One looking for the Javits Center or the Time Warner Center, for example, would not find either; the city’s major exhibition hall was the New York Coliseum located where the Time Warner Center is today. Madison Square Garden was then located on 50th Street and Eighth Avenue; the 1925 structure would be demolished in 1968, and the new one on top of Penn Station opened that same year. (Sadly, the original, magnificent Penn Station had just been razed.) The Pan Am (now MetLife) Building had just been built (it was the largest commercial office space in the world, and people generally hated it), and the New York Hilton was brand new as well. Times Square had yet to be Disneyfied, of course, so the area was filled with hedonistic delights for the more adventurous, including naughty movies, strip clubs, and dive bars. Bartenders in Times Square joints were known for looking the other way when it came to under-18 drinkers in these pre-litigious days, making it a destination for teenagers wanting to knock back a few Rheingold, Ballantine, or Schaeffer beers. The ball (and plenty of drunk teenagers) dropped New Year’s Eve in Times Square in 1964, a tradition going back to 1907.
Newspapers were a mainstay of everyday life before cable television and the Internet, especially in multicultural cities like New York. Dozens of foreign language newspapers, from Arabic to Yiddish, served residents of the many ethnic neighborhoods. The New York Herald Tribune, around since 1924, could still be found on newsstands (but would bite the dust in 1966). Communications in general could be seen as pre-historic from today’s perspective. Telephone calls cost a dime, and the city’s 3,300 phone booths were a visible presence on sidewalks. (More than fifty city employees were needed to collect the five million pounds of change dropped in every year.) The 911 emergency call did not exist in 1964; to contact the police or request an ambulance, one had to dial SP 7-3100. (For a fire, one would dial the operator or “O.”) There remained over eighty Western Union telegram offices in the city in 1964. (Singing telegrams, in which an actual person would arrive at one’s door to belt out tunes like “Happy Birthday” or “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” were available). Other services we would today find peculiar happily existed in the little, old New York of the mid-sixties. Magic Menders repaired nylon stockings, for example (thirty cents per run), and the Zipper Service Company did just that- fix that uncooperative clothing or suitcase zipper (for a buck and in fifteen minutes). The Regent Steno Service was available twenty-four hours a day should a businessman need someone to take dictation and type up a letter at three a.m.; for an extra $2, the rent-a-secretary would bring over her own typewriter.
Transportation was also like another world. Idlewild Airport had recently been renamed JFK after the assassinated president, and airlines like Allegheny, Braniff, Eastern, National, Pan American, and TWA still flew the friendly skies. Fares were generally cheaper in absolute dollars (under $100 for a one-way trip to or from east coast cities and under $200 to or from the west coast), but considerably more expensive when adjusted for inflation. (The inflation rate between 1964 and 2013 is 750 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Taking off half your clothing before getting on a plane, need it be said, was not required. If one was nervous about flying, which a lot of people were in those days, one could walk into an automobile showroom and buy a brand new Rambler or Studebaker. Japanese car companies like Honda, Toyota, and Datsun were trying to get a foothold in the United States, but American consumers were so far unimpressed with these tiny things with horsepower more suited to lawn mowers than automobiles. A little German car, however, was getting a lot of attention, especially among young people. The Volkswagen Beetle would prove to be an ideal car for the streets of New York- affordable to maintain and easy to park. A subway ride cost fifteen cents, the same price as a slice of pizza, in 1964, as Eric Bram, a teenager from the Upper West Side, observed. Bram is credited for first recognizing the correlation in price between a New York City subway ride and a piece of pizza on the way to the World’s Fair, a relationship that has held remarkably true over the years.
There was no shortage of places to go on the subway in New York in 1964. Before there was Time Out New York, those looking for weekly entertainment options would consult Cue magazine or, like today, The New Yorker’s “Goings on About Town” section. The great movie palaces were already gone by the 1960s, but one could go to Radio City, the Paramount, or the Capital to see a movie on a screen we would consider absurdly wide. My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Goldfinger, and From Russia With Love played on such screens that year (James Bond was all the rage), each of them in vivid Technicolor. There were no less than 417 movie houses in the city, although the debut of color television (at the World’s Fair that year) would make that number shrink significantly over the next decade. Viewing options on television were at this point mighty slim, however. There were only a handful of television channels (2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13), and they went to snow at two a.m., leaving late-night viewers in the literal dark. “High” culture in New York was surprisingly accessible and affordable. There were ten opera companies in the city, and admission to the biggest art museums was remarkably affordable: one dollar for the Met and MOMA, fifty cents for the Guggenheim, and gratis for the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney (then located on West 54th Street).
While rock ‘n’ roll was now dominating the music universe, the sounds of jazz and folk could be heard all over the city. The heyday of “Swing Street” (52nd Street) was long over, but one could still hear traditional or “modern” jazz (bebop or post-bop) coming out of the doors of midtown clubs like Eddie Condon’s, Room at the Bottom, Jimmy Ryan’s, or the Hickory House (all of them lost to time). Downtown jazz clubs like the Five Spot Café, the Half Note, the Village Gate, and the Village Vanguard were swinging, with only the latter extant. Big band, a vestige from the 1940s, still swung at Basin Street East and Café Metropole led by old-timers like Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, and Woody Herman. While jazz clubs were certainly hip, the hottest places in town were the Eighth Wonder and Trude Heller’s in Greenwich Village and the Peppermint Lounge near Times Square. Any night at each was usually packed with dancers doing the twist, wobble, and the waddle, with celebrities like Ava Gardner often dropping in to blow off some steam.
1 Earl Wilson, Earl Wilson’s New York (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964).
2 Robbie Woliver, Hoot! A Twenty-Five Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984) 112-134.
3 Hoot! 116.
4 Hoot! 116-137.
Lawrence R. Samuel is the founder of Culture Planning LLC, a Miami-based resource offering cultural insights to Fortune 500 companies and their ad agencies. He is the author of many books of 20th century American cultural history, including The End of the Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair (Syracuse University Press, 2007) and Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). His new book is New York City 1964: A Cultural History (McFarland, 2014), from which this essay adapted.
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