Back in the bad old days of Gotham when our family unit would travel into The City every few days for reasons that fall outside the scope of this blog, the block that had the Ed Sullivan Theater had become one of crime, weirdos, and the walking dead.
Back then the city was the dirty hand down the filthy pants. The yelling bum and broken stream pipe in the middle of pulsating desire. The old Ed Sullivan Theater that once housed the famous ABCBNBCS show of the same name, had become a warehouse to store barrels of storyboard glue, methylamine, or boxes of discarded Laugh-In or Hee Haw jokes. From time to time there was some paper saying there was a casting call or 4 PM sharp they’d be taping some idiotic programe I had never heard of or was too young to watch.
I wanted to get into that theater back then but minors were not let into tapings and one had to be far more functional to obtain tickets to a show than one needs to be today. So many other moving gears to the process that I don’t think the adults in my life could handle such complex of a task. And, I didn’t really want to be in there for the show, I just wanted to explore up in the rafters and look for things in what I imagined was a huge haunted building full of old interesting things. I had been told enough history to know some great people had passed through those and other doors and that the block itself was the center of so many worlds.
At one point the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Debbie Harry, Salvador Dali, Donna Summer, The Village People, Sam Lanin, Ella Fitzgerald, and any number of other stars had walked that very block ducking in or out of a stage door, in or out of a velvet rope.
Those days were dead as the smell of that certain corner by the parking lot. Pee baking in the sun and gum stuck to our shoes was our time to live. Our celebration of life. We knew, even as kids, we had missed out and were born in the wrong time. It was like everything was coming to and end and we were there to catch it all.
Our parent parked the car in the same cranky cement parking lot. Some city owned and rotting structure hastily tossed up in the mid 1960s when Hells Kitchen was really starting to burn. The old days of the Westies or whatever Irish gangs were killing one another back then had mellowed to just a boring funk. The parking lot was dark and noisy and frightening but not as much as the area around. There were two ways out after you went down the stairs.
If we left out the back way we got to see the backdoor to Studio 54. I’m not sure if this was still a club but it was a venue of some kind and I always peeked into the dark cave to see the roadies doing roadie stuff as we passed by. On the right was Roseland. Once a ballroom my grandparent’s had frequented, it had become a music hall. At times some rough looming kids, perhaps just a few years older than I, would be camped out waiting for the doors to open in the days to come. The marquee always had some bands we kids had never heard of since, strangely, music was more-or-less banned in our house.
Then we’d make it down the avenue, past the stage door to the Ed Sullivan and to relative safety where we would quick walk to our destination.
If we left out the front of the parking lot, there was a pizza place across the street (on the corner of 8th Avenue) and to the right the entryway to Studio 54. After that perhaps some ill conceived businesses that my kid brain forgot, but then a gay porno theater called the New David, which I remember had a statue of the classical David and never a human presence. I seem to think that there was some dude at the ticket window… but maybe I am projecting that into my memory space.
After that, things got ugly.
The welfare hotel was planted along the way. This place was special even among the city’s pantheon of flops, squats, and pallets. It was a halfway house or some dumping ground for people fresh out of the joint. Always drunk and yelling someone would be half naked and sweating or nodding or both. There was always yelling, sometimes screaming, often just drunken laughing and several times the police were called.
If we made it past that hotel, and somehow we always did, we’d get to the avenue and there was the sign proclaiming Ed Sullivan Theater (was Kate & Allie filmed there or Full House or something?) and as we’d pass by I’d crane my neck to see if perhaps today they left those old doors open and I could catch a look see at whatever was within.
I never did see inside.
The block was known to me over the years. Our carpark was a familiar sight. Across the street on 8th Avenue the Red Apple supermarket where, if we had extra money, we’d get cookies and inexplicably orange juice so that as we crawled along the West Side Highway traffic baking in the commuter sun in our un-air conditioned car everything could be perfectly sticky and juicy. The bums and bags of trash.
That old pizza place on the corner where on rare occasion we would get a slice was another landmark. Pizza was expensive back then for the time. Further on up 8th Avenue where things got really weird, a one story McDonald’s had rocketed up from some part of suburbia and landed in the middle of the city. Next to that. A vacant lot hemmed in by barbed-wire. We rarely had the funds to go in to McDonald’s but when we did it was always exciting and still a middle class establishment. The police station was across the avenue and was frequently pointed out as in, if anything happens, run to the precinct. Red Apple Tours also operated out of the carpark although we never went on the tour. Our parent didn’t want to see the city and had no interest in exploring the then rotting piles and neighborhoods that had become too real, too gritty, and too authentic, even for the people who lived there and even if we were safe inside a tour bus.
The other side of the street from the car park walking to Broadway was a string of abandoned or half-empty buildings and a Welfare office of some kind. One of those offices build after the War. The junkies, the dope heads, the talkers, the moochers, and parasites that Ronald Reagan had worried us sick about congregated across the street. On that corner of Broadway was a green grocery store. It was a dismal block with everything that was wrong with Gotham in one convenient spot. We would often walk up on the side with the porno theater, cross before the welfare hotel, and continue on our way.
Then, David Letterman moved in. All of a sudden the falling apart theater was transformed. New Neon, the old marquee with the falling down letters that I think read “SEND HELP” now was changed to read “Late Night With David Letterman.” The doors were shined up. There was buzz. The welfare hotel was replaced with some strange hotel for foreign tourists who didn’t know any better or loved American poverty since the Eurozone had banned it long ago. This was the beginning of the gentrification of that block. In time the shops across the street from the car park were replaced with a few new businesses that made sense. There was a bagel shop that opened up once the welfare shop closed down. The old tourist souvenir shop went out of business and reopened with new merchandise that looked all the world like the old merchandise. Things were happening. Then, things started happening too quickly.
We did not go in to the city as much and then not at all. I ventured in from time-to-time on my own and saw how David Letterman had impacted the neighborhood. But I was rarely in the city for a number of reasons up to and including I lived a hundred miles away. When I moved full-time in to the city I got a job at a lunch spot right on that block. I only worked there a few weeks before being transferred to a sister spot down on 43rd street by the then withering Porno District where the remaining losers, rejects, amputees, and PTSD survivors of the Sexual Revolution would still gather. I never had time to see David Letterman live. And in time my life was more centered downtown and I gave Midtown a wide berth. For a short time an arts organization I worked with had a gallery space there, but I still didn’t make time to see Letterman.
In time the Welfare Office was replaced with luxury condos. The pizza place in the ancient building was pulled down to make way for the next act. The green grocery shop was leveled. The car park was torn down and the site and everything turned in to luxury condos or chain restaurants. I don’t know what happened to the New David theater, but first it was gone, then the entire building. The hotel changed hands and became even fancier. The Roseland Ballroom was closed to be demolished. The punks scattering for cover wherever they could.
And now David Letterman has retired.
The block that had once been a hub of entertainment has returned, if not to ever become the center of Jazz, place of a “really good show” or dance revolution, a place of entertainment, high end eateries, and luxuary condos. The city there will grow on and the marquees will once again change.
I happened to be in the area the night of Letterman’s final show. There was a small crowd of expectant fans by the stage door. Camped out front were all third and forth tier reporters from all the major and some minor networks. For a building so currently packed with stars and so steeped in history, for this monumental event, it was strange that there were not throngs in thongs being held back by police barriers. A tribe of high school kids, tourists that had managed to escape their chaperones, pushed past… not one of them stopped. Not even for a selfie.