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The History of Vaudeville Via Times Square

While Times Square is well known as the center of New York's commercial theater district, it's probably lesser known today that for over 30 years, it was also ground zero for a type of theater as exciting and bewildering diverse as the Crossroads of the World itself: vaudeville.

Vaudeville was at the crossroads of all styles of theater. A half-century ago, a vaudeville audience might encounter singers, comedians, musicians, dancers, trained animals, female impersonators, acrobats, magicians, hypnotists, jugglers, contortionists, mind-readers, and a wide variety of strange uncategorizable performers usually lumped into the category of "nuts" with the space of a short couple of hours.

In a vaudeville show you could have everything: from the puritanical to the licentious, from the patriotic to the anarchistic; from idolaters of wealth to egalitarians—and so it went. The ethnic variety of vaudeville made it the theatrical equivalent of the melting pot.

Black, white, Jew, gentile, men, women, children, Irish, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe, cue to cue. The hat rack in the dressing room had top hats, derby hats, fedoras, turbans, sombreros, bejeweled head-dresses and Apache war bonnets. All were equally important.

It was a world where a nightclub dancer like Joe Frisco could meet an opera singer like Enrico Caruso backstage, and say, "Hey, Caruso, don't do 'Darktown Strutters Ball'. That's my number and I follow you."

High art, low art, and no art stood cheek by jowl. Like George Jessel's act of the same name, these disparate personalities were all sewn together like "patches from a crazy quilt."

As ideally suited as vaudeville and Times Square were to each other, the match didn't take place until the eve of the 20th century. It is interesting to note that New York's theatrical district has always been located at the geographical heart of the city. As the city expanded further and further uptown, that heart moved with it.

In the early 19th century, theaters were located near what is now the financial district and city hall. Then, as thousands of immigrants moved to the city thanks to improved sea travel, the Bowery became a center for populist amusements, with dime museums, salons and theaters making the street something like Times Square, Coney Island, Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditoriums, and Atlantic City rolled into one.

In the 1880s, a more genteel "Rialto" was established around Union Square not far from the new department stores now enjoyed by the burgeoning middle class. In the next couple of decades, the focus shifted almost glancingly to what is now the Flatiron district around 23rd Street…to the area around Herald Square at 34th…inexorably to its final home at 42nd Street, the plot once known as Longacre Square--now known as Times Square.

[excerpted from Trav S.D.'s book No Applause – Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous (Faber and Faber),Copyright © 2005 D. Travis Stewart]

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