On a recent weekday morning, a group of 10 masked men found themselves in the throes of Times Square. Tim Dolan, his tour guide, held an iPad showing a black-and-white photo of the area in 1900, when it was filled with horse carts instead of jumbo LED screens. In the photo, a man is shoveling a pile of manure. “The only thing that hasn’t changed is the smell,” said Dolan affectionately.
Dolan calls himself “probably the only New Yorker who will ever say he loves Times Square.” This is his neighborhood, he says, even though he lives with his French bulldog, Belasco, in an apartment in Hamilton Heights, which is named after his favorite theater.
He’s probably one of the few people who can tell you the story of the actor who appeared in 9,382 performances of “The Phantom of the Opera,” or precisely why the Broadhurst Theater had live lions for 14 nights in 1921 .
Dolan is the founder of Broadway Up Close, whose shamrock-green-shirted tour guide has, for 11 years, led one-hour and 45-minute tours of the area between 41st and 54th Streets, from America’s Avenue to Eighth Avenue. . They talk about the Theater District’s buildings, business, and backstage gossip—including this newspaper that gave Times Square its name—tracking the history of “Hamilton” from Oscar Hammerstein I. Dolan is also behind one of Times Square’s later-day landmarks and photo ops that are currently put away: a typographic jumble of the letters “Broadway” near the pedestrian plaza, which looks good on Instagram.
Last year, when the Great White Way went dark, Dolan’s tours kicked off accordingly. (At the time, they were doing 10 to 12 trips a week.) The outdoor environment of the place was especially heartbreaking for him. He remembered his adopted community of artists, stage hands, TKTS staff members. “Even the naked cowboy,” he said. “I felt like I saw literal tumbleweeds rolling down 44th Street.”
But now, with theater marquees returning and the coronavirus looming on reopening dates, Dolan and his Broadway Up Close tour guide are back on the sidewalk almost every day, slowly but surely catering to a growing number of visitors .
It offers tours virtually, although Dolan still organizes a few virtual tours a week. “A lot of it is reading the audience, connecting with the audience, picking what interests them most,” Dolan said. “It’s hard to do that in a webinar.”
Given that tours attract music lovers and theater enthusiasts, they are also currently serving as an alternative to the actual Broadway. “We will definitely be seeing a show one night,” said Carrie Mershon, a visitor from Kansas who was visiting. She booked the family trip to New York months in advance, in the hopes that Broadway productions would be up and running by now. no such luck; His show tickets were refunded. “It fills the void a little bit.”
At least Dolan can be trusted to put on a show. Location-wise, the more over-the-top the story, the better: Learn about a “follies” girl who found herself riding a runaway ostrich? What about the music director who drowns in an orchestra pit filled with water after a flash flood in “Evita”? Or the theater-goer who fell through the window on the Lyceum theater’s marquee?
Dolan delivers colorful anecdotes and his fact-filled solitude with the brilliant enthusiasm of a working actor. He was on the final stage in a regional production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” three years ago and said he had booked a show in Michigan before the pandemic struck.
He also has an actor’s knack for emotional overshare, alluding to his ex-girlfriend in a cast photo from a “Hamilton” touring production. “He is now with Daveed Diggs,” said one of the tour group’s younger members.
“I know!” Dolan replied.
He moved to the city in 2003 to train at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. After graduation, he performed in the “Altar Boys” for two years, and then felt pressure to find a profession he called “survival work”. He’s still not a fan of the term. “I just didn’t want to pass out. I wanted another job that was as satisfying as when I’m on stage or in the audition room.”
Realizing that Broadway-focused walking tours were lacking, he picked up his New York City tour guide license and set out to tell strangers lesser-known stories about his favorite place in the world. He read several books and scoured the photo archives of the New York City Museum and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Most pleasantly, he consistently chose the minds of other industry professionals.
If anything, he had to rein in his passion: The original version of the tour had all 40 Broadway theaters open at the time, and was seven and a half hours long. Eventually, Dolan split it into three separate tours, the latter a historic Alexander Hamilton tour and one on Broadway Ghost Stories, as well as an internal tour of the Hudson Theater which is currently on hiatus.
Dolan’s eyes gleam as he describes the early days of Times Square, a time when, for example, you can visit a recreation of a Dutch farm filled with sheep and windmills on the roof of 42nd Street. Perhaps more surprisingly, Dolan is the savior of the place’s 21st century incarnation. “We mourn the loss of the old while loving the new,” he told the group, while their “Schubert Brothers and Beyond” tour stopped at what used to be a beautiful French Renaissance-style theatrical complex called Olympia. was. (Now there is an Old Navy store.)
“You can have commerce, and art, and a safe neighborhood all at the same time,” Dolan told me. “If you’re looking for nostalgia amidst ‘Disneyfiction,’ you just need to know where to look. Wanting to find the old among the new is why I started it.”
Dolan expects Broadway’s Up Close to return to pre-pandemic levels of business later in the year. By then, he hopes the area will start to feel like its old self again. “I don’t think it’s in September, when we have a few shows open. I think it’s one time we probably hit December, and there’s a handful of shows, and a sea of people in Times Square. I have yellow playbills. Maybe even less masks. I don’t think New York City will fully reopen until that moment.”
Before that, Dolan has a date with the Gershwin Theater on September 14—where “Sweeney Todd” premiered in 1979 and “Starlight Express” opened in 1987—to mark the return of the musical “Wicked.”
“I’ll be the big man in the last row crying.”
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