It's not just the secret porno theater at Playland Gifts that makes the block of 7th Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets a treasure trove of old Times Square for casual urban archaeologists. There's much more here. On my recent visit to the block I came upon some artifacts from the lost Loew's Mayfair theater.
NYPL, c. 1935
The marquee is gone, yet the terracotta remains, tucked up behind scaffolding and giant billboards above what is now the Phantom of Broadway souvenir shop.
But it's the interior that is most exciting. Like the nearby fossils of the lost Automat hidden in plain sight at another souvenir store, you can find bits and pieces of the Mayfair's lobby here. Right inside the door, look up through the cacophony of TV screens and glittery T-shirts--the ceiling is painted with stars and carved with scrollwork.
Each decorative spear comes down to a pointed church-like window, from which people must have looked out from the mezzanine years ago.
And each former window has a lavish grill, now used to house a ventilation system. Today the mezzanine is for storing stock and selling sports memorabilia. Mannequin heads in Yankees caps peer down on the tourists.
Upstairs, in the sports souvenirs section, the decorative scrolls of the mezzanine grills continue on a fragment of banister that might once have led to the balcony.
Here, the ceiling is painted black and obscured by hanging lights, making it hard to see the carvings.
At Gotham Lost & Found, author David Freeland discovered more parts of the Mayfair around the corner, inside Famous Dave's Bar-B-Que restaurant.
The Mayfair was originally a big theater, with a marquee that went from 7th Avenue and around along 47th Street. Writes Freeland, "Early in its life the theater was known as the Columbia [click for pic], a vaudeville house of 1910 vintage (you can still see some of the Columbia’s original decorations on the building’s exterior), but in 1930 famed architect Thomas Lamb revamped the interior with a striking Art Deco theme."
NYPL, c. 1935
At some point, the theater's massive marquee was cut down--the corner of 7th and 47th given over to a Fruit Drinks stand, a necktie store, and other businesses--so that the only piece of marquee remained at the entrance, where the Phantom of Broadway souvenir shop stands now.
Many photographs exist of the Mayfair's exterior corner where the impressive wraparound billboard announced the movie of the moment. Photographers must have loved it--especially when it featured a three-dimensional spectacular, like this one starring the buxom Jane Russell.
There aren't many images of the theater taken after the 1950s. When the Mayfair became the DeMille in the 1960s, photographers seemed to lose interest. But it does turn up, here and there, in general shots of the block.
In this rare photo of it as the DeMille it is squeezed between a karate school (formerly a billiards parlor) with Showtime topless go-go girls on the first floor and an electronics store. There's the original 1910 vaudevillian terracotta that remains hidden under billboards today.
Finally, the Mayfair was chopped up into a triplex and became the Embassy 2-3-4, where in 1979 you could see The In-Laws, Dawn of the Dead, and Love at First Bite. By that time, it also housed a little doughnut shop, and its neighbor (the former karate school formerly a billiards parlor) had become the XXX Show Follies Center.
The Embassy was one of the last of Times Square's long-running movie houses to remain open, finally closing in 1998.
Amazingly, through all these changes, through many renovations and guttings, those artifacts still remain--the scrollworked ceiling, the grills, the bit of banister--all leftovers from Thomas Lamb's 1930 design, ghosts from another city.