When we tragically lost the Howard Johnson's in Times Square, we also lost the gay burlesque that lived on its second floor. The building was just demolished and last week's visit to the site revealed the zig-zag vestigial trace of the stairs you used to climb to reach the Gaiety.
At the top of those stairs was a ticket booth where a woman sat behind the glass and took your $17 admission through a slot. That price was good for an all-day show. The theater was small and had a stage with a runway that reached out into the audience. The dancers, most of them muscled and tanned, would come out on stage and strip, then disappear behind the blue tinsel curtain. The audience would wait. And wait. Sometimes a movie screen came down to entertain with a film.
Finally, minutes later, the dancer would emerge fully erect, the audience would applaud his hydraulic achievement, and the dance would go on. If you were next to the runway, for the price of a dollar tip, you could sit like Tantalus beneath the fruit tree as the dancer dangled his family jewels over your upturned face, just out of reach. After the performance, you could take a break in the snack room, where boys leaned against the vending machines and chatted while munching bags of Doritos.
painting of the Gaiety by Patrick Angus
Gay New York -- and all lovers of burlesque and Times Square's sordid history -- lost a touchstone when the Gaiety closed. The building it shared with Howard Johnson's, now a pile of bricks, once housed the Orpheum "dime-a-dance" Dance Palace. It originally opened in 1917. Henry Miller danced with the girls there. In the 1970s it became the New Paris, where live sex acts were performed on soiled mattresses.
A visit to those bricks today won't make them talk, but we can still imagine the many stories they'd have to tell.
From The New York Times
April 24, 2005 Sunday
Quietly, a Bawdy Gay Beacon Goes Dark
By KATHRYN BELGIORNO
Most of the pedestrians who stream past the building at 201 West 46th Street, on Broadway, do not notice that its tenant has moved out. Then again, most of them probably had no idea who was there in the first place.
Only a flight of stairs is visible through a glass door. A black awning says, simply, ''Gaiety Theater.'' The small hand-lettered sign on the door is little help: ''The Gaiety Theater is closed. Thank you for your patronage. The Management.'' Scrawled like an afterthought are the words: ''Please see the G. publications for possible relocation address.''
The sign, so modest that the letter G must stand in for the word gay, is a fitting symbol of a 30-year-old salute to immodesty, the city's last surviving all-male burlesque house and the only remaining strip theater where performers danced completely nude.
What the sign doesn't illuminate is the lore that set the Gaiety apart from other clubs: the mainstream attention it attracted after photos of Madonna and some of the club's dancers were included in her 1992 book, ''Sex''; the cachet of visitors like John Waters, Andy Warhol and Shirley MacLaine; and the club's unrivaled ability to survive, despite the strict zoning laws instituted during the Giuliani administration, thanks to a location just outside a restricted area.
…What Gaiety patrons will do next is uncertain. ''I've seen a lot of customers standing there in shock,'' said John Galanopoulos, who operates a hot dog stand at 46th Street and Broadway. ''They're almost talking to themselves, like, 'What am I going to do now?'''
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company