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Taking Time in Times Square

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This past Saturday morning, I willingly went into Times Square. Why did I go? Because I had decided I wanted to see One Man, Two Guvnors again before it closes at the end of this week, and to avail myself of the discount seats at the TKTS booth. Why do I use the word "willingly"? Because, to be honest, I do my best to avoid Times Square if at all possible.

This certainly hasn't always been the case. As a child on our family's annual day trip into New York, seeing Times Square was a part of the ritual, as much for my parents as it was for myself and my siblings. That trip involved theatre only once; we were mostly sightseers, gazing in windows of stores in which we would never shop.

As a teen, traveling via train to Grand Central Station, entering Times Square was a sign that my goal, the theatres that lay on its far side, were very close. I am old enough to remember a billboard that puffed smoke to simulate a steaming hot cup of coffee; I am old enough to have seen Blade Runner in its initial release and marveled at the impossible vision of a future in which video images several stories high covered the exterior of buildings. But as someone who never understood the allure of standing in Times Square waiting for the ball to drop on New Year's Eve, for whom colored signs took a backseat to the colored marquees on the side streets, Times Square was an eternal guidepost, never a true destination. As an adult, who in my 40s worked one block south of Times Square and had to traverse it at all hours of the day and night, Times Square became an unpleasant, tourist-clogged obstacle for which I had increasingly less patience.

However, the TKTS booth, at the northern end of the area, has always been a gateway for me, as it was this weekend. Going back almost to its debut, the booth has been an essential part of my theatergoing and, this past Saturday, after acquiring tickets with exceptional speed, I decided to play tourist for a bit, trying to take in Times Square as I might have once upon a time.

The video screens everywhere still do amaze me, since, as a Blade Runner aficionado, I continue to feel that Times Square is the future come to life, ahead of schedule. That some of these screens have become interactive, which was initially enthralling, has lost its allure for me, especially since they mean pushing through or going around the gaggles of sightseers, standing still, who seem endlessly fascinated to be able to wave at themselves on a giant screen. Yet I imagine that seeing these screens for the first time, or as the parent of a child taking in this experience, they remain a marvel.

I wandered into the Times Square Visitors Center, which has been in place for years, but seemingly uncertain of its purpose, except as an acceptable public restroom. Though it now serves as a souvenir shop and ticket vending location, it also features some theatrical displays (costumes "in the style" of ones worn in famous shows), and small dioramas and video screens with Broadway history. Since New York has no theatre museum, even these small displays appeal, less for myself to whom they are nothing new, but for those who may wander in and get a bit of insight into how theatre gets on stage. The Visitors Center more successfully turned me tourist with the opportunity to gaze, from only a few feet's distance, at one of the Swarovski crystal-laden "balls" that descend annually to welcome the new year; TV has never conveyed its size or intricacy fully; it reminded me of a long-ago visit to see the Tournament of Roses floats from a similar distance. I particularly loved the Visitors Center tribute to the scuzzy Times Square I remembered, where walking from 7th to 8th Avenues on 42nd Street was to be avoided at all costs. Its method: three peep show booths showing video loops of that bygone era, with a giant neon "Peep Show" glowing above them. I applaud whoever conceived of this reminder, insuring that amidst the retails outlets, the true past of Times Square was not completely whitewashed away.

Back into the light, I crossed back to the environs of the TKTS booth, curious about the blue-shirted, self-proclaimed "Your Broadway Genius"-es who hovered just off the curb of Duffy Square, in contrast to the red shirted TDF employees who helped those figuring out the intricacies of the booth. I sensed a color war.

I approached one of the geniuses to see what insight he was dispensing, with his iPad in hand. Learning that he too was selling theatre tickets, I noticed the telltale Square attachment on his iPad and asked whether he could actually sell theatre tickets right there, and was told he could; certainly wandering ticket outlets from any location is the wave of the future for those untethered to a computer. What Broadway shows did he have on offer? As it turned out, the answer was none. The Broadway Geniuses offered only three shows -- Voca People, Rent and Avenue Q, Off-Broadway attractions all. The same shows were available only feet away at the booth, so it would appear that the Geniuses were attempting to siphon off business that might otherwise go through the long-established, not-for-profit official venue. As I am not a tourist, I was not fooled, but I do wonder how many people are taken in by these misleading, opportunistic off-brand vendors, who I later saw accosting people merely sightseeing, not unlike the ever-present touts asking, "Do you like comedy?," in an effort to lure in new patrons for a nearby comedy show. While I admired the technology, their aggressive pitch and inaccurate branding put me off.

The blue-shirted geniuses are hardly the only commercial opportunists wandering Times Square. In less than an hour I saw the following characters ambling along, taking money in order to be photographed with and by visitors: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Elmo (red), Elmo (blue?), SpongeBob SquarePants, Toy Story's Woody, The Naked Indian, a stumpy Elvis impersonator, Hello Kitty, Alvin the Chipmunk, a Smurf (I can't tell them apart), the Statue of Liberty, and an elderly man in a psychedelic bikini. I know these figures to be entirely unauthorized and I frankly worry about who is inside them, freely embracing unsuspecting tourists for a price; I also worry about turf wars, since it wasn't uncommon to see several Elmos of varying hues in a single block. To those who say Times Square now feels like a theme park, these plush figures add to the perception, ever if they are an infestation, rather than an enhancement. Curiously, I did not see the now legendary, more "authentic" Naked Cowboy; perhaps he was on vacation.

There were yet more characters traversing Times Square in endless loops, with a different and more official purposes: young men and women "flyering" for Broadway shows. Dressed in costumes appropriate to the productions they represent, I saw a cheerleading duo from Bring It On, a red-stocking, exuberant faux Fosse dancer for Chicago, several very polite rock dudes from Rock of Ages, umbrella skirted jugglers for Zarkana and a sole lackadaisical pirate for Peter and the Starcatcher. The cheerleaders in particular were happily posing, and jumping, for pictures with tourists; I admired the energy that they and the Chicago chorine brought to their task and wondered whether Times Square might be even more engaging if the plushies were banished and motivated representatives from Broadway shows both present and past peopled the territory, as Broadway branding and show marketing. I must confess, I would love to see faux Marthas and fake Georges drunkenly accosting tourists to hand them flyers for the upcoming Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? revival, but that's my own improbably fantasy.

Another loop up back to the TKTS booth revealed a claque of uncostumed flyer distributors, taking a rest, it seemed, but graciously offering to help visitors regardless of what they were apparently paid to promote. A young man holding a fan of flyers for Newsical was counseling a woman on the best show for a 6-year-old while the other flyer guys were making up song titles for an imagined Brokeback Mountain musical. They were a scruffy but gentle lot, with a noticeably collegial spirit among them all; no doubt they saw each other often.

Just off Times Square, in Shubert Alley, a youthful marketing team was hawking the attractions of a Cadillac and offering a free Playbill t-shirt for anyone who filled out an information form (think of them as the Glengarry leads). On that day, placed between two theatres without tenants (the Shubert and the Booth), they seemed a bit overeager and undervisited; I was effusively urged to fill out a form and take a t-shirt even though I assured them I had no need of a car. Clearly they were trying to meet goals that their location didn't appear to support.

As showtime approached, a small brass band set up at the corner of 45th Street, launching into "When The Saints Go Marching In." Moments later, a couple walked past me, the woman singing and bopping her head along to the tune, clearly taking on a party spirit that was at odds with my usual grumbling about a crowded Times Square.

By the end of my visit, I saw that hustlers had not been vanquished from Times Square, they had merely been transformed from three-card monte experts to ratty-looking comic figures, but I also saw genuine entertainment and the potential for so much more. While I may not rush to walk through, let alone spend time in, Times Square again so soon, I saw opportunity for true brand-building for theatre and for New York amidst the haphazard assemblage of diversions.

But nothing impressed me so much as the very first thing I had seen that morning. As I waited in a very short line to acquire theatre tickets at TKTS, I began talking with one of the line attendants, a chatty man, maybe my age, named Daryl, who spoke enthusiastically of shows and asked me about ones I had seen. We were interrupted when a family of three -- father, mother and son of perhaps 10 years of age -- left the sales window and the son, who appeared to have been born with Down Syndrome, walked up to Daryl, threw his arms as far around him as possible, and squeezed him with a hug, which Daryl reciprocated. Then, the mother approached and kissed Daryl on the cheek, and finally the father shook Daryl's hand, before the wandered off.

I do not know what interaction I had missed, I saw only the genuine and moving results. Can that happen for each and every person who passes through Times Square? Of course not. But as the businesses, the theatres and the city seek to attract ever more visitors, perhaps they need to learn more about what Daryl offered, sans costumes, sans flyers, sans displays, sans script. Because I feel quite certain that for that family, and for me, Daryl was the star attraction of Times Square that day.