(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

On April 8, 1904, Mayor George B. McClellan of New York City changed the thinking of New Yorkers, Americans, and, indeed, people throughout the world. On that date, the mayor issued a decree changing the name of the area around 42d Street and Broadway from Long Acre Square to Times Square, a place and a name that has become the identifying feature of New York City. Older Americans still associate the life of the square with the street characters in Damon Runyon's stories of the guys and dolls who hung out at Mindy's. These were the citizens of Times Square who inspired Irving Berlin to write his 1911 hit “Alexander's Ragtime Band.”

Berlin went on to create, along with vaudevillians such as George M. Cohan, the great American genre known as the Broadway musical, which featured songs such as “Give My Regards to Broadway.” An equal participant in the creation of the American musical theater was Florenz Ziegfeld who lavished a fortune on an important Times Square-42d Street monument, the New Amsterdam Theater, in which he produced his famous Follies. Soon the area of Times Square, which included Broadway and 42d Street, would be aglow with theatrical life, including works of great composers such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, and all the other denizens of Tin Pan Alley.

This is an important part of the story that James Traub has to tell in The Devil's Playground, his rich and beguiling history of Times Square. There is also the story of how Times Square came to light up the skyline of New York City, as well as how it degenerated into a dreary and dismal collection of pornography shops and sex venues, before it was finally cleaned up and reconstructed in the last decade of the twentieth century.

Traub, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, is well equipped to relate the story of Times Square. He is a man of the city and the possessor of a comfortable and literate writing style. He is also a careful historian, attentive to facts and trends, as well as to the people responsible for such trends. Finally, he has a sociologist's interest in what trends and changes mean to urban history and the quality of urban life in general.

The history of Times Square begins not only with its name but also with the people who have inhabited the region. Traub is intrigued, as was the rest of the world, with the surprising and dynamic outburst of popular culture that was born in the Times Square area in the first decades of the twentieth century. Famous playboys and bon vivants such as Diamond Jim Brady were responsible for the development of nightclubs, featuring performers such as Texas Guinan, and fancy restaurants on the square. Marc Claw and Abe Erlanger took over the New Amsterdam Theater and set off a waltz craze with an enormously popular production of The Merry Widow. Their chief rivals, the Shubert brothers, began to produce popular musicals in the Broadway-Times Square locale. Both Erlanger and the Shuberts syndicated their productions and sent out road shows across the United States so that Times Square was feeding the theatrical hunger of the whole country. Finally, Florenz Ziegfeld was to take control of New Amsterdam in 1907 and introduce his Follies, the “all-girl show” that was to carry the meaning of sophisticated sexual entertainment everywhere in the United States.

The history of Times Square is not only the history of dining out and popular entertainment. It is also the history of the invention and exploitation of the electric sign as the ultimate advertising medium before the introduction of television. Not only did New Yorkers see society swells eating in expensive lobster parlors and then lining up to attend an all-girl show at one of the exclusive roof garden theaters on 42d Street or a musical play on Broadway, but New Yorkers also looked up and were dazzled by advertising signs that literally lit up the sky.

Electric streetlights were installed in central New York in the 1880's. It was the genius of O. J. Gude that gave birth to the total electrification of Times Square. Although he had dropped out of school at age seventeen, Gude had, by 1900, become the leading advertising man in New York. Such was his reputation that H. J. Heinz hired him to design one of the new electrical...

(The entire section is 1769 words.)