Last Dance At The Orpheum

17 Feb 2015 | 02:10

    In March 1964 the Orpheum Dance Palace at 46th and Broadway was shut down after 47 years of business. What had once been New York's most famous "dime-a-dance" hall had become little more than a glorified whorehouse. Two middle-aged floor managers, Al Simon and Murray Offen, used a variety of fake excuses to turn away those who did not look like "steadies," such as, "Sorry, no girls tonight" or, "You gotta have a jacket and tie," while regulars (mostly professional men from the suburbs) could purchase, according to the New York Times, certain "intimacies" for $15?$25.

    Those wanting more were directed to a nearby hotel room, booked by Orpheum management, where the going rate for a dancer's services was about $100. This system had been in place since at least 1960, but the Orpheum's battles with the city went back much earlier, practically to the start of its existence.

    The building that once housed the Orpheum was recently sold and will be torn down, probably later this year, for retail development. Chances are New Yorkers won't recognize the address (1551 Broadway), but undoubtedly they'll know its recently vacated ground-floor tenant, the city's sole remaining Howard Johnson's, a kitschy wonder of neon and paneled wood that received a fair amount of press attention when closing plans were announced this spring. Recently, Manhattan's last all-nude male strip club, the Gaiety, folded up its runway above Hojo's, while the long-running whodunit Perfect Crime (housed on the third floor, in what had been the Orpheum space) has found new life in another structure four blocks north. In a neighborhood with little use for relics, time marches on.

    1551 Broadway's longtime owners, the Rubinstein real estate clan, did not respond to requests for an interview, and a former affiliate of the building remarks that the family is not particularly interested in discussing its history. The reluctance is understandable (even in recent Gaiety days, men were reportedly available for hire after the show) but disappointing nonetheless. Its impending demise effectively closes the last chapter on what was once a vibrant and, even by Times Square standards, unique tradition.

    "Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors

    Can pay for a ticket and rent me

    Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor

    Are sweethearts my good luck has sent me."

    -Rodgers and Hart, "Ten Cents a Dance" (1930)

    Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart could easily have been using the Orpheum as a model when they described the "pansies and rough guys, tough guys who tear my gown" in their caustic take on the dime-a-dance, or "taxi-dance" phenomenon, which reached its peak during the 1920s and early 30s. Practically forgotten today, the taxi dancer was a famous type, spawning not only the hit song but an eponymous 1931 movie starring that perennial bad girl of pre-Hays Code days, Barbara Stanwyck. Taxi-dancing-the name derived from the "more time, more money" model of a cab ride-was for many women an alternative to the narrow set of opportunities prescribed them in the first decades of the 20th century. Since dancers customarily earned 40 to 50 percent of each 10-cent dance ticket (hence the term that evolved during taxi dancing's early days, "nickel hoppers") energetic young women in the late 1920s could easily take home up to $40 a week.

    Though patronizing in spots and saddled with the "reformist" tone of his day, sociologist Paul Cressey gives one of the most vivid period accounts of human interaction, or lack thereof, in establishments like the Orpheum, in his 1932 book, The Taxi-Dance Hall:

    "As soon as the girl receives a ticket from the patron, she tears it in half, gives one part to the ubiquitous ticket-collector; and the other half she blandly stores with other receipts under the hem of her silk stocking-where before the evening is over the accumulation appears as a large and oddly placed tumor. She volunteers no conversation?"

    While certain dancers made quiet arrangements to meet their clients at a later time, most could not be classified as prostitutes. In fact, at better-known establishments such as the Orpheum, rules against "mingling" (socializing with men away from the dance floor) were rigidly enforced, and no liquor was served-even after the repeal of Prohibition. Although sailors and other military personnel accounted for a large portion of the Orpheum's clientele, every so often a young man of society, such as Allan Carlisle, great-grandson of famed detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton, would elope with one of its dancers. On the whole, taxi dancing, at the Orpheum as well as in Manhattan's 238 other dance halls (by a 1924 count), was considered a viable profession, albeit one that lurked outside the bounds of respectability.

    This is not to say that the taxi-dance hall was without its exploitative elements. The disquieting image of a pedometer, coiled tightly around a female ankle, anchors a two-page spread devoted to the Orpheum (named only as a "famous taxi dance ballroom on Broadway," but identifiable through photos) in the Boston Sunday Globe of November 22, 1936. Pedometers, the article explains, are not used all the time, but the management employs them occasionally "to check which girls are working." The depiction of women as human chattel, as items for purchase, continues with an extolment of the hall's variety:

    "Redheads, brunettes, and blondes-take your choice? The management tries to keep all types of beautiful girls on hand to suit customers' tastes. Though there are more brunettes employed, there is always a liberal sprinkling of blondes and redheads available."

    The Globe feature casts the Orpheum as a standard-bearer for taxi palaces, attracting the finest and most beautiful dancers. It had opened back in 1917 ("probably the oldest taxi-dance hall in the world," the article claims) as Wilson's Dancing Academy, a chain operation that capitalized on the ruse, common in taxi dancing's early years, of the dance "school" with "instructresses" or "hostesses." A sign on the wall in those days read, "No Indecent Dancing." It was here that a 31-year-old aspiring writer named Henry Miller met and became obsessed with a beguiling young dancer, June Edith Smith (a.k.a. Mansfield), in 1923, initiating what would become one of literature's most famous love affairs. Miller wrote passionately about his first sighting of June at Wilson's in Tropic of Capricorn:

    "I notice her coming towards me; she is coming with sails spread, the large full face beautifully balanced on the long, columnar neck? The whole being was concentrated in the face. I could have taken just the head and walked home with it; I could have put it beside me at night, on a pillow, and made love to it."

    It is unknown if June was one of some 39 women rounded up in what was probably the first official action against the hall, on February 14, 1921 (whether or not the Valentine's Day irony was intentional is also a mystery). At around 11 p.m., detectives and policemen stormed the building, capturing the dancers plus 52 male patrons, on the grounds of "immoral and indecent dancing." The raid was part of an ongoing public crusade against the new suggestive Jazz Age dances (including the shimmy, then coming into vogue) and the vices to which they could purportedly lead. During the raid a number of dancers tried to escape through windows (unsuccessfully, as police had taken the precaution of climbing up the exterior fire escape) but their general attitude was one of indifference, with the Times reporting that "those who displayed any emotion at all only laughed heartily as they were led to the wagons."

    In coming decades the Orpheum (the hall's official name by the early 1930s) weathered further crackdowns, as various committees and crusades were launched to clamp down on indecency and crime in places of entertainment. In 1934 the new License Commissioner, Paul Moss, announced a renewed attack against "commercial filth," citing among his targets burlesque shows, poolrooms and taxi-dance halls-a resolve that was seconded, with language more hysterical, by the Police Department chaplain. A revenge killing in 1937 at another Times Square dance hall, the Honeymoon Lane at 711 Seventh Avenue, only contributed to the perception of taxi palaces as dangerous places. By the end of the 1930s, the taxi-dancer's image as convivial Jazz Age flapper had been overtaken by a more sinister reputation as mistress of the "clip joint," a slang term for an establishment that existed solely to pinch men's wallets and other valuables.

    Tension peaked in September 1943, when the Orpheum, along with five other dance establishments, was shut down for 60 days on charges of "immoral dancing, mingling and other violations of the public dance-hall regulations." Perhaps sensing that the closure was nothing more than a symbolic nod to public outcry, the proprietor of one of the other halls appeared to take it in stride. "We have been here 12 years," he commented glibly. "Maybe it is time we changed the scenery and gave the place an airing."

    He was wise to hold on. In what would prove to be a lucky move for owners, control of New York's dance halls was taken from the License Bureau and turned over to the Police Department in 1944. At the time, it was perceived that tighter police supervision would, in the words of a Times report, "suppress and prevent the rise of vice and immorality." But what happened was exactly the opposite: a period of quiescence followed, with few publicized arrests or closures taking place over the next two decades. The police seemed content to look the other way (in one case, they even made an arrest on behalf of a dance hall), with the result that by the early 1960s, when city attention rolled back around to Times Square's eight operating taxi ballrooms, the Orpheum had become a different place entirely.

    The Orpheum's return to the spotlight came as a result of two unrelated developments. The first was the City Council's decision to shift governance of dance halls from the police back to the Department of Licenses in March of 1962. There was no larger motive behind this: A group of entertainers, led by Joey Bishop, had been lobbying for freedom from police control over cabaret licenses (charging abuses in the issuing of work permits), and dance halls were simply lumped into the mix. But the change would have major consequences.

    The second development came from a different quarter entirely, one that would have been impossible for anyone at the Orpheum to predict. In the summer of 1963, a tough-minded young reporter from Newsday named Elizabeth Trotta went undercover as a hostess at Parisian Danceland, a taxi palace one block up from the Orpheum. Trotta, who would later (as Liz Trotta) gain notoriety as the first woman to cover the Vietnam War for television, came across the dance hall idea by accident. She was pushing her editor for better assignments when he blurted out impatiently, as a joke, "Oh, why don't you go get yourself a job as a dime-a-dance girl!"

    After enduring "56 hours of trampled toes, sweaty palms, whisky breath, smutty jokes, forced smiles, cheap hair tonic and a fearful dread of making a slip-such as using good grammar," Trotta published her experiences in a series of three articles that July. Marked by sharp observation and hard-boiled wit ("Next time around I'd like an easier job, like lion-taming"), the features were never intended as an exposé, but they certainly had that effect once License Commissioner Bernard J. O'Connell saw them. In the articles, Trotta explained how most taxi dancers augmented their income by "propping" customers; that is, taking their money with promises to meet for sex and then never showing: "The number of duped men who show up the next day demanding a rebate is small." Once, when an angry patron did come by, Trotta explained, "The management handed over the cash, along with a smooth explanation given behind closed doors."

    O'Connell surmised, correctly, that not all hostesses limited their activities to propping. Exercising his new power over dance halls, he revoked the license of the New Gardens Ballroom on East 14th Street that August, then repeated the action against two more establishments-the Golden Slipper and the Orpheum-in January. After almost half a century, the countdown for the Orpheum Dance Palace's final days had begun. By March 1964, Commissioner O'Connell had effectively closed the Orpheum and four other taxi-dance halls by refusing to renew their licenses.

    In a revelation that lent credence to the city's earlier decision regarding dance-hall supervision (taking it away from the police), one of the alleged prostitution ringleaders turned out to be a 39-year-old undercover detective, Vincent Leonardo, who had been sent to the Orpheum some years prior to investigate vice. In addition to taking a cut of what each dancer earned (shared with Simon, comanager Murray Offen, and the corporation's owner/madam, Mildred Lee Wood), Leonardo was charged with bringing new girls to work in the hall.

    On the whole, things looked pretty bad; nonetheless, on April 24, 1964, all four defendants pled not guilty to multiple counts of prostitution and conspiracy.

    But the story doesn't end there. In a sense, the Orpheum's most profitable days were still to come. Murray Offen managed to resurface in the 1970s and 80s as the owner of several porn theaters in Times Square, including the New Paris, which operated in the same space where the Orpheum had been. The establishment's set-up epitomized Times Square during its peak years of squalor: In between film screenings, a young woman lay on a mattress positioned in the middle of the stage. After a man in a towel entered and the couple had sex, a group of female employees would mill through the audience to solicit patrons for "private showings" in a series of back rooms. Years after it had been shut down, the Orpheum was still a prostitution front, only this time the scene was much rawer. Screw illustrator Guy Gonzales recalls the New Paris as the sleaziest of Times Square porn palaces: "It smelled like decayed flesh in there, a lot of bodily fluids."

    Still, in the midst of one of the city's worst economic declines, Offen was rumored to have cleared a profit of some $20,000 per week at the New Paris-further support for the sex industry's age-old reputation as one of the few "sure things" in business. Like Wood before him, a major factor in Offen's survival was his willingness to share the wealth. One acquaintance recalls how "Murray would prepare envelopes every week for the captain of the precinct." The police would make the rounds in plainclothes, stopping by 1551 Broadway as well as Offen's other theaters to collect their payments for, as the acquaintance puts it, "tickets to the policemen's ball." As the New Paris, the former Orpheum lasted until the late 1980s, when AIDS and the burgeoning cleanup of Times Square signaled an end to what must have been its ninth life. In the early 90s Perfect Crime moved in, offering entertainment for the whole family.

    Today what remains of the Orpheum sits inside a peeling three-story building awaiting the wrecker's ball. The old HoJo's, where Mildred Wood sometimes met with potential dancers to discuss terms of employment, is still operating as of this writing, but a beehived waitress-herself a symbol of old Times Square-explains wearily that they "take it day by day." For years the Orpheum survived by running just one step ahead of city authorities. Now the city has overtaken it by a mile, and the old taxi-dance palace finds itself up against the forces of big business. Outmatched, the Orpheum accepts its fate with a grim silence.