Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis

Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis

by John Hannigan

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Fantasy City analyses the post-industrialist city as a site of entertainment. By discussing examples from a wide variety of venues, including casinos, malls, heritage developments and theme parks, Hannigan questions urban entertainments economic foundations and historical background. He asks whether such areas of fantasy destroy communities or instead create new groupings of shared identities and experiences. The book is written in a student friendly way with boxed case studies for class discussion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780415150989
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 11/10/1998
Series: Routledge Research in Cultural and
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.54(d)
Age Range: 9 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The "golden age" of popular urban
entertainment in America

In 1904, the Times Building, situated in the heart of the rapidly developing Times Square district of Manhattan, New York, was completed. In celebration, New York Times owner Adolph Ochs orchestrated a New Years Eve party on a scale not previously seen in America's largest metropolis.

    At dusk, the streets around Times Square were crowded, and by nine o'clock the Square itself was jammed with partygoers. By ten o'clock, every restaurant on Upper Broadway was full and fashionably dressed men and women were being turned away, despite, in some cases, the offer of substantial sums of money to the doormen. At eleven o'clock, Fanciulli's Concert Band, featured performers at the 1904 St Louis World's Fair, filed into a makeshift bandstand along 43rd Street and started up a program which lasted into the small hours of the morning. "Broadway," the Times correspondent marveled, "seemed the thoroughfare to which all faces were turned and about every man, woman and child who put foot upon the Street at one time or another during the evening visited Times Square."

    On the stroke of midnight, a cluster of fireworks was launched 1,000 feet into the air illuminating the sky. A deafening shout rose up from the crowd accompanied by an ear-splitting blast from hundreds of party horns. This was echoed by the sound of factory, locomotive and steamship whistles welcoming in 1905. "Never was a New Year's Eve more joyously celebrated."

    The year 1905 was an early peak in what has come to be regarded as the "golden age" of popular urban entertainment in America. In the thirty-five years between 1895 and 1930, city life was transformed by the emergence of a new infrastructure of commercialized leisure: amusement parks, theaters, nightclubs and cabarets, baseball stadiums, ballrooms, burlesque houses, storefront nickelodeons and grand movie palaces. For the first time, historian David Nasaw observes, "the city was becoming as much a place of play as a place of work" (1993:9).

If you had traveled back in time a quarter century from this New Year's Eve celebration, you would have found a very different city and society. Rather than an apparent sense of common good fellowship, the world of leisure and entertainment in the nation's urban precincts reflected a class structure which had calcified after the Civil War. "The differences between mid-nineteenth century urban theaters," muses cultural historian Robert Snyder, "increasingly expressed the social differences between New Yorkers, with drama and opera houses for the rich, cheap Bowery theaters for the poor, and foreign-language theaters for immigrants" (1989:5).

    America's newly emerging industrial elite, having made their fortune from steel, railroads and banking, were anxious to create institutions and a lifestyle which would publicly proclaim their patrician taste and culture. One expression of this was the establishment of exclusive social clubs, from the downtown sanctuaries of Boston and New York where the members discussed politics, literature, science and technology over sumptuous meals, to the elite hunting and fishing associations which were the one indulgence the straight-laced "iron-makers" of Pittsburgh allowed themselves. The leading citizens in American cities further displayed their rank by financing a series of cultural institutions: the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1870), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870), the Metropolitan Opera Company (1880). Less morally uplifting but also part of upper-class culture were the private gambling casinos, horse racing and college football games.

    At the opposite end of the social spectrum was the leisure world of the industrial working class which revolved around two established institutions: the saloon and the cheap variety theater. In addition, popular amusements included restaurants, lecture halls and fraternal lodges, beer halls, billiard parlors, bowling alleys, picnic groves and pleasure gardens. Most of these were stratified by gender, being the sole preserve of men. Excluded from this "homosocial" network of leisure institutions, working-class women had a more circumscribed set of activities which largely centered round the family, church and neighborhood (Peiss 1986).

    Virtual recluses from the recreational scene, the "respectable" middle-class shunned both the leisure pursuits of the elite and those of the working class. Instead, middle-class life was patterned by a reverence for quiet seclusion and privacy. It did, however, allow for family outings to libraries, concerts and travelogues and musicals sponsored by church-affiliated associations such as the YMCA (Nasaw 1993: 15).

    Very few leisure and entertainment activities crossed class barriers. Some sporting events -- trotting races, boating regattas -- attracted a mixed crowd, but even then the more affluent patrons were careful to maintain their social distance from the "rabble" (Rosenzweig 1983: 68). Museums, the pride of the ruling class, were generally deemed "educational" and therefore acceptable places for the middle class to visit. On occasion the definition of what constituted a museum was stretched to include "freak shows" which had more in common with P.T. Barnum's circus than with the halls of learning. For the most part, however, it could be said that there was no public entertainment zone which spanned the social length of American society.

The commercialization of leisure

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the situation had radically altered as a new commercial culture centered around leisure and entertainment established itself in urban areas. Its growth can be explained by a number of factors: more leisure time for workers; rising incomes; an expanding white-collar sector which included a considerable percentage of women; advances in technology, notably the electrification of street lights, trolley lines and advertising billboards; the growth of banks and financial institutions and the emergence of new sources of capital.

Merchants of leisure

Of particular note was the emergence of a cohort of entertainment entrepreneurs who had the vision and ability to raise capital in order to build an infrastructure of entertainment. Some of these "merchants of leisure" had made their fortune in other businesses, bringing money and know-how to the burgeoning public amusements industry. Marcus Loew, whose movie theater empire began with chains of nickelodeons and vaudeville houses had previously been a furrier, as had Adolph Zuker, a nickelodeon owner who formed Famous Players in 1912. Horace Bigelow, the "Great Amusement Caterer" of Worcester, Massachusetts, was already a wealthy boot and shoe manufacturer when he decided to transfer the techniques of mass production and vertical and horizontal integration to leisure-related enterprises (Rosenzweig 1983: 173). Henry Davis, who became Pittsburgh's leading vaudeville czar and who is generally credited with opening the first storefront nickelodeon theater there, was a high-profile real estate speculator who was the principal in purchases and sales of $2.5 million worth of downtown Pittsburgh property in 1905.

    Other merchants of leisure funded their entertainment ventures by soliciting funds from outside backers, some more respectable than others. Frederic A. Thompson and Ehner S. Dundy found the money to build Luna Park, Coney Island and the New York Hippodrome thanks to the United States Realty Company, a firm controlled by John W. "Bet a Million" Gates. Gates' ventures into stock manipulation and trust-busting inspired the turn-of-the-century "robber barons" J. Pierpoint Morgan to warn that "the man cannot be entrusted with property" and Andrew Carnegie to declare "he's a broken-down gambler" (Wendt and Kogan 1948:10-11). The Shubert Brothers, whose Shubert Theatrical Corporation dominated legitimate theater venues in America up until the 1950s, were initially funded by George Cox, a saloonkeeper and real estate mogul who was the Republican boss of Cincinatti, and by Joseph L. Rhinock, a Kentucky congressman who had extensive race track interests and real estate holdings (Stagg 1968).

    From 1906 onwards, a new, richer source of capital emerged in the form of investment banks such as Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs. Not only did they raise capital for mass market retailers such as Sears, Roebuck and Company but they also embraced the entertainment business, financing a variety of projects: theaters, electrical sign advertisements and even RKO (Radio-Victor-Keith Orpheum) one of the first full-service entertainment firms. Together with other brokers of the new corporate industrial order -- public relations men and government information agents -- for the first time these investment bankers created a national consumer market for the "culture of desire" that spun out across the country from urban entertainment districts such as Times Square (Leach 1991).

    By the 1920s financing had expanded from the more adventuresome investment banks to financial houses of high standing such as Manufacturers Trust Company and the National Bank of Commerce. Thus, a prospectus prepared by the investment house of Halsey, Stuart & Co. in 1927 notes that "approximately $200,000 in motion picture securities have been financed through Wall and La Salle streets in the last twenty-four months."

Creating a public culture

These new leisure merchants recognized early on the necessity of creating a public culture which was attractive, non-threatening and affordable in order to lure as wide a cross-section of society as possible. Vaudeville impresarios, for example, sought to actively reverse the fragmentation created by race, class, gender and ethnicity by pioneering a form of entertainment which would bring together people who expressed profoundly different ways of thinking and behaving. (Snyder 1989).

    To do so required a sleight of hand worthy of a skilled illusionist. Increasingly, working people had money and free time but as a group on their own, they were seen as neither a reliable market nor one which was particularly profitable. The middle classes represented a more desirable clientele but, as we will see, they were deeply nervous of the blue-collar crowds which they believed were prone to drunkenness and rowdyism. In order to attract the former market without losing the latter, leisure entrepreneurs needed to convince less affluent patrons that they were being transported to magical realms (the amusement park, the movie palaces) beyond the orbit of everyday constraints of class and gender, and at the same time reassure bourgeois pleasure-seekers that these new public amusements were safe and physically and morally "clean." To pull off this seemingly impossible task the merchants of leisure successfully constructed and marketed two concepts: "democracy's theater" and the "good-natured crowd."

Democracy's theater

In a 1907 editorial in the trade magazine Moving Picture World, W. Stephen Bush rhapsodized that "the moving picture theater is not confined to any class or clique. The millionaire and the clerk, the laborer and the capitalist sit side by side and both find equal enjoyment in the pictures". Similar comments were made in relation to amusement parks. Coney Island was depicted in the popular magazines of the day as "a mingling of individuals of all ranks and classes, college and factory workers dining next to each other, the disregarding of character or station, equality being taken for granted joyfully" (Weinstein 1992: 2). From 1900 to 1920, concludes Judith Adams, a present-day chronicler of the amusement park industry, Coney Island and other parks reflected the increased "democratic character" of society where "people of all classes, including the vast immigrant population could mingle with little regard for the strict social distinctions or mores of the time" (1991: 63). Baseball, fast becoming the most popular spectator sport at the turn of the century, also came to be regarded as symbolic of the democratic character of the emerging commercial culture. In his history of Shibe Park in Philadelphia, the first concrete and steel stadium to be built in America, Bruce Kuklick speculates that baseball "may have assisted in creating a mass democracy, eventually bringing social groups together." One way this occurred, he suggests, is by popularizing so-called working-class attributes -- informality, physical intimacy and the mixing of the sexes -- among non-working-class baseball fans (1991:47).

    Are these commentators correct, did "democacy's theater" prevail? Not exactly. It's true that some leisure merchants attempted to project the idea that their facilities were open to everyone. In an advertisement for the soon-to-be-opened New York Hippodrome, promoters Thompson and Dundy proclaim themselves "Purveyors of Amusement for the Masses at Prices All Can Afford," especially noting the availability of 1,500 seats in the Family Circle for twenty-five cents each. Motion picture kings, Balaban and Katz, explain in a 1925 issue of their Magazine that in their elaborate new movie palaces they had not "attempted to establish financial class distinctions, or to divide our auditoriums by means of reserved sections which seem to be more desirable and exclusive [because] the American people don't like this distinction."

    Yet, at the same time, there is evidence to suggest that the lower strata of society were only admitted grudgingly to many of the new public amusement venues, and, as soon as it was financially feasible, were once again excluded. Movie entrepreneurs, for example, tested out the nickelodeon concept (i.e. five-cent storefront theaters) on less wealthy patrons, but soon abandoned them for a more selective middle-class audience who had a greater discretionary income and more leisure time (Gomery 1992: 29). Movie exhibitors, including those who were engaged in a rags-to-riches climb out of the ethnic slums, continually complained in trade journals, personal correspondence and Congressional testimony that nickelodeon audiences as a group were an albatross because they lacked "class" (Merritt 1976: 65-6).

    Film scholars have expended some effort in using city and business directories to map out the growth of nickelodeons and movie theaters between 1905 and 1915 in various American urban locales. For the most part, their data suggest little evidence of any inclination to concentrate in working-class neighborhoods. Merritt (1976) discovered that Boston nickelodeons were located along busy main streets both downtown and in the surrounding residential communities of Dorchester, Roxbury, Cambridge, Sommerville, Newton, Belmont and Watertown. "No instance has been found," he claims, "of a Boston movie theater opening between 1910 and 1914 in an area that could be described as a working-class community -- Castle Square, the North End, the South End or North Roxbury" (p. 78).

    Allen (1982) presents a detailed analysis of the location of motion picture exhibitors in Manhattan between 1906 and 1912. While few theaters were located in exclusively middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, neither were they found in the poorest areas. Rather, the major groupings of theaters were in traditional entertainment districts such as the Bowery and Union Square or in stable, high-density, ethnic neighborhoods such as Little Italy and Jewish Harlem.

    From 1907, more and more entrepreneurs began to move away from storefront nickelodeons towards more elaborate and spacious middle-class theaters with mixed programs of film and vaudeville and, not incidentally, with higher prices. This did not eliminate working-class audiences but did limit their frequency of attendance.

    But what of other venues beside movie theaters? Some -- cabarets, roof-top theaters, restaurants with dance floors -- traditionally had always been beyond the reach of the working class. Other venues deliberately discouraged grass-roots patronage. Professional baseball clubs restricted the number of bleacher seats; kept ticket prices high; and scheduled games on weekday afternoons ensuring that the bulk of the fans would be professional, white-collar workers and self-employed business operators. The only manual workers who attended ball games were artisans who enjoyed the Saturday half-day off, or those whose work schedules gave them free time in the mid-afternoon, i.e. butchers, bakers, city workers. It wasn't until the 1920s, when a rising standard of living, the cheap cost of tickets, Sunday ball and the introduction of night baseball made working-class attendance more possible, did baseball become an increasingly lower-class sport (Riess 1989).

    In her research which looked at department stores which were in operation during the year 1932, Jeanne Lawrence (1992) concluded that rather than being expressions of democratic culture where women from all walks of life could learn about merchandise and "being American," as historians such as Gunter Barth and Daniel Boorstin have suggested, it makes more sense to locate a hierarchy of stores within the urban environment. The same can be said for movie theaters and other entertainment venues of this era. Until the arrival of the big downtown movie palaces in the 1920s, seamstresses and socialites rarely rubbed shoulders under the same roof at the same time; the latter group tended to see feature films at converted vaudeville houses or at legitimate theaters, while the former went to single-reel features at lower cost neighborhood houses (Nasaw 1993: 221). Even Coney Island was stratified with working people heading for Steeplechase Park while the urban middle-classes favored Luna Park or Dreamland.

    "Democracy's theater" certainly did not extend to the African-American population. Although African-Americans represented a potentially large market for urban public amusements, Jim Crow laws and practices in the South and widespread prejudice and discrimination elsewhere served to keep them out. If they were allowed admittance, it was almost always in a segregated context. Whites-only theaters were sometimes opened to black patrons, but they were normally consigned to the upper balcony and admitted through a separate entrance. Amusement parks were little better; one survey of the "Recreational Facilities of the Negro," published in 1928, reported that two-thirds of the amusement parks surveyed practiced segregation while, in the South, various idiosyncratic arrangements were made including admitting blacks on "off days" and the building of separate "pleasure resorts" (Washington 1928. Cited in Nasaw 1993: 92).

    The only entertainment venues where one was likely to find a mixed audience were the jazz clubs and cabarets which operated in some of the larger Northern cities. Particularly of note were the "black and tan" cabarets in Chicago. In his book, Autobiography of Black Chicago, Dempsey Travis recalls how the lively nightlife in 1940s Harlem, where "downtown white folks came uptown nightly to slum, get high and sometimes fly," reminded him of the action at the cabarets on the South Side of Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s (1981: 112). Not surprisingly, these black and tan clubs eventually caught the attention of white, middle-class reformers outraged by what they perceived as interracial immorality (Grossman 1989).

    Was "democracy's theater," then, a notable social accomplishment? Some contemporary historians have embraced the notion, seeing it as part of a broader trend toward democratization in American life. Although he is careful to point out that interclass conflicts in Worcester, Massachusetts had not vanished, Rosenzweig nevertheless concludes that Worcester's middle-class, by sharing their leisure time in movie houses with blue-collar patrons, were now less likely to condemn working-class amusements as they had done in the past (1983: 226). In a feminist critique, Peiss (1986: 186) detects a significant shift from a restrictive "homosocial" culture to a "heterosocial" one in which working-class women found a space to pursue social experimentation, personal freedom and unsupervised fun beyond the reach of neighborhood and familial control. Nasaw is less inclined to believe that the intermingling of the classes at commercial amusement venues had any lasting effect, however, he does suggest that "going out" provided a momentary escape, not just from one's class or ethnic group, but from a society differentiated along these lines to "an alternative and more 'liberated' way of being socially human" (1993: 46).

    However, when all things are considered, the notion of "democracy's theater" appears to have been somewhat of a phantom. While it is true that by 1930, with the notable exception of race, the urban entertainment scene had opened up considerably to all who could afford it, this was scarcely a corrective to the deeply embedded problems of race, class, gender and ethnicity which continued to persist. As Snyder (1989) observes, the new commercialized entertainment culture was limited in its ability to help those marginal to American life:

Three cheers for vaudeville? No, its shortcomings were too pronounced for that.... Vaudeville never treated blacks as well as it treated whites, and in its own way it portrayed women as sex objects in a way ever more problematic than had been the case in the nineteenth century.... The conflicts between Jewish and Irish New Yorkers in the thirties and forties, and all of the city's racial tensions that endure to this day all testify to the limits of integration through popular culture. (1989: 160-1)

"Democracy's theater" can be seen instead as a carefully constructed conceit which allowed shop clerks and factory workers to imagine they were being offered entry into middle-class life "on a new basis, outside traditional forms and proscriptions" (Kasson 1978: 108). This was, of course, patently untrue. When, for example, amusement parks such as Coney Island took on a more proletarian character, the middle-class fled never to return. Nevertheless, the leisure merchants at the turn of the twentieth century succeeded in promoting this construct together with the related notion of "the good-natured crowd."

The good-natured crowd

From looking at historical accounts, it seems apparent that the American middle classes at the tail-end of the nineteenth century feared the outbreak of disorder among working-class crowds. In Worcester, for example, "people of refined tastes and sensitive nerves" frequently fled to the countryside over the Fourth of July weekend to escape the noise, drinking and boisterous behavior which accompanied popular celebrations. Not that one could always blame them! The behaviour of working-class audiences and crowds frequently threatened to tip over from lively to violent. Patrons in the gallery in vaudeville theaters and burlesque houses were often rowdy: whistling, hand-clapping and bombarding orchestra and audience members below with debris. They could also be harsh if they took a dislike to a celebrity: Kuklick recounts how a minimob chased Detroit Tigers baseball star Ty Cobb, who was widely despised for his tendency to "spike" opposing players on the basepaths, through the streets of North Philadelphia. Cobb avoided certain injury only by hopping on to a passing trolley car.

    So as to reassure potential middle-class patrons, leisure entrepreneurs took a number of drastic and extraordinary steps. Amusement parks were fenced off, entry was controlled and security was emphasized. In a typical example from a 1914 advertising brochure, Kennywood amusement park in Pittsburgh reassured respectable patrons that "courteous uniformed police are always present to suppress the slightest semblance of disorder" (Jaques 1982: 22). Movie theater owners in the 1920s hired small armies of ushers and uniformed attendants to maintain the appearance of order, and some even went so far as to claim that the air in the theater was fresh and constantly replaced in order to eliminate clothing and body odors, presumably one of the "dangers" of sitting in the same venue as less affluent movie-goers (Nasaw 1993: 234-5).

    An important addendum to this was the portrayal of blue-collar audiences as benign: good-natured, earthy, sometimes boisterous, but never ugly or violent. The media were especially concerned with the issue of crowd order and control. For example, the New York Times coverage of Coney Island celebrations on Decoration Day 1905 proclaims the record-breaking crowd of 250,000 as "Huge, Happy, Orderly" in its headline, and later goes on to write that they were "quiet, orderly but out for fun nevertheless". For a chapter in his book on live theater, Going Out, Nasaw borrows the phrase, "The Best Smelling Crowd in the World," from Edwin Slosson, a turn-of-the-century journalist. By this it is implied that audiences were not only inclusive rather than snobbish but they were also on their best behavior. Even on their own turf, working-class crowds were depicted as possessing a unique blend of cheekiness and good cheer as can be seen in the events of the Physical Culture Show (see below).

The Physical Culture Show

During the early years of the twentieth century, an annual event of note at Madison Square Garden in New York was the Mammoth Physical Exhibition or Physical Culture Show. Promoted by its founder Bernard McFadden as an effort to "show how the spread of physical culture has improved the human body," it was a peculiar mix of various athletic contests and male and female models who stood on pedestals and paraded their physiques.

    In 1905, the Physical Culture Show caught the attention of moral crusader Anthony Comstock and his Society for the Suppression of Vice who laid charges against several Show officials for distributing "obscene" posters advertising the event. The arrests generated considerable publicity and on the night of the show 20,000 mainly working-class patrons showed up. Fifteen thousand people were admitted, but the rest were excluded when the Fire Inspector ordered the police to close the doors to the arena.

    Although the "mob" outside struggled to get near the entrance, those inside were described by the New York Times as "orderly" and "a good natured crowd." As it happened, the show itself was rather tame with the most lively action occurring in the stands.

    The star performer was a feisty red-haired female usher who became the focus of the crowd's attention.

    Patrons who didn't have coupons were yanked out of their seats to the cheers of the audience in the galleries. On one occasion, the usher attempted to discipline six men who were perched on the back of their seats. "Sit down," she roared, and when they failed to do so, she jerked one after another into their chairs and threatened to throw them out into the street if they didn't behave. "Who is she?" called out someone in the gallery and the crowd below retorted, "Anthony Comstock" (the well-known American moral crusader).

    Similarly, the crowd had a good time poking fun at the contestants who were ostentatiously posed as figures from Greek and Roman mythology. When a large-chested man in tights posed as "Ajax Defying the Lightning," a young woman in one of the arena boxes exclaimed in a shrill voice, "I wonder if it eats beans?," causing Ajax to nearly come tumbling off his pedestal.

Source: "Comstock takes hand in Physical Culture Show."
New York Times, 6 October 1905, p. 9;
"20,000 in a crush at the beauty show."
New York Times, 10 October 1905, p. 9.

    Amusement entrepreneurs produced a constant stream of public relations material designed to reassure the middle class that both the shows and the intended audiences were beyond reproach and suitable for families. Operators of amusement parks, for example, successfully distanced themselves from the gambling, drunkenness and prostitution which had formerly been associated with these facilities. At Coney Island, only soft drinks were sold, performers were warned to restrict their use of vulgar language, attractions were designed specifically for women and children, and the parks themselves were enclosed and admission fees were charged (Weinstein 1992-3: 128-9). B.F. Keith, who with his partner Edward F. Albee became the reigning czars of vaudeville, not only banned alcohol and smoking from his theaters and insisted on hats being removed during the performance, but he also requested that patrons refrain from foot-stamping, pounding their canes and talking loudly (Snyder 1989: 32). This insistence on "clean" shows was summed up by L.H. Ramsey, proprietor of the 450 seat Hippodrome vaudeville theater in Lexington, Kentucky, who confided to a reporter in November 1909:

There is but one salvation for any vaudeville house in this community, that is, give a show at all times to which any mother feels perfectly safe in sending her girl, knowing that she will neither see nor hear anything tending to the suggestive of ill.

Inventing a new commercial vernacular

One source of the present reverance for this "golden age" of popular entertainment is a unique vernacular which is said to have originated in New York and rippled across the continent. This "culture of pastiche" (Taylor 1988) is evident in a number of places: vaudeville, the penny-press, Coney Island, the music of Tin-Pan alley. Integrating elements of New York street experience into the newly emerging commercial culture, it created a popular idiom which dominated for half-a-century, shaping a wide variety of entertainment products: Broadway musicals, films, stand-up comedy, tabloid newspapers and television variety shows. Many of the well-loved icons of show business -- George Burns, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny -- were steeped in this vernacular and they have left a rich legacy for today's stars. Among various examples, we can see echoes of this in the routines of The Muppet Show, in the stage show of pop diva and actress Bette Midler, and in movies starring such diverse performers as Barbra Streisand and Rodney Dangerfield. This style of performance could be said to constitute the American equivalent of the British music hall tradition, which has had a wide-ranging influence, from the Beatles to the late comedian Benny Hill.

    As Peiss (1986: 187) has noted, the genius of the promoters and entrepreneurs from this era was in the way they were able to scour New York's dance halls, variety theaters and street culture, identify fads and fashions and then transform them into safe, controllable activities that could be sold to all sections of society, in night clubs, amusement parks and the movies. It was, William Taylor reflects, a remarkable achievement, creating "an arena" where "all could find genuine, if partial, representation of their experiences" at the same time as deflecting periodic challenges by middle-class reformers such as Anthony Comstock who "saw street life or anything deriving from it as representing various ugly forces of subversion" (1988: 113).

    In the music world, one of the most important changes was the shift from the sweetly sentimental ballads of the nineteenth century to songs which borrowed the syncopation and rhythm of traditional African-American music. Over time, Tin-Pan alley lyricists also began to appropriate ethnic and racial accents and vocabulary. Irving Berlin's classic song, "Puttin' On the Ritz," for example, celebrates the promenade on Lennox Avenue in Harlem, inventing a unique linguistic mix of black slang and refined diction and allusion (Furie 1991: 204). In a similar fashion, a new "Broadway slang" was invented by celebrated authors and journalists Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner and Walter Winchell. Many of these words and phrases -- fan, flop, wow 'em, payoff, turkey, phoney, cinch, squeal, crash the gate, wash-out -- are still familiar today (Taylor 1991b: 214). So too are some well-known stereotypes which can be traced back to these writers, notably, the "tough on the outside soft on the inside" gamblers, gangsters and molls sentimentalized by Damon Runyon in Guys and Dolls and since immortalized in countless Hollywood movies.

    It is possible, of course, to challenge whether the experiences of those whose music, language and lives were the inspiration for this cultural pastiche were served fairly by this reformulation. In the same way in which contemporary critics question the integrity of white rappers or of Paul Simon's incorporation of African and Brazilian rhythms into his music, not all cultural observers celebrate the creative borrowing of the tin-pan alley songsmiths, charging that it did not truly and adequately represent the lives of those groups from whom the music forms and language were appropriated.

    Furthermore, some historians have suggested that the substantial success of these leisure merchants in creating a wide-ranging and popular commercial culture may have pre-empted the emergence of a separate, politically adversarial working-class culture. It should be noted, however, that the "saloon" culture which thrived among many urban working-class populations prior to the commercialization of popular amusements was not overtly political, although it occurred within the context of the ethnic group and neighborhood of the participants.

    Whatever the case, the culture of pastiche which was invented during this "golden age" remains an important yardstick with which to measure the contribution of today's Fantasy City. And, further, it poses the question of whether urban entertainment districts centered around motion simulators, Disney musicals and themed restaurants evoke an element of neighborhood or street experience, or, for that matter, any experience at all.

    This is not to say that this earlier time was free from the tide of inauthentic images and simulated experiences which pervade today's theme parks. As Alan Bryman (1995) has demonstrated, the Disneyesque principle of "time-space compression" -- in which time and space become both condensed and confused -- was firmly established in a number of entertainment venues during the "golden age," most notably the Midway at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition and Thompson and Dundy's Luna Park at Coney Island (see "Inspired Lunacy" p. 27). To this can be added the Hippodrome extravaganzas, "lobster palaces," summertime roof gardens and the fantastical movie palaces of the 1920s and 1930s. In short, the scarlet letter of "postmodernism" can be affixed to the architecture and attractions of the "golden age" just as it has been to today's theme park city.

Inspired lunacy: The genius of Frederic Thompson

Frederic A. Thompson was one of the great show business geniuses of the early twentieth century, an entrepreneur who symbolized the energy and vision of those who established the "golden age" of public amusements.

    After serving as an architect's apprentice, Thompson drifted from job to job -- steel and iron working, mining, engineering and journalism -- taking from each knowledge which he would later combine in a matchless fashion. By the turn of the century, he had discovered a considerable talent for designing midway amusements at world's fairs and other expositions. His most conspicuous achievement was a fantasy ride titled "Trip to the Moon," which had its debut at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901. More than simply a carnival ride, "Trip to the Moon" was a participatory fantasy experience. After experiencing the sensation of flying to the moon, patrons were then transformed into extraterrestial tourists: shopping, viewing a "Moon Calf" and sampling green cheese.

    After a year of recreating the "Trip to the Moon" at Coney Island's Steeplechase Park, Thompson, together with his business partner and fellow showman Ehner S. "Skip" Dundy, founded his own Coney Island attraction -- Luna Park. Luna Park was billed as an "electric city by the sea," its lavish, ornamental fantasy architecture was lit up at night by an unprecedented 250,000 electric bulbs. Themed areas included an Eskimo village, the canals of Venice and a Japanese garden. Thompson and Dundy supplemented these displays with live entertainment shows, the most spectacular of which were disaster spectacles: "Fire and Flames," in which a four-storey apartment building was burnt down; re-creations of the the Johnstown (1889) and Galveston (1900) floods; and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, including the destruction of a replica Pompeii. Luna Park was an instant success, drawing a record-breaking 245,000 patrons on the Fourth of July weekend 1903.

    With Luna Park's established, Thompson revived an idea which had preoccupied him -- the building of a "hippodrome" in the heart of Manhattan. Inspired by the large department stores which were beginning to dominate the retail trade in American cities, Thompson believed the magic formula to be low ticket prices, a large seating capacity and a brand of entertainment which would mix vaudeville, the circus and grand opera.

    The Hippodrome opened in April 1905 to widespread acclaim. It boasted a state-of-the-art technical system which used concentric runways, electrically powered hydraulic lifts (which could raise a portion of the stage 8 feet in the air), and a 14-feet deep water tank which could accommodate a range of displays, from aquatic ballet to the staging of a historical sea battle. It seated 5,200 people, presented fourteen shows a week, and had a cast of 1,000 performers (give or take a few horses and elephants). To top it off, the stage was twelve times larger than a standard Broadway theater.

    The Hippodrome's four-hour premiere bill -- "A Yankee Circus on Mars" and "Andersonville" (a Civil War pageant) -- met with overwhelming popular and critical success. "Not in Paris or London is there anything to equal the Hippodrome!" exalted the New York American, while Variety announced that, by the third week in May, New Yorkers had succumbed to "Hippritis fever."

    One year later, Thompson and Dundy lost the Hippodrome to John W. "Bet a Million" Gates and other investors at the US Realty Company but not before they had staged several more memorable extravaganzas, the most noteworthy was an aquatic tableau vivant, "The Court of the Golden Fountains," in which a golden ship layered with tiers of costumed showgirls lay moored among illuminated mussels and electric bullrushes while live swans navigated the incandescent pool and a cloud of white doves flew down from the peak of the Hippodrome's domed ceiling.

    In many respects, Frederic Thompson could be described as the Walt Disney of his time. His combination of magical boyishness, technical virtuousity and a keen sense of showmanship meant that he marketed fantasy on a scale equalled only perhaps by P.T. Barnum.

Source: Adams (1991); Kasson (1978); Register (1991);
Van Hoogstraten (1991);
"The Hippodrome," New York Times, 21 May 1905, p. 5;
"Show of the Week," Variety, 16 December 1905, p. 8.

    Nevertheless, synthetic as it might have been, it is this cultural pastiche which singles out the "golden age" of public entertainment as an era which we remember as urbane, culturally rich and shamelessly nostalgic. As Brooks McNamara has observed, in our fantasies the Broadway impresarios George M. Cohan and Florenz Ziegfeld "dine endlessly at Sardi's on some type of perpetual opening night" while, outside, "Runyonesque characters loiter in Shubert Alley beneath a forest of neon signs advertising the Follies of nineteen-something-or-another" (1991: 178).

A golden age?

In The City Builders, her anatomy of the real estate boom of the 1980s, Susan Fainstein (1994: 228-33) challenges the tendency of post-structuralist urban critics to base their argument on two central assumptions: (i) that the city once nurtured a greater degree of social diversity than it does today; (ii) that during an earlier period there was a greater degree of authenticity. Such claims, Fainstein points out, are suspect, based more on nostalgia than on fact. In a similar scenario to that of the gated communities of the 1990s, groups who were considered socially unacceptable were kept out of the better areas of the city through the enforcement of vagrancy laws, through a panoply of exclusionary laws pertaining especially to people of color, and by granting police a free hand in the maintenance of social order. As for the idea that a "golden past" once existed in which urban form "expressed an authentic relationship with the forces of production and reproduction," Fainstein argues that there is little basis for this supposition; most major urban structures were, in fact, bastardized re-creations, and as such, rife with historical inaccuracies.

    Many of the same arguments can be made in assessing whether the "golden age" which prospered at the beginning of this century has since become "lost." As I have argued in this chapter, the belief that city-dwellers exclusive of race, class and gender came together at amusement parks, movie palaces and sports stadiums without restriction is an exaggeration. While there is significant evidence of barriers being broken down, especially when compared to the immediate post-Civil War era, nevertheless, the twin concepts of "democracy's theater" and "the good-natured crowd" were illusionary. Instead, public entertainment venues continued to be socially stratified, both formally and informally.

    At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest that the "golden age" was any more "authentic" than the Fantasy City of today. I concede that to some people the "electric city by the sea" at Luna Park or the electric bullrushes which illuminated the Hippodrome may seem preferable to the electrical parade of cartoon characters which light up the sky at Disneyland every night. However, it is difficult to see how either reflects the underlying economic and social processes of their respective eras. If anything, we celebrate the fantasy architecture and culture of the earlier era because it was more extravagantly dreamlike and fantastical than today's creations which seem deliberately formulaic (with Las Vegas perhaps the exception).

    Fabricated or not, the surge of commercialized leisure during the first decades of this century did invigorate city life to an extent which has yet to be duplicated. It was a time of wealth for downtown areas, with most cities having an entertainment district of some note. While there may not have always been "Laughter and Liberty Galore" as the title of Nasaw's (1993) chapter on dance halls, ballrooms and cabarets suggests, going out meant something more glamorous and exciting than today's shopping trip to the mall.

    Inevitably, perhaps, it couldn't last. By the 1930s, signs of decline were beginning to become obvious. Amusement parks had begun a journey down a long path of decline. Vaudeville and live theater had given way to burlesque and cheap "B" movies. By 1931, 42nd Street in New York had become a working-class male domain dominated by a "rough trade" in male prostitution. After the Depression, the Times Square district filled up with an increasing number of sailors and soldiers, and, to accommodate them, unemployed young men from the economically devastated cities of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York and the industrial South (Chauncey 1991: 322). Where before there had been lobster palaces and cabarets, now there were cheap dance halls, chop suey joints and dime museums specializing in "freaks." Historians have offered various explanations for this decline ranging from the effects of the stock market crash and the constraints imposed by Prohibition, to the greed of big entertainment promoters who sought to capture a larger, less discriminating audience. Whatever the cause, the illusion of the "good natured crowd" which had played a major role in sustaining downtown entertainment areas a decade earlier had shattered and, with the dawning of the age of suburbia after the Second World War, entertainment districts in America's cities would soon face their most serious crisis.

Table of Contents

List of illustrationsix
Preface and acknowledgementsxi
List of abbreviationsxiii
Chronology of key eventsxv
Part IGoing out and staying in13
1"At prices all can afford": the "golden age" of popular urban entertainment in America15
2Don't go out tonight: suburbanization, crime and the decline of sociability33
3"Cities are Fun": entertainment returns to the city center51
Part IILandscapes of pleasure65
4"Sanitized razzmatazz": technology, simulated experience and the culture of consumption67
5Shopertainment, eatertainment, edutainment: synergies and syntheses in the themed environment81
Part IIIEntertaining developments101
6The "weenie" and the "genie": the business of developing Fantasy City103
7Calling the shots: public-private partnerships in Fantasy City129
8Gambling on fantasy: Las Vegas, casinos and urban entertainment151
9Land of the rising fun: themed entertainment comes to the Asia-Pacific Rim175
10Saved by a mouse? Urban entertainment and the future of cities189
Name index226
Subject index232

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Sharon Zurkin

This is a masterful piece of writing about our current, archetypal spaces of consumption. Fantasy City shows us deliberately drifting towards a destiny of destination retail -- an eminently readable, and thoroughly challenging critique.

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