Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Strip Street

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.

NYPL, 1940

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.

extrabox's flickr

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


Melanie said...

Great piece. I was not aware of all these happenings and clubs on 52nd Street now named Swing Alley.

Rob Hill said...

Ah, a much more detailed account than my own, especially about the declining years.

It's depressing to walk down that street today and imagine what it once was before the onslaught of concrete and steel.

Will said...

Fantastic post! Thanks for putting this together.

Joe Bonomo said...

Fantastic post. Thanks.

kingofnycabbies said...

In the early '80s, a project to place small sidewalk plaques commemorating the great entertainers, mainly jazz musicians, who played The Street in its heyday, was started on the north side of the block, in front of CBS' Black Rock. Eventually, the plaques were due to reach eastward to 5th Avenue. After the initial dozen or so black, hard-to-read plaques were put down, that seems to have been the end of it, and even those are now gone.

This follows the same fate as a plaque on the building at 47th and Broadway which once houseed the Royal Roost nightclub--the "Metropolitan Bopera House"--back in the '40s. When that place was torn down, I guess the memorial went with it.

Kevin said...

W.H. Auden's masterful "September 1, 1939" immediately comes to mind.

Marty Wombacher said...

Great historical data and stories on that street. Sad what its become today, but oh if I had a time machine!

Claribel said...

On a related topic, a new book came out on Gypsy Rose Lee ( I had no idea how much of a national icon she was, so much so that Eleanor Roosevelt sent her a telegram stating "May your bare ass always be shining"!

Wonderful posts. What nightlife. I would have loved to have seen Sherry Britton in action. But to have seen Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy, Bird, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday at the Three Deuces or any one of the clubs back then would have been priceless.

enodo said...

I wonder if the people running the K Lounge, with its erotic decorations on the walls, know or were motivated by the street's history?

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks for the info about the walk of fame, king.

love that Auden poem.

Eleanor Roosevelt was very cool.

this is definitely the sort of street that makes one wish for a time machine. for many reasons. it's remarkable, the way "progress" always seems to go in one direction--toward the dead and the dull.

Anonymous said...

really ugly. i hope some blocks west of this can stay as is. how many skyscapers & offices do we need?

BrooksNYC said...

. . . it's remarkable, the way "progress" always seems to go in one direction--toward the dead and the dull.

Was about to say the same thing, but you said it first, and better.

Why is this true? A smart group could riff on the topic for hours, I'm sure.

Thanks again for this fantastic 52nd St. series.

City Of Strangers said...

Jeremiah - Great post. I actually had no idea of 52nd street's post-jazz identity, or the reasons for its transformation into the corporate landscape we see today.

Why does 'progress' go one way in our society? Welcome to turbo-capitalism, the only god that matters . . . at the moment at least.


Anonymous said...

I will just add that today the block has the CBS building on it, and the Paley Center for Media. Also, didn't the block also have a nightclub owned by Toots Schoor [sic?].

Anonymous said...

Rob Hill said...
Ah, a much more detailed account than my own, especially about the declining years.

It's depressing to walk down that street today and imagine what it once was before the onslaught of concrete and steel.

my kids had never seen me cry until the time i went back over to west 52nd and started to walk west bound from bdwy to 10th,as this was my old nabe-i was totally disorientated and had only been away about 10 years or so due to gentrification,we had to move out and being we were among the last to go,no one belonging to us was around anyway. A sad trip indeed and never will be repeated.

Peter Bardazzi said...

My father was the accountant for Moulin Rouge. He took me there once in the daytime. it was strange space for me to experience at 8 years old but liked it. My mother says that owners were "Bill & Tom", that all but they were italian american. Oh, she said she used to go shopping with Toms wife then go to the Moulin Rouge for a drink before going back to Brooklyn.

Peter Bardazzi said...

My father was the accountant for Moulin Rouge. He took me there once in the daytime. it was strange space for me to experience at 8 years old but liked it. My mother says that owners were "Bill & Tom", that all but they were italian american. Oh, she said she used to go shopping with Toms wife then go to the Moulin Rouge for a drink before going back to Brooklyn.

Anonymous said...

With ref: 52nd.St. mid 1950's. My relative worked at Famous Door.

Unknown said...

It's Stories like this that start to clue me in on what happened to all the great entertainers and musical talent. When you close down a block full of venues like this which would have been a magnet for aspiring entertainers and musician you choke off the talent machine. This story was a great example of throwing out the baby with the bath water. They closed these great gathering places under agendas like cleaning up illegal activities, but today we are still suffering the repercussions of these draconian decisions. Our great talent now is very watered down and what is good is spread out which requires waiting for it to come to town where you will experience it in a generic and impersonal theater. Gone are the days when you had the privilege and ability to visit the meccas of talent with a subway ticket or a spirited and fascinating walk. There is no edge to the city today as it no longer the hub of anything except maybe capitalism. Ironically, all the sins that were the impetus behind the shutting down of these colorful districts are still thriving in other forms, but sadly "Generica" is the rule of the day.

Scout said...

Well, TV could also be credited as the major reasons no one goes to such places, I imagine, even if they were still around.

Re: 52nd Street - Cole Porter put it like this in 1934:

I don’t mean to cause a shock in the house,
But I’d like to ask – is there a doc in the house,
Who can give first aid
To the most confused maid in town?

I had oh, such sweet suburban ideas
You know what I mean? Deanna Durban ideas,
Til one fateful night when somebody finally spoke –
And broke them all down.

I used to dream
Of a star-lighted stream
Where my man and I would first meet,
So try to surmise
My terrific surprise,
When love beckoned in Fifty Second Street!

I thought a breeze
Would appear in the trees
And sing something tender and sweet,
But how could it sing
With a band playing swing
When love beckoned in Fifty Second Street?

Now when we want to coo,
Country lanes are taboo,
And old West Fifty Two
Is our favorite beat,
When we're on our feet.

So you can bet
I will never forget
That mad second,
When I first reckoned
That love beckoned
In Fifty Second Street!

Larry B said...

There was at last one old joint that devolved into an empty dive . I remember going in there as a young teen well over 50 years ago. The only thing I remember is that it had music painted on the walls ( like a mural.) Don’t really know if it was right on 52nd Street.