about by the acceleration of media, for Times Square is a physical manifestation of cyberspace and an extension of our mediated selves.
"Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act - the way we perceive the world.”
This quote from Marshall McLuhan, one of the formative minds in the study of media ecology, sets the stage for an assessment of Times Square in the evolution of media. Indeed, there may be no better physical place to explore media ecology than here. This rather tiny district eight city blocks long and three blocks wide serves the ongoing role of media incubator and showplace of modern technologies for over 100 years; media mashed together evolving on top of each other, often cross-pollinating and scuffling simultaneously/sense ratios changing constantly and developing rapidly from the density of traffic and light/one media fish getting swallowed by another only to escape and bite the fish that just attacked it in an attempt to survive. Long before the television and then the internet began mashing all media together in the box on our desk or the phone in our hand, Times Square has been serving as the living, breathing interactive medium for decades. Here in we will overview its evolution using insights and theories proposed by McLuhan and other media theorists, there in demonstrating how this continuing transformation holds clues to how our media environments will continue to evolve.
I. The Nascent Stage
It all started with the magnetic force of public spaces. In the last decade of the 19th Century and the first of the 20th,, the crossroads of Broadway and Seventh Avenue then known as Longacre Square was already becoming the hub of live entertainment which had migrated up Broadway as the population of the city mushroomed. But this would evolve into far more than the previous entertainment districts that had risen at the southern intersections of Broadway and the north/south avenues. The first reason for this was the explosive urbanization driving the need for information and entertainment on a massive scale. Mainly foreign born, these masses needed stimulation to fill the void of losing their extended families and oral communication channels (the public square) back home. The second was the opening of the Times Square subway megastation in 1904, which established the district as the transportation crossroads of the expanding city. Transportation and media are intrinsically linked, whether by foot, train, cab or via an avatar through cyberspace. We can envision the evolution of media as a subway train with each new media represented by a different car. But this train is one that snakes about, becoming circular at times, with the caboose often pulling the train backward and cars often crashing into each other. All media is based on the exchange of something with another – a passenger for another passenger/a sender to a receiver/a dollar for a euro/the subterrain for the surface. Whether you’re a capitalist or a socialist, exchange drives the daily agenda. With its urban density and the confluence of transportation, Times Square achieves a frequency and intensity of exchange found in few places on earth. It is an intersection both physically and metaphorically, an intersection that is horizontal as a merging of two major boulevards and vertical as a merging between the subterrain with its moving trains, the terrain with its bright electricity, and the sky with buildings and messages extending into space.
This phenomenon has certainly not been lost on the armed forces; our military has been sending messages and recruiting from Times Square since the neighborhood’s inception. Throughout the past century, military conflict itself has become a form of media – its images and the strong emotions they stir are more real to us than the conflict itself.
LIVE ENTERTAINENT AND THE WRITTEN WORD
This extraordinary era around the turn of the last century also gave witness to the great World’s Fairs and the birth of the carnival as a major media form. The World’s Fairs were a combination of media entertainments. At the high end, they showcased the great emerging technologies of the era. At the middle and low end, they provided general entertainment to the masses in the form of sideshows and amusement rides. An amusement park is a setting of awe, escape and fantasy, where repressed wishes can be fulfilled. A ride on a roller-coaster or ferris wheel provides an invigorating thrill. We can demonstrate our strength and skill by clanging a bell or shooting a target. The intensity and oppressiveness of dense city life required a carnival outlet. Coney Island would become a permanent home to the World’s Fair and carnival environment at around the same time that Times Square would become the exchange center of the central city. A smaller, denser version of Coney Island at short stay rates, Times Square would incorporate the spirit of the repressed wishes of the carnival within the central city. As we’ll see through this media evolution, the fulfillment of repressed wishes can lead to great advances in creativity as well as incredibly dark forces depending on the environment.
Vaudeville, a variety-oriented mix of music and comedy, became the main form of mass entertainment as the 19th Century turned into the 20th. One of its great impresarios, Florenz Ziegfield, would rise from his success at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago to transform the medium. As Stefan Kanfer states in the City Journal, vaudeville “was the most democratic popular art in American history.” While one might consider these purely visual experiences, these were more in line with the tactile, audio tradition (McLuhan cool), involving audience interaction. Like all forms of media, vaudeville evolved from raw, rough-edged beginnings. The audience would be encouraged to dance, laugh, boo and throw their groceries at intentionally bad acts, often while imbibing alcohol. Times Square became the nexus of vaudeville – it was the center from which shows were conceived and circuited across the nation and was the showcase for the top talent.
The great restaurants that developed over the next decade, known as lobster palaces, revolved around live entertainment, dancing and excessive eating and drinking. Dancing itself would become an institution of its own as the ragtime music of the day and the easing of sexual inhibitions would create audiences viewing provocative dance numbers (hot) and then participating (cool) in provocative dancing of their own. Dancing is a manifestation of physic energy and integration between performers and their audiences as well as couples dancing together; it is a universal form of communication. Over the decades, the beat of dancing feet, whether propelling a professional hoofer or a haggard pedestrian, has become core to the fiber of the district. A monument commemorating the perpetual current of dancing feeding the energy of Times Square can be seen at 46th Street and Seventh. Etched in stone on the façade of a nearly 100 year old building that once housed Israel Miller’s shoe store for performers is the slogan “SHOW FOLKS SHOE SHOP DEDICATED TO BEAVTY IN FOOTWEAR.”
Simultaneously, the written word would rise to great heights on Broadway. The New York Times would build a new headquarters (One Times Square and hereafter referred to as the Times Tower) at the same time that the subway station was being dug in the sub-terrain. In Darcy Tell’s “Times Square Spectacular,” there is a stunning photograph telegraphing the further intertwining of transportation and media. At the southern crossroads of the square we see a deep construction pit where subway tunnels are being dug under the newspaper’s intended pressrooms. Overviewing this rising monument to print media is Oscar Hammerstein’s famous vaudeville palace, the Victoria Theatre. Within a year, trains and press turbines would be churning out people and ideas will singers and comedians would entertain the masses on the streets above. The Times was rewarded by having the square named after itself in 1904.
While it would take The Times years to become the dominant newspaper in New York and a national force, its presence on the square positioned it to have a profound influence on media evolution and has helped it to endure into the 21th Century. This era saw the Gutenberg revolution that began 500 years earlier shift into hyperspeed. Like the mind-boggling speed that computers would gain 100 years later, suddenly electronic presses were churning out copy faster than the growing urban masses could read them, thus creating the first true form of mass media as an industry. Much has been written (and spoken) on how the rise of the written word in the second half of the last millennium, while categorizing human endeavor in neat compartments and fostering individual drive and intellectual thought, also brought about the decline of oral traditions and a sense of community. But while in this accelerating electronic age we may look at the print newspaper as an archaic vestige of past centuries, the modern newspaper is far more Steve Jobs than Johannes Gutenburg, a powerful broadcast medium propelled by the technology of the day. And on the Square, the proliferation of people and other mediums would subsume the written word into a dynamic cosmopolitan environment that was transforming into the nerve center of the city.
Few understood this better than Adolph Ochs, the Publisher who transformed the Times after acquiring it in 1896. His vision of establishing a paper of record, one that would stand out from the sensationalism of his competitors through extensive use of the written word, would be greatly advanced by establishing his enterprise as a component of this media mashing machine. Here he could utilize the latest technologies in printing and electronic communications (wireless, radio) bringing information together from all over the world. Here he would have the best position to cover the arts and sciences, for the district was the cutting edge of technology and culture in the expanding city. And here was the center of the great people machine that would snap up the newspaper each day as the multitudes churned through the mass transit system. Another milestone in 1904 was the hiring of the scholarly Carr Van Anda as managing editor. According to Tifft and Jones in “The Trust,” “Here was at last a man who understood Adolph’s vision and could make it a reality on deadline every day.” In 1913, The Times became the first newspaper to publish an index of itself, the topics of the day extensively categorized for regular reference long after the newspaper’s life on the shelf had expired. This was the closest we would come in a commercial print publication to an extension of the human brain; analyzing, compiling and storing information in great detail for future analysis and retrieval. I contend however that this was more than just a continuation of the “hot” print medium that McLuhan classified as the driver of a society focused on individualism. The technologies behind The Times and its massive reach established it as a far “cooler” participatory medium, assisting in building a more cohesive society. A merger of the abstract alphabet with powerful new technologies, The Times successfully scuffled with other media based on live entertainment and advertising developing just a few feet away.
And its presence towering over the south end of the square also endowed it with unique capabilities to promote itself. Sensing Times Square’s power as a traffic machine and a public space with a carnival atmosphere, the newspaper promoted a New Year’s celebration with its new tower showcasing fireworks and other electrical tricks. When fireworks were banned, a new concept was introduced based upon a method to help ships keep time, as described by Darcy Tell:
“Time balls as they were called, were set atop poles placed at prominent spots in major harbors…. and they dropped from their perches every day at exactly noon. The Times celebration stood this tradition on its head. At exactly midnight on December 31, 1907, a glowing five-foot wide electric orb descended down a flagpole on the 43rd Street side of the Times Tower, triggered a circuit connection at the flagpole’s base and lighted up four giant arrangements of bulbs that spelled out 1908 on each side of the building. As usual, the tower remained illuminated all night long and bands played into the early morning.”
Why does this event remain a formative annual tradition to this day? Like midnight masses that occur all over the world at this same time, we desire a sense of community while we vow to renew ourselves – some of us choose prayer while others choose a different type of spirits. But above and beyond other celebrations, this event endures because it continually transforms; it may lack a reference to the divine but is spiritual in its overflowing sea of humanity coexisting within many media forms that have evolved over the decades; flashing lights, video screens, streaming headlines, large photographic billboards, all now captured on television and computers and beamed throughout the world. This is the original way in which Times Square served as a node in an intensifying global communications network. McLuhan wrote of media and technologies as an extension of humanity; the shoe is an extension of the foot, clothes are an extension of the skin, electronic media an extension of the central nervous system, and as I mentioned above, The Times itself as an extension of the human brain. By attracting crowds around events that are beamed throughout the world (in this age it was through the telegraph and the early forms of radio), Times Square continually evolves in its role as a global neuron, with New Year’s Eve serving as the secular equivalent to Easter Mass at the Vatican.
II. THE FRAMEWORK
Now that we have reached a state where multiple media forms began coexisting in a tight environment, let’s explore what drives media evolution under these conditions, incorporating the insights of McLuhan and other media theorists. First, a challenge to a traditional medium by a new medium will create competition. This is harmless while the emerging medium is in its early stage, and the traditional medium modestly gains by simply leveraging its content on the new medium or using it as a tool within its larger framework. Eventually, the upstart gains momentum and creates innovations on a large scale that become more threatening. The traditional medium will need to evolve into something more engaging in order to retain its old audience or grow new ones. The most successful survivors often transform themselves by utilizing the most relevant features of their new media challengers or the new media environment, finding within them new opportunities. They will create a more powerful “ratio of the senses,” a unique synesthesia, that engage audiences through the extension, repression and rebalancing of sight, sound, touch, and/or intellectual insight, stirring within them heightened consciousness and understanding (those that simply recycle the content of another medium will rarely succeed). And the new mediums can’t simply destroy the old out of hand; they often need their content to develop and expand. If the environment can retain a healthy level of symbiosis (the competition created by new media drives traditional media to higher ground while new media finds powerful ways to leverage old media) major advances can be achieved in human experience. But the ability to create and retain symbiosis is influenced by the acceleration introduced by new media. If change occurs too drastically, disequilibrium can occur, often with negative effects. Seeking to find remnants of its lost audience, traditional media may revert to satisfy base and even dark forces. Or it may shrink to satisfy a more specialized audience, remaining true to its nature at a much smaller scale. This framework is a play on McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media with an emphasis on the simultaneous interactions between traditional and emerging media. McLuhan’s law states that media extend and enhance, they retrieve from the past, they destroy, and when pushed to the limit, they reverse or transform. We use this framework to make sense of media transformation and societal changes as well as to evaluate specific content within each medium.
LET THERE BE (FLASHING) LIGHT AND PROJECTIONS
As vaudeville and the printed word manifested themselves into the fabric of the Square, two more mediums followed shortly at the dawn on the 20th Century, both highly contrasting in their media temperatures. The first is electric light, an essential element in understanding media transformation. Light and its usages, from utility to entertainment, would evolve rapidly. At the turn of the century, the mere presence of bright light after dark was surely a miracle to the inhabitants of crowded cities. To McLuhan writing mid-century, “the electric light is pure information.” Simple light can engage by merely being bright or flashing. The World’s Fairs of that era would showcase bright and flashing light displays that awed the masses and first demonstrated artificial light’s ability to transcend. These light extravaganzas were incorporated into the parks of Coney Island, again many of whose entrepreneurs would also dream up ideas for Times Square.
Once the novelty of light wore off and its utility was taken for granted, it strived to transform into something more engaging and take on new forms. And as we will see time and again, a medium such as light will seek out the influence of other mediums developing nearby to help it evolve. In this case at this time, that medium was cinema, and in the dense confines of Times Square it would impact all other media as well. In its nascent stage, cinema was shown on small machines in nickelodeon parlors and took the form of one brief act in a list of features in a vaudeville show. Vaudeville swallowed cinema but in a matter of years cinema would devour vaudeville. Its temperature as a medium heated up quickly as it evolved from the novelty of “actualities” to the fascination of story-telling, assisted by the techniques of close-ups, irises, and associative editing. It was also more economical for consumers and entrepreneurs to engage in the exchange of film rather than the higher cost of live entertainment. So what happened to vaudeville? The mashing of new media pressured it to evolve into something more engaging – spectacular shows with more elegant staging, costumes, and more polished talent that commanded higher prices. Ziegfeld created his famous “Follies” review in 1907, named after a newspaper column called “Follies of the Day.” This was a variety show with a magic ratio of music, comedy, dance and beauty that lasted for over two decades.
And what happened to light? To complete McLuhan’s statement, this entity he described as pure information “is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name.” In finding its message, light became larger than life. A stage for showing vaudeville or films was confined by the size of the theater, but light could travel across city blocks and up the sides of buildings. The openness of the square created by the split of the avenues created ideal sight ratios, perfect for beaming messages to the pedestrian masses. As James Traub states in “The Devil’s Playground,” “An electric sign was a billboard raised to the power of hypnosis.” But why be content with mere electronic billboards? With the deep pockets of consumer products companies pumping the exchange, why not build huge flashing displays integrating the effects of the live shows and cinema playing in the theaters below? Why not make light dance? O.J. Gude and other advertising mavericks of the day did just that by creating the great early “spectaculars” of Times Square; light displays incorporating animation such as a kitten playing with balls of thread, chariots racing, a woman walking a tightrope, an owl winking, a celestial god driving a golf ball. The light show above Times Square was nothing less than a manifestation of the repressed wishes of the carnival, influenced by the mediums evolving below.
The light emanating from these large spectaculars was a special kind of phenomenon – what McLuhan and his Internet disciple Paul Levinson would call “light-through.” “Light-on” is the mere phenomenon of light shining on and illuminating an object. Cinema is light-on as the illusion is created by light projecting from behind you. However, like the stained glass windows of a church, “Light-through” is the phenomenon of light coming at you from the media source, having in McLuhan’s view a far more hypnotic effect. McLuhan mainly used this metaphor to describe the impact of television in his day and Levenson extends that metaphor to the impact of the computer screen. Surely these bright illusions over Broadway were the precursor to the electronic media that is so prevalent today and having similar hypnotic effects. While I have yet to find any scientific evidence to support this, surely there is a special magic to light-through technologies that beckons more exploration. For starters, we can admire the stained glass windows of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 46th Street, a giant cathedral tucked away behind skyscrapers. After viewing these “rear-view mirror” examples of light-through effects, we can walk just a few yards to Broadway and contrast this with the light-through effects of the current spectaculars.
THE EXPANSION OF SOUND
The next advance in media wasn’t a direct product of the media environment in Times Square – radio would develop as a grass-roots movement across the nation and find its corporate foundation a few blocks across town. Advances in broadcasted, recorded and amplified sound would accelerate through the 1920s, bringing news and entertainment into the home. News could now be experienced more immediately than the next morning or evening newspaper. Music and aural entertainment was now omnipresent – recorded music was freed from the awkwardness of earlier technologies like player pianos and the first wave of phonographs.
How did the New York Times react to this threat? Its management looked out about the square at those electronic displays and saw an opportunity to make its headlines dance. In 1927, the motograph was born, known more recently as the “zipper.” Headlines now zipped around the Times Tower as they still do today between 42nd and 43rd Street. The zipper is an early hybrid innovation that cools down the hot nature of text to a temperature that prompts the reader to greater participation. Its light-through properties combined with movement give it a musical quality, more like hearing than reading. In the cacophony of the Times Square lights and traffic, the zipper creates a media “microclimate” combining attributes of hot and cool media. These electrifications of text would become the foundation of the commercial internet six decades later.
And now with the more immediate aspects of news being relegated to another medium, the news in print would need to evolve further. At this juncture, The Times might have adapted by incorporating more of the sensationalist effects in media exploding around it, utilizing more photography, jazzier headlines, and emotional news topics. But management instead drove to extend the newspaper’s role as an extension of the human brain, a rejection of the flesh for the creation of a more powerful ratio of the senses based on the intellectual mind. Would this have happened even if The Times hadn’t moved to 43rd Street? In my view, its location smack in the middle of a global nerve center enabled a clearer vision and proximity to the tools that supported its mission as the paper of record. The Times expanded its daily features and played a more aggressive role in reporting on and interpreting the world stage. While winning a mere two Pulitzer Prizes in the 1920s, The Times went on to win seven in the 1930s and nine in the 1940s.
The impact on live entertainment was quite similar. Let’s take the cases of George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and the team of Rodgers and Hart. We must be forever grateful for the player piano for bringing out Gershwin’s talent – he developed his craft making hundreds of piano rolls in Tin Pan Alley for these mechanical devices. Writing for vaudeville shows, he generated songs that grew virally into hits with the assistance of radio and records. He was a pioneer in the mashing together of several musical forms; ragtime, jazz, classical, dance, undoubtedly aided by the proliferation of sound made available be recorded music. Jerome Kern was a trailblazer who believed that the “book” could drive the musical revue into a coherent form rather than be subservient to melody and dance. Richard Rodgers and his lyricist partner Lorenz Hart, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, aspired to create more witty, satirical shows known as intimate revues.
Now that the more immediate aspects of live music and comedy were supplanted by radio, intensifying the pressure already exerted by cinema, vaudeville-driven live entertainment again needed to become more engaging. Sound became the next train in the mashup. As composers like Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers and Cole Porter grew in prestige through the expansion of sound technology, they were empowered to rise from their subservient role within the vaudeville format. By working closely with their lyricists, the written word would assist melody in creating a more powerful cultural force. Over the next few years a virtuous cycle developed where Times Square-centered vaudeville fed radio; the sounds were multiplied and carried around the world more rapidly than ever before; the admiration and feedback on what worked best provided better nutrition to feed the creative forces of vaudeville-driven live entertainment. By the late twenties, the American story-driven musical was born with breakthrough shows like “Strike up the Band” composed by George Gershwin and “Showboat,” composed by Jerome Kern and produced by Florenz Ziegfield. By this time, the visionary Ziegfield had realized that his standard formula of melody, spectacle, beauty and dance could no longer stand out in a world dominated by movies and sound. In 1931, Gershwin’s musical “Of Thee I Sing” with a book by George S. Kaufman would become the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Let’s consider that a Pulitzer is usually an honor granted to creators of plays and novels. Its bestowment to Gershwin and Kaufman is a testament to how the integrated musical was driven by a shift in ratio to the written word. Richard Kislan points out how this could be measured to the precision of minutes in his review of Rodgers and Hart’s contribution to the musical form:
“In those days, the musical comedy score averaged eighteen numbers, including reprises. The Rodgers and Hart average for twenty-seven shows was thirteen songs each, including reprises. Taylor reasoned that an average of thirteen numbers per show allowed for fifteen more minutes of dialogue and thus permitted the story to play out with more validity and plausibility.”
And now another breakthrough. Just as the integrated musical moved forward, movies began to talk and sing. From the perspective of the ratios of the senses, one would most obviously consider silent cinema as a visual experience; we watched with no sound. But considering McLuhan’s theory, silent cinema had us listening with our eyes; we compensated by amplifying the visuals to include the sound that was lacking and could only be suggested with the limited text that was presented. Some of the best artists in the silent era played upon this by filling the screen with images that could only be fully appreciated because the sense of sight was heightened by the lack of sound (view The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or any Todd Browning/Lon Chaney silent collaboration to better experience this). But now the ratios would rebalance. Cinema now could serve both senses, raising the potential for human experience. And of course the most endearing form of sound is music. From the very beginning, Broadway was the content of sound cinema. “The Jazz Singer” starring the vaudevillian Al Jolson and featuring many of his most renowned songs, was the first major sound film. Broadway melodramas such as “Forty Second Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933,” as well as the Times Square centered fables of Damon Runyon were often the story lines of early talking cinema. The Broadway choreographer Busby Berkeley, a pioneer in the crossover between Broadway and Hollywood, would powerfully integrate dance, film and music by staging musical numbers that spilled off the stage into an expanded cinema space, much like how the lighting spectaculars had climbed up buildings. He would make the camera into a dancer itself, its eye moving under chorus legs and soaring above the stage to assume the eye of a flying observer.
Cinema would now have another transforming impact on Times Square. While the center of the entertainment industry moved west, Times Square’s overwhelming density and electricity enhanced its role as the focus of movie promotion. The best product of the Hollywood studios premiered in its grand movie palaces and the major stars of the motion pictures would continue to make live appearances in Broadway theaters. Through radio broadcasts, especially the gossip of Walter Winchell, the nation would be engrossed in the coming and goings of the Broadway crowd. This was an expansion of Times Square’s role as a neuron in the global communications network, a place to showcase events that were broadcast across the media landscape. But from here on, the power of Times Square as a physical space driving our collective ratio of the senses would begin a decline lasting over several decades. With sound cinema now dominating the space once taken by live entertainment and more people listening to radio in their homes, there was now a glut of theater capacity. The lesser theaters of the area might have become obsolete and bulldozed for other uses. But no – many survived by reverting back to Times Square’s roots as a place of powerful, intense exchange coupled with the spirit of the carnival. They converted to a more gritty version of cinema and live entertainment that would satisfy the growing masses of folk seeking cheap entertainment. Many would revert to the carnival atmosphere of burlesque, a raunchier, sexually overt version of vaudeville.
III. THE FIRST PARADOX PERIOD – THE LIGHT BEFORE THE ABYSS
Through the next few decades, Times Square’s media ecology, so conducive to media development for decades, would break down into paradoxical forces. The general nature of the street would revert more and more to the carnival with grittier entertainment mediums such as pinball arcades, dime museums, and shooting galleries springing up throughout the district. This was prompted in no small way by the massive crowds of young servicemen who converged there in the periods before, during and right after WWII. At the same time, however, two of its greatest institutions, the electronic light display and the integrated musical, would take major leaps forward.
GOLDEN AGE OF LIGHT
Douglas Leigh would become the next great innovator of the light spectacular and his great inspiration would be the World’s Fair of 1939 in Flushing, New York. By this time, the World’s ’ Fair as a form of media had also transformed into a higher form; in name and content it would truly aspire to create “The World of Tomorrow.” The light displays and art design were more futuristic, the commercial displays more overpowering, and the technology showcased more spectacular. It was here that television was first showcased, its content consisting of musical performances and horse races. Like the innovators before him, Leigh brought the grand ideas of the World’s Fair to Times Square aided by the new technology of neon.
Leigh viewed the city as a canvas upon which carnival-like promotion could be painted with precision, playing upon its environmental features. According to Darcy Tell “He carefully considered the visual possibilities of his sites – how high they were, how far and from which direction they could be seen, and how they related to nearby signs.” Influenced by the cinema and the short cartoons that often accompanied a movie feature, Leigh and his peers developed technologies that enabled street-size displays incorporating moving neon images, oversized cartoons, and larger-than-life consumer products. As with Gude’s earlier creations, many provided mini-performances that recurred every few minutes. According to McLuhan, cartoons are a “cool” medium, as their warped replication of life requires us to engage in filling in more visionary detail. Coupled with the “light-through” effects of their giant canvasses, these cartoon displays drew enormous crowds and a bountiful flow of advertiser dollars. Leigh also embellished the “dramatization” of advertising. Giant coffee cups oozed steam, huge smoke rings emanated from a cowboy’s mouth, semi-nude models on top of the Bond Clothiers building were placed alongside waterfalls and flashing lights. Leigh envisioned that buildings could be converted into giant billboards. In 1953, he purchased the Times Tower and would supervise its conversion from stone to glass and steel. Because of its failure as a commercial tower, it would eventually become the giant billboard that he had envisioned, now predominantly a structure to support video screens, electric billboards and dancing advertisements. It is still home to the zipper and New Year’s ball, the building’s mainstays for decades.
GOLDEN AGE OF MUSICALS
The product of the musical theater reached new heights as well from the early 1940s through the 1960s. The most successful team of the era, Rodgers and Hammerstein, were creative forces in the first successful integrated musicals of the 1920s. Oscar Hammerstein II, a contemporary of Lorenz Hart at Columbia, would replace him as the lyricist partner to Richard Rodgers. This team manifested itself less as a lyricist matched to a composer and more as an integrated dramatic force. There can be no doubt that the mashing media around them had an impact. Radio had matured to become a standard in every home and swallowed live vaudeville. Sound cinema had now matured to provide a more powerful ratio of the senses with more engaging story-telling (written word), cinematography (visual), character development (visual matched to written word), editing (visual/tactile) and musical score (sound). Not only were these mediums gaining cohesiveness, they were churning out content at a breakneck speed. Film historians believe 1939 was the greatest year for the American film (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind and Stagecoach to name a few of the year’s best). Television was on the horizon, growing as another media competitor in the early forties. And of course Rodgers and Hammerstein were witnesses to the evolution of light in Times Square over their decades of work within the district.
With Oklahoma in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein would achieve a more powerful ratio of the senses in live theater. The role of the written word expanded to become the dominant force; the book in Oklahoma is a fairly literal adaptation of the play Green Grow the Lilacs. Music and lyrics primarily serve the purpose of driving drama and character; the director Rouben Mamoulian articulated this as dialogue to music, or speech becoming song. The show’s score is outstanding, but it could be argued that many of Rodgers’ hits from the two preceding decades are just as endearing. However, because of the drive to create depth in story and character, his earlier work rarely comes close in emotion and mood. As Meryle Secrest stated in her biography of Richard Rodgers, Oklahoma’s power was more than just the continuing integration of song and story that had been ongoing for decades:
“Oklahoma’s uniqueness stemmed from the extent to which song, dance, story, costumes, scenery, and lighting had coalesced into the kind of total theatre so often extolled in theory and so difficult to achieve in fact. As Mark Steyn wrote, ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein …fused the naturalism of the straight play, the musicality of the operetta, the color and imagery of musical comedy lyrics and the emotional sweep of dance.”
We should also note that the height of WWII was just the right time for this uplifting fable reinforcing American values at a moment of great anxiety. Surely the rousing love story inside the Saint James Theater contrasted greatly with the shenanigans of the servicemen on leave outside in the Square. R&H would go further with their next musical Carousel, a darker story about a loser carnival barker, Billy Bigelow, who is driven to crime in the hopes of supporting his expecting wife and future child. Who in the audience doesn’t shed a tear when Billy sings his Soliloquy as he anticipates fatherhood while wrestling with his flaws?
Going forward, musicals would continue to debut in a wide variety and intensity of sense ratios. Many will achieve success merely based on their vaudevillian mix of music and comedy while others will thrive by showcasing dance. But the most memorable achieve a powerful ratio utilizing the diverse elements of drama and music. Many of the best achievements, like Gypsy and Funny Girl would take as their content the drama of vaudeville and the carnival. Some would even bring the drama of the street into the theater as in the way Guys and Dolls dramatizes the Times Square street-life immortalized by Damon Runyon. And let’s explore further the powerful mix of sensory stimulation in the musical West Side Story. Its literary source is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set to the gang wars of the city’s Upper West Side. Dance is an empowering motif, used to convey sexual awakening, satire in the way of gestures, and violent emotions. The grit of the streets comes alive through soaring melodies, creating a glorification of dense urban life. But it is the drive of the story, supported by these elements, that creates the depth of emotion. The optimism we feel when Tony sings the upbeat Something’s Coming is eventually shattered as we observe his death as the ultimate outcome of the drama. Every time I hear the song, I contemplate how optimism can be callously shattered if we allow dark forces to take control of our environment.
IV. THE ABYSS
And this is indeed what happened to Times Square in the latter part of the 1960s. While the carnival spirit had been gradually taking back the streets, up until around the mid-sixties this was more or less a mild phenomenon; low brow entertainment prevailed overall as a higher quality product was presented in the high-end theaters. But three forces would dramatically drive the district’s sense ratios completely out of balance. First, post-war economic policy was subsidizing a decentralized society based upon the ideal of the automobile and the suburban home. The central city would become less important for work and entertainment. Second, legal decisions easing freedom of expression permitted the proliferation of pornography in public spaces. While society would encourage more openness around these mediums and the types of businesses that would thrive on them, it was desirable to keep this exchange controlled and confined to certain districts within the major cities. Third and most important, entertainment and news would now be consumed mainly through television, the great leap forward in light-through technologies. Television would enter nearly every home by the early sixties. To McLuhan, this rapidly and disruptively created a shift in society from the visual, individual print paradigm to the acoustic, communal paradigm of a collective consciousness. This device created a completely new sensory environment. We now more easily engaged in a global village, “hearing” our news and entertainment with our ears more than our eyes from a fairly small, somewhat hazy screen of images. Yes, we viewed television with our eyes, but we received and accepted information as if we were listening to a tribal village elder. To McLuhan, it didn’t matter as much what we were hearing and watching; what mattered more was our shift to a linked, geographically limitless environment. Television’s light through properties, like the stained glass windows of a church and the Times Square spectaculars, placed a great mass of media consumers under an hypnotic spell.
Television would intensify the global communications network and thereby drive forward the concept of a world-wide extension of the human central nervous system. While Times Square continued its role as a communication hub, this early era of global transformation would not be kind to it. With a society focusing on suburban environments, the media community now based in the home would displace the media community formerly based in public spaces. Through television, many of the more immediate, inexpensive entertainments could be consumed at the mere cost of viewing commercials, mainly for the same vice-related products that had bleared out from Times Square spectaculars. Like all new forms of media, TV revived prior media forms for its developmental nutrition - vaudeville style variety and teleplays were its early mainstay. But eventually, it would insatiably swallow up the content created in these mediums and divert much of the money and talent supporting other mediums as well, leaving little but scraps for what came before it. Even second run movies, the mainstay of Times Square’s lesser theater venues, would find a more economical supply and demand exchange mechanism in television. Let’s also now consider that through these decades, the area around Times Square continued as a fantastic people machine. It’s role as a transportation hub was enhanced by the opening of the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 8th Avenue and 42nd Street in 1950. With millions still stomping around the district, there was a large population looking for diversions, but what would fill the void left by television? What would these prior mediums revert to in order to survive in a rapidly changing media landscape?
Unfortunately, they would serve up the most repressed, evil wishes of the carnival to a community of lost souls. These lost souls, predominantly middle-class men semi-discarnate from their everyday beings, would come to Times Square anonymously, feeding on the sexual circus that had overcome this dense and tiny district. While all of Times Square was infected, the center of the media wound was 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, once home to many of the great theaters now showing X-rated films. Here, the exchange of all types of sexual deviancy, drugs, stolen goods and other forms of corruption reigned with reckless abandon. Times Square had now seen seventy years of media mashing – it was embedded in its nature. But now these forces of competition and convergence would convulse into a rapid downward spiral, like filth down a drain, similar in force to the great media developments of earlier decades yet completely in the other direction. Let’s not forget however that from the standpoint of an exchange mechanism, this was a fair bargain for those wishing to engage. Peddling the forbidden in sex and drugs was quite lucrative.
While this period will be remembered as the darkest in the history of the square and a low point in the desirability of urban environments in general, it wasn’t all dollars and sex. Mediums continued to evolve creatively and genius was achieved, often by integrating the features of the emerging media challengers. Let’s now take the case of Bob Fosse, a performer and more importantly producer who not only spanned the great age of musicals and the fall of Times Square, but was a walking embodiment of media integration. Fosse was raised in the carnival atmosphere of vaudeville and burlesque. A child dance prodigy, he performed in an act called “The Riff Brothers” between the endless stream of strippers in sleazy clubs. The seedy lifestyle of the road and raucous entertainment were ingrained in his psyche from an early age and would forever influence his creative and personal life. While his unique style and sheer physical power as a dancer was unequalled, he migrated to the role of choreographer and director early in his career after a brief try in Hollywood. Some say he just wasn’t good looking enough to be the next Gene Kelly, while others say he was born to lead rather than follow, but this fortunate turn had him directing musical numbers in major Broadway productions in his twenties. While performance on a grand scale was now behind him, Fosse periodically would be associated with the lead in Pal Joey, a Rodgers and Hart musical about a sleazy, devious night club host (he understudied the role in the early 50s and played the lead for a brief run in the early 60s).
Having already chewed through two brief marriages, he married the dance star he directed in Damn Yankees, Gwen Verdon, already a legend in her own right. This on-stage and off-stage collaboration produced a series of successful musicals in the late fifties and sixties where Fosse progressively stretched himself to become the leading creative force; his star as a Broadway director rose as Times Square fell into disgrace, and his vision reflected this. The high point of this collaboration was the musical Sweet Charity, the story of an endearing prostitute disguised as a dance hostess, but of course this didn’t fool anyone (it was based on the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria where the lead’s profession was fully transparent). The decadence and cynicism of the street was more and more finding a place into the content of the musical theater. Fosse’s sense ratio was less weighed towards the book and more focused on character, dance and mystique. His choreography was sensual and liberating within a framework that was more like a highly stylized vaudeville than a fully integrated musical. At that, his musicals were hugely popular with audiences liberated sexually from the bonds of the early post-war period.
Having conquered the musical, Fosse dreamed from his early days in Hollywood of succeeding in film. The success of Sweet Charity gave him that chance, but his initial shot at directing a major film was a failure. While the dancing in the film is to his standards, Fosse too often treated the camera as another member of the ensemble – it takes on a life of its own in many scenes and often distracts from the action on screen. Also, perhaps the sensibilities of increasingly cynical audiences made it more difficult to accept characters launching into song and dance in film. Fosse was depressed and thinking his career was over, but he was on a crash course with another show and another media mash. The musical Cabaret, set in a decadent Berlin nightclub during the rise of Nazism, was chock full of characters out of Fosse’s psyche; a disturbing emcee, an emotionally and sexually liberated young singer named Sally Bowles, second rate dancers and strippers, all, like the dregs of Times Square, tenuously floating in a society on the cusp of moral corruption. Although uninvolved in the original Broadway production, Fosse landed the film’s director role with a mix of luck and perspiration (the director of the live production, Harold Prince, was unavailable). He drove an integrated vision unique in the crossover between musical theater and film. As Martin Gottfried describes in “All His Jazz;” his biography of Fosse:
“He…..enthusiastically supported Feuer’s notion of dropping all musical numbers that were not ‘justified,’ that is, keeping only the songs where songs would be sung in real life. This mainly meant entertainment in the cabaret. For Bob, this was a lesson learned from Sweet Charity, whose musical numbers in the streets had seemed stagey, the success of West Side Story (the movie) not withstanding. Musical logic was going to be taken so seriously in Cabaret that had the movie been wall-to-wall with song and dance, it would still not have seemed to be a musical. Even the numbers in the cabaret would be more than entertainments. They would (and this was a fascinating notion of Fosse’s) relate to the dramatic action. For instance, Sally Bowles might be in a laundry when she flirts with a rich German. He is driven off in a limousine. After the camera has lingered lovingly on the automobile, the movie cuts to the cabaret where Joel Grey and Liza Minelli barrel through “The Money Song.” In this same fashion, either a scene would be followed by a musical number that related to it, or the number would be done and then a relevant stretch of the story would follow.”
In this way the film is effectively balanced in ratio between story and music, aided by the dramatic, dancing and musical talents of Liza Minelli and Joel Grey. The success of Cabaret shot Fosse into overdrive. While creating a new vaudevillian musical called Pippin, Fosse directed Minelli in a television special that also won critical acclaim, Liza with a Z. Although the broadcast had its share of ensemble razzle dazzle numbers, this was overall an intimate portrait of a woman brought up to you close and personal, like a guest in your living room. By the end of 1973, Fosse would win an Oscar for Cabaret, an emmy for Liza with a Z, and a Tony for Pippin, the only person to win all three awards in one year. This is was the crowning achievement for a talent who learnt to optimize the unique sense ratios of three different mediums. Fosse further demonstrated this by pioneering the use of the television commercial to promote Pippin, the first musical to do so.
Fosse’s life was pure chaos; a myriad of tenuous business and emotional relationships, huge swings of euphoria and depression, constant battles with health problems made worse by chain-smoking and pill-popping. This chaos mirrored that which reigned in Times Square from the late sixties to early eighties. Yet the theater industry survived and the light spectaculars, though dimmed, remained a force through the darkest period. Fosse’s cynical genius helped to keep the creative spirit alive by driving the sound and sights of Broadway across several mediums. By doing so through the darkest days of mayhem, he helped plant the seeds for the comeback.
One step in creating a vision for the future was resurrecting a past media development that helped give the district its unique flavor. In the mid-eighties, seeing the threat that major office buildings imposed to destroy the district’s glitz, ordinances were passed that mandated light and signage in front of buildings. A new unit of measure was introduced, the LUTS (Light Unit Times Square) that quantified the amount of light generated by signs and forced a minimum production quotient. Light, the medium denoted by McLuhan as pure information, was now recognized through zoning ordinances as having a profound message; it was a pillar of the neighborhood’s identity in its own right, whether it wrote out a message or not. McLuhan would have probably appreciated the LUTS, an attempt to measure the temperature of light as if it could be measured with a thermometer, a unique attempt to quantify the temperature of media.
V. BRIDGING THE FALL AND THE REVIVAL– A TALE OF TWO THEATERS
Up to now, we have spoken much of mediums developing in Times Square (vaudeville, cinema, the integrated musical) but little of the structures that housed them. Let us now focus on the power of the theater buildings themselves, some of which are landmarked and have lived on through decades as Times Square’s finest classic features. Like televisions, computers and the emerging mobile devices of today, these mediums create powerful messages of their own that shape our interaction with the content provided. Some theaters inspire in their artistic details and they way they frame the stage in ornament and dimension. Others create near perfect ratios of sound and sight through designs that maximize acoustics, sight lines or both. Passion for the preservation of the early theaters, despite their obsolescence in many cases, has led to major protests whenever one is threatened by the prospect of another high rise. The crown jewels of the medium, found mainly on 44th and 45th Streets between Seventh and Eighth, have always been desired as the home for the best product of the industry, despite the more modern, spacious yet undistinguished theaters that were built more recently within new skyscrapers or over the graves of pornographic grind houses. But the lesser theaters, those either too small, too poorly designed, or just too far from the center of the action, would need to capture a more exotic form of content to survive.
The Line at the Door
Let’s consider 254 West 54th Street. Opened in 1927 as an opera house, the theater quickly gained a reputation for bad luck and changed hands many times, at one point becoming a federal theater during the Great Depression. Seeming to acknowledge its failure to compete as a live venue, it moved to another form of content early in its life and was purchased by CBS in 1942, becoming the home of radio and television broadcasts over the next few decades. While it wasn’t pretty or large enough to hold its own for opera or musicals, it was versatile enough to be rewired for shows that could be consumed in cooler mediums, maintaining a small live audience. Thus a symbiosis was maintained here as it was for several other New York theaters in the early years of broadcasting. But as the center of broadcasting moved to the West Coast in the 1960s, 254 West 54th Street would again need to transform itself or die. Perhaps it could have lived on as another pornographic showcase, but the vice district was centered twelve blocks south – it was simply too far out on the fringe to gain support from either legitimate or illegitimate theater.
In another case of mad genius, two promoters would take the dimensions of the theater and transform it in the pursuit of a great social experiment. Disco dancing and music had become a social phenomenon by the late 1970s, aided by the success of the film Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack. As we discussed earlier, danger and crime were in the air; the city was struggling with bankruptcy and simply couldn’t afford to address casual drug use and other mild forms of social deviancy. Why not create a nightclub filled with the sights and sounds of this popular culture form where social deviancy would be encouraged in ways that would further entice the senses? And why not target the popular celebrities of the day, promoting it through one of the endearing themes of Times Square – a place where the underworld meets the elite? Studio 54 was born in April 1977 and was an instant phenomenon. To its founders, Schrager and Rubell, the magic was in creating an overpowering ratio of the senses. According to Everything2.com:
“No expense was spared when selecting sound and lighting equipment. The club employed a lighting and sound staff of about five people who each worked a 40 hour week maintaining the equipment. The lighting design was cutting-edge and the sound system’s power and clarity put the club at the forefront of technical innovation.”
The mix of the crowd, often hand-picked by Rubell at the door, was also an important component of the experience. Of course, the top line celebrities would always get through the door, but even the anonymous working class stiff could get in with the right personality and style. And the ratio of the theater’s dimensions were maximized to create a spacious dance floor, adequate bar space and more private areas such as the balcony where social deviancy in the form of sex and drug use could be practiced out of plain sight. Light, sound, dance, celebrities, drugs, sex; this was the ultimate nightclub of the era, a darker, modern version of Ziegfield’s Rooftop Garden. After nearly three years of star-powered bravado, the splendor came to a crashing end when the mad geniuses were swiftly brought down by tax evasion charges. While others would attempt to regain the golden mean of disco decadence, its days as a dance club were finished.
Yet another comeback was in store for the now famous address, and it was driven by the very same musical that Bob Fosse mashed against in his great comeback. A revival of Cabaret in 1997 had become a huge success for the Roundabout Theatre Company, supported by the concept of seating the audience cabaret style, creating a sense within the audience that they were truly part of the show. As Roundabout searched for a long-term home for the musical, Studio 54 was wasting away for more than a decade. With its legendary reputation for decadence and notoriety, what better location could there be to recreate Cabaret’s sleazy nightclub mystique? In an ingenious matching of content and medium, Cabaret would thrive at Studio 54 for nearly six years and the theater is now a permanent fixture in Roundabout’s portfolio of theater venues.
New Amsterdam and the New 42nd Street
Let’s now move twelve blocks south to the New Amsterdam Theater, built in 1903, which also survives as a transformative symbol of Times Square. It also started with lofty ambitions, resplendent with ornamental reliefs and murals and presenting Shakespeare and literary plays, but it wouldn’t hit its stride until Florenz Ziegfeld made it the home of his “Follies” in 1913. These shows and the rooftop nightclub that entertained into the early morning hours would be the content of the New Amsterdam for the next several years until advances in cinema and radio would render this grandiose entertainment obsolete. It would later offer cinema, and like Studio 54, would partially convert to a TV studio during the medium’s early days. But whereas Studio 54 resided at the fringe of the abyss when the district declined in the 60s and 70s, the New Amsterdam was centrally located within the deepest circle of hell, 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue. It was given landmark status in 1979 and was the studio from which the daily lottery ball runs were broadcast for a time, perhaps a metaphor for its fight against very long odds. A gem among ruffians, she was simply too good for the riffraff that trafficked around her and the only solution was to close the doors.
For years, the city had proposed large-scale real estate projects to revitalize the blighted block. The theaters and sex shops along 42nd Street had been condemned or shuttered, yet no combination of government subsidies and hype could overcome the giant egos and widespread corruption in city government, nor the wild gyrations of the real estate economy. While the northern reaches of Times Square had somewhat revived in the real estate boom of the mid-eighties, the collapse of the city economy by 1990 would postpone any grand plans for the wound of 42nd Street and lower Times Square for several years.
Then a smart plan emerged. With the central area now substantially shuttered and the sex industry moved slightly west and south, why not create a temporary, small scale revitalization that could be dismantled when the real estate market recovered? This was the purpose of the 42nd Street Now Project, acknowledging that a more specialized, eccentric presence would be more appropriate for the district at this point in time rather than mega development. Enough interest was generated to bring suitors to the block and most of us remember what happened next. Michael Eisner of the Walt Disney Company trenched through the flooded ruins of the New Amsterdam and entertained the idea of revitalizing it to showcase Disney’s nascent move into musical plays. With major concessions from the city and state in hand, the New Amsterdam was rechristened by Disney, and while the role this played in the revival of Times Square is perhaps more myth than reality, the interplay between the theater and the conglomerate is another epic in media mashing.
The traditional medium, the landmarked New Amsterdam, needed desperately to transform. Challenges from several waves of media (cinema, radio, television, pornography, Mayor Koch) had decimated it to near annihilation. Disney needed a prominent home to present its musical plays, a new form of Disney-branded media. The promotional machine would be assisted by placing that content in a theater that packed a powerful message. The near century old New Amsterdam, one-time home to Ziegfeld, survivor of the abyss, steps from the New Years ball drop, and smack on top of one of the world’s great transportation hubs, was ideal to create that powerful message. But none of this would have worked if the content that eventually filled the medium was no more engaging than a Disney on Ice show transformed to Broadway (the ice would have probably melted and flooded the basement for the second time). Disney strived for a breakthrough production, commissioning a promising up and coming performance artist, July Tramoor, to transform the movie Lion King into a Broadway production. The result was an innovative work that even Ziegfeld would have appreciated, highlighted by intricate costumes that convincingly transformed actors into animals while retaining their human personas. Disney had apparently seen the wisdom of 42nd Street Now and opted for an experimental, risky project rather than a shoveled version of its standard theme park fare. Set in the opulent design of the New Amsterdam, Lion King became a smash success and is now well into its second decade on Broadway, although recently transitioned to a larger theater three blocks north. Again, the symbiosis between traditional and new media forms created a heightened ratio of the senses and an advance in human experience.
VI. A CHORUS LINE OF CORPORATIONS – REVIVAL IN FULL SWING
It had taken decades of ups, downs and sideways, much like the notorious street game Three Card Monte that played in Times Square through the dark years, but now a new balance of innovation, safety, and economic optimism would create an environment ready for development on a grand scale. In the Nietzchean tradition where what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, the great century-old medium of Times Square, a prolific media-mashing machine still overflowing with the content of eyeballs and dancing feet, was ready to transform again with new cultural and commercial content. From a technological standpoint, the period of the mid-90s was a time of maturity for the cable television industry where major content providers like Disney and Viacom had expanded to supply several channels of programming. It was also a mature age for print media, with The New York Times and magazine publishers like Conde Nast transforming their content with new technologies expanding color and photographic capabilities. As they had in the past, these and other media brands would seek out Times Square’s legacy as a node in the global communications network to create and transmit their media messages.
The power of exchange had always made Times Square ideal for the sale of products, mainly through advertising on billboards but also at the retail level, although most recently the trade had been mainly in prostitution and stolen goods. Now that the deviant element had been diminished, retailers saw the potential to combine promotion and retail on a grand scale to create a more powerful consumer experience. Having perfected their marketing methods in malls across America, major retail corporations would be attracted to Times Square’s resurgent crowds and round the clock global exposure.
With almost the same rapidity in which X-rated theaters and prostitution overtook the area decades earlier, a veritable chorus line of corporations and retailers stomped into the district or expanded their presence through the late 1990s, ushered in by the intensifying glitz of all those LUTS-inspired signs. While many consumers were still drawn to the area for the musicals and a taste of the forbidden (the deviant trade in strip joints, prostitution and swag remained true to its nature in isolated pockets, but could no longer complete on a grand scale), it was also now a destination for corporate commerce and shopping, fueled by the transportation flow of subways underneath, cabs on the surface, and televised exposure from above. Ironically, Times Square had incorporated in many ways the content that had been its major competition and a huge reason for its downfall a generation before; suburban chain stores and restaurants, theme park attractions, and often cookie-cutter, bland entertainment (beyond Lion King, most of the other Disney musicals, for those above the age of nine, would have been better off performed on ice or buried within it). But in many cases, the content of other mediums was integrated into Times Square’s own unique framework and transformed. Let’s site some examples. Cross-promoting its expanding empire of cable channels, the Disney conglomerate would increase its theatrical productions, install a Disney retail store next to the New Amsterdam, and open an ESPN Zone across the street. Perhaps most strikingly, Disney relocated its ABC studios one block north with windows overlooking the square and a new curved zipper snaking headlines over Broadway. Good Morning America was swallowed into the content of Times Square and simultaneously Times Square’s backdrop became an important component of the show. Reuters, the international wire service, would take residence next to the Times Tower and beam photographs and videos up into space off of its new thirty story skyscraper. Viacom would install an MTV studio across the street from the ABC location, beaming images of Times Square across the globe and, similar to the decades-old New Year’s Eve phenomenon, attracting a physical audience, in this case screaming teenagers on the street outside its window. Reminiscent of the carnival, the four story ferris wheel in the Toys R Us flagship store became an instant tourist attraction, even when one considers that its main purpose was to orient the rider to the variety of products sold over several floors.
There were still many touches of prior media convergences and artistic achievement. All over the Square, talented street performers were reminiscent of vaudeville acts that once dominated the district and light spectaculars now danced higher above buildings. While we have already mentioned Cabaret’s ingenious revival, a Fosse musical from the dark years of the 1970s was revived to major acclaim. Chicago rekindled the appreciation of Fosse’s dance style, so much so that a revue musical simply called Fosse soon followed. One of my favorite musicals from the era was called The Life, which in a Runyonian style immortalized the antics of pimps and prostitutes, now safely consumed to music inside the theater rather than on the street outside. While critics complained about the lack of quality and the often Las Vegas style of entertainment, we must consider that the tactile nature of live entertainment can drive engagement even without the best in prose, melody or dance. It’s true that when lazy producers simply shovel the content of another medium onto the stage to make a quick dollar, the result is weak if not downright insulting to the senses. But while seeing a woman dismembered and put back together by the magician David Copperfield might not have been as engaging to some as a revival of Kiss Me Kate, it satiated audiences looking for divertissements more in the tradition of the carnival or early vaudeville. Despite the evolution of new media forms and sense ratios, these baser entertainments will always have a place within this dense, urban version of the World’s Fair.
EXCHANGE/CARNIVAL/VAUDEVILLE/DANCE/TEXT/LIGHT/CINEMA/SOUND/MUSICAL/TELEVISION/ EXCHANGE/ABYSS/SURVIVAL/GLOBAL COMMERCE
The resurgence of Times Square occurred simultaneously with the birth of the commercial internet. In its early stage, the internet was more of a curiosity than a functional exchange mechanism, but an equilibrium soon emerged between traditional media companies and the internet startups. Traditional media would utilize the internet as another way to distribute their products to new audiences and those existing consumers curious to see their content transformed to a new medium. Like cinema in its early stage serving as a component of vaudeville, this served mainly as innocuous promotion as the emerging medium remained limited in its scope. Simultaneously, the internet utilized the content of traditional media to create its initial audiences. As the decade progressed, traditional media would greatly profit from the promotion of the internet as start-ups aggressively competed for attention in the dominant media forms of day; television, newspapers and the growing advertising marketplace of Times Square, now resplendent with new technologies to keep ahead of those LUTS requirements.
In 1999, The NASDAQ stock exchange, an electronic market that thrived on creating and trading on the virtual wealth of the internet start-ups, a stock exchange with no physical trading floor, chose the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street next to the Times Tower to become its “Marketsite.” It started promoting and beaming the price quotes of its various stocks from an image screen shaped like a soda can (perhaps the initial concept in a Douglas Leigh-like dramatization of a consumer product). Throughout the day, the site began hosting a live financial broadcast from its street level studio. While another case of an entity utilizing Times Square as a node in a global information network, NASDAQ’s presence also denotes an important milestone in the convergence of media and finance drawn together within this powerful exchange mechanism. If you were a major bank or investment company, why remain cloistered in the reserved atmosphere of Wall Street or Park Avenue when your financial instruments could be promoted in Times Square in the same manner as Coca Cola, Budweiser, or Hershey’s Chocolate? Similar to the armed forces, why not utilize the same mashing mechanism that has driven the great media evolutions of the past century? Morgan Stanley had already established an international headquarters at the north end the Square and was building another on Seventh Avenue and 49th Street, this one with a series of LED panels that would climb up the building in vivid color images that was the cutting edge of light technology.
So now we have in Times Square the convergence of media and finance promoting a brand new medium, the internet that holds the promise of swallowing up all media forms, just as Times Square has been doing for decades. Proclaiming “Content is King” and fueled by the megadealing of Wall Street, Viacom would purchase CBS in 1999, contending that integrated content across various traditional and emerging platforms was the key to success in the internet age. Approximately a year later, AOL would swallow Time Warner in a gluttonous gulp that could have only been enabled by the jaws of intricate financial packaging, also proclaiming the mantra of convergence in content and electronic distribution. Traditional media was having it both ways; while profiting from its promotion as a growth platform, they also saw the internet as a mechanism that could absorbed and controlled within their overall framework. Newly issued internet stocks would climb into the stratosphere, beaming higher and higher from the NASDAQ soda can by the year 2000. And add to this the approach of the new millennium, an event celebrated on New Years Eve, the event most notably associated with Times Square. The district was thriving in ways it hadn’t seen since the 1920s.
Overall, the dominating forces in this revival were the exchange of global commerce, the hype over the internet, and the euphoria over the approaching new millennium. Here was a heightened ratio of the senses integrating written symbols, fantastic light, moving images, the energy of immense international crowds, the tactile, often magical draw of live entertainment, and the carnival nature of a transcending event. By New Years Eve 1999, Times Square was resonating, the world’s public square ringing in the new millennium, its images familiar to billions across the planet. Indeed, all media was thriving, buoyed by an event that happens once every thousand years. Surely McLuhan would have appreciated how a community of a million people packed into a few blocks would serve as the content, through television and the emerging internet, of an integrated global celebration.
EXCHANGE/CARNIVAL/VAUDEVILLE/DANCE/TEXT/LIGHT/CINEMA/SOUND/MUSICAL/TELEVISION/ EXCHANGE/ABYSS/SURVIVAL/GLOBAL COMMERCE/MILLENIUM
VII. UNLEASHING THE REPRESSED WISHES OF THE NEW MILLENIUM
The euphoria of the new millennium would fade quickly. Once the aura of the changing of the calendar dissipated, it was inevitable that illusions would give way to reality. By the early spring of 2000, all those internet stock prices, sold like soda frothing from an oversized can on 43rd Street, were deemed highly overvalued. Many of the traditional media companies most fearful of the internet startups would breathe a collective sigh of relief as the unsound foundation of their business models was exposed. Like a chorus line of broken legs, the internet bubble collapsed, ringing in the first recession of the decade.
And then an unthinkable event like no other would occur just a few miles south of Times Square on a sunny blue-sky day in September 2001. I was working in Times Square on that day, and I foolishly went out at lunch thinking that my bank was open. The streets were for the most part deserted as everyone just wanted to escape. After all, as we were reminded as recently as April 2010, what could be a more powerful target than Times Square itself? The district is always at its least impressive on a bright sunny day, and I could hardly notice anything but the black clouds of smoke emanating from lower Manhattan. Some of the TV screens were showing the aftermath of the disaster, but many were blank, as if made speechless by what had happened. Then out of nowhere came the thunderous noise of a moving vehicle. I turned to see a man on a motorcycle, a skull hanging off the back bumper, some anarchistic message scribbled across his license plate. Amid all the light displays made practically unnoticeable by the bright sunshine, his apocalyptic message would ring loud and clear for that brief moment. I was again reminded of the how war can act as a form of media itself, creating fear, anger and the impulse to react.
After months of collective mourning, we moved on. While subdued by the tragedy and the economic slowdown, Times Square and the theater industry slowly recovered. Aided by the easy flow of money enabled by our Central Bank’s fiscal policy, a new recovery took hold within two years of the tragedy, and the exchange mechanism was bustling once again. Another financial giant would move to Times Square. Having lost its home to the attack in the World Financial Center downtown, Lehman Brothers would take over Morgan Stanley’s LED-laden tower on the upper fringe of Times Square. The attack also helped reinforce Times Square’s position as a chief neuron in the global central nervous system. The collapse of the World Trade Center included the destruction of a series of major communications antennae. To serve as both a primary and backup transmitter for major broadcasters, a new, larger antenna was installed on top of the Conde Nast Building, or 4 Times Square in 2003, directly above the NASDAQ soda can. It stands there today in a somewhat ominous way, dominating the sky over this corner of Times Square, like a giant hypodermic needle shooting media messages into the sky.
The internet bubble had seemed like such a waste of billions, but in its aftermath emerged the first great enterprises of the new medium, and they were completely unanticipated by those media giants proclaiming “content is king.” The early development of the commercial internet is a story dominated by technology and speed driven by small, nimble enterprises. The large media conglomerates were unable to absorb and control the internet within their framework; these technologies took on a life of their own and created their own unique messages. By the middle of the decade, the internet was a full blown threat to traditional media, swallowing its content but offering no clear path to monetization. We reviewed earlier how television had gradually swallowed all media that had preceded it, but this was but a small feeding compared to the ravenous appetite of the internet. The internet swallows traditional media and creates new platforms at the speed with which data can be transported, an ever-accelerating phenomenon; first text, then graphics, then photos, then video, and now any mix of the above. In this is another parallel to the development of Times Square. Both Times Square and the internet are engaged in absorbing all forms of communication. Both are places, with real and virtual components, driven by exchanges involving millions of people, facilitated by rapid transportation. Times Square is propelled by the convergence of speeding trains, buses and taxis. The vast expanses of the internet are made accessible through transportation mechanisms called search engines and social networks of which Google and Facebook have become the early champions, the IRT and the BMT of the cyber world. One can also conceptualize these search engines and social networks as something akin to a mouthful of gnashing teeth, chewing through information at lightning speed. Accessibility is also enabled by mobile devices which bring all media to the individual wherever they choose to be. Just as Times Square expanded the mediated, metaphorical world over the last eleven decades, these new electronic technologies are accelerating the evolution of mediated environments.
So now we have entered a state where tremendous amounts of information are available to us, the information is becoming easier and faster to find, we can communicate over several platforms with anyone in the world, we can access information and communicate wherever we go, and we can easily become engulfed in this mediated world. One might surmise that this phenomenon of instant transportation through virtual space would lessen the draw of a physical gathering space like Times Square just as television did decades earlier. Yet walk among its blocks any day of the week and any time of day and one witnesses a thriving boom of energy and commerce. Fueled by the exchange mechanism, Times Square remains a physical manifestation of the media-mashing that is taking place globally at an accelerating pace through these new communication technologies. Let’s explore this through an experimental film produced in 2007, Space Times Square by Barry Vacker, a teacher of media and philosophy at Temple University.
By interconnecting various images from its electronic screens, the film creates a bold and intriguing vision of Times Square as a living organism processing information and entertainment at increasing speed. Vacker finds patterns and uncovers deeper meanings among the light-through properties of the Times Square spectaculars. Our senses are further heightened by electronic music; if information processing was a melody, this would be a feasible soundtrack. And the written word punctuates the images through poetic narrative:
We live in a cosmos of two big bangs, the expanding material universe, the expanding media universe,
Real space and cyberspace merging into an electronic curvature warping space and time around the planet,
Einstein meets Hubble meets Moore’s Law in Times Square
The images are most powerful when they juxtapose video screens on top of one another through deep focus. One juxtaposition contrasts the Armed Forces video on the front of the Times Square recruiting station against the NASDAQ soda can, a visual convergence of war and commerce. Another juxtaposition is the layering of the ABC curving zipper of headlines against the curved Toys Are Us video screen a block away, the zipper moving right to left against the images on the Toys Are Us screen moving up and down. With the chirping electronic music as backdrop, it is as if words are being counted down into ones and zeros by giant tabulators. Vacker pays special attention to the video screens climbing up the fabric of the Lehman Building, focusing on their visions of crashing waves and cars speeding into tunnels which he sees as vanishing points. He suggests that Times Square is where we can actually witness our existence turning into a mediated cosmos. The film ends with a vision of the flashing lights of a colorful spectacular contrasted against the moon:
We are destined to confront the cosmos with art and science, with theory and technology.
Taken as pure art, Space Times Square is another milestone in the succession of innovative creations like Ziegfeld Follies and West Side Story inspired by the media-mashing machine. Like Douglas Leigh gazing across the Square and dreaming up new spectaculars or Bob Fosse rushing across Seventh Avenue from a dance tryout to edit his latest film, so has another artist found his inspiration in Times Square. A mini-musical for the age of mediation, it drives its audience to rethink the bright lights, videos and zippers of Times Square in a more profound way. But the work goes even further by prophesying through images and words the greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. Counting is one of the overriding metaphors of the film. Vacker flashes the Coke Zero Spectacular with the voiceover:
The real thing is cloned as the zero. The point for countdown and blast off.
Counting is a powerful metaphor for Times Square as well, the place where we collectively count down the moments to every New Year. Vacker draws in another counting device set atop a wall on the fringe of Times Square, above the entrance to a midtown IRS office, the National Debt Clock. He punctuates this vision with the narration:
Astronomical Debt…credit line for ideological bankruptcy.
Similar to the light spectaculars that defy gravity by climbing up buildings into space, Vacker points out how our National Debt has literally leaped off the bounds of the clock itself; there are no longer enough numbers to contain it. Since the clock’s creation in 1982, there was only one brief period where the United States had actually realized a budget surplus; in the late nineties when the internet bubble was fully inflated (since there was no way to count backwards, the clock was simply turned off until the National Debt caught up again). By the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, we were into another bubble based on easy credit granted for all forms of debt, most notably mortgages. Debt had become pervasive throughout society, driven by the way finance and economics have become increasingly a form of media in their own right. Speaking of inflation in the 1970s, the prescient McLuhan, while dismissing market forces a bit too superlatively, captures the evolution of finance into the modern era:
“Our present inflation has nothing to do with supply and demand…What has happened is that the old economics and the old commodity markets are now old figures embedded in a new subliminal ground of instant and worldwide information. The new ground of electronic information is a ‘software’ information world of instant promises and instant delivery in which the old markets are used as mere pastimes.”
As we saw in the late 90s during the internet bubble, stock prices became media creations. Vacker explains this in his companion essay to his video work:
“As exemplified by the glowing stock tickers of Times Square, the data begins as abstractions mirroring real world transactions, which can be organized into patterns for anticipating the stock market, supposedly the cumulative reflection of real world economic conditions. Those patterns become the models by which the real world – mirrored in the stock market – is evaluated and understood….Yet at some point, the models no longer are about mirroring the real, but rather the real mirroring the model.”
This sounds like some sort of mediated funhouse, which brings us back to the repressed wishes of the carnival. The easy credit of the zero decade, fueled by the increasing speed of information made possible by broadband, search engines and mobile devices, enabled the mediated world of finance to blast off into space, like the most dangerous repressed wishes of the carnival. While we’ll be studying for years the underlying factors that drove the extravagant economic behavior of the last decade, perhaps the foundation of this development was the way in which new accelerating technologies disrupted the finance industry in the same way that they impacted the media industry. These technologies not only lessened the need for media companies to stand between content and consumers, they also upstaged the traditional role of finance companies as intermediaries between consumers and money. Yet within these technologies were opportunities. To grow new audiences, finance companies needed to create a more powerful ratio of the senses in the global financial markets utilizing these emerging technologies. They accomplished this by creating highly complex financial instruments, most notably the creation of securities from the packaging of sub-prime mortgages that were sold like candy on a worldwide scale. But this overpowering sense ratio wasn’t in the tradition of an integrated musical or a major work of cinema. This was unfortunately in the tradition of pornography, the lowest form of sense stimulation, like the Times Square of the seventies. Real estate had been recreated into a form that was discarnate from its underlying value, sold globally to audiences that didn’t understand the risks.
The media-mashing machine of Times Square was the ideal environment for these forces to physically manifest themselves, much like the way pornography had manifested itself decades earlier. National Debt and financial bubbles weren’t created in Times Square, but it is here that their images become magnified and more accessible, often juxtaposed with contrasting images. And as we saw during the internet bubble, Times Square is an ideal physical space to create larger than life messages for the consumption of a global audience. Let’s now take the case of Lehman Brothers, the financial firm that made Times Square its home and eventually its burial ground. This was a firm with humble beginnings that grew modestly over its first 150 years. Its arrival on Times Square after the terrorist attacks coincided with the rise of internet technology as an information accelerator. Throughout the decade, it beamed energetic, serene images from its LED screens; shimmering clouds amidst blue skies, accelerating vehicles, crashing waves. Yet behind these screens the firm was borrowing billions to amass huge, highly leveraged, dangerous investments in the residential and commercial real-estate markets. A symbiosis was created in the early part of the decade as first-time homebuyers and consumers hungry to tap into their home equity received generous mortgages while firms like Lehman made huge profits acquiring, selling and insuring these transactions. In just a few years, Lehman leaped over its competitors and became the fourth largest investment bank.
But these forces moved with accelerating speed that blinded millions to the dangers being created, even as we now look back at how obvious these dangers were. While cracks in the system were becoming noticeable by the middle of the decade, Lehman continued to double down in the real estate market, increasing its leverage ratio (borrowings in relation to cash) to 35-1. By the fall of 2008, with the real estate market in free-fall and its many lenders calling in their loans, Lehman was in need of a bailout. Over the second weekend of that September, we counted down the moments to its demise as the prospect of a federal bailout grew dimmer. On September 15, the Lehman bankruptcy became the greatest flop in modern financial history and Times Square served as ground zero for the financial meltdown of 2008. While those who wish to convey messages are attracted to Times Square for its promotional qualities, once within this environment, their messages are subject to mashing effects that transform them in ways that aren’t anticipated. Even today at 47th and Broadway in front of the Morgan Stanley Building, we can observe how the quotes of stocks, commodities and other financial instruments seem to stream out of the mock Hershey’s Chocolate factory one block north, a metaphor for the “instant promises and instant delivery” that McLuhan alluded to. And on that fateful night when the media converged on the Lehman Building as fired employees filed out with boxes in hand, those lucid Lehman LED screens turned to pure white light. Electric light, the medium that had evolved so dramatically in Times Square over more than a century, had been stretched to its limits by the acceleration of mediated finance. It metaphorically flipped back to its original form; pure information; a medium without a message.
VIII. LEARNING WITHIN THE MEDIA MASHING MACHINE
Doctor Eric McLuhan, son of Herbert Marshall and the extension of the man who most passionately spoke of extensions, was interviewed in August 2010 by Figure-Ground Commuications and was asked about projects he was working on:
“One is a study that begins with the observation that much of the chaos that surround us at present is due to the fact that we are smack in the middle of an enormous renaissance, one large enough to make the “Grand Renaissance” look like a small digression. It has been invisible up to now because it is environmental. Precipitated by the onrush of electronic technologies, it got its start in the nineteenth century and is now still accelerating.”
Times Square has in many ways been the epicenter of this enormous renaissance that Marshall McLuhan and his son have been in the forefront of studying. This media mashing machine, so adept at forging new media experiences over several decades, continues in this evolution right before our eyes. It is now incorporating the technologies and structures of our physical and mediated existence, creating a more powerful ratio of the senses driven by its dynamic legacy based in exchange, transportation and every medium that we have experienced to this day. In our day to day existence, the influence this renaissance is having on us can indeed be barely perceptible. But in the confines of Times Square, these forces are revved up to the point where their effects can be more easily experienced and comprehended. And while it is enlightening and entertaining to shed light on these phenomena by looking deeper into the environment, it is also critical in helping us take more control of our increasingly mediated lives. Humanity is ultimately the content of media and we must understand this relationship thoroughly in order to advance human experience. Let’s contemplate that along with all the great innovations that evolved in Times Square, electric light, The New York Times, the integrated musical to name a few, we also witnessed an explosion of pornography and crime and more recently the demise of Lehman Brothers. Depending on environmental forces, the unleashing of the repressed wishes of the carnival can bring about great creativity or enormous destruction.
Let us now take a journey through Times Square and contemplate where we are and where we’re headed in this evolution, keeping in mind that this will not be a linear journey. We must be able to look backward and forward, up and down, contemplating the layering effects of media evolution. In suggesting an approach to understanding the effects of media, McLuhan referred to Edgar Alan Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom, a short story in which a sailor survives the forces of a catastrophic whirlpool by studying the objects floating around him and understanding the nature of the currents. Let’s use this approach to help us identify when a change in media alters our sense perceptions, changing the way we interact with environment and receive messages. We must see both the figure (that which stands out) and the ground (that which often hovers invisibly underneath) and decipher when figure and ground become merged.
We can start at 44th and Broadway, on the island within the square, in front of the small armed services recruiting station, the center of the whirlpool. Looking south, we are at the spot immortalized by the 1903 photograph in Darcy Tell’s book, where The Times was erecting its flagship building next to Oscar Hammerstein’s great vaudeville house at the same time that the subway was being constructed. This is where the World’s Fair environment took hold in the central city, and it remains an exposition space for our most advanced technologies and aspirations as well as the central city’s focal point for carnival-like entertainments. Let’s look down and contemplate the movement of trains and people underneath. Based on density, we are above the greatest people-moving machine on earth, the foundation of the exchange and diversity we see around us. We can now look up the Times Tower. It is an architectural disaster that was totally inappropriate for its intended purpose. So it evolved within the mashing machine into its best use considering its presence on a slim island between wide avenues; a twenty story advertising edifice and the focal point of the New Year Celebration. Let’s glance up and down at the videos, zipper and billboards stacked along its spine. We can see how multiple media forms have been swallowed into the framework; video, text, photography, dancing light. Following the spirit of Vacker’s film, we can absorb these messages individually as if they were independent from the surrounding world. Or we can look at them juxtaposed against each other, contrasting, gaining strength in their cumulative effect. Here we see how the mashing machine, through the acceleration of technology, modifies the temperatures of media forms. Layered and juxtaposed against each other, these forms create media “microclimates.” Hot text is transformed into a cooler medium with a musical quality. Cool video heats up as it rises up the sides of buildings. Just as in cyberspace, it is through this blending of hot and cool that messages become increasingly powerful and influential.
Messages come at us from many directions, often impacting us in ways we can’t perceive at first. Let’s step back and juxtapose the military images on the recruiting station, a mediated image of war that becomes the reality of war for most of us, with those of commerce above it or to the left and right. To the left of our field of vision is the NASDAQ soda can, still sending out the honed messages of technology companies. Hot media cooling down/cool media getting hot. Let’s acknowledge that what we are seeing is an externalization of our own central nervous system. And let us accept that we are targets in this environment. While it may seem chaotic, these messages are sent at us with great premeditation as to their impact on us, the pedestrian masses. Go to the web sites of the outdoor advertising companies that dominate the district and you can see that statistics on eyeballs and foot traffic exist for every corner, that opportunities for combination buys of billboards and video screens have been mapped for maximum exposure. As we look up at the great hypodermic needle of an antennae on top of the Conde Nast Building, let’s contemplate that one theory of media states that it works like a hypodermic needle, injecting us with messages that trigger a desired response. Other theories contend that media can only have limited effects, that we are ultimately in control, but of course this varies with the temperature of the medium and our state of mind. All of these messages are absorbed to some extent, but what is the effect? Are we entertained, reviled, better informed or just hypnotized? To be in Times Square is to be online. This quote from Space Times Square denotes how the Times Square experience is a physical manifestation of cyberspace. You can sense on this spot, viewing the collage of images and the narrow band of light going up and down the Reuters Building, how the mediated world continues to accelerate. McLuhan stated that the main message of a medium “is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” These extensions of our mind and body are invigorating, but let’s reflect that they also makes us more vulnerable; by extending ourselves outward we also open ourselves to invasions from these same forces, similar to our experience in cyberspace. As McLuhan stated, the evolution of visual media via the printed word centuries ago encouraged division and individualism. But its acceleration in the electronic age (the zippers serving as a visual manifestation) transformed it into a something more akin to hearing – a retribalization. While benefiting from the sense of community bestowed by our integration within this global tribe, we are also at risk of losing more or our individuality to a predominantly mediated existence.
We can now venture east and see the National Debt Clock. If we stand about twenty yards east of the clock and look west, we can merge its figure with the ground of Times Square as backdrop. We can contrast it with the electric light circus, the swarms of people and the marquees of theaters further in the background. Here is another manifestation of the repressed wishes of the carnival; debt rising uncontrollably into the stratosphere. Contrasted against the lights in the background, we are witnesses to the hidden danger eluding the masses passing a few yards away.
Now we can journey back into the electric light and across Broadway to Shubert Square. Here we are now in the center of the theater district where the integrated musical evolved from literature, vaudeville, sound and cinema. On any given night we’ll see a mix of entertainments; long-running crowd pleasers like Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, musical revues based on the work of a single artist or group, a revival of a classic from Rodgers and Hammerstein or Fosse, and the rare but welcome straight play. Let’s contemplate how these old structures, some dating to the turn of the last century, contrast against the electric light orchestrations just to the east. I like to call this phenomenon antique-technota (pronounced an-ti-qua-tech-not-a), the mashing of ultra-old against ultra-new. This contrast is an easily observable manifestation of the mashing effect and can inspire creative forces, for our senses are stimulated through our cerebral attempts to integrate the disparate images of ultra-old and ultra-new. Through the contrast and our reconciliation of it, we can also find meaning and context within an accelerating world that seems to discard traditions with reckless abandon. We can witness living examples of this just off of Shubert Square. First, take a good long look at the Music Box Theatre on 45th Street, built in 1921, home of the first Pulitzer winning musical Of Thee I Sing in 1931 and where Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut in 1944. Now contrast this ancient structure with the glass towers rising next to it and above it. Second, enter the Discovery Exhibition Space (for a fee), a reflection of Times Square’s World’s Fair origins, only with another unique twist. The exhibition space is created within the former press pits of The New York Times’ production facility, ultra-new within ultra-old creating heightened ratios of sense perception.
Let’s venture further east to Eighth Avenue and see a glimpse of what once dominated the district a few decades ago. Here we see a small concentration of strip clubs and other adult establishments, even the occasional prostitute depending on the time of day. For some, the journey may just as well end here, as this type of stimulation is what they came to see in Times Square, a taste of the forbidden. How does a sense of danger change your sense perceptions? Isn’t it easy to see how a sudden change in atmosphere can push a neighborhood out of balance? For those seeking a greater sense of danger we can venture further south on Eighth Avenue, beyond The New York Times’ newest headquarters, to the new epicenter of this form of entertainment and a higher incidence of crime, pushed to the fringes by the resurgence of popular culture on the Square. But in the spirit of avoiding having our jewelry snatched, let’s venture no further than the McDonald’s at 43rd and Eighth to view a sweeping wall-sized photo from the musical Showboat. Even the most familiar forms of commerce can aspire to higher ground within these urban blocks.
Now let’s move east again through these rows of theaters back to the electric lights. Recently, more of the central area at the crossroads has been handed over to pedestrian plazas, a reaffirmation of the magnetic force of public spaces. Here at Broadway and 45th Street we will venture into the most fashion-oriented block of the area, where larger than life fashion billboards and retail establishments dominate the Square. In these advertisements, we encounter a strong manifestation of the “Narcissus Effect” that McLuhan spoke of. In Greek mythology, Narcissus saw his reflection in a lake and became so intrigued by it that he could not look away. The nymph Echo tried to seduce him by refracting his own voice, but he was too hypnotized by the image. McLuhan interpreted this myth to mean that we become fascinated by any extension of ourselves in other mediums to the point where we become numb to other stimulation. Looking up at these larger than life images of ourselves, intensified by the light-through effects, we can indeed become hypnotized and receptive of the messages they convey.
We can now witness a powerful new technology on display within a large spectacular above the Forever 21 retail store. The screen is a live image of ourselves on the street, and the fascination we have with seeing ourselves projected above Broadway is evident in the way we wave and smile at the screen. Then a larger than life image of a young female model walks in front of the image of the crowd and takes a photograph of us. Or occasionally the model will pluck someone’s image from the crowd, kiss it, toss it, or drop it into her bag. Here’s an interesting twist. Not only can our image be captured above Broadway, but we can also have an avatar immediately created of ourselves and plucked from the street into a virtual world, a manifestation of our mediated existence. While one might dismiss this as just another crowd pleaser for the tourists, it demonstrates a further merging of the real and mediated world, the figure and the ground. According to Fast Company Magazine, this interaction is enabled by surveillance technology developed in the military. While we should enjoy the spectacle of these new technologies, just as we did with Douglas Leigh’s and OJ Gude’s decades ago, let’s also consider their increasing power to influence our perception of reality. What are the next iterations of this? Will we someday be able to project ourselves right into the advertisements themselves, and experience these products that beautify us before we buy them? The Narcissus effect is often imperceptible because it is so powerfully hypnotic, especially when aided by modern technologies.
Now let’s walk another block north and move to what I consider to be the magic spot, the island at 46th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway. Like Echo attempting to draw us away from the fascination of our projected images, we can now hear a strange humming sound emanating from the grates hovering over subway ventilation shafts. This is actually a sound sculpture created by Max Neuhaus from sonic instruments and loud speakers. In an interview with The New York Times, Neuhaus stated that sound, in contrast to sight, is “a more direct channel to the unconscious.” Let’s step upon the grate and take in the sight angles. We have another great structure of advertising images directly north, above the recently installed steps that form an amphitheater above the discount ticket office. Let’s now do an experiment that will help us understand the impact of altering sense ratios. Cover your eyes and concentrate on the humming sound for at least thirty seconds. Then open your eyes and cover your ears. Aren’t the lights more bright now than they were before? Can you hear a buzzing noise coming from the lights now that other sounds have been suppressed? It is from these same basic techniques of heightening, repressing and rebalancing the senses that artists create integrated works using sight, sound and intellectual stimulation.
We can look down 46th Street and see the front of Saint Mary’s Church. To experience another antique-technota, we can go to Saint Mary’s and view the stained glass windows and their light through properties. We can then venture out into the Times Square and contrast this with the new spectaculars lighting up Broadway. Two man-made technologies, both developed centuries apart, yet having similar hypnotic effects on the contemporaries who viewed them then and now. Another form of antique-technota can be witnessed at the corner of 46th and Seventh. This is where we can see the façade of the old Israel Miller shoe store for Broadway performers, showcasing statues of early 20th century actresses, contrasted against modern billboards that almost strangle this wonderful link to the past.
Now let’s walk north and climb the steps above the ticket booth on Duffy Square. Similar to the forces of light, music, and national debt, we too can defy gravity in Times Square. Let’s survey the sights before us and attempt to understand this pulsing organism as an extension of our mediated selves. We can look back to our left up Broadway and see the stock and commodity ticker integrated into the front of the Morgan Stanley Building, juxtaposed against the mock Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. We can look back to our right up Seventh Avenue and see the site of the Lehman disaster, the screens still emanating light but far less boldly than they did a few years ago. In the foreground in front of the building, we witness a “gentlemen’s club” holdout from the pornographic era.
These forces of risk, creativity and danger have been accelerating for decades, becoming far faster in the last few years with no way to stop them. Shall we accept this acceleration as an uncontrollable force, a necessity in driving the creativity that manifests itself in achievements such as the integrated musical despite the often destructive consequences? With the stakes becoming higher and higher, acceptance is not an option. I suggest three ways to adjust to the acceleration and help us thrive within it. First, let’s continue to embrace evolutionary history and the antique-technota, for by perceiving this in the landscape around us, we can establish a sense of meaning and foundation in an environment of accelerating change. Through this, we can bring more of the invisible to light. Second, we can adjust by utilizing the best attributes of our minds in conjunction with these same accelerating technologies emerging around us. While these technologies that extend our hands, ears, eyes and minds provide instant communication, endless distractions, and often deep hypnosis, they can also help us communicate across space and time, archive information in powerful ways, and collectively solve problems in large communities. Let’s accelerate our learning and creative development to keep pace with these powerful forces. Third, we have the power of humor that places the acceleration of life into its proper context when we become anxious or take it too seriously. Whenever we become overwhelmed, let’s ask ourselves how the Marx Brothers, Nathan Lane or the many other comedic masters of vaudeville would have handled this.
“Whereas in the mechanical age of fragmentation leisure had been the absence of work, or mere idleness, the reverse is true in the electronic age. As the age of information demands simultaneous use of our faculties, we discover that we are most at leisure when we are most intensely involved, very much like the artists in all ages.”
As we contemplate the acceleration of media before us, the power of the sense ratios captured in the musicals playing in the theaters below, and the expanding tools of communication and learning that are available to us, let’s be optimistic that we can overcome the dark manifestations of mediated forms we have taken in the recent past. Like Ziegfeld, Ochs, Gershwin, Leigh, Rodgers, Fosse, Vacker and many others who have found their inspiration in Times Square, let’s contemplate the great heights we artists can achieve unleashing the repressed wishes of the carnival.
EXCHANGE/CARNIVAL/VAUDEVILLE/DANCE/TEXT/LIGHT/CINEMA/SOUND/MUSICAL/TELEVISION/EXCHANGE/ABYSS/SURVIVAL/GLOBAL COMMERCE/MILLENIUM/INTERNET/NEURAL NETWORK/ARTISTS IN ALL AGES