OK, I’ll admit it: I was a Times Square Visitor Center snob.
From my earliest days as a tourist in NYC, to my years as a student at Columbia, through my career as a scout, right up until…well, right up until last week, I’ve always considered the Times Square Visitor Center to be the one place I’d never visit. Going through those doors just seemed like such an admission of failure, a way of screaming to the world that I couldn’t figure out the city on my own, that I’d resorted to going to the most touristy of touristed areas of Manhattan for help.
Then, last week, as I happened to pass by while scouting a nearby office, I noticed they had free bathrooms.
As I walked down the entrance hall, something about the decor immediately struck me. From the marble accents and gold-framed posters on the walls…
…to the hanging chandeliers…
…to the brass entrance doors, it almost felt like I was entering a theater.
Confused, I headed inside the entrance, where the walls suddenly became wood-paneled…
…with all sorts of elegant ornamentation.
Completely forgetting about the bathrooms, I stepped into the main area, and then it struck me: either the entire place had been built to resemble a Times Square movie theater of old, which would make sense…or it actually used to be one.
As it turns out, it actually used to be one.
This was once the Embassy Theater, a French salon-styled 556-seat one-screen movie theater opened in 1925 by Loew’s. Intended for high society audiences, it was notable at the time for being the only theater in the country managed by a woman, one Gloria Gould (granddaughter of railroad baron Jay Gould), who employed an all-female staff. Several years later, the theater adopted an all-newsreel format, the first of its kind.
As television replaced the need for movie theater newsreels, the Embassy began showing foreign films, and later, as Times Square began its decline, second run movies. Designated an interior landmark in 1987, it finally closed in 1997 only to re-open a year later as the newly restored Times Square Visitor Center.
The theater is essentially as it used to be, with just the seats removed (even the sloped floor has been left at an angle):
Designed by Thomas Lamb, the ceiling features eight beautiful globe lights…
…surrounding an ornate centerpiece:
The screen is small by modern standards, but the Embassy was always intended to be a miniature theater, providing a more intimate experience:
The old wooden stage, featuring footlights:
This decorative motif can be found repeated along the walls:
Above the light, a woman watches down…
…while below, two women hold it up. The Landmarks Commission report describes the theater as having consciously feminist overtones:
Another great detail…
…the stained-glass EXIT signs:
Interspersed along the walls are a series of ornamental alcoves framing murals by artist/designer Arthur Crisp:
Several were restored in 2010:
To me, the most impressive salon-like elements can be found as you first enter:
Additional designwork by Crisp:
There are some additional Times Square history bits on display, like the infamous Peep-O-Rama sign, some sex booths, the New Year’s ball – but to me, the real thrill was stepping into one of those rare pockets where the Times Square of old had somehow managed to survive.
I’m sure that a good percentage of you already know about this. But if you’re like me and you’ve been avoiding it all these years, just suck it up and go be a tourist in Times Square for a few minutes. It’s worth it.
PS – Oh, and the bathrooms were pretty clean too.
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