It was known, simply, as The Street. Arnold Shaw, its main historian, wrote in 52nd St., "If you flagged a taxi in NYC and asked to be taken to The Street, you would be driven, without giving a number or an avenue, to 52d between Fifth and Sixth avenues."
William Gottlieb, 1948, looking east from 6th
It began as a row of speakeasies, which turned into jazz clubs that then evolved into burlesque houses. The speakeasies got their start, Shaw tells us, in 1926 when the city lifted residential restrictions on the brownstones here. Businesses moved in--including Jack and Charlie's 21 club--and The Street exploded through the 1930s.
Leon & Eddie's was the wild star of the block, but at any one of the clubs, you could see and hear the greatest of the greats--Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald. Photographer William Gottlieb captured many of them.
In 1937, Life Magazine took an illustrated walk from one end of 52nd Street to the other--photos of this block featured jazzmen, comics, and an illegal upstairs rifle range. The block was a hive.
By the late 1940s, as the jazz clubs turned into strip joints, many bemoaned the death of The Street. They considered this era to be the block's decline.
In 1948, Time decried the change from jazz to bump-n-grind: "where nightclubs in sorry brownstones crowd each other like bums on a breadline, an era was all but over. Swing was still there, but it was more hips than horns. Barrelhouse had declined. Burlesque was back... There was little jazz left on 52nd Street. Even the customers had changed. There were fewer crew haircuts, pipes and sports jackets; more bald spots, cigars and paunches."
New Yorker, 1948
To others, it was not a death, but a renaissance--burlesque was back, after Mayor LaGuardia had outlawed it from the city. This is the time I wish I could have visited the block. Arnold Shaw provides a map of it in 1954, when several of the existing clubs had nightly strippers. Those included: Club Ha-Ha, the Moulin Rouge (featuring "Melba the Toast of the Town"), the French Quarter, Club Pigalle, the Flamingo, Club Nocturne, Club del Rio, and Henry Fink's Club Samoa with its South Pacific theme.
TV producer Bernie Brillstein recalls Club Samoa in 1955 as "a bust-out joint on Fifty-second Street where guys could pick up broads. We'd eat club sandwiches and drink Cokes, and be treated like kings while the girls jerked off their other customers under the table. The girls would pretend they wanted to meet these losers later, but they never did."
Club Samoa postcard
The dancers at this time were all about gimmicks--parrots, monkeys, cowgirl costumes, and more. Playboy called them "novelty strippers" in a 1954 article, explaining, "There was a time when a girl could count on an enthusiastic audience by simply peeling down to her birthday suit. Not so today. The modern male is a jaded animal."
To hold the attention of that jaded animal on 52nd Street, Zorita danced with her pet python Elmer; Lili St. Cyr did her reverse strip act, starting in a bathtub and ending up fully clothed; and Georgia Sothern ("the Wow Girl"), in the words of Harold Minsky, "did six minutes of bumps and grinds to the fast music of 'Hold That Tiger' and generally came offstage needing oxygen."
St. Cyr in her transparent bathtub
Composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards tells Shaw in 52nd St., "even though the emphasis was on dames and not music, good music was being heard. It was the jazz combos that played for the peelers. You played different numbers, things like 'Temptation,' that were good for bumps and grinds, with a lot of tom-tom stuff."
The most popular tunes were "The Mooch," "The Man with the Golden Arm," and "The Theme from Dragnet." Another favorite was "Harlem Nocturne"--have a listen to how it was done.
William Gottlieb: Lois DeFee at Club Nocturne, 1948
The 1950s on 52nd also marked the time and place of the B-girls, when professional prostitutes were replaced by young amateurs, mostly struggling actresses, who hustled men at the bars and clubs. Jess Stearn writes about the B-girls of 52nd in his fantastic 1956 book Sisters of the Night, reporting that at least one charged "One thousand for the night, five hundred for an hour or so." It might have been the 50s, but she was the headliner of the show, a star of The Street, and could name her price.
Crime flourished. After hours, there were backstage sex shows between dancers. Hit men planned their hits. Jewelry and furs stolen from Fifth Avenue stores were auctioned in the kitchens.
In 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco walk out of "21" and turn to watch a brawl spilling out of Club Pigalle. We see the neon lights of 52nd, we hear the shouts and screams. Hunsecker says it all when he says, "I love this dirty town."
Sweet Smell of Success
Sadly, the B-girls helped give the city an excuse to shut it all down. A 1955 Cabaret magazine reported, "in 1953, the demise of West 52nd as a nitery center was hastened by the police. Many of the places were hauled up on the carpet for permitting women employees to mingle with the guests, for providing insufficient illumination, for fast B-girl practices, and for other infractions. Licenses were suspended for months or permanently."
As early as 1955, demolitions and skyscrapers were already planned for the block.
William Gottlieb, 1948 detail
Throughout the 1950s, petty crime continued as the city fought against 52nd. Liquor was watered, checks were padded, outside barkers doubled as pimps. And the dancers declined--Variety called them "fat, flabby and fortyish."
Arnold Shaw cites the date July 4, 1960 as the end. That's when the State Liquor Authority pulled the licenses on seven clubs in one day. "They're slapping us to death with suspensions," complained stripper Winnie Garrett, "It's such a lousy little street. Why can't they leave us alone?" The brownstones that had been given license in the 1920s, now had their license taken away. Four decades of wild creativity and debauchery was pretty much over.
William Gottlieb, 1948, looking east from 6th
In the 1970s, at least one disco moved in, to the old Leon & Eddie spot, but urban renewal was revving its bulldozers and wrecking balls. Walking on the block in 1977, Arnold Shaw said, "gazing up at the tidy towers of aluminum and glass, no one could possibly imagine what a nighttime whirl of exciting sounds, gifted performers and enthusiastic audiences The Street once was."
Today, the block is almost nothing but those skyscrapers, dead glass and granite, sterile and flat. All that remains of the old street is "21," a Lilliputian among shiny giants, and the last of the "sorry brownstones" that once were so alive.
Google maps, today, same view, east from 6th