June 24, 2011

My Trip to the Times Square Visitor Center

By Sheila O'Malley, Contributing Writer

New York is obviously so full of things to see that even if you live here, it would take a lifetime to see it all. I definitely take it for granted sometimes, but then I'll have these moments where I suddenly realize, for example, "Holy crap, that is the Chrysler Building AND IT IS SO BEAUTIFUL."

The Disneyfication of New York City in the last 15 years has taken away a lot of the flavor of the place, especially Times Square, which I remember from my childhood visits here as being a scary fascinating place of smut shops, XXX movie halls, and peep shows featuring "live girls working their way through college". This is the main neighborhood of New York City, and that was its welcome mat for decades.

I enjoy going to museums and reading commemorative plaques as much as the next person, but I also like getting a glimpse of something weird/notable/bizarre, and going to investigate it further. The giant Charmin toilet paper "installation" is a perfect example, as well as the freaky place on 42nd Street called Pop Tart World. And there's a weird spot on Broadway on the north side of Times Square that is called the Times Square Visitor Center (1560 Broadway between 46th and 47th Street), which may seem like nothing that would hold any interest for me whatsoever, a place where tourists can get a map of the city, or buy T-shirts, keychains, get maps, and other crap to bring home from their visit. I went there only once before, when I was looking for Pop Tart World and needed directions. The atmosphere inside that Visitor Center was so bizarre that I knew I had to go back to check it out.

The entranceway is unassuming, a dark hallway announced by pink neon walls blaring: TIMES SQUARE VISITOR CENTER, and RIGHT THIS WAY on either side. It doesn't look like your regular tourist joint. It looks like the entrance to a seedy vaudevillian theatre featuring burlesque dancers who do erotic fan dances as bored men wearing fedoras and chomping on cigars look on.

At the end of the hallway is a small display showing costumes from previous Broadway shows, standing there on creepy headless mannequins. They are the decapitated greeting committee.

After looking at all the costumes, you emerge into a giant echoing room with a high ceiling. At the back wall is a huge screen on which is projected footage from current Broadway shows, as well as photo montages of the stars of yesteryear. There is no sound accompanying the footage, so the images just keep unfurling there on that screen and it's all rather... well, ghostly.

The space is huge and it is divided by a long curving mirrored wall. There is a giant lit-up ball, an imitation of the ball that drops every New Year's Eve in Times Square, and it changes color incessantly, blue, red, green, and since there are no real overhead lights in this echoey space, the light from the giant ball is, at times, the only real illumination. It's incredibly cheesy. On the back side of the giant curving mirrored wall is all of the tourist crap: snow globes and T-shirts and leering theatre masks.

Inside the entrance, there is the Broadway display, complete with neon lights. Any teenager who is a fan of Glee and is not embarrassed by "jazz hands" will love the display, which features playbills from Tony-Award winners, the witch hat worn by Elpheba in Wicked, and other Broadway memorabilia.

Beside the Broadway wall is the weirdness that caught my eye on the first visit and made me have to return to take a closer look. A purple neon sign in swoopy script announces: Hopes and Dreams, and below it is a wall covered with colored scraps of paper. On each piece of paper, some soul out there has written a "hope" or a "dream" and tacked it up onto the wall. I have "hopes and dreams" myself, but something about this wall activated my gag reflex. Maybe it was the swoopy script, reminiscent of romance novels and Fabio's flowing hair. I moved in closer to look at some of the hopes and dreams written on those scraps of paper. I expected to be cynical about the wall of Hopes and Dreams. Instead, I totally got wrapped up in those scraps of paper and the things people were wishing for. They were fascinating!

Perhaps one should learn to spell "millionaire" first. Just a suggestion.

As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I feel this person's pain.

Good luck with that.

I don't even know what this means, but I do know that this person is a pompous ass.

I wonder if a girl or a boy wrote that one.

There's a whole movie-plot in this tiny scrap of paper.

I hope for that too. Very touching.

Maybe putting your names on a public wall declaring this particular "hope" is not the smartest thing to do, boys.

Like I said, I thought I would be making fun of all of it. But I stood there looking at those scraps of paper for a good half an hour. One person hoped that the "calculus final wouldn't be too hard" and another person hoped "that I don't have to spend my life alone". The entire tapestry of crazy yearning beautiful silly humanity was on that wall. So don't let the purple swoopy script put you off. This is good stuff.

Over in the corner, almost as though it should be ashamed of itself, is a small display called PEEP-O-RAMA. It features, again, neon lights, and three peeping booths, reminiscent of the kind that used to be everywhere in Times Square. You'd go in, put a coin in the slot, a screen would go up, and you'd get a tantalizing glimpse of writhing bodies and jiggling body parts before the screen would then go down. Sometimes you'd get a glimpse of a live sex show, with one of those "girls working their way through college", doing awesome and unspeakable things with herself. In such a sanitized New York, where everything is so G-rated so the little kiddies won't get upset, I'm amazed that this display even exists! I was so excited! I miss the Smutty New York! All of the wandering tourists in that echo chamber stayed far away from PEEP-O-RAMA but I made a beeline to it after wallowing in the hopes and dreams of my fellow man. You go into one of the little booths, and draw the curtain so you have privacy. (Ew.)

You put your money in the slot, and then you have the option to FOG GLASS between "you and your neighbor". Yes, please. Unfortunately, they don't show porn in the Times Square Visitor Center, but you can watch a little documentary about the seedy side of that neighborhood, and what it used to be like. I had a moment, as I was standing in the peep booth, staring at the footage of marquees announcing the promise of 'NYMPHO SLUTS', while just beyond the little curtain tourists were clutching maps and staring in a dazed manner at the wall of Hopes and Dreams, and the ongoing silent footage on the giant movie screen - where I thought: "Where the hell am I, and what the hell am I doing?" It's quite simple. I was deeply ensconced in PEEP-O-RAMA and I had no shame about it.

As I wandered through the rest of the space, I started to realize how gorgeous the actual architecture was, the details in the ceiling and the plasterwork along the top of the wall. Buildings don't look like this anymore. Interiors don't look this grand. It was hard to even notice how beautiful the actual space was due to the busy-ness of the displays and the neon and the mirrors and the Fabio and the peep. But if you do decide to check out the Times Square Visitor Center, make sure you look up, at the ceiling and the details in the light fixtures. I knew that this was the real deal, not a kitschy representation of what it "used to be like", and I wondered what this building had been before. I was guessing vaudeville theatre. (I was not too far off.)

All along the wall opposite the Broadway/Hopes&Dreams/Peep-o-Rama juggernaut there is a beautiful mural showing a vaguely pastoral ancient scene, with shepherds and temples and medieval-looking castles. It was all rather Middle Earth-y. It was also a very strange juxtaposition because the mural appears on the wall behind the tourist-shop, so you have displays of glittery I HEART NEW YORK buttons and Empire State Building lunchboxes, backed up by this greenish-tinted old mural, showing beautiful maidens carrying baskets and courtly scenes of pastoral paradise. Weird. Awesome.

And here is what I love about the Times Square Visitor Center, and one of the things I love about New York in general. Alongside all the new modern stuff, you do get occasional glimpses of the New York that once was. It might be an old-school sign, like the Paramount sign, or it might be a dingy greasy spoon diner that has been there since 1948, with cops sitting belly-up to the counter, as they have sat there, generation after generation, since 1948. The diner may now be flanked by an American Apparel store and an Apple store, but the remnant of history remains. New York is casual about such things. New York has to change, grow, progress. But I love to get those weird glimpses of what used to be. They are everywhere. And it was there in the cheesy Times Square Visitor Center, in the haunting images of Broadway stars from 50 years ago flickering on the big screen, and also in the beautiful mural along the wall.

I came home and looked up the history of the building. Once upon a time, that building was the Embassy Theatre. Thomas W. Lamb designed the building, and those murals I so admired were painted by Arthur Crisp. The Embassy was a 556-seat theatre that catered to a mainly high-end audience, and you had to reserve seats. It opened on August 26, 1925, and played the major MGM releases of the day. In the late 20s, it was reacquired and turned into a newsreel-format theatre, something that was very popular in the days before television. You'd buy your ticket, and go watch a couple of hours of newsreels informing you of what was going on in the world. With the advent of a radio in every home, and then television, newsreel theatres were relatively short-lived. The Embassy Theatre then went back to being a regular movie house, showing first-run features, and it operated as such until 1997. Thankfully, in 1987 it was designated a New York Landmark, so after it closed as a movie theatre in 1997, it was then renovated, keeping the flavor of the old place, maintaining the murals and the plasterwork and all the detailing, and it reopened as the weird-yet-cool Times Square Visitor Center in 1998.

The Visitor Center space is so far back from the busy main street that it is like you are in a cave, with light glimmering at you from far far away. Since there are no overhead lights and everything is illuminated by the various neon signs within, you step into some weird time out of time when you go there. It is the New York now, and it is also the New York then.

I went to mock. I came away moved.

But I didn't add a "hope" or a "dream" to the Fabio wall. Even I have my limits.

Sheila O'Malley is a writer and film critic. You can read more of her work at her blog, SheilaOmalley.com or check out her film reviews at Capital New York. You can follow her @sheilakathleen.