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Times Square Celebrates 100th Anniversary - 2004-04-08

It has been called the bow tie, the hourglass, the funnel, even the hole-in-the-donut. Whatever the moniker, New York's Times Square is the bigger-than-life nerve center of the city that never sleeps.

Times Square is a congested beehive of more than 50 mega-size electronic signs, 40 theaters, 12,500 hotel rooms, 250 corporations, and hundreds of restaurants, all wedged between 42nd Street and 47th Street where Broadway and Seventh Avenue meet. It is like an outdoor carnival that is visited by nearly 30-million people each year.

Impromptu sidewalk concerts like this one are staples of Times Square. So are hawkers selling "I love New York" t-shirts, and the "Naked Cowboy," a self-styled actor who freely poses with tourists in his stars-and-stripes underwear and leather boots.

Times Square also serves as the official usher of the New Year for the half-million people who pack into the area every year on December 31, and the 500 million more around the world, who watch the annual dropping of the ball on television.

New York historian Barry Lewis says Times Square is more than a manic hub of capitalism and live theater. He says it has always been the psychological center of New York City.

"What other gathering spot is there in this city that everybody goes to?" he asked. "Here's the energy of all these people squeezing through this bow tie and parading around looking for something to do for amusement. Some people coming with tickets in hand knowing what they're going to do, but a lot of people coming here just to hang out and to see New York."

At the turn of the century, Times Square was mainly a horse-trading district, called Long Acre Square. It was renamed Times Square in 1904, after the famed New York Times newspaper built its offices there.

In the meantime, New York's theaters were steadily moving to the area. In 1895, theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein opened the Olympia, which took up the entire block between 44th and 45th streets. It was the first theater opened north of 42nd street.

Nowadays, Times Square has become synonymous with Broadway theater. Thanks to a massive redevelopment project engineered by the Disney Company in the late 1990's, Times Square has once again become a commercial hub for famous American franchises, like Nike town, Toys 'R Us, and the Gap.

Jed Bernstein heads the League of American Theater Producers and Directors. He believes the metamorphosis of Times Square from a crime-infested den of sleaze to a family-oriented destination has been good for everybody.

"Times Square, since its creation, has always been about mass appeal," he said. "I don't think it's surprising that the kinds of businesses in Times Square have broad appeal. From Broadway's perspective, the broader the better, because Broadway is at its strongest when there is the greatest variety of shows being offered. There is something for everyone. The massness of Times Square is good for the mass of Broadway."

Times Square is also where nearly 30,000 New Yorkers work and live. Mr. Bernstein feels that Times Square is many things to many people. "Not only is there a literal crossing of two roads, Broadway and Seventh Avenue, but there is an emotional, cultural, ethnic, business crossing in this neighborhood," he added. "If there ever was a stew, it is Times Square. You have theater people, you have law firms and securities firms, small businesses, and shoe makers who have been here for decades."

When Disney restored the derelict New Amsterdam theater on 42nd Street, one of the once-great music halls of America, developers followed suit, and within five or six years, Times Square was reborn.

Charles Kipps is a television and film writer. For the past 14 years, he has called the Times Square neighborhood home. As he sits in his favorite Italian restaurant, Da Marino, where he eats his nightly meal, Mr. Kipps laments the transformation of the area from gritty to garish. "That is how Times Square has changed," he said. "It went from sex toys to toys in a matter of a few years. It's now become a huge tourist Mecca again. It reminds me now of any other upscale commercial zone in virtually any city."

Historian Barry Lewis disagrees. He said the very nature of Times Square is that every decade or so, it remakes itself. "Times Square today is no different than Times Square was 50 or 60 or 80 years ago," he added. "It's a compilation of so many different types of entertainment, hotels, just amusements. There's no such thing as a single class of entertainment in Times Square, and there never was. Times Square 100 years ago was elegant Broadway theaters and Hubert's police circus. It was legitimate theaters and burlesque."

Times Square's centennial is being marked with a series of performances and street festivals.