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Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville

Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure

David Freeland

Publication Year: 2009

Winner of the Publication Award for Popular Culture and Entertainment for 2009 from the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America

Named to Pop Matters list of the Best Books of 2009 (Non-fiction)

From the lights that never go out on Broadway to its 24-hour subway system, New York City isn't called "the city that never sleeps" for nothing. Both native New Yorkers and tourists have played hard in Gotham for centuries, lindy hopping in 1930s Harlem, voguing in 1980s Chelsea, and refueling at all-night diners and bars. The slim island at the mouth of the Hudson River is packed with places of leisure and entertainment, but Manhattan's infamously fast pace of change means that many of these beautifully constructed and incredibly ornate buildings have disappeared, and with them a rich and ribald history.

Yet with David Freeland as a guide, it's possible to uncover skeletons of New York's lost monuments to its nightlife. With a keen eye for architectural detail, Freeland opens doors, climbs onto rooftops, and gazes down alleyways to reveal several of the remaining hidden gems of Manhattan's nineteenth- and twentieth-century entertainment industry. From the Atlantic Garden German beer hall in present-day Chinatown to the city's first motion picture studio—Union Square's American Mutoscope and Biograph Company—to the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, Freeland situates each building within its historical and social context, bringing to life an old New York that took its diversions seriously. Freeland reminds us that the buildings that serve as architectural guideposts to yesteryear's recreations cannot be re-created—once destroyed they are gone forever. With condominiums and big box stores spreading over city blocks like wildfires, more and more of the Big Apple's legendary houses of mirth are being lost. By excavating the city's cultural history, this delightful book unearths some of the many mysteries that lurk around the corner and lets readers see the city in a whole new light.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

I am grateful to my agent, Eric Myers, of the Spieler Agency, for his faith in this project from the beginning, and for his humor, determination, and consistent encouragement. I also thank my editor at New York University Press, Deborah Gershenowitz, for her sage ideas regarding the structure, content, ...

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pp. xv-xxviii

I have always been surprised by how quickly buildings in New York change. In order to remain useful they are subjected to waves of modifications that alter their appearances drastically. An example is the former Horn & Hardart’s Times Square Automat profiled in this book. It was built in 1912, fairly recently considering ...

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Part I Chinatown, Chatham Square, and the Bowery

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pp. 1-4

At one time, historians assure us, the Bowery was actually respectable. When “De Bouwerij” (Old Dutch for “farm”) was still a country road leading from the settlement of New Amsterdam to Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s estate near what is now Astor Place, it presented a bucolic scene of trees and fields. ...

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1. A Round for the Old Atlantic (The Atlantic Garden)

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pp. 5-24

On the lower Bowery, just across from the spot where an elegant Beaux-Arts sculpture announces the Manhattan Bridge, one of the city’s least acknowledged thoroughfares sits in repose. The “Chinatown Arcade”—words spelled in peeling white letters affixed to a red plastic sign—is largely hidden beneath ...

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2. Chinatown Theater (The 1893 Chinese Theater)

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pp. 25-42

Tiny Doyers Street, tucked between Chatham Square and equally minute Pell, is so narrow and twisted that it resembles a medieval lane in a European town. To walk through it on a busy weekend afternoon is to enjoy a respite from the hubbub of nearby Bowery and Canal, as few vehicles attempt the street’s winding confines. ...

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Part II Union Square and the East Village

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pp. 43-46

By the 1850s Union Square, with its park and brownstone residences, had become a neighborhood of fashionable society, its pretentions to eminence abetted in no small part by the opening of the Academy of Music, on the corner of 14th Street and Irving Place, on October 2, 1854. The Academy had been designed as an opera house ...

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3. A Roof with a View (American Mutoscope Studio)

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pp. 47-64

Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia was a towering, fortress-like structure covering the east side of Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets. It had been built in 1895, as the first theater north of 42nd, and held a glassed-in roof garden, a small concert hall, an eighteen-hundred-seat playhouse, and, finally, the Music Hall, ...

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4. Caretakers of Second Avenue (Hebrew Actors’ Union)

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pp. 65-78

At its upper end, one mile above Chatham Square and the former Atlantic Garden, the Bowery terminates at giant Cooper Union, an 1859 brownstone meeting hall and college where Abraham Lincoln gave his anti-slavery “Right Makes Might” speech in February 1860. To the north of this venerable site lies Union Square ....

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Part III The Tenderloin

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pp. 79-84

On the southwestern corner of 24th Street and Sixth Avenue an aging brick building sits in defiance of the sparkling new condos surrounding it. Until the 1990s and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s cleanup of sex establishments it was home to Billy’s Topless bar; today it is a bagel shop. But this 1886 structure, ...

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5. If You Can Make ’Em Cry (Tin Pan Alley)

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pp. 85-106

Despite the changes overtaking what is left of the old Tenderloin, one pocket, 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, has remained largely the same. When visitors leave Sixth and walk eastward along the north side of 28th, they pass a white brick building on the corner (once, around 1900, home to ...

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6. Tenderloin Winners and Losers (Shang Draper’s Gambling House)

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pp. 107-128

One of the Tenderloin’s best-preserved buildings sits east of Tin Pan Alley, within a stretch of old houses lining the south side of 28th Street near Broadway. Number 6 West 28th, an imposing edifice with a large display window on the second floor, has received landmark protection because it lies on the fringe of ...

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Part IV Harlem

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pp. 129-134

By 1900 African Americans were growing tired of life in the old Tenderloin. A terrifying riot in the summer of that year, directed against blacks and abetted with police indifference, left two people dead and hundreds injured. That the attacks occurred on their own ground reminded African American New Yorkers that ...

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7. A Theater of Our Own (The Lincoln Theater)

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pp. 135-154

From across the street one notes a colorful 1960s-era exterior, very much in the spirit of Edward Durell Stone’s former “lollipop” building on Columbus Circle. Like that much contested, now altered structure, the church at number 58-60 West 135th Street features a series of smooth, bowl-shaped depressions—ideal cradles, ...

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8. Rise and Fall of the Original Swing Street (West 133rd Street)

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pp. 155-164

West 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues is a quiet stretch of brownstones and tenement-style apartment houses, the kind of block that typifies this section of central Harlem. In the summer neighbors gather along stoops, set up lawn chairs on the sidewalk, and cook barbecue dinners in open pits—a scene ...

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Part V Times Square

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pp. 165-168

Around 1900, New York’s theatrical district crept up Broadway from the 20s and 30s to 42nd Street, nestled into Longacre (later Times) Square, and, despite a further incursion toward Columbus Circle, decided to stay. There really was nowhere else for show business to go: large sections of the Upper West Side had already ...

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9. The Strike Invisible (Horn & Hardart’s Original New York Automat)

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pp. 169-186

Grand Slam, on the western side of Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets, is the Number 1 tourist store in Manhattan. Or at least that’s what the sign says. Facing the street, a large plate-glass window is stocked with such novelties as Bin Laden toilet paper and pink short shorts that warn, “Keep Back 200 Ft,” ...

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10. Last Dance at the Orpheum (The Orpheum Dance Palace)

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pp. 187-202

Howard Johnson’s restaurant, which squatted on the northwest corner of Broadway and 46th Street, was one of the last surviving examples of old-style Times Square dinginess until it closed in the summer of 2005. Here, generations of tourists, bobby-soxers, and blue-haired matinee ladies enjoyed rubbery steaks, ...

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11. Nights of Gladness (Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe)

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pp. 203-222

Dorothy Kilgallen once termed West 46th Street—the small sliver of it that extends from Broadway and empties into Eighth Avenue—“Girl Street.” Here, nightly during the 1940s, a string of five stage doors would release “showgirls, taxi dancers, floor show beauties, strip teasers, and chorines.” Merging into the 11:00 p.m. ...

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pp. 223-230

It is a sweltering afternoon in August 2007. Armed with a flashlight, I head toward 133rd Street, where I plan to tour what remains of the Nest Club, now heavily damaged after a fire and on the market for sale. A young man from the realty company meets me in front, beneath a rounded canopy that still advertises “Brown’s Palace” ...

A Note on Sources

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pp. 231-234


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pp. 235-250


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pp. 251-256


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pp. 257-268

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About the Author

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pp. 269

A historian and music journalist, David Freeland is the author of the book Ladies of Soul. His work has appeared in New York Press, No Depression, American Songwriter, Relix, Living Blues, South Dakota Review, ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814728543
E-ISBN-10: 0814728545
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814727621
Print-ISBN-10: 081472762X

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Theaters -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Social life and customs.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Buildings, structures, etc.
  • Historic buildings -- New York (State) -- New York.
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