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The History of Vaudeville Via Times Square

While Times Square is well known as the center of New York's commercial theater district, it's probably lesser known today that for over 30 years, it was also ground zero for a type of theater as exciting and bewildering diverse as the Crossroads of the World itself: vaudeville.

Vaudeville was at the crossroads of all styles of theater. A half-century ago, a vaudeville audience might encounter singers, comedians, musicians, dancers, trained animals, female impersonators, acrobats, magicians, hypnotists, jugglers, contortionists, mind-readers, and a wide variety of strange uncategorizable performers usually lumped into the category of "nuts" with the space of a short couple of hours.

In a vaudeville show you could have everything: from the puritanical to the licentious, from the patriotic to the anarchistic; from idolaters of wealth to egalitarians—and so it went. The ethnic variety of vaudeville made it the theatrical equivalent of the melting pot.

Black, white, Jew, gentile, men, women, children, Irish, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe, cue to cue. The hat rack in the dressing room had top hats, derby hats, fedoras, turbans, sombreros, bejeweled head-dresses and Apache war bonnets. All were equally important.

It was a world where a nightclub dancer like Joe Frisco could meet an opera singer like Enrico Caruso backstage, and say, "Hey, Caruso, don't do 'Darktown Strutters Ball'. That's my number and I follow you."

High art, low art, and no art stood cheek by jowl. Like George Jessel's act of the same name, these disparate personalities were all sewn together like "patches from a crazy quilt."

As ideally suited as vaudeville and Times Square were to each other, the match didn't take place until the eve of the 20th century. It is interesting to note that New York's theatrical district has always been located at the geographical heart of the city. As the city expanded further and further uptown, that heart moved with it.

In the early 19th century, theaters were located near what is now the financial district and city hall. Then, as thousands of immigrants moved to the city thanks to improved sea travel, the Bowery became a center for populist amusements, with dime museums, salons and theaters making the street something like Times Square, Coney Island, Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditoriums, and Atlantic City rolled into one.

In the 1880s, a more genteel "Rialto" was established around Union Square not far from the new department stores now enjoyed by the burgeoning middle class. In the next couple of decades, the focus shifted almost glancingly to what is now the Flatiron district around 23rd Street…to the area around Herald Square at 34th…inexorably to its final home at 42nd Street, the plot once known as Longacre Square--now known as Times Square.

[excerpted from Trav S.D.'s book No Applause – Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous (Faber and Faber),Copyright © 2005 D. Travis Stewart]

Berlin: A Study For The 21st Century

After two decades of reunification, the meanings of "nationality" and "identity" are still subjects of debate in Berlin, Germany's reinstated capital. Matters much further from Berlin are being canvassed here; topics like the European Monetary Union vie with issues of national and local politics.

The collapse of the old left, the establishment of a new right and an increasing influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe are but a few of the issues that Germany (like the rest of Europe) and Berlin in particular -- is coming to terms with. Berlin has undergone great changes since the breakdown of the wall. This city mirrors the transition still in process; far from being unified, it resembles a patchwork of urban cultures reflected in various neighborhoods that make up the new Berlin.

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Shopping, Eating, and Culture-Vulturing Through Cathay

The mission was clear. We had just two weeks to visit six cities in five provinces covering thousands of miles in this vast country. Our host, The China Tourist Board would provide air and river transport as well as guides and flexible itinerary in each location. We gladly accepted the daunting challenge arriving in Beijing with empty bags and stomachs to be filled along the way with the treasures of the orient.

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The Cruise

“You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” so they say, and actually the opposite is true. Generally gift horses come with strings attached, like being forced to buy what it is that you’re supposed to be getting for free, or worse. That’s what happens 98 times out of a hundred and one lives for the other two.

Civitavecchia fort and harbor

I was supposed to go to Greenland, and had a bunch of actual venues line up and everything, but at the last minute they fired the PR guy and disavowed any knowledge of my existence. I was ticked off about it when I was checking my spam filter and found something that seemed to be legitimate, RSVP, the largest Gay travel agency, sent me an email inviting me to join their cruise of the Mediterranean, I told them I wasn’t Gay, in fact just the opposite, but if they were going to pay for the whole thing, I would put any biases I had aside and go along. It turns out that they weren’t. I knew it.

Read more: The Cruise

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