By Robert Simonson
15 Feb 2014
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo|
If you looked up at the second story of the building, on the 46th Street side, and squinted, you could discern four marble statues, old and dirty, nestled within a quartet of alcoves cut into the facade. The in-the-know understood that these were (from left to right): Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia in Hamlet; Marilyn Miller as Sunny in the 1925 hit musical of the same name; screen actress Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy; and opera star Rosa Ponselle, in her most famous role, as Norma in Bellini's opera.
Certainly the owners of the TGI Friday's chain hadn't put the four female artists up there for the public to admire. That had been the work of the building's original owner Israel Miller, who was also the proprietor of the once-famous shoe store that occupied it from the 1920s until it closed in the 1970s; the statues were unveiled in 1929. Miller catered to the theatre crowd; his tongue-twisting slogan — still seen on the cornice — was "The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear."
After Miller closed, the store — much like the rest of Times Square — fell into disrepair. The statues became covered with soot and grime. When TGI Friday's moved in, the figures were all but obscured by the eatery's huge, red-and-white signage. (The "Ethel" part of Barrymore's name was completely blocked.) Since the exterior of the building was landmarked in 1999, the statues couldn't be taken down. But neglect was doing its steady damage, year after year.