Times Square Tintypes: Broadway

In this, the final chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky offers not one of the show-biz profiles that were his bread and butter, but instead details a day in the life of the Great White Way.


9 A. M. illustration of a Broadway streetsweeperPeople who don’t belong walking over a sleeping body. The lights are out and the sun is shining. Stores are opening for business and porters are cleaning out the theaters. Programs are swept aside. Last night’s opening is now an old story. Working people are hurrying to their tasks. They’re going to make money to spend when the light flicker. Nobody along the Street thinking of amusement. They’ll sell you insurance, a suit of clothes, a cup of coffee, but never a laugh. If Broadway were awake it wouldn’t let these people on it. But the Street is only human. It must get some rest. There they go, not a real double-crosser, not a gangster, not an actor, not a guy hopped up with fake dreams. Merely real people. Walking up Broadway when it is asleep.

*      *      *

10:30 A. M. Broadway yawns. Actors in their sleep wake to rehearsals. Some poor nut has a song hit that no one will take off his hands. Ham and eggs at Childs’. Countless actors who believe that today their break may come. Press agents are going to what they call work. Broadway yawns again. Part of it goes back to sleep. The other part marches. They don’t make a dent. The Street still belongs to the foreign invasion. School kids and people out of work standing in line to get into the Paramount at the cheap morning prices. The afternoon papers begin to appear on the newsstands. Sounds of a jazz band practicing. It annoys the realtor two blocks away. In a couple of weeks he’ll pay to hear the same band and call it amusement. Dreary-eyed coryphées leaving side street hotels to hurry to rehearsals. The rouge and lipstick are the only thing genuine about them. They could put that on in their sleep. Don’t you worry, they’ll be repaid. Have their name in lights, get a husband, or else. Yawn, Broadway, but put your hand over your mouth.

*      *      *

2 P. M. Broadway is waking up. The light, the air, the sunshine is foreign. Matinée crowds now fill the streets. Actors are going to work. Why do they have matinées? You ought to see the same show some night that you saw in the afternoon. Where do people get the time to go to theaters in the afternoon? Why don’t they sleep? Actors are going to matinées. To see how they would have played the part or to applaud a fellow performer. A night club has a rehearsal in the cellar. Work all night and work all day. It’s a racket. Some people find heaven in a dive. Producers having their breakfasts. Big business deals written out on tableclothes. Do you know who’s in town? Four guys are spilling the same exclusive inside story. Gray’s is filled and Cain’s is making room for another show. Broadway is waking up. Theatrical folks are hurrying to their doctors. To their dentists. To take a sun-ray bath. Must keep in good condition. What’s the daytime for? The curtain’s going up. More jazz bands are rehearsing. Someone just signed a big contract and is going to get his name in lights. What the hell good is daytime? You can’t see your name in lights. Come on, Broadway, wake up. Get hot. Get dark.

*      *      *

7:30 P. M. It’s getting dark on old Broadway. Its getting hot on old Broadway. Actors answering the 7:30 call of the theater. Grease paint. Bring in that latest shipment through the back door, will you? She’s meeting him in front of the Rialto. It’s an opening night down the street. Maybe they’ll holler, “Author, author.” He’s invested everything in this one. Gee, I hope he clicks. He’s a nice guy. The critics. I’d like to see one of them write a play. Bernard Shaw? I mean a New York critic. Someone just cracked a gag. Lights are flickering. Someone else just cracked the same gag. Horns are tooting. Someone just had a reputation shattered. A new one tomorrow. The sky is beautiful. In some part of the world people are looking at the moon. It’s getting dark on old Broadway. It’s getting hot on old Broadway. No one can see above the electric light. Loan it to me and I’ll pay you back tomorrow. I haven’t got it myself. They’re all friends. All buddies. Just trying to do each other a good turn if it will benefit themselves. She’s with another guy tonight. Don’t know how she can keep up the pace. There goes the curtain. First nights. Glory seekers. Critics. Folks in search of amusement. Panhandlers. Bums. Noise. Lights. Greed. Backslapping. Tomorrow’s papers. What you’re doing now doesn’t count. The present is of the past. Pretty important, aren’t you all? Ever walk through a graveyard? All tombstones read alike. Broadway is getting hot.

*      *      *

Broadway is Broadway. Broadway is making whoopee. Prohibition is only for the non-drinkers. Nobody knows what day it is. Hey, waiter, this table! Policemen standing in hallways. Long lines of cabs. We won’t get home ’til morning. Don’t talk like that to him. Want to get bumped off? Clubs banging on tables. That’s applause. Applause that’s life to an artist. I’m telling you it’s a sure in the third race at Havana tomorrow. Mr. Whoosis, I want you to meet Miss Whatsis. Now I’ve got a scheme. Some guys get all the luck. Broadway is making whoopee. Evening dress and gorgeous gowns. She was beautiful two hours ago. Legs. Arms. Eyes. Desire. Fill it up again, I want to forget. Tell me things, will you? I want to listen. Bad music. Bad gin. Whirling bodies. Isn’t this fun? We’re having a great time. I feel dizzy. It’s getting stuffy. You’re not used to it. People who are only eating sandwiches and drinking coffee in plain restaurants. Talking dreams. Giving the ego an outlet. A good listener is a good friend. Stray lights in an office building. Strays walking up and down as if they were going places. Couples window-shopping in dark windows. A practically empty street car darting through the night. Folks quarreling. Breaking their hearts. Giving it to Broadway so it can be paved. The street is practically deserted. But this is what the hick in the stick believes is the real Broadway. This is Broadway making whoopee.

A weekend getaway

Michael ArenellaHe’s likely not aware of it, but Michael Arenella is Cladrite all the way.

The orchestra leader, singer, and fashion plate has that same thing for days gone by that we (and, let’s face it, you) do.

Arenella plays the music of the 1920s and the ’30s and wears clothes and drives cars that match. Like we said, he’s Cladrite all the way.

A poster for the Jazz Age Lawn PartyThis weekend, he and his Dreamland Orchestra will again be featured at the annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island, an event he founded some years ago. It takes place on both Saturday and Sunday; you’ll find us, in the company of Ms. Cladrite, there on Sunday.

If you’re within striking distance of New York City, you should it make it a point to be in attendance. The forecast calls for lovely weather, relatively speaking, the music will have you tapping your toes, at the very least, and you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of folks in vintage finery. (If you own no vintage finery, you might be advised to ask yourself why not, but don’t let that prevent you from attending the lawn party. Why, there will even been vintage clothing dealers on the premises, so you can kill two birds with one stone.)

This video was directed and edited by our friend Andrew Yamato (he’s Cladrite, too).

Just give it time

In browsing the web the other day, we came across a piece of video we thought might be of interest.

It featured a cute 25-year-old woman offering her thoughts and opinions on a particular topic.

The identity of the young woman and the topic she was discussing aren’t really salient here, but suffice it to say that, aside from being cute, she didn’t really bring much to the table. Her insights on the topic she was discussing weren’t, in our view, terribly compelling and she came off as not a little callow.

Not that we intend to sound harsh. She was just an average person sounding off on a topic that interested her, and certainly no harm was done and not terribly much time was wasted on our part—we stopped the video and moved on about ninety seconds in. But there was little to recommend the video, in our opinion, even though it was a topic that was of interest to us and might, in fact, have been of interest to some visitors to this very site.

There are, of course, literally millions of such videos spread across the web—hundreds of thousands of them, surely, on YouTube alone—and few have much to really recommend them, but what the heck, they’re not hurting anyone. They’re out there for the viewing—you watch ’em, or you don’t, simple as that.

But it occurred to us that, as little value as that video held for us, give it sixty or seventy years, and someone much like us (we’re not kidding ourselves it’ll actually be us; we’re not likely to still be around then) will come across that video, or another one much like it, and be thrilled to be given a glimpse into what a twenty-something gal was like in the 2010s.

Imagine, for example, there had been something like the internet in the 1920s, and we still had access to videos created by young women of that time—girls next door and flappers, career gals and floozies. Who in the Cladrite community wouldn’t eagerly follow a link to access a trove of such videos, even if the content there was no more compelling on its own merits than the video we watched the other day of that 21st-century gal (or guy—gender’s not the point here) sounding off?

Yes, we have the movies of that era to inform us, but, as much we love moving pictures—and as much as we’ve learned from them about life as it was lived then—they never seem to offer an entirely true depiction of any era (pick a decade from your own life, and then consider the movies that came out during those years—do they really offer a fully accurate account of what it was like to live then?)

If the 1920s videos we’re imagining existed, we’d all be fascinated just to hear the slang used by the average Joes and Jills of the day, to see their mannerisms, their clothes, their hair. It wouldn’t much matter what they were discussing; we’d watch with great interest.

It’s interesting to consider the burnishing that occurs, the value that the passing years add to cultural artifacts, items that, in their own time, may not been held in great regard by anyone.

This effect holds true with moving pictures. We’ll happily watch the silliest 1930s picture, if for no other reason than to enjoy a cinematic glimpse at a bygone era, even though we avoid a distressingly high percentage of what Hollywood is currently cranking out.

Seventy years down the road, though, the fluff coming out of Hollywood today will have a whole new appeal to those with an interest in life as it was lived today, just as, say, Joe E. Brown pictures do now for those of us intrigued by the 1930s.

Unraveling a pince nez mystery

When browsing a flea market, antiques store, or the vintage corners of the internet, we love stumbling upon a product we never knew existed.

Ever heard of photo play glasses? Neither had we, until we came across the pair pictured here.

But what the heck are they, we wondered?

Our initial guess was that perhaps, in the early days of the motion picture industry, there was concern that watching movies might be bad for one’s eyes, the old “fear the new technology” gambit that’s still in play today.

This concern might have been sincere (if misguided) or ginned up by the vendor just to move some spectacles, but it wouldn’t surprise us if it existed.

So we turned to the experts over at Nitrateville.com, an online community of cineastes, collectors, and historians that we enjoy paying a visit to now and again.

Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol Theatre, a gorgeous 1928 movie palace in Rome, N. Y., offered the suggestion that the glasses were meant not to protect the eyesight of moviegoers, but of actors. In the early days of movies, Theakston said, UV-intensive klieg lights were used to illuminate the set, and actors often suffered a condition called “klieg eyes.” He also pointed out that the patent mentioned on the carton the glasses came in was not awarded for a specific use for the glasses, but for their design.

It’s an interesting notion, that a product might be created for actors to wear between takes and when they were relaxing on the set, and we certainly weren’t in position to discount the idea altogether, but we continued to harbor a sneaking suspicion that this was a product meant for the general public, not for such a niche market. We can’t prove it; it’s just a hunch. But as Mr. Theakston pointed out, Albex, the manufacturer of the glasses, dealt in industrial glasses, such as welder’s goggles, and there are contemporary accounts from the time of actors wearing sunglasses on the set to protect their eyes.

So it’s hard to say for certain.

Mike Gebert, one of the admins at Nitrateville, questioned whether the name “Photo Play Glasses” would have meant very much to the average person in 1904 (the patent date printed on the box), given that movies were in a truly nascent stage then. But upon closer inspection, he guessed that ’04 was just the date of the design patent, that the glasses themselves dated from the 1910s or even the ’20s.

His reasoning? The font on the packaging is, he says, Copperplate Gothic, which was designed in 1901. Given that fonts tend to take a while to come into popular use, he felt confident that glasses were marketed later, at which point motion pictures—photo plays, if you will—were certainly popular enough to inspire the marketing of such products.

Which kind of supports our theory, seems to us.

However, a poster from Australia named Brooksie did a little digging and learned that concern over kleig eyes was at its peak in the mid-to-late 1910s and came across suggestions that it was actors wearing shades, to use the modern vernacular, to protect their eyes from the bright lights on set that made sunglasses popular in the first place.

Which sort of leads us back to the idea that these were an industrial product, one meant for people working at making movies and not for the general public. The fear that watching movies could hurt one’s eyes may never have existed at all, except in our imagination. In any case, we’ve not turned up any solid evidence of it.

And we might well ask ourselves why we’re resisting the notion that it was actors and other filmmakers who wore Albex’s Photo Play Glasses, anyway. After all, if that’s the case, while we can’t know who owned the pair that came into our possession, we can have a good deal of fun imagining who might have possessed them. Perhaps they were once the property of Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, or even—be still, our hearts—Buster Keaton. They were all acting in movies by the 1910s, with Keaton the last of the three to the Hollywood party in 1917.

We’ll keep digging to see what we can come up with on this cinematic curio, but for now, perhaps we will allows ourselves to imagine that we now possess an item once owned by one of the giants of silent cinema.

Who can say we’re wrong, after all?

A glimpse of a colorful past

Anyone under the age of seventy could be forgiven for forgetting that the world didn’t suddenly spring to colorful life in the past half-century, so predominant was the grey palette of black and white photography and cinematography in the first half of the 21 century.

But of course, the world never existed in black and white — it was just depicted that way.

One aspect of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator that I especially admired was the way the look of the picture slowly morphed, depending on the period being depicted. In scenes that took place in the late twenties and early thirties, the heavily green and orange look of the two-strip Technicolor of the era was very effectively replicated. I’ll admit to a fondness for that look, and when I do imagine life in the 1930s in color, that’s the palette my mind’s eye adopts.

Ms. Cladrite and I spent our honeymoon in the great city of London a little more than a year back. It was her second trip there, and my first, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We often reminisce fondly about those eight delightful days. So it was with some excitement that I learned of this color footage of London in the 1920s, and it’s with great pleasure that I share it with you, the Cladrite Radio listener.