Hard to Recognize 42nd Street

Hard to Recognize 42nd Street New York's 42nd Street has always been an entertainment mecca. The battle over the years has always been over what KIND of entertainment it would be the mecca of.

New York's 42nd Street has always been an entertainment mecca. The battle over the years has always been over what KIND of entertainment it would be the mecca of.

A stroll down the long-ago Acropolis of American theatre in mid November showed that the definition of the street is changing yet again, and radically. Those who remember it as New York's pornography mall will be amazed to see that nearly all the street's sex businesses have shuttered as a half dozen rehabilitation projects get underway -- capped by Disney's renovation of the New Amsterdam Theatre.

The home of the original Ziegfeld Follies is scheduled in 1997 to become a showcase for legitimate theatre projects on the order of "Beauty and the Beast."

The New York Post announced Nov. 14 that RKO will join Disney, Garth Drabinsky and other entrepreneurs in proposing a another component in the entertainment complex taking shape in the heart of what used to be the city's sleaze center. The "RKO Hollywood Palace" would contain a restaurant and mini theme park that would attempt to recreate a Hollywood sound stage circa the 1940s.

Ironically, RKO is a corporate descendent of the two greatest vaudeville circuits. "RKO" stood for Radio Keith Orpheum, which originated as a radio-era corporate merger of the B.F. Keith chain (which operated the Palace Theatre) and the Orpheum circuit. Despite its name, RKO quickly moved into films, and made some of the classics of the 1940s, including "Citizen Kane." Though the RKO plan, like most of the others, is still in the talking stage, the transformation of West 42nd Street is already miraculous. Only nine adult book shops remain open in the two blocks between Eighth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, where once there were dozens.

A stroll down this stretch -- now on the southern fringe of the New York theatre district, shows most of the shops darkened and gated. Only three remain between Avenue of the Americas and Broadway; none at all remain on the north side of 42nd between Broadway and Eighth. Six are clustered on the south side of 42nd near Eighth.

Most of the neon signs advertising "Live Nude Girls" and such have been switched off or dismantled. Dumpsters full of wood and plaster fill the lobby of the New Amsterdam and scaffolding bearing the words "Crossroads of the World" have sprouted on buildings. Perhaps the most surreal touch: theatre marquees that once advertised all manner of cheap thrills now bear snatches of poetry. Hustlers still attempt to sell drugs, but the hookers have retreated to Eighth Avenue. The blocks are strangely silent and low on foot traffic now that most of the storefronts are empty.

Farther west, past Ninth Avenue, West 42nd Street becomes chockablock with off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theatres, in a stretch known as Theatre Row. Once an enclave of culture in a dangerous neighborhood, Theatre Row now seems poised to become one end of the biggest live entertainment complex in the city.

A LITTLE HISTORY

The area, once a center of the horse trade in the 1800s, began its first life as a theatre district around the turn of the century. Its golden age as the capital of American theatre lasted a comparatively short time -- from 1900 to the Depression of the 1930s.

By the time the movie "42nd Street" opened in 1933, most of the legitimate theatres on the stretch had already converted to showing movies. There were no operating legitimate theatres with entrances on these blocks for a generation, though the shells remain. The blocks became an increasingly seedy mid-20th century version of a movie multiplex for the next 30 years.

In the 1960s, merely daring films gave way to hard-core pornography. But the porno film era lasted an even shorter time than the Broadway era. The theatres themselves rarely screened pornographic movies since the late 1970s, when home video took over that market. The action then moved to adult video stores and/or peep shows, with their attendant garish neon signs. The theatres continued to screen "urban action" movies, martial arts films and violent adventure films until last winter.

New York City recently rezoned the sex-shop trade, dispersing the shops throughout the city, and leaving 42nd Street effectively free of sex shops within two years -- just around the time Disney's New Amsterdam is set to open.

Among projects mentioned for the rechristening of the theatre have been Elton John's musical version of "Aida" and a stage adaptation of the Disney film "Mary Poppins."

In addition to Disney, Canadian entrepreneur Garth Drabinsky (producer of "Show Boat" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman") has announced his intention to rehabilitate two of the theatres on the north side of 42nd Street, the Lyric and the New Victory. MTV has talked about putting a studio next to that. Madame Tussaud's London wax museum said it wants to open a U.S. branch next to the New Amsterdam on the south side of the street. Several other entertainment/restaurant complexes have been proposed for the ends of the block.

Even before the turn of the century, the historic district may find itself fully reclaimed by legitimate theatre, and once more a place where you can "hear the beat of dancing feet."

- By Robert Viagas