Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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THE SULTAN OF SMUT

As is my wont, I read the obituaries every day in the New York Times, as well as other publications. I even read the Death Notices, stories of people’s lives that may not merit a full article, but that I often find fascinating; mini-biographies of lives mostly well-spent (Sadly, those with misspent lives probably don’t have family members willing to pay to tell their stories).In yesterday’s Sunday Times obit section, I couldn’t help but notice a rather prominent headline that sang out to me: “Richard Basciano Dies at 91; Times Square Sultan of Smut.” I mean, that’s a grabber, right? It turns out that Mr. Basciano was responsible for much of the porn that populated the area at the time I was attending the legitimate theatre on a regular basis as a teenager. These blights on the landscape were so “in your face” and such a distinct part of what Times Square represented back in the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s, that my vision of Broadway will forever bare the images of those marquees with their salacious titles and peep shows offering LIVE NUDE GIRLS for just twenty-five cents.

“Welcome to 42 St” circa 1970.

And of course I had no idea at the time that all of these run-down theatres on 42nd Street had once been the crown jewels of Broadway, with treasures held within like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It would be decades before a few of them would be remodeled and resurrected. If you had told me back then that 42nd Street would have a Disney Store in its future, let alone be the home to such family musicals as The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Aladdin, I would have thought it insane. Living in Los Angeles (and raising my own family at the time), I was so excited that the New Amsterdam was being so lovingly brought back to life, that even before I came to town to take my children to see The Lion King (its first tenant), I first bought the book The New Amsterdam: The Biography of a Broadway Theater, by Mary Henderson, published while the show was in previews. It’s a knockout. What was done to rescue the New Amsterdam was completely worthy of a book to tell the story and have it chronicled in loving detail with incredible photographs. It’s a shame one wasn’t done for how the Victory (now the New Victory) was transformed. See below:

The Victory and the “New” Victory. Talk about a face lift!

As for Mr. Basciano, at the time of his death last week, he was still the owner of one of the few remaining porn palaces in Times Square: Show World, which sits at the corner of 42nd and Eighth. He even lived atop it in a penthouse replete with a full-size boxing ring. At the base of two 12-story buildings, Show World was described in his New York Times obit as “a sleek, 22,000-square-foot pornographic supermarket … when [it] opened, there were nearly 150 sex shops in Times Square. Twenty years later, Mr. Basciano still owned about a dozen on that block alone and employed 400 people.” For a little perspective, that’s a larger organization than Trump International, that boasts about 300 employees.

Show World at 42nd and 8th — practically now and forever, but not for much longer.

In the late ’90s, the 42nd Street Development Project finally got its full funding to rid the area of the degradation that had prevented it from coming back to life. It condemned Mr. Basciano’s properties, but no tears — he profited with some $14 million for his inconvenience. A very colorful guy, he was something out of Guys and Dolls; a cigar-smoking gangster-style presence, in love with Times Square in all its permeations. Making millions off the quarters people put in the machines he owned to give them a quick thrill, he then made millions more when the valuable land he owned increased steadily over the years to a place where legitimate businesses were now interested in gentrifying what was once one of the most unique showplaces in New York City.

But when I was a teen, I never dared venture on 42nd Street. I only passed it on the 7th Avenue side (I wouldn’t even walk along 8th Avenue in those days if I could help it — too dangerous).

42nd Street (1972)

42nd Street (2017)

There are those today who prefer the roughness of 42nd Street then as opposed to its current “Disneyfication” today. But as stated in a New York Magazine article in 2015 “this transformation between 42nd and 47th Streets, 0.1% of New York’s land mass, represents 11% of the city’s economic activity, generating $110 billion annually.”

I suppose what all this has wrought is open to discussion, but one thing is for sure: when Show World disappears for good, I’ll stop by to give a fond farewell on behalf of the late Mr. Basciano.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing:

https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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