14.

YOUNG HAMMERSTEIN MEETS DARTH NADER: A DIALOGUE OF THE DEAF IN FIVE ACTS

ACT I

IN THE MID-1970S, Show World, the biggest and easily the most professional of the Times Square sex shops, opened on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, in a spot previously occupied by a Chemical Bank. A vivid contemporary description of its operation comes from Josh Alan Friedman, the Damon Runyon of Times Square’s pornographic subculture:

The scene is a crowded weekday lunch hour at a modern Times Square sex emporium in the late 1970s. . . . There are twenty occupied booths, each with a glowing red bulb that indicates a quarter has been inserted, giving the viewer his thirty seconds. Cocks of every age, race and size are being drawn out in the booths. Some will spurt onto the walls, some into Kleenex, some will even discharge into fifty-cent French tickler condoms from the store’s vending machine. These will be discarded on the floor. . . . Roving quarter-cashiers double as barkers, trying to perpetuate some cosmic momentum of flowing cash. “C’mon fellas, keep those quarters comin’, take a booth or clear the aisle, get your change here for live sexy girls, four for a quarter.” Every ten minutes, one of the four sexy girls is replaced. A hidden female emcee announces each new entry, guaranteeing they’ll love her. “Foxy Bertha joining the sexy girls now, big daddy, all for a quarter, love to love you, come in your pants, yeah, right now!”

That was Show World in its heyday—the very model of the Times Square “scumatorium,” to use one of Friedman’s most evocative terms. The owner, Richard Basciano, an ex-boxer, was “The King of Porn,” as New York Newsday dubbed him, the owner of sex shops up and down 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue—eleven in all, it was said, employing more than four hundred people (thirty in “management,” wrote Friedman, plus “endless girls, quarter cashiers, mop-ups”). As an immensely profitable cash business, pornography was enormously attractive to organized crime, and Basciano’s chief partner was Robert DiBernardo, a member of the Gambino crime family. In 1986, DiBernardo was murdered on orders from John Gotti, the Gambino capo, and Basciano took over his share of the properties. Basciano himself was never connected either with the murder or with any other criminal activities associated with the mob (though he was convicted of mail fraud unrelated to his sex business). He was, by most accounts, a gentlemanly figure who ran his porn empire according to up-to-date principles, investing in the latest technology for his video peeps and his coin-operated machines. As the owner of the nine-story building on 42nd Street, another building on 43rd, and others elsewhere in Times Square, he was, whatever his associations, many orders of wealth, and perhaps also of respectability, above his fellow pornographers. He was also a mysterious figure. Basciano never gave interviews, not even to Josh Alan Friedman, the most sympathetic auditor a sex entrepreneur was likely to find.

The war against vice, which had been going on in Times Square virtually since there had been vice, had picked up again around the time of Friedman’s account, when the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement began closing down massage parlors, which fell under laws forbidding prostitution. And during a brief moment of abandon when the sex parlors took down the peep windows and let the customers and the girls touch one another, some of Show World’s competitors had also been closed down as brothels. But the windows went back up and the sex shops remained beyond the reach of the law for the same reason that the porno movies did: they were deemed forms of expression, protected by the First Amendment. In fact, the number of sex shops in New York rose from 131 to 177 between 1984 and 1993. Times Square alone had forty-seven “adult” stores, even though many of those on 42nd Street had been closed down by the process of condemnation. Indeed, Richard Basciano received $11.3 million as compensation for three of his stores that lay within the catchment area of the 42nd Street Development Project.

If good uses were to drive out bad ones, as the public officials in charge of Times Square hoped, then it was the pornographic movies and sex shops, above all, that had to go. But a combination of Supreme Court decisions protecting obscene material and New Yorkers’ own impulse to defend freedom of expression at virtually any cost had thwarted earlier attempts to expel the sex industry from Times Square. Nevertheless, when the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID) was established in 1992, local property owners concluded that they would have to take on the porn industry in order to stimulate change in the area. Gretchen Dykstra, the BID’s executive director, says that she approached Norman Siegel, then the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who, she says, “hated the whole idea” of targeting the sex industry, but explained that she could succeed only by proving that the stores had a harmful effect on property values and local conditions, and then seeking to regulate them through zoning. So in 1994 the BID produced a report showing—though far from conclusively—that “adult use establishments” had baneful “secondary effects” on Times Square.

By this time, Rudolph Giuliani had become mayor of New York. Giuliani was not even remotely troubled by the thought of limiting access to sex shops; what’s more, he had promised Michael Eisner, the chairman of Disney, that he would eliminate pornography and suppress crime in the area around 42nd Street. At the same time, the mayor understood that he could not simply ban sex shops altogether. Both he and the BID favored “dispersal zoning,” which limits certain uses to a city’s periphery. Giuliani wanted to remove all sex establishments to manufacturing areas in the city’s outer boroughs, but members of the City Council representing those districts bridled at the prospect of their becoming a pornographic dumping ground. In March 1995, the mayor and the City Council agreed to a compromise that would permit the stores to remain in designated commercial areas, including Seventh Avenue and Broadway from 48th to 55th Streets, and Eighth from 38th to 41st. All stores with “a substantial portion of their stock in trade or materials characterized by an emphasis on specific anatomical areas or sexual activities” would be subject to stringent regulations: they would be prohibited from operating within five hundred feet of residences, schools, churches, or one another. Gretchen Dykstra triumphantly declared that the number of sex shops in Times Square would drop from forty-seven to five or six.

The new ordinance was part of Giuliani’s larger effort to redraw the boundaries between collective goods and individual rights; and it ran into some of the same resistance that his campaigns against predatory and antisocial street behavior had. Gay and lesbian activists complained that the law would eliminate harmless sex-toy boutiques in Greenwich Village. Norman Siegel described it as “a sign of the times and of a repressive new climate toward sexual expression that is totally contrary to New York’s rich cultural history.” Through its chief lawyer, Herald Price Fahringer, the sex industry disputed the secondary effects study. Nevertheless, in late October the law was passed by the city’s community boards, then once again by the City Council, and it went into effect the following year.

The authors of the legislation had clarified the term “substantial portion” by declaring that any store more than 40 percent of whose stock consisted of adult articles would fall within the new rules. One of the city’s more high-profile pornographers observed at the time that he could evade the rule with ease. “A lot of fetish movies don’t have sex in them,” he noted. “And if I have to put violent and horror movies in, I’ll do that too.” It was a prescient comment. Though many sex shops closed up rather than attempt compliance, others filled their shelves with kung fu movies. And when an inspector from the city’s Department of Buildings tried to shutter a store, the owner would turn to Fahringer, the silver-haired and silver-voiced chief attorney for the adult entertainment industry. Fahringer was, he says, “27 for 27” on such cases; he claims that the net effect of the “60–40 rule” on Times Square was zero. Eighth Avenue remained a hive of sex shops, as well as a happy hunting ground for drug dealers and pimps. Nevertheless, pornography was eliminated from 42nd Street; in the central areas of Times Square, nothing remained of the old carnality save for a high-class strip joint on 47th Street called Lace. The new law cleaned up Times Square without making it squeaky-clean. “What’s Times Square without sex?” as Gretchen Dykstra asks. “It’s the concentration that hurt Times Square, not the sex. A few porn shops never hurt anybody.”

ACT II

RICHARD BASCIANO COULD easily have filled 60 percent of his selling area with Bruce Lee movies, but he was a man with a broader vision. Basciano spent, according to Fahringer, over $100,000 reconfiguring the upstairs rooms where he had shown live sex acts into theatrical stages; and then he began to look around for a producer to provide legitimate theater. Basciano found that well-established theater companies did not want to relocate above New York’s most notorious sex parlor; unhoused avant-garde troupes were not so choosy. A group called Collapsible Giraffe began putting on plays in 1998. In the summer of 1999, Aaron Beall, a promoter of what is loosely known as Off-Off Broadway, stumbled into Show World with his girlfriend while three or possibly four sheets to the wind. Already in an impressionable state, Beall was overwhelmed by Show World’s surreal décor—leering clown, carousel figures, coffin—“the circus of death,” as Beall calls it. He had, he decided, found his new home. By October, Beall’s Todo Con Nada theater had replaced Collapsible Giraffe.

I first met Aaron Beall in December 2001. He was sitting in Show World’s black box theater, wearing a scarf and a red nightcap. He was a young man with a middle-aged man’s shapeless tummy, octagonal granny glasses, and a beatific smile—something in between a dime-store Santa and a Jewish leprechaun. Aaron was one of those people who require no encouragement whatsoever to tell his story. “I opened up my first theater in 1989, at 167 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side,” he said, sitting in the darkness of GoGo 1, Show World’s principal theater. “We kept opening up more and more theaters on Ludlow Street—the House of Candles, the Piano Store, the Pink Pony, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.” The theaters were typically named after whatever it was the storefront had done in its previous life. “My basic method of producing plays was, I would sit by the phone and people would call up and say, ‘Can I do a show?’ And I would say yes. We were the epicenter for nineties theater on the Lower East Side. In twelve years we did twenty-five hundred shows.”

I assumed that I had misunderstood and asked, “You mean twenty-five hundred performances?”

Aaron corrected me. “No, individual productions. We had shows at seven, ten, and midnight—three shows a night, and sometimes we did four showlets at midnight. We put on a total of ten thousand performances, with fifteen thousand performers. It was like an explosion of activity.” Aaron and his mates also started up the International Fringe Festival, which mushroomed into the largest theater festival in the United States.

And then Aaron learned a lesson about the relationship between culture and real estate. “We were,” he said, “brought in by a couple of landlords to gentrify the neighborhood.” By the nineties, thanks to people like Aaron, the Lower East Side, which had already evolved from a shtetl to a Hispanic and Asian slum, metamorphosed into Bohemia; and Todo Con Nada—“Everything with Nothing,” a jokey reference to Aaron’s willingness to soldier on with very little outside support—was evicted from one theater after another as the buildings were converted to co-operative apartments. Aaron had also lost control of the Fringe Festival to more mainstream and well-heeled players. “I was experiencing the lessons of capitalism,” he said with a shrug. Aaron accepted the verdict; he did not buy the idea that the avant-garde had to fail the test of the marketplace in order to prove its legitimacy as art. Quite the contrary: Aaron saw himself as the impresario of a burgeoning counterculture he called Alternative Broadway. What’s more, Aaron wasn’t quite the mooncalf he appeared to be. He had, it’s true, spent his formative years living with his mother and little sister in an abandoned chapel in a hippie commune in Mexico, but his mother had also thrown him into a Mexican parochial school where, Aaron said, “I learned everything about machismo.” One thing Aaron had plainly learned was how to dust himself off after getting beaten up. And so, when he lost the Fringe Festival, he founded a rival, albeit much more modest, event: Pure Pop, “the fringe of the fringe.”

Then Aaron and his girlfriend stumbled into Show World, and Nada Show World was born. Aaron loved the place—not the way Richie Basciano did, but not exactly ironically, either. Aaron, thirty-seven, was of the generation that grew up watching The Gong Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and whose artists, like Jeff Koons, practiced a deadpan appropriation of schlocky household objects. “My generation thinks of cheesy as fabulous,” as Aaron put it. Aaron came along too late to see the scumatorium in full flower, and perhaps he might have felt differently if he had; but as it was, he identified with Richie Basciano, whom he saw as an entrepreneur who had brought a marginal activity into the mainstream, and succeeded by mainstream standards. Aaron talked about Basciano as he walked me through the Big Top Cabaret and the former Peep Room—“the sanctum sanctorum,” Aaron said, semi-mock-reverently— and then upstairs to the dance studios, which Basciano rented out. “He was the Ziegfeld of his day,” Aaron said. “He created an industry; he was the person who really put it together, maximized the floorspace. Ultimately, Richie Basciano is a master builder.” Aaron, too, saw himself as a master builder, a Hammerstein of Alternative Broadway. Hadn’t he built the Ludlow street scene, and the Fringe Festival, and Pure Pop? He had dreamed of hooking up with a modern equivalent of the nineteenth-century impresario—Ted Turner or Time Warner. Instead, he got Richie Basciano.

Aaron had been much influenced by the theater of spoof, camp, and pastiche associated with the late Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. He described Ludlam’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom as the “defining play of the 1980s,” which might come as news to devotees of Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, or Terence McNally. Like Ludlam, Aaron was deeply versed in classic drama, and loved the idea of running old plays through a kitschy modern sensibility. He had invented something he called Super-Theatrics, based on the insight that “you could deejay or sample any style of theater onto any text.” One of his first productions at Show World was Pervy Verse, which he described as “a retelling of The Bacchae in fetish gear.” He put on a production of Waiting for Godot, as well as all twelve of Anton Chekhov’s early comedies, which Chekhov had called vaudevilles. He staged a “Ridicu-fest” to honor Ludlam’s work. Nada Show World’s first hit was God of Vengeance, a 1910 Yiddish play by Sholem Asch that takes place in a brothel. The play had attracted a supremely odd combination of blue-haired ladies and Hasidic Jews; the latter invariably arrived without their identifying hat or overcoat, for God of Vengeance was a notorious play that had been banned for blasphemy. Besides that, it was being staged above New York’s most famous sex shop. This was the kind of incongruity Aaron lived for: he and Times Square were a match made in heaven.

Over the next few months, I periodically dropped in on Aaron and his expanding empire. Getting there was always half the fun. Show World had a kind of nonadult foyer or antechamber with animal sculptures propped on pedestals; a sign near the front door said, “No Live Girls.” (Aaron had also staged a “No Live Girls” festival.) It was extremely discreet by Eighth Avenue standards. Straight ahead, beyond a pair of saloon doors, were the peeps; downstairs was the big sex supermarket, with videos and every kind of dildo known to man, and more booths. You could walk upstairs from the foyer, or you could go around the corner to a separate entrance, where the risers on the staircase read “Talk to the Stars,” “Nude (25 cents) Shows,” “Fantasy Booth,” “Live Nude Girls,” etc. Upstairs were GoGos 1 and 2, the Big Top, and various lounges—all painted black, with red trim and diamond-shaped mirrors. It felt like an all-new, jazzed-up Ludlow Street setting: the House of Sex.

Aaron felt that Richie Basciano intuitively understood him because they were both dreamers. Aaron had been nurturing the same dream since the early nineties: to unify the scattered energies of Alternative Broadway and to fully realize the cultural and economic power of the fringe—under his own tutelage, of course. He had been tinkering for years with a document that laid out his vision. Now he had relocated that vision from the Lower East Side to 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. In June 2001, he had prepared a new draft of his grand plan and sent it to Basciano. Aaron’s ulterior motive was to save his skin: rumors were flying around that Basciano was preparing to sell his real estate for some astronomical sum—$300 million, says Aaron, whose sense of money is extremely approximate—and Aaron was trying to make a case that his patron could make more money by staying. Aaron was, in effect, laying out another version of the argument that Rebecca Robertson and others had been making for almost a decade: that culture was what would drive economic development on 42nd Street and in Times Square. But Aaron was making a case for a different branch of the culture—more demanding, more ambitious, more homemade, more “real.” He was proposing, he wrote, “a true alternative to the ‘new’ Times Square that recaptures the spirit of the ‘old’ Times Square.” Aaron would offer authentic entertainment, rather than the synthetic product being peddled on the new 42nd Street.

Todo Con Nada @ Show World @ the Times Square Theater and Entertainment Center Plan 2002 is one of the truly odd documents of the Times Square redevelopment process. The plan is suffused with a sense of breathless anticipation, of a “historic collaboration” between business and the arts and a giant windfall for both. Show World would become a “scene,” a “neighborhood,” the new center of Bohemia; it would be the home of an all-new arts complex that would attract a minimum of 250,000 visitors a year, and a maximum of two million, which Aaron figured as one-quarter of the total annual attendance of Off-Broadway, though he appears to have confused this figure with the total attendance of Broadway. The implicit theory was “Build it, and they will come.” Aaron proposed ten new ventures, meant to work synergistically with one another and with the more traditional attraction downstairs. The big moneymaker was No Live Girls, a nonpornographic video peep show using forty-one booths that had just been packed up at Basciano’s defunct Peepland, on 42nd Street. Aaron’s ingenious inspiration was to offer 128 channels of video material and to charge a quarter for ninety seconds, just like they did downstairs. And No Live Girls wouldn’t need a mop.

Aaron also proposed a late-night club, a gift shop—“think museum gift shop”—an art gallery, and the Show World Bar and Restaurant, where a spruced-up version of Show World’s “original décor” would provide “that 1970s feel.” In a hardheaded touch, Aaron suggested that Todo Con Nada’s plays and festivals be scheduled only when the four theaters could not be rented. At the same time, Aaron’s surreal sense of numbers led him to calculate that, at optimum capacity, the new Show World Center would have a potential annual revenue of $47,123,100. It was a beautiful vision, a vision that promised to transform Times Square, Show World, and Aaron Beall, in that order. Todo Con Nada would receive 10 percent of gross rentals, 12 percent of gross receipts from the bar/restaurants, and 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale of art.

By the spring of 2002, Aaron saw the new Show World Center beginning to emerge. The art gallery was up and running, he was outfitting the Big Top Cabaret with video monitors, and Basciano had built new offices up on the third floor. One afternoon, Aaron took me up to his office, a big, empty room with a table and a few books. A workman stopped by to ask, “What time would you like me to start up every morning?” Aaron shook his head in amazement; it was some kind of miracle. Aaron accepted miracles with the same good humor, almost the same fatalism, he brought to fiascos; it was precisely the fact that anything could happen that Aaron relished about his peculiar corner of show business. It was hard to imagine that Richie Basciano could take Aaron’s blueprint seriously, but Aaron believed in himself too much to wonder that someone else would, too. “When I look back someday and see what I’ve accomplished over fifty years,” he said—on this particular day his thinning, straggly hair was covered by an incongruously rakish black beret— “I could have had no better apprenticeship than with Richie.”

ACT III

ONE AFTERNOON IN T HE first week of May 2002, I walked up to the third floor to see Aaron and noticed, in an adjacent cubbyhole, an entirely unlikely figure, a man of about fifty dressed in a white shirt and tie, a pen clipped to his pocket, his silver hair combed straight back. Aaron said, “Would you like to meet our general manager?”—and just like that, the silver-haired man walked in. His name was Marc Barbanell. Marc began talking in a strangely indirect fashion about how Richard Basciano—not “Richie,” as Aaron called him—had organized and amplified and modernized and so forth the “concept” downstairs. I noticed he never used the word “sex” in connection with the concept. He talked about a “longtime association” with Richard, though in a “private, personal capacity.” Now, he said, he had been asked to join “the corporate side of the organization. ” He was, himself, a “corporate” person. He proved this point by using elaborate metaphors about pulling the trigger, and not going beyond the water’s edge, and so on. “You could say that I’m the vehicle,” he said, and now for the first time he looked at Aaron—he was the vehicle to ensure that the enterprise succeeded in regard to dollars and cents. That didn’t necessarily sound like a positive development. And in fact, when it came to the bottom line, Marc wasn’t the least bit ambivalent. “I am under serious profit pressure from Richard,” he announced. He talked about thirty-day, sixty-day, ninety-day “time frames.”

There may have been some setting in which Marc Barbanell wouldn’t have seemed out of place—a scene from George S. Kaufman’s hallucinatory Beggar on Horseback, for example—but at Todo Con Nada Show World he stood out like a unicorn, or like a unicorn in a suit. I immediately followed Marc back to his cubbyhole, where I found that he had busied himself with paperwork. He had a beeper clipped to his pocket. I asked Marc whether he thought I might be able to talk to Mr. Basciano. This provoked another monologue: this is an organization that plays close to the vest, that operates according to certain principles, that is not interested in celebrity . . . Marc said that the organization received “requests” from a wide variety of sources—“Air Force One—”

“Air Force One?”

“Yes; Richard’s response was that he was not interested.” In what? Marc wouldn’t say. The cryptic drone resumed: “We will make a determination as to whether this opportunity fits with our organizational goals . . .” I finally excused myself and backed out the door. I went over to Aaron’s office and gave him a skeptical waggle of the eyebrows. Aaron said, “Marc is a corporate person.” He appeared not to be joking, which I took to be a bad sign.

The next time I saw Marc, in early June, he explained that he had agreed to talk to me, though Richard would not. He said that he, Marc, had just booked a new play, Hopscotch—“a real uppity play, attracts a nice, clean, uppity crowd, kind of a midweek, clean-cut dating crowd.” This didn’t sound very much like the audience for Pervy Verse, not to mention for nonpornographic video booths. Then I noticed that Aaron’s door was locked. “He went out,” Marc said brusquely. “I ruffled his feathers. He’s having trouble accepting what’s going on here. I told him, ‘Aaron, Marc is here: We’re going to make some money.’” Apparently, Aaron had drastically misread the tea leaves: he had run through his patron’s stock of patience, as well as his bankroll. Marc was heading out for a meeting, and as we walked together down the ratty staircase to the second floor, he recalled his last exchange with the young Hammerstein. “I said to him, ‘Aaron, you’ve had two years. When are you going to start making money?’ And he goes, ‘We’ve got a new play coming in, we’ve got this thing and that thing.’ ‘Aaron, it’s a fucking loser. It’s a quarter of a million dollars so far, and no end in sight. I mean, it’s getting embarrassing.’” Marc had suddenly stopped talking in metaphors, which perhaps was also a bad sign. The name “Todo Con Nada,” he said, had already been removed from the marquee. In future, Marc said, “Aaron will have control over nothing.” He would be a promoter; he was free to promote, and Marc was free to buy or not buy.

Workmen were climbing all over the second floor, creating a very new kind of Show World. As we walked by, Marc pointed to a gray-haired figure standing with two workmen. “That’s Richard,” he said. I asked if I could at least say hello. Marc shook his head. “Best not,” he said.

I came by the following week for my interview with Marc and found him administering a dressing-down to Aaron. The latter was standing in the doorway in a red T-shirt and sky-blue sneakers, looking like a character from a Robert Crumb comic book. Aaron’s most recent production had bombed, and Marc, who was seated behind the desk in his tiny office—Aaron standing, Marc sitting—was delivering a lesson in accounting. “It doesn’t do any good to come to me and say, ‘Marc, I made eight grand last night’ if you lost twelve grand the night before. We’re still down four G’s, you get what I’m saying?” Marc was making imaginary entries on an imaginary ledger book. Marc talked about Frank, the accountant, and “the long finger of ET”—Frank’s probing finger, apparently. He spoke with the inch-thick patience one uses when addressing a refractory child. The child in question stood with his shoulders slumped, taking the blow, saying nothing. Aaron always seemed to know when not to be a smart-ass. He also knew when to take a punch—Mexican parochial school had taught him that. But he was still, in Marc’s ledger book, a loser.

Marc’s office was a bit cozy for an interview, unless one was sitting and the other standing, so he suggested we adjourn to the theater lobby. We walked down the fire stairs, threaded our way through the workmen, and sat in a blood-red banquette. An article on Show World’s transformation had just appeared, and it had used words like “smut.” Marc was fairly quivering with outrage; he seemed to be scrutinizing me with grim suspicion. He talked about Richard’s “integrity,” his “sincerity,” his “legitimacy,” even his “godliness.” It wasn’t just Richard but the “facility” that was misunderstood. “It’s kind of like looking in retrospect to you in junior high school,” Marc said. “When you dated a girl, what was your real assertion of why you dated the girl?” Marc gave me a waggish look; it was one of those questions that, at least inside Show World, answered itself. “Now you’re older, you want to marry her. So when you’re young at heart, years ago, back in the days of Show World, we had another image, and another assertion. Now we’re older, now we’re wiser, now we’re up-to-date in the evolution of the city.” The new Show World was the marrying kind. The irony was that Aaron wanted to exploit the dark cachet of pornography, but Marc was thinking of the uppity, good-time feel of dinner theater. Aaron seemed to believe in Show World a lot more deeply than Richie Basciano did.

Marc was a little defensive on the whole cultural-positioning front. “I want to make it clear that we’re very sensitive to the arts,” he said. They would be putting on shows in GoGo 1 and GoGo 2, including whatever downtown kind of shows Aaron could demonstrate would actually turn a profit. There would be fashion shows and maybe “an environmental thing that needs glitz and mirrors and strobe lighting.” The Big Top Cabaret would become a classy lounge–cum–sports bar. “If you’re coming here as a businessman,” Marc explained, “you want to see sports, you get a free cocktail, which is a beautiful cocktail glass full of scallops and shrimps and cocktail sauce which will be free to you upon two drinks.” Marc, too, dreamed of turning Show World into a scene; but it wasn’t quite the scene Aaron had in mind. “If Times Square Entertainment Center becomes a stigma,” Marc explained—he used the word “stigma” as if it meant its exact opposite—“if it’s the meeting place for theater, all the photographers are here, all the show people are here, all the people in the know are here, why would I want to remain from the sixties image in the lobby, when I know that the people that are visiting the peep shows are visiting them on a regular basis, basically it is what it is what it is what it is?” This was Marc’s way of expressing the idea that perhaps someday Show World could dispense with pornography altogether. It was Josh Alan Friedman’s worst nightmare.

ACT IV

THE FOLLOWING WEEK I met Aaron for lunch at Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane Restaurant. Aaron had a fedora perched on the back of his head like an old press agent. He was not, I discovered, any kind of a vegan: he had a filet mignon and two glasses of red wine. Marc had suspended Aaron’s entire theatrical schedule while construction continued, but Aaron was serene and upbeat, as always. Marc appealed to his sense of irony. “He’s an amazing English stylist,” Aaron said. “He goes, ‘Hey look, guy, I’m no Darth Nader from Star World.’” But Aaron also insisted that he and Marc “have a nice synergy together.” They were both “salespeople.” Aaron still believed that the No Live Girls booths, the art gallery, and much of the theatrical schedule were going to happen. But he also conceded, “I exist within the bubble”—within, that is, a transitional moment in the history of Times Square, in which the marketplace had not yet definitively dealt some in and others out. Aaron might well turn out to be too outré for the new Times Square. But, of course, that was the larger pattern of his life: create a new thing, and then watch it be appropriated and subsumed. There would always be the next venue. “I wanted,” he said, “to leave a template of ideas that, even if I was a failure, they could be picked up at a later date.”

Aaron had, it turned out, misread the tea leaves once again. The next time we spoke, in mid-July, Aaron said that Marc had booted him, and Todo Con Nada, out of Show World. Aaron was welcome to book either of the GoGo rooms, but with rentals set at $600 and $1,000 a night, Marc had, Aaron said, “priced out the world of alternative Broadway.” I mentioned that that seemed to be pretty much the idea, and Aaron said, “Well, the philosophy at Show World has always been, ‘Accentuate the negative.’” It was a rare moment of bitterness. But no matter. Aaron had already moved his operation to an old Broadway curtain factory on 45th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The place was saturated in Times Square lore: it overlooked the park where the notorious “Capeman murders” of 1959, which Paul Simon had dramatized in a play, had taken place. Todo Con Nada Times Square would be opening soon with a few solo shows. Aaron would be mounting productions in abandoned storefronts, as he had on Ludlow Street. He wasn’t defeated in the least; if he had to move the locus of Alternative Broadway to a new site, then so be it. Big things were in the offing. Aaron was working with a collaborator on a new production, titled Icarus and Aria. It would be, he said, “Romeo and Juliet meets Any Given Sunday meets Traffic—in verse.”

ACT V

BY EARLY 2003, the renovation of the Times Square Entertainment Center was complete, and Marc Barbanell was eager to show off his new $2 million baby. Marc was still occupying his teeny-tiny windowless cubicle, though he had doffed the shirt and tie in favor of a black turtleneck. It was snowing heavily the afternoon I visited, but Marc took me out to the Eighth Avenue sidewalk to make a point. Here, just north of the Show World entrance, was the $75,000 LED sign announcing the new cabaret space, Le Club at Show World. Show World here, Le Club at Show World there—two separate entrances, two separate places. “It’s got a different address,” Mark explained, as if that said it all. “One is 673, the other is 669. Show World is a different place. It’s just like I have a Duane Reade next door.” We went back upstairs to the cabaret, which was state-of-the-art everything, from the six giant drop-down screens to the “intelligent lighting” system ($328,000), the sound system ($220,000), the cappuccino machine ($6,000), the “ventless cooker” ($10,000), and the plasma screens in the bar providing “total video continuity” (no price given). It was a dream. “We’ve got smoke, we’ve got lights, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got movement,” Marc said. “This place rocks.

The walkie-talkie buzzed. It was Richie Basciano. Marc seemed flustered. “I’m giving a gentleman a tour of the facility,” he said. Apparently he hadn’t cleared my visit with top management. Richie’s disembodied voice was urbane and measured; he didn’t probe. They agreed to meet later in the day, and nothing further was said of the Man Who Is Show World. But it was Basciano, of course, who had agreed to throw what he hoped was good money after bad. After Marc had noticed that professional dancers could get a sluggish dance crowd up on its feet, he had put together the Le Club Dancers—“real dancers, not go-go trash.” They were drop-dead gorgeous, they had their own special outfit of sequins and bustiers, and they were trained by a professional choreographer. “Think of the Playboy Bunnies,” Marc said, “but without the Playboy.”

Marc had done his best to transform the interior into an Eighth Avenue version of a Playboy Club. The walls were red and black with bands of mirror tile, in homage to the Show World tradition, and the tables, the chairs, the VIP banquettes, and pretty much everything else was red and black as well. The foyer had been turned into a photo gallery, with big blowups of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn, as well as the Statue of Liberty and the Flatiron Building. The bigger of the two theater spaces, where Aaron had staged God of Vengeance, was now a dance space, while the smaller GoGo 2—now “Theater 2”—featured improv and stand-up comedy. Thanks to advanced soundproofing technology, Marc could have one deejay playing salsa in one space, another playing reggae in the second, and a third playing hip-hop. Marc referred to this in his own private lexicon as “the tripaletic effect.”

But the more Marc talked about the plasma screens and the fully automated micros, the more I could sense the desperate frailty of the whole enterprise. The facility was trapped between identities. “I keep trying to tell people it’s not Show World anymore,” Marc said plaintively. “It’s Le Club at Show World. We’re keeping that name because it still has the stigma of Show World. But it’s mostly a negative, I promise you. You say ‘Show World,’ and people think ‘nude girls, live acts.’ That’s long gone. It’s decades old.” The name was driving away the upscale crowd—Asian girls, in particular, didn’t want to have anything to do with the place—and attracting the wrong kind of attention. Law & Order wanted to shoot a murder scene on the premises; Sex and the City wanted a sex scene. Marc wasn’t interested. “No sex, no murder, nothing negative.” But where was the positive going to come from? Marc admitted that he was hurting; the promoters he booked in weren’t making the bar minimums he charged, and he was being forced to shift to a different pricing mechanism. The economy was killing everyone.

Maybe this bid for respectability would crash, and Show World would end with racks full of kung fu videos like everyone else. But I was rooting for Marc. It was obvious, in retrospect, that Todo Con Nada at Show World had been foredoomed. Richie Basciano did not aspire to be alternative anything; neither, for that matter, did Times Square. And this particular rear entry to Times Square, here on Eighth Avenue, was not about making weird stuff broadly acceptable; it was about making dirty stuff broadly acceptable. Aaron Beall had been a false start; Marc Barbanell was the right man to negotiate the treacherous passage to respectability— from Show World to Le Club. Someday, many years from now, with the old Times Square only a picturesque memory, Richie Basciano’s grandchildren might come to think of him just as Aaron did: as the Florenz Ziegfeld of Eighth Avenue. And who, after all, remembered Ziegfeld’s invisible fish?

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