On a walking tour of Times Square, something supercalifragilisticexpialidocious happened. With the guide at my side, I was strolling along the streets without causing any casualties. No banging into clumps of tourists or wiping small children off my shoe. It was as if the guide, a Mary Poppins in a Yankees cap, had cast a spell, clearing the Great White Way for our party of two.
Each day, 370,000 people parachute into Times Square. The pedestrian speed limit is snail crawling in molasses. So the idea of taking a walking tour in this human traffic snarl seemed as silly as trying to stargaze at 42nd Street and Broadway.
The Times Square Alliance said au contraire. In September, the organization started offering two pavement-pounding tours: the Times Square Walking Tour, presented by Manhattan Walking Tour, and the Broadway Walking Tour, presented by Walkin’ Broadway. Neither requires combat boots and a bullhorn; tennis shoes and an outside voice will do. (Note: Midtown suffered relatively little damage from Hurricane Sandy. The neon was a beacon in the storm.)
The tours depart from the renovated Times Square Museum and Visitors Center, across the street from the TKTS box office, in the thick of the tourist jungle. Housed in the opulent Embassy Theater, the center’s mini-museum provides a brief preview of upcoming scenes, including exhibits on Broadway musicals, the dark years of peep shows, and the New Year’s Eve extravaganza. A special Waterford crystal orb with 9,576 LED lights blinks and flashes as though it were 2007, the centennial year of the ball drop. At the gift shop, visitors can pluck pieces of colored tissue paper from a bowl and scribble a note for the Wishing Wall.
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On Dec. 31, officials will release the rainbow confetti, creating a blizzard of such hopes and dreams as “good girlfriends for my boys,” “meet Justin Bieber” and “Alabama to win the national championship.”
Sometimes non-Bieber wishes do come true. Nancy, my guide, shared a Nora Ephron-esque story of a woman who was seeking a Prince Charming and wisely included her phone number on the scrap. A man found the wish (or maybe it found him?), called her and – cue Cupid’s bow – they fell in love. The couple married in the visitors center and honeymooned in the square.
“You either love Times Square or hate it,” said Nancy, who clearly heart-shapes New York. “Hopefully, people will love it.”
George M. Cohan clearly adored Times Square, and the square returned the affection. The father of American musical theater wrote the anthem “Give My Regards to Broadway,” among other toe-tapping hits. In his honor, the city erected a statue in Duffy Square, Times Square’s northern triangle, where he can oversee his Broadway babies.
As we glided along Broadway, Nancy fed me tidbits spiked with some kind of alluring potion. The more she piled on my plate, the more I began to appreciate and embrace Times Square. To wit, the square is not a square: It’s actually two triangles that kiss at a mutual point. The “Times” refers to the New York Times, which in 1904 relocated to what was then Longacre Square to draw business into the area. In return for this civic favor, it received naming rights, choosing a moniker that eventually transcended its parentage. The paper also masterminded another local legacy: the New Year’s Eve ball drop. The idea sprang from the maritime tradition of using a descending ball to tell time, although the sailors’ instrument probably didn’t sparkle like a disco ball.
Under a sky of glowing billboards
Standing near One Times Square, home port of the glittery ball and the former Times HQ, we could barely see the sky through the dense clouds of ads. Sky doesn’t make money, but billboards do – $4 million a year per ad, or $10,000 an hour to ask your sweetheart to marry you.
Nancy had this uncanny ability to answer questions that I’d always wondered about but had never opened my mouth to ask. Such as the difference between Broadway and Off-Broadway. I would have spat out “location” as an answer, but she coughed back “seat count.” Theaters with 500 or more seats qualify as Broadway; 100 to 499 hang the Off-Broadway sign on their doors. Aren’t you glad I didn’t ask?
As we inched toward Hell’s Kitchen, the adjacent neighborhood, the native New Yorker reflected on Times Square’s transformation from ugly, druggy duckling to white swan with Mickey ears.
“New Yorkers complain that it’s been Disneyfied,” she said, alluding to the company’s arrival in 1992 as part of an urban renewal plan. “But the upside is that you’re no longer in a place where you’re afraid to walk.”
Or, if you’re on the Walkin’ Broadway tour, to twirl and dance.
The theater tour was led by a chorus of voices piped in through a headset. The lead voice belonged to our guide, Tom, a perky actor who clearly treats the world as his stage. (He often performed a little “Fame”-style choreography while crossing the street.) His stories were jazzified with show tunes and prerecorded experts, such as Bill Berloni, who trained 103 Sandys for “Annie”; Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist of such hits as “Godspell” and “Wicked”; and Elliott Forrest, a broadcaster, producer and, for the next 90 minutes, disembodied co-host living in my ear canal.
Lost among distractions
Like Nancy, Tom seemed to make the crowds vanish so that we could lose ourselves in the s’wonderful of Times Square. We followed a peripatetic route paved in marquee lights (“Wicked,” “The Heiress,“ “Annie”), hopes for “Book of Mormon“-like success (”the hottest ticket on Broadway,” he said of that Tony-winning show) and dreams of high ticket sales (12,334,312 sold in the 2011-12 season, for an astounding revenue of $1,139,331,457). I learned the hard facts and figures, but also savored the behind-the-scenes bonbons. For example, in “West Side Story,” the creators originally planned to pit an Irish American Roman Catholic street gang against a Jewish posse. The Puerto Rican Maria, however, vanquished the Jewish Maria.
We finished our tour where Nancy and I had started, in Duffy Square. The air was mild and the crowds thin compared with the estimated million who pack the place for New Year’s Eve. Dec. 31 seemed months away. But Tom was the director of this moment, and I was his willing audience member.
He shouted out the countdown as if we were on the cusp of 2013. Then he tossed a handful of confetti into the air. The colored flecks fluttered down, only to disappear beneath the crush of passing feet.