The Disappeared Building
Emily Geminder May 4, 2010, 12:29 p.m.
When a city’s momentum is relentlessly upward, it’s the things at the margins—outcasts and dormant mythologies, secrets and barely conscious desires—that get pushed below ground. Hubert’s Museum was one of those things, a continuous theater of the grotesque and the uncanny stirring beneath 42nd Street. When it shut its doors at 234 West 42nd Street in 1965, it was the last of the midtown dime museums, a tawdry anachronism caught between the roulette spins of Times Square.
You paid your dime in a cramped little booth (toward the end, it cost a whole 40 cents), then descended into a den of mirrors, elongating and distorting, your flesh doing contortionist tricks. You went down “like Orpheus or Alice or Virgil,” wrote Diane Arbus. Submerged, you found yourself suddenly too big, then too small, “all around you like flowers a thousand souvenirs of human aberrations, as if the world had quite literally stashed away down there everything it didn’t need.”
The show-continuous, as you were reminded at every opportunity-ran every half-hour, its glassy-eyed curiosities materializing onstage one by one: Albert-Alberta, the half-man, half-woman; a kid called the Human Canary; Congo the Jungle Creep (from Haiti, in fact); the World’s Tallest Cowboy; the Backwards Man. For five minutes each, they sent back aloof stares, answered questions or disregarded them. At the end, the fez-wearing maestro ushered the crowd into the next room (for an extra coin or two), where the real circus happened: Professor Heckler’s world-famous flea troupe.
The flea circus was founded in 1923 by William Heckler, author of likely the defining treatise on the art of flea training, Pulicology. The troupe generally numbered around 16 (six principals, 10 understudies), and each miniscule performer, according to the professor, had its own distinct personality. (Heckler’s favorite was an Irish flea called Paddy.) They juggled, raced chariots and played a xylophone fashioned out of fingernail shavings. In the final and most anticipated act, the professor’s “stars” staged a ballroom dance adorned in tiny gowns and tuxedos. In Heckler’s obituary, it was recalled that he “always fed his pets himself.”
HUBERT’S ARRIVED ON 42nd Street on the heels of Prohibition, which was morphing Times Square from the gilded playground of Manhattan high society to a speakeasy pleasure house of the working class.
Murray’s Roman Gardens opened in 1908, the most famous of the gout-inducing “lobster palaces” that sprang up from 42nd Street tenements. Presaging the resplendent camp of the theme restaurant, and the modern casino’s tacky splendor, Murray’s Romanesque décor was a nod to gluttonous sensuality. Architect Henry Erkins installed a rotating dance floor in the middle of the Pompeian-themed dining room, its faux sky bejeweled with electric stars and equipped with moving clouds. Not to be outdone, the other floors included a full-size Cleopatra’s barge, nude nymphs, suspended mirrors, a Peking-themed “Dragon Room” and a 30-foot marble fountain designed by high-society starchitect Stanford White. According to a restaurant advertisement, “24 luxuriously furnished and richly appointed bachelor apartments” were handily kept on the premises.
“Dry agents” raided Murray’s several times before it finally surrendered to the 18th Amendment in 1923. Hubert’s freaks and fleas appropriated the building’s six stories of rococo detail, though they, too, were displaced a decade later, relegated underground as midtown marginalia succumbed to mainstream tastes. Sideshows gave way to movie theaters and arcades, 42nd Street already on its way toward today’s midway of mass marketing. The palatial movie theaters would become grindhouses and triple-X video emporiums and finally brand-name retail flagships, in all their engorged, boxy sheen. The arcades and pinball machines would mutate into peepshows and massage parlors, then eventually revert back to arcades, Nintendo and Viacom the newly instated impresarios.
In the 1970s, Hubert’s basement became Peepland, which, somewhat like its predecessor, trafficked in transgressive spectacle and bodily deviancies. Peepland’s headliners, however, drew more from nuns and eels than fleas in miniature ball gowns. In his Tales of Times Square, Josh Alan Friedman called it a “Disneyland in hell.” Meanwhile, the floors above Peepland housed the notorious male brothel the Barracks, where the remaining statues of Murray’s fleshly Roman revival provided the running commentary to history’s cyclical ironies.
BUT NONE OF ITS manifold transformations, none of time’s sly sleights of hand, could predict that in a matter of decades, the lobster palace-turned-dime museum-turned peepshow emporium would finally disappear, lost behind the acrobatics of global branding that trapeze down 42nd Street. Times Square was always known for the frenetic profusion of its lights and signs, but only in recent years have the signs pulled off the vanishing act entirely: On 42nd Street, the buildings are gone. In their place are slickly styled branding concepts, multimillion-dollar ad campaigns.
Between 1990 and 1995, the city condemned the vast sweep of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, turning over its defunct properties to the 42nd Street Development Corporation. In place of Peepland, Madame Tussauds, which wanted a particularly conspicuous sign, convinced the state agency to condemn not just the building but 20 feet of air above the sidewalk. Madame Tussauds, the wax museum that manages to be both hokey and a streamlined international entertainment experience (you can have the same one in London, Hong Kong, Las Vegas), installed 200 celebrity simulacra, among them a veiny Arnold Schwarzenegger and a mechanically heaving Britney Spears.
It’s these oddly transfixing details that reel the audiences in off the street. They come to mug with George Clooney and stare down Simon Cowell. They count Joan Rivers’ wrinkles and study the contours of Mick Jagger’s jaw. Like the freaks of Hubert’s, the statues stare back, unreachable and aloof. But their exacting precision, the close-up freckles and veins, isn’t quite what Roland Barthes would call the “prick” of unexpected detail.
You come to Madame Tussauds not to unknow what you thought you knew about the world but to find, close up, what you’ve known to the point of exhaustion. You don’t come to seek out the city’s submerged margins, its awing, shaming contortions, to find yourself too big, too small, then just human size in the end. There’s no place now to discover, as Diane Arbus did, the lone Backwards Man in a forwards city, the man “walking blind into the future with an eye on the past.”