As the old makes way for the new in Times Square, beloved places are lost and new favorites are found. Here are ten of the places we miss most, in the ever-evolving theatre district of 2015.
1. Colony Records
A fixture in Times Square since the 1940s, when it opened at 52nd Street and Broadway, Colony Records moved to its well-known 49th Street location in the 1970s. For more than four decades, Colony occupied the ground floor of the Brill Building, right next to the Ambassador Theatre. Colony was one of the first stops in NYC for any visiting kid who loved Broadway. It was the main destination of those who wanted to purchase cast recordings and sheet music, as well as other theatre and music items, like karaoke tapes, posters and collectibles.
Colony Records employees were known for being extremely knowledgeable, often able to recommend an item based on just a few words ("New tenor uptempo sheet music?") or identify a song in just a few notes ("You're looking for the cast recording of Titanic."). Stacks upon stacks of colorful books of music meant that one could spend an afternoon browsing and find a few treasures.
With both digital music and online shopping changing the game, Colony Records was forced to shut its doors in 2012.
The demolition of McHale's is still lamented by Broadway's stagehands and by those cool enough to grab a beer with Broadway's stagehands. This beloved theatre bar stood on the northeast corner of 46th Street from 1944 to 2006, feeding the city juicy burgers and providing a watering hole not just for stagehands but also for nearby firefighters, blue collar workers and other local professionals. This was the bar to go to if you were really "in the know." Stars would sit, unbothered, amongst other Broadway workers, cheering on the same baseball game, clinking glasses of beer. McHale's was always bursting at the seams between shows on matinee days and after shows every day of the week.
Run by the same family since the 1950s, McHale's boasted a long wooden bar that came from the 1939 World's Fair. When the bar first opened, it was called the Gaiety Café, but by the 1950s, it was McHale's. When the spot was designated as the place for a new towering glass apartment building, appropriately named the Platinum, McHale's was ousted. Its famous neon sign now has a home inside Emmett O'Lunney's, an Irish bar on 50th Street, but the rest of McHale's only lives on in the memory of those who loved it.
Fun fact: Broadway's Amy Spanger (currently starring in Matilda the Musical) waited tables at McHale's when she first moved to New York City. She spent her days auditioning and her nights doing things like getting toilet paper for Sarah Jessica Parker and special pasta for F. Murray Abraham at the restaurant. In 1995, Amy booked Sunset Boulevard, and when she went to the Minskoff Theatre to make her Broadway debut, one of the stagehands there who was a regular at McHale's said, "Hey! What're you doing here?" Amy said: "I work HERE now!! I'm an actress." And that was her initiation to Broadway.
3. Jimmy Ray's
Jimmy Ray's has been one of my favorite place to learn about while writing my "Untold Stories of Broadway" books.
Jimmy Ray's was at the southwest corner of 46th Street and 8th Avenue, catty corner from where McHale's once was. As far back as the 1960s, Jimmy Ray's was known as the "late Broadway bar." While all of the other joints frequented by Broadway babies would close around 2 AM, Jimmy Ray's didn't close until 4 AM. This meant that the wildest (or wired-est) of the bunch were always corralled at Jimmy Ray's for the last two raucous hours of the night. The cast of every Broadway show in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, spent at least some time at centrally located, casual, friendly Jimmy Ray's.
With the ambiance of a dark saloon, and casual red-and-white checkered table cloths, Jimmy Ray's wasn't a fancy tourist destination. If McHale's was for stagehands, then Jimmy Ray's was for chorus kids. With its large semi-round wooden booths, and cheap food and drinks, Jimmy Ray's was the place to chill out after your show, find out about the next audition, kick your heels up with your friends. You might find a group of roaches under your foot (roach spray was a common piece of décor at Jimmy Ray's) or Al Pacino sitting at the bar. Bathrooms were down an incredibly steep set of stairs, and the windows were too dirty to really see 8th Avenue beyond the glass.
Jimmy Ray's burned down in a fire in 1988. The restaurant was completely gutted. French bistro Brasserie Athenee is now on the spot.
4. Café Edison
The Café Edison is a fresh wound for the native New Yorker, the theatre-lover and the Times Square denizen. Less than a year ago, we lost this one-of-a-kind diner, teeming with New York character, in the heart of the theatre district. Thousands of people protested and signed petitions, but the charming, old-school eatery inside the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, was gone for good. Amidst the cries of theatre luminaries, this classic, inexpensive, down-to-earth favorite of "real New Yorkers" disappeared, taking its matzo ball soup and blintzes genuine character with it.
While the Café Edison might have been a favorite of Broadway producers, New York Times reporters, theatre actors and crew and the like, it was also a spot for folks staying at the Edison Hotel to grab a bite, meaning that tourists would often be supping across from an actor they'd just seen in a show.
In 1931, when the Edison Hotel opened, it boasted an intricately designed dining room on the spot. In 1980, that dining room was converted into this cafeteria haven for show folk. August Wilson reportedly wrote several scripts on Café Edison napkins. Neil Simon was always around, and immortalized the café in his play 45 Seconds From Broadway. (Faded posters and clippings from that play dotted the walls of the venue.) A VIP table, with a red velvet rope in front, boasted the key players of Broadway, usually the Shuberts or the Nederlanders. Both Doug Henning and David Copperfield were regulars at the "Magic Table" in the corner, where a playing card was above on the ceiling as part of a trick occasionally done for the unassuming tourist.
One of the most special aspects of the Edison was the fact that its original 1930s design, beautiful beige and tan columns and wall carvings, ornate ceiling and chandeliers, was intact, juxtaposed with a lunch counter from the 1950s. Homemade signs with the day's specials written in Sharpie consistently covered the walls.
Always teeming with life but never too crowded, the Edison had a magical ambiance that was a mixture of old and new. I had never seen it empty until Mana Allen and I accidentally closed down the place one night. She confided that when she was in Smile next door at the Lunt-Fontanne in 1986, the "Smile girls" would dine at the Edison between shows, and often be seated between the theatrical cognoscenti and Times Square's transvestite hookers, with everyone enjoying the soup. Another time, I was with Broadway orchestrator Larry Hochman at the Edison when actor Jeb Brown sat down at the table beside us. I introduced them. Larry had just finished orchestrating The Book of Mormon, and Jeb was in the thick of Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark previews. Soon they were both regaling both me, and a nearby table of eight elderly Texan hotel guests, with tales from each show.
5. The Coffee Pot
The Coffee Pot differs from nearly every other establishment on this list, as it never served alcohol! (Or did it?) An afternoon respite for the young actor or writer or producer pounding the pavement, The Coffee Pot was a rare non-chain coffee shop. At the southeast corner of 49th Street and 9th Avenue, it stood out from the nearby Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts stores because of its scrappy, comfortable furniture, low prices and informal pastel décor.
Stools lined the window, and over-stuffed colorful couches sat in back, providing ample space and a relaxed environment for those running between an audition and a class to study their lines with a muffin or cup of tea. Seemingly out of place in Hell's Kitchen, a transplant from the suburbs or maybe the Ripley Grier rehearsal studios judging from its décor and tone, the Coffee Pot closed up shop for good in late 2011. The spot is now a loud bar called Mickey Spillane's.
When the real estate market was booming in the early 2000s, there were plans to knock down all of the buildings dotting the east side of 8th Avenue, between 45th Street and 46th Street, even a bit down the block on either side, in order to build giant high rises. The Broadway Inn was demolished, J.R.'s was demolished, Barrymore's was demolished, Sam's was demolished… and the real estate bubble burst, giving us a decade of abandoned lot space, and currently an outdoor flea market. (Rumor has it that this spot may turn into a brand-new Broadway theatre in the coming years!)
Sam's was special, for it was a popular, music-filled theatre bar dating back almost an entire century. Opened as simply "The Theater Bar" in the 1920s, the space was also known as Charlie's and then Sam's, from 1988 onward. Folks at shows would even rush to the Theater Bar at intermission for a quick cocktail, since it was so close! Those just starting out could afford the drinks, although even Jason Robards and the elite of Broadway loved the joint, too. From Grease to A Chorus Line, from the days of World War II to the dawn of the new millennium, this eatery with its walls of brick and round-the-clock beers was an institution in New York City.
Louis Bergen, the original owner, came to the city a poor German immigrant with dreams of owning his own restaurant. Once he established the Theater Bar, Bergen was known to take messages for struggling actors who were regulars, but couldn't afford an answering service of their own. He and his staff took such great care of regulars that, actors who later became successful after dining there would often send Bergen checks at Christmastime. He would take the money and find a new crop of emerging artists to feed and support with the money.
7. Music Row
The block of 48th Street between 7th and 6th Avenue used to be a hot one for Broadway houses… the Cort… the Playhouse… the Vanderbilt… the 48th Street… the Belmont… it hasn't been that way since the 1950s (the Cort is the lone survivor), but what it has been for over 80 years is a mecca for musicians and music lovers.
Since the 1930s, Music Row, on this very block of Times Square, has been home to places like Sam Ash Music, Manny's Musical Instruments, Rudy's Music Shop, Alex Music, Rod Baltimore's, Terminal Music, Associated Recording Studios, Stuyvesant Music, MSR/ Legacy Studios, Silver & Horland and many others. Lining the street were stores to buy instruments, stores to buy music equipment, stores to get your instruments repaired, music recording studios, sheet music shops, even an accordion museum… until this past year when the last one closed.
48th Street between 7th and 6th is the latest in many blocks to go the way of the "New Times Square." The entire block comprising Music Row has been bought up, store by store. Rumor has it the purpose of the buyout is to make way for a gigantic new hotel, as well as a series of condos.
Go get a glimpse at Music Row, abandoned as it is, before the buildings come down for good. You'll be able to peer into the store windows that led to shops where the greats and the hopefuls all purchased instruments and made music side by side: from The Beatles to The Ronettes, from Bette Midler to Johnny Cash, from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix.
8. The Mayfair Billboard
RIP The Mayfair Billboard. A recent victim of Times Square renovations, the Mayfair Billboard stood proudly on the northeast corner of 47th Street and 7th Avenue for over 80 years! You might remember it as the "five-show" billboard, as the space often served as a place for five separate Broadway shows to advertise, in four square mini-billboards, next to one longer vertical ad.
Back in 1909, the building behind the Mayfair Billboards was… four and five-story brownstone homes. That's right. There were families of the early 20th century who lived in brownstones, just a couple steps away from where the Palace Theatre was about to be built! In 1910, the Columbia Theatre was erected on the spot, to be a home for "clean burlesque" shows — that is, burlesque that you could take the whole family to see. Somewhere between vaudeville (where each act was an individual piece) and a musical (created by one team, with an overall story), this new clean burlesque provided something of a consistent story shaping each evening. By 1930, burlesque was out and cinema was in. The Columbia Theatre was turned into the Mayfair, a movie theatre in the heart of Times Square. This was when it started being the home for one of Times Square's most distinctive billboards.
The Mayfair Billboard started out advertising its own venue, but soon turned to vibrant displays of advertisements for specific movies. For most of the 20th century, the Mayfair Billboard shouted the name of one of the most popular films of the time, along with gorgeous detailed artwork. Most photos set in the center of Times Square would capture the Mayfair, giving a time stamp via cinema product to each picture.
By the early 2000s, the Mayfair had begun its five-show display, with the demand for Broadway billboards in Times Square at a premium. No longer the Mayfair Theatre underneath, the building had been split into three movie theatres, an Embassy triplex and then made into a restaurant over the years, before being gutted completely.
Currently, it seems all of the real estate on the Mayfair Billboard block is being slowly demolished, all the way down to Smiler's Deli, to make way for a huge amount of new modern-construction (read: tall glass) retail space and new hotels. The Mayfair Billboard is gone.
9. The Times Square Visitors Center
In mid-2014, the Times Square Visitors Center, just next to the Palace Theatre, permanently closed. Located in the former Embassy Theatre, the Center was a beautiful respite in the middle of busy Times Square. Visitors could speak to concierges or learn more about Broadway shows and tourist attractions. A constantly changing museum display might feature costumes from a show, historic Times Square artifacts, or an interactive art piece.
The last time I went to visit, the gypsy robe from the musical 13 was on display, as was paraphernalia from Times Square New Year's Eves of the past. An array of seats encouraged visitors to stop for a moment and enjoy a brief film on the history of Times Square, as the building also offered restrooms and a quiet entrance to the Equity Building, with its official entrance on 46th Street.
Events were held throughout the year at the Times Square Visitors Center, including live Broadway concerts and radio broadcasts. The spot dated back to 1998. Before that, the building had been the historic Embassy Theatre, since 1925. No plans for the building's future have been announced.
10. Dinty Moore's
My first volume of "The Untold Stories of Broadway" tells the stories of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and it was all but impossible to tell these without telling the stories of Dinty Moore's!
What was Dinty Moore's? An upper end Irish joint just to the left of the 46th Street Theatre (now the Rodgers), Dinty Moore's was where Damn Yankees was revised, it was where Florenz Ziegfeld drank, it was where George S. Kaufman and Damon Runyan and Bob Fosse were inspired. It may have been gone for a while, but it's not forgotten.
The owner was James Moore, and the place was first called "James Moore's." Then, restaurant regular George McManus penned the comic strip "Life With Father" featuring an Irish tavern owner, Dinty Moore. James loved this presumable tribute, and changed the name of his venue.
James was a volatile fellow, with most of his violent outbursts focused on his son, Willie Moore. In fact, James kept a baseball bat behind the bar just in case Willie became too out of line. In 1943, the legendary comedians Olsen and Johnson played the 46th Street in the zany revue Sons O' Fun, and more than once, James chased Willie with a bat right across the stage during a performance. (Willie thought it amusing to escape by running into the theatre.) Audience members thought it was part of the performance!
In the 1920s, Dinty Moore's was the place to go for hooch, as the restaurant paid no mind to Prohibition. A raid in 1930 revealed that Dinty Moore's had a secret latch under a counter in its kitchen that could be pulled to reveal a subbasement full of booze. Upon this discovery, several men were arrested and hauled down to the local station to answer to Prohibition laws.
Over the years, the place was populated by everyone from Walter Winchell to Will Rogers to Audrey Hepburn to Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland. Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were said to have re-choreographed dances at the restaurant, away from the hubbub of the theatre.
Florenz Ziegfeld was so depressed after the audience left the opening night of Show Boat in silence, that he spent the night drowning his sorrows at Dinty Moore's — before returning to the New Amsterdam the next morning to discover lines around the block to buy tickets.
Legend has it that George S. Kaufman was once kicked out of Dinty Moore's for ordering a hamburger without onions. James Moore was known for booting even the most notable of his patrons, and this time, he hollered, "I don't tell you how to write your goddamned plays, don't tell me how to serve my hamburgers!" In 1932, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's play Dinner At Eight opened around the corner at the Music Box, with a character uttering a passingly throw-away line: "I've only got a minute. I got a classy dinner date — I've got to meet a hamburger with onions, at Dinty Moore's."
Not only was Dinty Moore's frequented by the theatrical cognoscenti, Damon Runyon was also a regular. Police raids and unsavory dealings were frequent there during his time, which is especially poignant given that Runyon's Guys and Dolls would open next door at the 46th Street Theatre, years later.
Dinty Moore's was beloved for its turn-of-the century style, the establishment filled with brass fixtures, ornate mirrors, décor in black and white and gold. People of the theatre enjoyed genuine Irish fare, from corned beef and cabbage to fresh rye, at the restaurant for over half a century.
Dinty Moore's closed in the early 1970s, shortly after a change in ownership. The last crowd to spend time there was the No No Nanette cast, after performances next door. Go stand in the Marriott Marquis breezeway on the 46th Street side, and think of Dinty Moore's!
Did this post leave you feeling sad and nostalgic for the Broadway of yore? Don't sit in your bedroom and sulk. Go check out one of the following older Times Square locales, still kicking, today! It's up to you to keep them alive:
Algonquin Hotel Bar
Café Un Deux Trois
Don't Tell Mama
Drama Book Shop
Frankie & Johnnie's
One Shubert Alley
Pergola Des Artistes
Poseidon Greek Bakery
Rudy's Bar and Grill
Russian Vodka Room
Theatre Circle Shop
West Bank Café