Lights – Despair, Faith and Hope on Broadway. Preface

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
~ ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson

“Mommy, Mommy!”
Little Henry stood by the doorman at the curb, under the gargoyles peering down at him from the entrance of their granite prewar building. He pulled at Vera’s skirt, “Why do we have to move from here? I like it here and all my friends are here.”
The doorman, in his well-ironed, starched, gray uniform, finally waved down a yellow cab. With his white-gloved hands, he opened the door for Henry and Vera to get in. Doffing his hat at Vera, he whispered, “Have a good day, Miss Lights.” He bowed and closed the door once she had settled in.
Vera instructed the cab driver, “Carter Hotel in Times Square, 250 West 43rd Street.” She noticed Henry staring out of the other window, fascinated by a dog walker taking six dogs out for a walk to Central Park.
She looked at her watch. She was running a little late, as it had taken her some time to settle Loretta with the baby-sitter and get Henry ready. He had insisted on coming with her. She looked out and watched the stately buildings of the Upper West Side and the fancy stores and restaurants go past as they headed downtown.
Vera was meeting one of her old friends from the theater district who had been a producer, and was one of the investors in the recently built Carter Hotel. She planned to move into two rooms of the hotel permanently. The current apartment was costing her too much money and she knew she had to do something, as her savings were dwindling every year.
The producer was offering her a ten-year lease at a ridiculously low rate as he had made a lot of money when he had invested in one of her past performances.
The doorman’s words clicked in the cab driver’s mind and he suddenly recognized Vera’s beautiful face. “Wow!” The cab driver said, looking at her in the rearview mirror, “Ms. Vera Lights, the famous Broadway Star! My wife is a huge fan and has seen most of your performances. Wait till I tell the missus who I gave a ride to today!”
Vera gave him a small smile. She was used to being a celebrity and evoking strange responses in complete strangers.
They finally pulled up to the façade of the hotel and the cab driver refused to take money for the fare saying, “The missus will kill me if I charge her heroine, Vera Lights, for a ride. Please, this trip is on me and it is an honor to have you ride with me.”
The doorman of the hotel held the door open of the cab as Vera and Henry stepped out; and then he guided them into the lobby. Vera and Henry walked in for the first time in their lives through the doors of the hotel which was about to become their Times Square residence.
*
The journey of Veronica Jones, a farm girl from rural upstate New York State, into a Broadway star by the name of Vera Lights, started at a regional theater in Albany.
Veronica’s parents were tenant farmers and she was an only child. She was a healthy young girl with a glowing complexion and had inherited her mother’s good looks.
Her school was part of a theater competition, organized by a philanthropic organization set up by some of New York City’s old families, for the promotion of the theatrical arts. Her natural talents as a singer, dancer and stage performer were recognized as she stood out amongst the other performers in the competition. When the director of a touring company of playwrights and performers from New York City expressed an interest in her joining their company, her father had objected strongly.
It was her mother who encouraged her. She did not want Veronica to have the hard life of a farmer that she herself, as an ex-city girl from Brooklyn had endured when she married her love and moved to the farm in upstate New York. Her dreams of moving back to the city had never materialized and she had resigned herself to her fate. She had worried about the mortgage and how to bring up Veronica so that she would have a more equitable chance in this world. She did not want her daughter to suffer the same fate and persuaded her husband to let her go and explore the world and make a new life.
It was the Director who coached and refined Veronica’s skills. She had worked with the larger troupe and learnt many of her early lessons in the theater, as they performed across the state and city. The travelling and the performances made Veronica very busy and she immersed herself into the acts and the plays. As is often true in smaller companies, she learnt multiple parts, and her natural talent was improved by countless hours of practice and rehearsals.,.
Her big break came when she was selected for her young fresh farm looks to play the part of Abbie in an off-Broadway revival of Desire under the Elms from the famous playwright, Eugene O’Neil. It was also at this time that the director changed her name to Vera Lights to make it more glamorous and appropriate for a star.
The play was a huge success and the young Vera played the tortured role of the young wife of the old farmer and his two grown sons in a lonely farmhouse to perfection. To the city dwellers the vistas of farm living were stark and made the characters appear larger than life.
A young critic at the New York Herald by the name of Jake Alexander was especially enthusiastic about her performance and gave her great reviews. “A new star has been born and Vera’s performance brings alive the desolate life of O’Neil’s young heroine in a natural talent that is so fresh and yet so ageless. This revival is a must see as the young Miss Lights brings alive a role that many other major stars have struggled to portray. Her final scenes will be scorched into the audience’s memories and no one can come away unmoved by her enactment of her character’s moral struggles and lonely despair.”
Vera’s career went on from there to new heights as she became a recognized star. She won new roles and became a regular feature in the leading theatrical circles of New York. She was wooed by many young men and married one of the young and handsome men after a whirlwind courtship.
Elliot, her new husband, and Vera, settled down in New York City where she bought an apartment with her income from her new stardom. They became a fixture in many of the city’s gatherings of young stars and old money as they hobnobbed with the rich and famous. Her life seemed perfect and she was living out all her dreams and all of Broadway and New York City seemed to adore her and put her on a pedestal of stardom.
She received another break when she was selected to play Stella in the Broadway production of A Streetcar named Desire, one of the most eagerly anticipated productions of that year.
*
Vera’s story is closely tied to the environment of midtown Manhattan and the history of the city’s decline and rise. There are references to actual events and persona during this period from the 80’s to present day for completeness and are in no way intended to represent their views or lives.
Midtown’s deterioration, the shutdown of some of the famous theaters of the area and its decline into a crime prone area, is tied into the lives of Vera and her children.
The neighborhood had become seedier and was soon known as the armpit of New York. Crime had soared to 2,300 felonies in 1984 or six assaults a day.
The Light family’s struggle is the story of the people of this great city who persevered against all odds, and especially of single mothers, trying to raise their children in a hostile world.
I refer to Herb Sturz of NJ who had taken up the cause of NYC revival and especially of Times Square with a passion and dedication unrivaled by other skeptics and doomsayers in the city.
In 1979, Sturz became deputy mayor of NYC, defining his job when he said, “We want to bring fantasy back to Times Square and replace the grim reality,” as reported by Sam Roberts in ‘A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s toughest problems.’ He enlisted the help of Rebecca Robertson, an experienced city planner, and involved other leading community activists to reinvent the Great White Way.
Douglas Durst and his landlord family, along with others with large holdings in the area, initially fought any government intervention, considering it wasteful. Eventually, Durst started to realize that Sturz was serious in his efforts and went on to build the 4, Times Square building on his holdings, with a major investment and boost for the area.
It was the first green 48 stories tall skyscraper. It houses NASDAQ with the largest LED screen (seven stories) and solar panels on the roof and taller floors. Gigantic fuel cells warm water for the building and Natural-gas chillers cool it, saving electricity. The air is cooled using special shafts and conduits to enhance filtering.
Also, plans were made to build a glass and steel tower at what became the prestigious new address of One Times Square in a revived midtown.
Cora Cahan, a theater impresario, revived the New Victory for Children plays, as it was her lifetime passion to revive family fun in midtown. As part of the city’s revival they reached out to many major corporations for support and Ford Motor restored the Lyric and Apollo theaters back to their former glory.
Disney renewed the most famous of Broadway theaters, the New Amsterdam, for live plays, based on their popular movies. Modern Broadway was born and over 20 million tourists a year made Times Square the greatest tourist destination in the US.
The theatrical revival led to 39 Broadway houses with 7.5 million theatergoers, making it the best live entertainment in the world. With the improved infrastructure over 200,000 commuters a day passed through Times Square, making its seedy past a faint memory.
*
From her rise to the heights of society, we come upon Vera at a time when her world is collapsing around her, at a time when the Great White Way has crumbled. Slowly, the theaters have closed and, as the producers move on to less risky investments, the work has disappeared.
After a series of unsuccessful short marriages with agents and leading men of her times, she has two children, Henry and Loretta.
. The one shoulder she can lean on is that of her friend, Jake Alexander, who is also Loretta’s godfather. He has known Vera from her younger, vibrant days as a star. Jake is the theater critic of the New York Herald and goes on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and editor of the New York Times.
Vera, sick of touring the regional towns for negligible pay, comes back to live in her Upper West Side rented apartment in New York City. And then moves on to Hotel Carter.
Will the new world that aims to reinvent the Great White Way, with the revival of NYC and especially of Times Square, allow Vera and her family to bring alive their hopes and dreams from the depths of despair? This is the very essence of this tale.

5 thoughts on “Lights – Despair, Faith and Hope on Broadway. Preface

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