February 20, 2013

As Grand Central Marks 100 Years, New York Deserves a Lifetime Achievement Oscar

book rev

By Stuart Mitchner

People on their busy way across Grand Central’s main concourse the evening of February 1 stopped and looked up, struck by the sudden appearance of rows of lights dancing in the great arched windows on the west wall. Though the lights seemed to be appearing sequentially, changing color as they moved up and down and back and forth, there was nothing remote-controlled or digital or otherworldly about the behavior of these white, red, and green flarings and flashings. This was no manufactured Times-Square-type display. These dancing lights were dancing people.

The show created by over a hundred members of the Improv Everywhere troupe using a combination of LED flashlights, camera flashes, and body English began at 7:13 p.m., according to the legendary golden clock atop Grand Central’s information booth, one of Manhattan’s favorite meeting places. It was the first evening of the terminal’s year-long centennial celebration. In railroad time, 7:13 is 19:13, which with a simple subtraction becomes the birth year, 1913.

The formal ceremony, complete with a giant cake and the singing of “Happy Birthday,” featured a tribute from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called Grand Central “a symbol of all that is great about our city, “an innovative and visionary place” that has the “power to inspire awe and wisdom” and “beauty and art” as well as “commerce and industry.” Billy Collins read his poem, “Grand Central,” Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon observed that “Grand Central is everything that New York is,” and Caroline Kennedy spoke of her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who helped set in motion the process that saved the terminal from the wrecking ball. In his new book Grand Central: How A Train Station Transformed America (Grand Central $30), Sam Roberts quotes from the letter Jackie sent to then-mayor Abe Beame: “Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?”

Wide-Eyed Kids

If you want to see children of all ages inspired by beauty, watch the YouTube video of Improv Everywhere’s smile-making spectacle that turned a crowd of grown-ups into wide-eyed kids. In addition to all those delighted adults, you’ll see a young boy being held high by his mother so he can see the living aurora borealis in the west windows. You’ll also notice another boy, about ten, gazing in wonder at the immensity of the scene. I know the feeling. Long long ago, I was there. My fascinated attachment to Manhattan as the place where people are capable of simply suddenly performing, out of the blue, like Gene Kelly merrily splashing about singing in the rain, began when I walked wide-eyed into the main concourse of Grand Central at the age of ten and saw a glamorous lady in an evening gown singing Christmas music on a balcony very like the one Mayor Bloomberg and the other dignitaries would be celebrating the centennial on more than half a century later.

Fresh off the train from Indianapolis with my parents a few days before Christmas, I was already punchy and highly susceptible after sitting up all night watching the heavy snow make cinematic wonders of the bright lights of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower and the snow-laden platforms of Buffalo and the smaller stations along the way. When you come to the city from the midwest for the first time, Grand Central is the opening chapter in the book of New York, or the first scene in New York, the movie. And what a beginning was the main floor, the marble railing of the balcony trimmed in the colors of the season and hung with massive red-ribboned wreaths. No doubt there was a huge, dazzlingly lit and decorated Christmas tree somewhere, but my memory has retained only the singing woman and the sense of luxurious enormity, the subdued, stylish majesty of the cream-colored stairway and balcony, the hum of milling multitudes. Perhaps the most striking thing of all was that the mellow grandeur of the space conveyed something like warmth instead of the chill I felt a few days later in the supremely majestic and long-lost vastness of Penn Station.

The Grand Central Awards

It took me less than a New York minute to realize that this column about the great terminal at the heart of the city I love makes sense sandwiched between Valentine’s Day and Oscar night. Besides being concerned with the way movies and books enter into the “Grand Central of the Imagination,” to quote a chapter title from John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton’s big, spectacularly illustrated Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives (Norton $50), my subject necessarily embraces Hollywood because Hollywood embraces New York. From the dawn of the silent era to the present, from Douglas Fairbanks in Manhattan Madness (1916) to the Madagascar films (2005-2012), thousands of movies have been set (and/or filmed) in New York City, way more than any other specific locale. By all rights, the Academy should give New York a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Now that I think of it, DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar, with its Central Park animals and Grand Central locations, deserves some kind of award for animated features, what with scenes like Melman the giraffe getting his head stuck in the Information Booth clock and an old lady attacking Alex the Lion as he’s coming up the escalator from the subway to the terminal.

After reading about the legal battle to save the station in Sam Roberts’s Grand Central, I’m thinking maybe the GC award could be called a Brendan for Brendan Gill, the architecture critic for The New Yorker. Gill is hailed by Paul Goldberger, his successor at the magazine, as the person who did as much as anyone “to establish the climate” that made possible the saving of Grand Central “through his writing and his civic activities and his behind the scene wheeling and dealing.”

Grand Central Moments

Among the contenders for Best Grand Central Moment in a Motion Picture, the most famous occurs in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest when Cary Grant calls his mother from a phone booth before fleeing the FBI and assorted heavies to board the 20th Century Limited for Chicago and his near-fatal encounter with a crop duster. However, being mindful of Goldberger’s appealing concept of the space at the heart of Grand Central as “not a hectic passageway but an immense dance floor,” I would award the Brendan to Terry Gilliam for the beautiful moment in The Fisher King, wherein Robin Williams’s antic imagination transforms the crowd hurrying across the concourse into a Cinderella’s Ball fantasy of dancing couples. As for the best GC moment in a musical, it has to be Fred Astaire dancing along the Track 34 platform in The Band Wagon, “reminding viewers,” as Sam Roberts puts it, “that simply entering Grand Central is exhilarating.”

For Best Comedy Mystery, the award goes to the ensemble of suspects in Grand Central Murder, the only film I know of that spends much of its running time below ground and in behind-the-scene nooks and crannies of the terminal where Sam Levene’s embattled, soft-drink-guzzling police detective is busy trying to figure out who killed a Broadway diva everybody despised.

Holden’s Refuge

In the literary category, the Brendan for Best Writer using a GC setting goes to J.D. Salinger for two scenes in The Catcher in the Rye, and the award for Best Performance by a literary character goes to Holden Caulfield who twice seeks refuge in Grand Central at desperate moments, first after being roughed up by the bellhop from hell, “old Maurice,” and again when an alarming and disillusioning encounter with his favorite teacher forces a flight to “that crazy waiting room” at Grand Central, where he spends the rest of the night sleeping on a bench and wakes up feeling more depressed than ever. During his happier first time in the terminal, he checks his bags in a luggage locker and breakfasts on ham and eggs in a little sandwich bar while conversing with a nun about literary types like “old Grendel,” “old Eustacia Vye,” and “old Mercutio.”

Runner up in the Best Writer category is John Cheever for his stories “The Five-Forty Eight” and “O City of Broken Dreams,” and for the passage in his novel, Bullet Park, where a character talks about cleaning the Grand Central toilets “eight hours a night, five nights a week,” mopping the floors, and “wiping off the walls the writing people had put there.”

Magnificent Windows

The ultimate Grand Central image is the one on the cover of Sam Roberts’s book that shows shafts of light streaming down through the cathedral-scale windows onto the concourse. It’s an image that seems to be waiting for a film worthy of it, or a work of literature, or a painting or a poem, or even a religion. One star worthy of the light coming through those magnificent windows is Margaret Sullavan, who never played a scene in Grand Central (she plays one in Penn Station when she sees Jimmy Stewart off to Princeton in Next Time We Love) and who never won an Oscar. This great actress’s endgame connection with Grand Central is recounted in Haywire, a memoir by Brooke Hayward, who learns of her 51-year-old mother’s death during a phone conversation:

“The vast dome of Grand Central Station closed down over me in the glass telephone booth, so that I seemed to go deaf [Sullavan herself actually did begin going deaf in middle age]. There was absolute silence … and even when I pushed open the door for air, no sound anywhere in the entire huge space of the station … filled as before with people, but people moving noiselessly, without echoes. I moved with them, my own footsteps on the worn marble floor …. My mother, my very own mother, beautiful, warm, always more alive than anyone else in the world — alive in ways that nobody else dared to be — my mother, with her special gift for living and for giving that life to all the people who knew her and many who didn’t, dead.”

Improv Everywhere

To see the same great windows coming to life with Improv Everywhere’s human light show while the passersby below beam like happy children, check out grand-central-lights at improveverywhere.com.