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42nd Street: At the Crossroads

(Page 6: Fiorello Henry La Guardia)

An excerpt from "Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics
at the Crossroads of the World
"
by Marc Eliot

ON THE TAP HEELS of Walker's resignation former congressman Fiorello Henry La Guardia marched to power. La Guardia had run for mayor against, and was crushed by, Walker in the 1925 election, having unsuccessfully campaigned on a platform of anticorruption by pointing a morally accusing finger at the flamboyant administration during the good times, when nobody cared. Four years later, with the Depression's tight grip on the nation and the city, the former congressman used 42nd Street as his moral stomping ground to eventually thrust himself to the top of the city's political power heap.

At five feet two inches, the plainly dressed, stocky, pugnacious La Guardia, once described by Time magazine as "henshaped," was a puritanical workhorse fusion candidate who took his Depression-age election as a personal mandate to clean up the city's epidemic of crime, corruption, sex, drugs, and bootlegging, by focusing on the evil incarnate embodied on West 42nd Street. With the zeal of a backwoods preacher, La Guardia denounced as immoral everything about life on the boulevard of sin that Our Jimmy had once so glorified.

Even as the country's newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was taking historic economic measures to reverse the free fall into chaos and self-destruction, La Guardia determined that the way to political and social salvation lay in moral redemption. After cleaning up what had become the most corrupt police department of any city in America, La Guardia set about to destroy the gambling sites and dens of sexual and alcoholic corruption that had flourished during the previous administration.

The third mayor the teetering city had had in the three years since Walker's resignation, the Little Flower, as he became known (the literal translation of his given name), was a native New Yorker from lower Manhattan's Little Italy, the son of a Jewish mother and an Italian father (La Guardia became Episcopalian by choice). His "no free lunches" style of politics held enormous appeal for the hearts of the increasingly influential, if still largely disenfranchised, New York immigrant voting bloc. La Guardia was determined to destroy the pinball "scourge of the city's children" by declaring war on what had become a national obsession, and to him the symbol of all that had gone wrong in America. With ax in hand, and newsreel cameras always close by, he went on a personal rampage against the city's amusement halls.

The legendary La Guardia crackdown on 42nd Street was intended to make an example of those whose moral breakdown had helped to depress the city economically. One by one he personally padlocked the street's notorious burlesque houses, strip joints, game parlors, and houses of prostitution, among them the China Doll, Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, the Latin Quarter, the Versailles, and the Paradise. Such was La Guardia's at times juvenile manner that often, when speeding down the street holding on to the side of a racing fire engine, he'd stick his tongue out at whatever club owners happened to be standing outside, or raise his thumb to his nose and wiggle his fingers. He also removed 42nd Street's traditional trolley cars, because, he angrily declared, they were too provocative, allowing women's dresses to blow above their knees, and besides they slowed down his beloved fire trucks.

He made fingerprinting of all employees mandatory, outlawed such indigenous rituals as penny gin-rummy card games in the back rooms of restaurants, and threw audits on virtually every nightclub on the street, causing many to go out of business when they couldn't pay their exorbitant tax bills.

La Guardia's grandstand destruction of the shady side of 42nd Street resulted in his accomplishing little more than driving the strip shows, the gambling, the bootlegging, and the prostitution literally and figuratively ever further underground. With burlesque, for example, nothing much changed at first beyond the proximity of naked women's tassels to the street; whereas before they did their thing on little stages above the entrance of the nightclubs they worked, now they did it in basements where the entrance was at the bottom of metal double cellar street doors originally installed to roll down beer barrels. As for the jazz and combo clubs that had once been among the most identifiable signatures of 42nd Street nightlife, they found a new and relatively undisturbed home along West 52nd Street, while the floating gambling dens scattered throughout the Upper East Side before settling into the shaded-window walk-ups of East Harlem. La Guardia fought back, broadening his fingerprint policy so that only those musicians who had secured a city-issued cabaret license could play in any of the boroughs-which was said to be only slightly less difficult to acquire than a gun permit for any performer who'd ever gotten so much as a speeding ticket.

North side of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, September 1942, sex and sins on the marquee
North side of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, September 1942. Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

The last "legal" burlesque house on 42nd Street, the Orpheum Dance Palace, where the women were now called taxi dancers (the approximate equivalent of today's strip-club table dancers), was shuttered by La Guardia in 1942. By then it was the only form of live if not exactly "legitimate" theater left on the boulevard. At the height of the turn-of-the-century theatrical boom, seventy-six theaters of one type or another had thrived on or near the fabled street. By 1932, for a number of reasons, among them the Depression, the restrictive policies of the mayor, and the arrival of movies that "talked," the number had fallen to thirty-three. Ten years later, in 1942, with the closing of the Orpheum, it fell to zero. Fiorello's ferocious morality campaign left a cultural blight on West 42nd Street that, except for a brief upturn after World War II, would last a lifetime.

The end of World War II also saw the end of the La Guardia era. The same day that more than a million New Yorkers filled Times Square to celebrate the Allied victory in Japan, the Little Flower announced he would not be running for a fourth term.

Copyright © 2001 by Rebel Road, Inc. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of http://www.twbookmark.com.

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