It is easy to tell the difference between a book that is written with genuine passion, and one that is written to fulfill a contract, or build a curriculum vitae, or fatten a wallet. Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure fits firmly into the former category, as is apparent from its very first pages when the author, David Freeland, recounts a recurring dream:
Although some details change, the basic situation is the same: I am walking in an American city sometime during the middle of the 20th century. I keep searching for a neighborhood that I know, from my previous visits, contains a large number of old theaters. By the time I figure out where the neighborhood is I am forced to remember that many of the theaters have been torn down… but always I am able to find one or two that are still there – and feel tremendous relief when I go inside and head to a seat, usually in the balcony where I can get a nice view of the whole building. But always something is different about the interior: either it has been stripped of all architectural detail, just a blank shell, or else the stage seems so far away that I can barely see it. It’s as if I’m watching it from the opposite end of a telescope. Everything appears to be growing smaller, shrinking in front of me to a pin-sized speck before evaporating completely.
The emotions that motivate a recurring dream like this are, I would guess (for I have similar dreams, although usually about out-of-the-way city neighborhoods and dying small towns) a combination of nostalgia for a past that never was, and yearning, mixed with a bitter regret, for a present that can never be again. These emotions may be rooted in the psyche, but in Freeland’s case also are based, unfortunately, on concrete, and steel, reality. For, as Freeland goes on to say, “My dream is essentially true; it represents a search I have been on my entire life, one that continues to plague, frustrate, and sometimes delight me.”
Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville is Freeland’s record of his search — not, it should be emphasized, for the titular amusements themselves, but rather for the places where they once delighted thousands of his fellow New Yorkers. And here is where the bitter regret comes in, for while hardly anyone would argue that taxi dances and vaudeville are overdue for a full-scale revival (though I wouldn’t mind a few 21st century-style automats), the buildings that once housed these diversions were thoughtlessly and soullessly obliterated, or left to molder.
Thus, though this book is a fine history of many old forms and sources of middle-class diversion for Manhattanites, including Tin Pan Alley, beer halls, dance palaces, and dime-a-dance joints, Freeland isn’t attempting to revive popular enthusiasm for these art forms. He’s after something much more reasonable, and therefore, in this unreasonable world, much more difficult to attain: an appreciation of the sometimes architecturally amazing buildings that once housed these entertainments, and a civic willingness to save and restore them.
It’s too late, in any case, for most of them. Witnessing Freeland’s search for the barest remnants of the stunningly beautiful Times Square Automat (if you have trouble believing that what was, essentially, a walk-in vending machine could be “stunningly beautiful,” you have to read this book) or Shang Draper’s gambling house, or the Orpheum Dance Palace, is to experience the very sensation of a dream, when one is running, but cannot get anywhere, or reaching for something important, but unable to grasp it.
But while Freeland cannot save most of these buildings, he is able to evoke them, and the wonderful high times that once took place inside of them, with a rare passion. Here is his lyrical attempt to bring to life the way a vanished Bowery beer hall called Atlantic Garden must have looked and sounded:
After passing through the front restaurant on the Bowery, visitors emerged into a long rectangular hall with a high, delicately curved ceiling. Spaced above at even intervals were limpid skylights that slowly gave way to the bright blaze of gas lamps at night… (u)nderneath the gallery patrons entertained themselves with a range of amusements — bowling, shooting galleries, billiards, even an aquarium — while directly opposite… an orchestra performed… (t)he sonic result of all this activity was an even, cyclical hum, rising and lowering like a tide; first the violins, then jabbering talk and laughter, then the rat-tat-tat of ammunition, followed again by violins, all competing for attention amid the steady, rhythmic clinking of schooners. Each night the floor was thronged with an estimated fifteen hundred to three thousand people…”
And then, a little later, he brings back to life the amazing Automat:
Nicola D’Ascenzo, esteemed stained-glass artist whose work also graced the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, designed an astonishing central panel — more than a full story high — for the exterior façade. In the center the word “Automat” was spelled in playful letters, an unusual instance of Art Nouveau in U.S. building design. Smaller arched panels graced doorways on both sides, and, at the very top, the effect was capped with another line of stained glass on the third story. Inside, the climate was glittering and magical, as colored light streamed in and suffused the large, airy room with soothing rays of green, orange, and yellow. The ceiling alone was a wonder: dense vegetal patterns– flowers, vines, and leaves all twisted and overgrown– crept their way up a central pillar, from which radiated four beams covered in the same lush ornamentation. Smiling elfin figures sat hunched on the pillar’s upper corners, looking down on diners like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And where is this dream today? It was replaced in 1976 with a hamburger joint and “covered in forest-green Burger King shingles,” then supplanted, in turn, by a souvenir shop. All that remains is a bit of the old decorative ceiling.
Think about that the next time you have a Whopper and fries. Better yet (because it wasn’t Burger King’s fault that Horn and Hardart, the company behind the Automat, fell on hard times) think about it the next time someone in your community proposes demolishing something beautiful and rare, or even just interesting and odd, in favor of a new structure that will, itself, be demolished soon enough. That’s the American way, or at least it is in most communities, most of the time.
In this wonderful book Freeland, a writer who has the courage of his dreams, is not afraid to remind us of what we have wiped out, and in our stumbling childlike sleepwalk through time continue to destroy.