If the beginning of a new year represents
the chance to start anew, it surely is appropriate that millions
of Americans associate New Year’s Eve with New York
City’s Times Square. In a nation founded on the individual’s
opportunity to reinvent himself or herself, its largest city
always has been at the forefront of change, and supplied a
nexus of energy, ambition and drive.
Revelers ring in the new year in New York City's Times Square. On December 31, hundreds of thousands of people gather each year to watch a six-foot wide, half-ton Waterford crystal ball lowered atop the One Times Square building signal the start of the new year. The annual tradition began in 1907.
For much of the past century, the neighborhood,
centered on the intersection of Broadway, Seventh Avenue
and 42nd Street, similarly has been reinvented time and
again, but remained always a place where New Yorkers --
in the words of the social commentator and Romanian immigrant
Andrei Codrescu, that "quick, witty, generous but not
stupid breed of citizen" -- come to play.
NEW YEAR’S IN TIMES SQUARE
With the 1904 opening of the subway through
“midtown” Manhattan, some businesses moved there
from the Wall Street financial district. One was the New
York Times newspaper, which relocated to a new tower at
the heart of Longacre Square, soon renamed Times Square.
The paper responded with a New Year’s Eve party complete
with fireworks. "No more beautiful picture," the
next day’s Times recounted, "was ever limned
in fire on the curtain of midnight."
In 1907, the city government outlawed fireworks
but the festivities continued, centered on the "dropping
of the ball," a custom derived from harbor time signals.
At 11:59 p.m. each December 31, a six-foot wide, half-ton
Waterford crystal ball is lowered along a pole atop the
One Times Square building. It reaches the base of its tower
precisely one minute later, signaling a new year. This seemingly
mundane event is witnessed live by a crowd numbering in
the hundreds of thousands. The images of these celebrants
-- often young, always boisterous, and typically fortified
by one means or another against below freezing winter temperatures
-- are televised throughout the United States and in much
of the world.
Meanwhile, In the surrounding blocks, thousands
attend Broadway plays, enjoy music at B.B. King’s
or dine at establishments ranging from long-established
favorites to the latest in "theme cuisine." The
Times Square New Year’s party has changed over the
past 100 years, and will continue to do so, but this very
special neighborhood offers a true story of American life,
verve and renewal.
20TH CENTURY ENTERTAINMENT CAPITAL
Before the neighborhood became what author
James Traub calls "the global capital of popular culture,"
it was home to New York’s horse and livery trades.
With the 20th century, the horses gave way to the theaters.
In 1895, the cigar manufacturer Oscar Hammerstein I (grandfather
of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II) built the Olympia
Theatre on Longacre Square. By 1910, Times Square boasted
some 40 theaters, including the 5,200-seat Hippodrome, then
the world’s largest. Illuminated by the theaters’
bright marquis lights, the strip of Broadway passing through
the area became known as the "Great White Way."
Times Square theaters swiftly became the
center of the nation’s vaudeville revues, eclectic
multiact shows that featured music, comedy and novelty performers.
1907 saw the arrival of the Ziegfeld Follies, with their
elaborate production values and beautiful chorus girls.
As Traub recounts, it was in and around Times Square that
many Americans "first heard ragtime music, and ogled
chorus girls, and danced dangerous … dances …
and sat right on stage in the thrilling Parisian import
known as the cabaret."
With World War I, motion pictures became
an important part of the Times Square experience. A number
of stage theaters were converted to screen, while huge,
ornate "movie palaces" rose nearby. The 1920s
saw the development of the American musical, a form of theatre
combining music, songs, dance and spoken dialogue. For several
decades, the Broadway musical was possibly the most prolific
source of American popular music, showcasing the works of
Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin and
Even as Times Square emerged as an entertainment
capital, the neighborhood retained a rougher edge. As far
back as 1905, strollers could admire an electric billboard
of the "Heatherbloom Petticoat Girl," her dress
blown upward by a neon rainstorm, revealing her legs. The
Great Depression that began in 1929 brought this hardness
to the fore. The stories of Damon Runyon (1880–1946)
depict the neighborhood’s Depression-era gamblers,
petty thieves, actors and gangsters as colorful “wise
guys” with names like "Nathan Detroit,"
"Harry the Horse" and "Good Time Charlie."
Millions of Americans associate the end
of World War II with Times Square. Some recall the "Truman
Announces Japanese Surrender" message on the plaza’s
news "zipper," others the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt
photograph of a jubilant sailor stealing a kiss from a nurse
also celebrating the war’s end.
ENTERING THE 21ST CENTURY RENEWED AND REVITALIZED
During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of
factors changed the neighborhood in disquieting ways. Many
Americans moved to the suburbs, and television absorbed
more of their leisure time. Americans continued to jam the
square on New Year’s Eve, but, increasingly, they
shared the neighborhood with purveyors of more frankly adult
forms of entertainment, and with increased drug use and
Even as Broadway musicals celebrated themes
of individual renewal, the surrounding streets came to experience
a renewal of their own. Determined municipal efforts drove
crime down and "adult entertainment" (mostly)
out. Zoning and "landmark laws" encouraged new
development while protecting classic theaters from destruction
and, requiring use of the square’s trademark neon-bright
Times Square differs in some ways from its predecessors
but also remains the lively, quirky, diverse funhouse of
old. In March 2005, the world championship of women’s
chess was played in a windowed, street-level Times Square
studio, on the very streets where Robert John Burck, also
known as the "Naked Cowboy," poses in his underwear
for photos with passersby, and the "Reverend Billy"
of the "Church of Stop Shopping" spreads his gospel
to Christmas bargain hunters. Among the bargains are the
1.5 million half-price theater tickets sold annually at
the TKTS booth for the Great White Way’s dramas, musicals
and revivals -- many of the Broadway classics return to
the stage again and again. Visitors and residents also are
attracted by the great shopping, the music clubs and movies
-- the rush of the new and the memories of the old.
In the end, Times Square remains much as
James Traub described it during an earlier era, "an
incredibly democratic entertainment place … [home
to] all the varying influences whose incongruous coming
together made American culture possible." Come December
31, Americans sense this, as they resolve their own personal
renewals and look forward to the future.
For more information about American people,
places and customs, see U.S
Life and Culture.
Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer