The Long Acre days of livery trades
When a single gas lamp lit the square
Died of a pen stroke in proclamation
An April day under pastoral skies.
This long before that month was said
To be the cruelest of the year.
Soon a beast below the street
Would arrive on the sparks of friction—
A scream of wheels:
“Forty-Second Street/Times Square, 1904.”
Fireworks celebrated that first new year—
We were not yet so savvy as to drop the ball—
And thus we gathered as if reborn
Missing only Billy Sunday’s
This great big sea of assimilation.
The Heatherbloom Petticoat Girl would soon show us
A sign of things to come—her dress whipped up
In the eye of an electric light bulb storm.
A primal nerve touched, we arrived in a rush
At the Ziegfeld Follies door.
The zeitgeist now being that
more was more.
How the nights arrived in all their brilliance
On the incandescence of a million bulbs.
How the rooftops came alive with cabarets
and Castles in the Air—
Irene and Vernon taught America to dance.
“Moon in June” were fresh words in romance.
And we could hear the music rising
in the tinkling of ivories
From down below on Tin Pan Alley—
Which turned Israel Baline
into Irving Berlin—
Beckoning us all to come on along
To Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
It played the day “Beansie” Rosenthal was
It played the day Martin Beck built a Palace
It played the day came the First World War.
Cohan, while giving regards to Broadway,
Shot an arrow through the heart with his clarion call:
Send the word, send the word, over there.
And off went the “Doughboys”
in their pie-tin hats.
The Eighteenth Amendment stayed behind.
The rhapsody in booze born of Prohibition
Played in the speakeasies off
the “Great White Way.”
The ball descended
The Twenties roared.
Of Broadway nights and a thousand plays
That moved in sprightly step across the stage,
Their plots long dead and buried
Though their song sheets remain;
The work of young lions on their game.
Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers
Black boxy cars—
Sporting spares on their backs—
Pulled up at the curb before
the bubbling arch
Of the Warner Theater on opening night.
The Jazz Singer was all the talk of the town.
In the beginning was the word:
Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!
From the almighty Jolson to God’s ear.
Arnold Rothstein, the reputed mastermind
Behind the Black Sox Scandal,
While leaving Lindy’s
on Election Day
Got shot up like a Roman candle.
He died soon after without singing
By night, a new band of bulbs
Curling around Times Tower
Spelled Herbert Hoover with votes to spare.
Some in the crush threw fedoras in the air.
But every hat on every head
Would remain in place the following year.
The news this Tuesday, dark and drear.
Say don’t you remember they called me Al,
It was Al all the time.
And amidst the Great Depression
Billy Minsky brought burlesque
Up to “The Main Stem” and respectability.
Pretty girls—once like a melody
Were now out of work
To the tune of a dime a dozen.
So they shed their feathers and the business flourished.
I wasn’t naked. I was completely covered
By a blue spot light.
Death by disobedience
Came to Prohibition
Smoking out hoods in pinstriped suits
From back rooms out into a sky on the rocks.
Winchell might have called this the end
of an error.
The ball fell atop a cauldron coming
to a full boil.
A war even bigger than
The war to end all wars.
The crowd at the Tower was one of heavy heart
In the aftershock of “The Jap Attack.”
Colbert and Milland starred in Skylark down the block.
Harry James and his band, the stage show to follow.
Just another Sunday of war and Hollywood
Just another Sunday at the center of the earth
With our feet in the fire, bent on catching
In the aftermath, to soothe our nerves
The Camel sign blew perfect smoke rings
Like silent shots across the bow.
It puffed away for well over two decades
Til the Surgeon General marched into town.
Bobby Soxers in saddle shoes
Stormed the Paramount to have at Sinatra
In the days before the man who would be king.
On V-J Day a sailor taking liberties
Bends a nurse at the waist
Kissing her as full on the mouth as you please,
As she yields to this advance
in shock and awe.
The good fight fought;
the better war won;
the best picture worth
A million words.
At the center of this centrifugal force
We opened up a recruitment station
To defend the postwar streets of gold.
Is our good fortune not the envy of others?
The ball drops on
The Death of a Salesman…
…and rises on a musical fable
Of the Guys and Dolls
Of Runyan’s Times Square.
On the brink of The Beats no less.
Who when they got bored with their poetry
Went up to the Pokerino and Playland arcades.
Kerouac and Ginsberg in an existential struggle
To get the balls to go their way.
Afterwards at the Automat,
Apple pie in amber light—
Airtight behind a small glass door—
A still life waiting to be painted.
A few nickels in the slot and
A slice of America was yours.
James Dean with Cigarette, Coat and Collar:
An Unstill Life.
Alone in mid century
Haunting Times Square; Times Square haunting him.
The street shellacked with rain plays back his image.
A poster in the making of an icon crossing over.
The ball begins a downward spiral.
A man walks by with a sign:
The lads from Liverpool
Landed in our living room.
They came by way of Broadway
Through a broadcast studio live.
Black and white and gray-on-gray—
The Paleolithic age of Ed Sullivan.
Seventy-three million turned on
As if to witness a miracle unfolding.
A second coming? Life found on Mars?
“Get a haircut,” the alpha male barks.
The Beatles would end up down the block
That fall at the Paramount
Soon to close its doors.
Enter stage left: the Peep Show King
Who set about to retrofit
Some kinescope machines.
He aimed to show the unwashed masses
What was decreed to have been obscene.
They swallowed daily—60,000 quarters
These newly transformed kinky slots.
And spit them back out as if Monstro sneezing
Flooding the Chemical Bank on the corner.
The Midnight Cowboy rode into town.
The Battery was up. The Bronx was down.
The peep shows got bolder, as did those
Acquainted with the night.
A Taxi Driver cruising “The Deuce”—
Or “Forty Deuce” as some pimps preferred—
Could see illicit trade on every corner.
Could see strings of white-hot movie marquees
Steaming with smut and prurient promise—
While the men in blue stood by with both hands tied.
In this thicket of times so uncertain
The TKTS booth appeared as if
To offer a ticket for the price of a song.
For the show must go on. And it did.
And Sardi’s continued to feed us before
Sanctuaries for soul and body
Where folks and celebrity might intertwine.
The ballyhoo made a comeback on Broadway
On the heels of a Buzz Berkleyesque
42nd Street revival.
The rat-a-tat rhythms of our past aspirations—
The razzamatazz that cut across generations—
Renewed the sense that theater itself
Had a life embedded in the stone.
Let us sound a low moan on a tarnished trumpet
For those lives sacrificed
To the wrecking ball.
The Casino and the Knickerbocker: 1930
44th Street: 1945
The Adelphi: 1958
The New Century: 1962
The Ziegfeld: 1966
The Astor: 1972
The Morosco, Bijou, and Gaiety
And the Helen Hayes all in ‘82
The Mark Hellinger: 1989
Remember thou art dust;
And to dust thou shall return.
Though the good news now
Was that the ball was finally falling
On the mission of Redemption.
Though some sought to limit
The scope of redefinition.
A Ferris wheel on Forty-second
Cried Koch in despair.
Good Morning America and Global Village!
And good afternoon from Total Request Live!
The media giants have opened up shop
Where people gather at the window
To have a look at the goings on
To have the inside, in turn
Look back out at them.
Welcome to a new crossroads born
Of that timeless imperative:
Something must be done.
And something has.
A new arc in the parabola
The good money has driven out the bad.
The sleazy dragon has been slain.
The Second Circle has been broken.
The once feared Ferris wheel
Takes its turns in Toys R Us.
As bountiful and pulsating a venue as any
That the old world impresarios could muster.
Only the clientele has changed.
Even the eccentrics have cleaned up their act.
The Naked Cowboy, the new dude in town
Has branded his backside, but his briefs don’t come down.
The young men from Harlem put on a display
Of their acrobatics and breakdancing skills.
And pass the hat. And the hat gets filled.
The Lion King is the new beast in town
On a stage recreating the Serengeti
At the New Amsterdam Disney restored.
New hands resounding in old applause.
Room has been made
For the ball to come to rest
Atop the family tree.
It will always be not so much a place
But a churning kaleidoscope of shards of glass;
A sequence of squares each lighting the way to another.
Where energy ignites the human transition.
A clustering spirit
From in and out of town
That stops in mid stream
For the sheer joy
Of looking up.
A metaphor made flesh each New Year’s Eve