A “Choice” Review of New York’s Quirkiest History

Choice reviews Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure by David Freeland.

The late Ray Browne, considered the father of American popular-culture studies, defined popular culture as “what people do.” In this fascinating volume, Freeland offers an area-by-area archaeology of New York City’s popular culture as revealed in remnants of buildings that housed leisure activities from the late-19th century to the recent past. Freeland’s extensive research enhances his re-creations of what went on in the structures he looks at, which include Bowery beer halls; the so-called Chinese Theatre; rooftop studios for the early motion-picture industry; vaudeville houses, from Tony Pastor’s theater, where vaudeville is said to have started, to the Palace Theatre, home of headliners in its heyday; “swing street,” i.e., W. 133rd Street, and its reincarnation on W. 52nd Street; the evolution of the tenderloin and Times Square areas; Tin Pan Alley; and the Automat, with its labor troubles. Along the way, the author introduces the personalities identified with various activities. More than a vision of New York City’s evolving leisure activities, this book chronicles the nation’s interests as it moved through the 20th century. A necessary resource for anyone interested in popular culture, the book includes photographs and extensive notes. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. R. Sugarman Southern Vermont College

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