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Times Square Seen Through the History of its Hotels From the Early 1900’s to Today

From the splendor of the Knickerbocker and Astor Hotels, where even the Godfather met with the sexiest actress, to today's decadence and good intentions

October 2020, New York: Times Square (Terry W. Sanders)

Part 2: (Part 1 here).

Hello Dollys!

While these elegant theaters and hotels with a sophisticated crowd were attempting to elevate Times Square to a respectable status, Times Square was emerging as its own deal in an unstoppable vortex of events and crazy entertainment.

Dolly Sisters

Two Hungarian-American identical twin dancers and famous actresses in silent films, Rosie and Jenny Dolly, performed a steamy and very successful show at the Knickerbocker during the summer of 1917; they had danced in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway and at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. They also had a weakness for gambling and for collecting jewelry. Once, in Cannes, Viscountess Furness saw Jenny and said “I have never seen so many jewels on any one person in my life. Her bracelets reached almost to her elbows. The necklace she wore must have cost a king’s ransom, and the ring on her right hand was the size of an ice cube.” Fortunately, the gem-encrusted Dolly twins were not staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel when, two years later, a hotel guest was robbed of $ 100,000 worth of jewels. While running from the police the robbers must have grabbed something else from the hotel restaurant since their weapon of choice was… a squirt of hot tabasco sauce that they sprayed in the police officer’s eyes.

The Knickerbocker Hotel was also where jurors of the murder trial of famed architect Stanford White were sequestered. The celebrity witness, as we all know, was the legendary beauty Evelyn Nesbit, famously pictured in a swing made of a red velvet rope. This might have given the Knickerbocker Hotel the idea to be the first one to utilize a red velvet rope to contain its upscale clientele instead of having them wander around the tables while waiting to be seated.

“I Just Got Pinched in the Astor Bar”

The Astor Bar also became a meeting point for gay patrons and a renowned pick-up place for gay theater queens who, a rarity for the 1910s, were actually welcomed. It was also immortalized by Cole Porter in his song “Well, Did You Evah!” and “She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor.” Over the years, famous bands played at the Astor, including Frank Sinatra and Carmen Cavallaro and his orchestra.

The Lyceum Theater

The Astor Hotel was the Times Square before Times Square was Times Square

It was grand, opulent, at times flashy, and messy. But, as the New York Times reported, “the Astor’s Grand Ballroom has been the scene of brilliant social events attended by 10 Presidents, numerous kings and queens and practically every major celebrity to come to New York. The late Mayor James J. Walker called the room ‘the Times Square annex to City Hall’.” It was also where Fiorello La Guardia had his party celebration for his first Mayoral election win.

The Godfather Likes it Hot

There is a rare interview recorded with Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando in 1955 at the opening of the Rose Tattoo at the Astor Hotel. It was rumored that after filming “A Street Car Named Desire,” Marlon Brando casually met and became friends (and some say had an affair) with Marilyn Monroe who, at that time, was taking acting classes at Lee Strasberg.

Hammerstein Olympia Theater

Superman vs Marriott

Christopher Reeves campaigned and found his kryptonite when he tried to stop Marriott from demolishing five historic theaters in Times Square: the Helen Hayes, the Morocco, the Bijou, the Astor and the Gaiety; but he lost. In reality we all lost. Marriott built in their place the Marriott Marquis Hotel, which is more brutally obscene than brutalist in style. Long confined to Hell’s Kitchen, Satan, once again, stepped his pointy hoof into Times Square.

Times Square “Dropped the Ball”

Claridge Hotel

The Claridge Hotel, a little Beaux-Arts jewel on the opposite side of Times Square, was often dwarfed by the Astor and the Knickerbocker Hotel. Over the years its main claim to fame was of having a gigantic billboard featuring a Camel cigarettes ad with actual smoke coming out of it, mounted on the side of the hotel. This would become one of the most iconic advertisements in Times Square. The Claridge Hotel quit smoking and was demolished in 1972. It was the end of glamour.

In the 70s and 80s, after going through Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II, Times Square and its hotels had lost their glamour. The Knickerbocker closed its doors after only 15 years and was converted into an office building. The glamorous Astor Hotel survived until 1967, when it was demolished to make room for a hideous skyscraper. The old Pabst Hotel-cum-New York Times- cum-One Times Square building was disfigured and plastered with advertisements.

Astor Hotel, Claridge Hotel and Olympia Theater

Broadway performances went from chic to peep shows and the hotels that were the unofficial seat of political and showbiz power started selling their rooms by the hour. Go-Go bars, drugs and crime once again took over Times Square.  As depicted in the movie “Midnight Cowboy,” with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, filmed at the Claridge Hotel, the square and the city had collapsed. But with all its grit and danger, the 90s brought a sexy edge, a kind of “bad boy vibe” and sinful appeal to Times Square, which after all, was still the center of entertainment; just wilder. The opening of Studio 54 revolutionized entertainment. Later on Club USA opened in Times Square, where the W hotel is now and the annual wild gay leather party “black party” was hosted nearby at Roseland.

The Perfect Blend of Bland

The 90s with its wild personality dissolved into the new century. There was an attempt to infuse some style with the construction of the Macklowe Hotel, (now the Millennium) in a revival Art-Deco. I worked at the hotel for three years in the 90s and I am most thankful to them for saving the beautiful 1903 Hudson Theater. However, a long string of insignificant hotels opened up, one after the other: the Westin, the Renaissance, the Novotel, the Hilton Times Square, each one more insignificant than the other. It is like having Peoria style hotels built in Vegas or, how to kill the buzz. The Knickerbocker, however, is as the name implies, as a true New Yorker survived and brought back to life as a hotel in 2015.

The lobby of the Millennium

The Circus of Life

But no matter what happens, Times Square is its own (or)deal.

The Marriot Hotel (Photo RG)

The square and its hotels went from a brief era of glamour that lasted about 20 years, back to messy and are now experiencing a corporate “Disneyfication”.

In 1918, at the Knickerbocker Hotel, a monkey dressed in human clothes walked around the lobby causing panic among the guests. Nowadays it is humans in Times Square that, dressed like King Kong or Elmo, cause shock and annoyance among their peers. The midnight cowboy lost his home at the Claridge when it was demolished and ended up naked in Times Square, and frozen Elsa took over hot Evelyn.

While I was walking down in an unsettlingly, empty Times Square during Covid, I realized that what makes the square what it is, is the people. They are the real crazy entertainment of Times Square. Times Square is like the first person you fell madly in love with, until it finally dawns on you that he’s nuts, you file for divorce and deny to everyone that you were ever attracted to him, but he will secretly always be your first love.

The new” Edition” of an old story

Many of the new hotels built in the past 40 years claimed that they would change Times Square. History has recently repeated itself with the opening of the Edition Hotel, announced with fanfare in 2019 and already forgotten in the circus of life that is Times Square.  No matter your efforts or your best intentions, you may succeed in changing the surface of Times Square, but in the end it is always Gotham that will change you.




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