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One Times Square Revisions: Signage in the crossroads of the world through the years
By Louis M. Brill
Times Square is the Crossroads Of The World, at least to the million plus people who pass through the Square every day and to the hundreds of millions of people who see it daily on television broadcast coverage from the area. Prominent in any coverage of Times Square is one building that stands out, not so much for its height or shape, but more for its decorative vinyl and electronic cladding, and its unique address: One Times Square.
If any building is the number one place and was to be dedicated as homage to sign displays, honors could easily point to One Times Square. It stands tall not only in height, but also throughout its 100 plus year history with its influence on iconic advertising, on sign displays, with its vinyl and electronic billboards and its timeless metaphors, all wedded to the building from top (the annual New Year's Eve ball drop) to bottom (the news zipper wrapped around the building's base). If Times Square is the Crossroads Of The World, then One Times Square is one of its guardians and attractions that brings the world's citizens to Times Square for that moment of cosmopolitan contact.
For all the different things that One Times Square is (tourist attraction, a New Year's Eve beacon and news center with its digital zipper reader board), the building is primarily a sign tower. Sign placements are like real estate: it's location, location, location for sign positioning. On an average day, Times Square will see at least one to one and a half million people cascading through its streets and sidewalks, and almost every one of those people will have a look at One Times Square as they pass it by. For New Year's Eve, with worldwide television coverage there are at least one billion viewers eyeballing this building.
The Times Tower is born
The New York Times began conducting celebrations for New Year's Eve when the building was completed in 1904. 1907 was the first year the New Year's Eve Ball dropped from the building's roof. With its height, its tower could be seen for miles around midtown Manhattan and it became the perfect place for this rooftop celebration. Making it an illuminated ball increased its night visibility and was also a chance to show off a new technology - electricity. It's been an annual tradition ever since.
The Times Tower's first actual connection to the sign industry was in 1928 when the New York Times encircled its building with its famous "zipper" headliner, invented by Frank C. Reilly and was known at that time as the "Motogram" sign. This was one of the earliest outdoor incandescent message reader boards that provided the passing public with electronic messages about the breaking news as it happened. On an interesting note, Times Square is now flooded with various evolved electronic reader boards (Reuters, ABC, Morgan Stanley, etc) all based on the original 1928 Times Tower electric message board.
The Times Tower served its original masters until 1961, when Douglas Leigh (the man who brought animated billboards to Times Square and immortalized Time Square with its famous Camel billboard (with its ever repeating smoke ring), purchased and renamed the tower for the Allied Chemical Company, its major tenant at the time. To modernize its look, the entire building was reclad with a sleek marble exterior of vertical columns and panels. Even with its white vertical corrugated look, it continued its original traditions of displaying the zipper around the building and on top, and the ball drop at the stroke of midnight, New Years Eve. Leigh also initiated the program of setting and selling advertising on the outside of the Allied Chemical Building.
1970s: Getting your name in lights
Spectacolor's (NY, NY) Visual Broadcast System was touted as America's first full color, optical display system and was mounted on the north face of the Allied Chemical Building directly above the famed zipper reader board that encircled the building. The illuminated panel (at 20 feet high by 40 feet in length) was formed of thousands (8,000-plus bulbs). Portraying text, graphics, animations and video imagery at a whopping 8.5 frames per second (a far cry from today's 30 fps), it was then electronic signage as state-of-the-art.
This was, in effect, one of the world's first electronic billboards where programmable, multiple messages were advertised, one after the other on a single billboard. The sign was well received by the national advertising community as soon as it went live.
The Spectacolor Visual Broadcast System, developed by George Stonbley who invented the Spectacolor sign system, set the pattern for today's electronic billboard advertising where time slots on the board were sold on a 'radio model' (selling 10, 20 and 30 second spots), rather than the traditional billboard route, which used a print model of selling space for a single ad spot from several weeks to several moths. The billboard also set the pattern of usage by not only selling mostly branding (about 80%) and some advertising, but also supporting public service announcements and weather reports. For the regular guy in the street, he could buy a spot for $25.00 and put his name in lights. Stonbely noted, "People have proposed to each other on that sign and have had birthdays, anniversaries and Be My Valentine all flashed in lights on Times Square.
Talk about location and history repeating itself, this was the second time a famous electronic sign was first placed on this building. Here the Allied Chemical Building became the first home of a soon-to-be world famous electronic sign system. In 1928, it was the "zipper" with its horizontal traveling text messages and now, (1976) through the efforts of George Stonbley, the first electronic, animated graphic image board. The Spectracolor display used an ancient CRT display technology, but still presented the birth of the electronic display industry which begat a multitude of competitors. In a bit of irony, 34 years later just about the entire front of One Times Square is now covered with high definition, full color LED displays.
One Times Square stands tall
Fortunately an even more appealing choice appeared: transforming the building from a tenant occupied facility into a sign tower literally at the cross roads of Times Square. The building was then marketed as a sign tower and in no time became an advertising benchmark for representing Times Square.
To implement this strategy, the building remained tenantless. To allow the vinyl (and soon LED ) signs to be properly attached to the building, a billboard frame was placed completely around the front of One Times Square from just above the zipper, directly to the roof, 23-stories above. Given the space allotment for each potential billboard, the building sign grid was positioned for twenty-two different sign placements (five electronic and 17 vinyl).
By the late 1990s, three of the four sides of One Times Square were completely covered in vinyl sign faces. Its north side, the world renown side that faces the Times Square 'bow tie,' where 7th Avenue crosses Broadway, was mostly covered from top to bottom in electronic LED video screens and in one case, an LED and neon billboard. Reviewing its famous side at that time, and starting from the top down,
"As for the other three building sides in the late 1990s, there are about 15 or so vinyl signs, each approximately 55 feet high by 60 feet wide. TDK continued from North face with its electronic billboard transforming to a vinyl which completely wrapped around the rest of the building. We also had other vinyl signs including Washington Mutual, the United States Post Office and Buffalo Jeans on the other sides of One Times Square. Collins noted, "There are a few single sign placements, but we prefer to sell the other sides as completes when we can do it. It keeps the building from looking cluttered and it gives the advertisers more bang for the buck."
Collins also said that although vinyl covers the other three sides of One Times Square, he'd be happy to sell placement opportunities for LED billboards on its other sides as well. One immediate change to the building in 1997 was a transformation of the zipper from its original incandescent bulbs to LEDs. Honors to Daktronics (Brooking, South Dakota) who completely revamped the original lighting with a modern monochromatic amber electronic message look.
"For leasing sign positions on the building, on the North face, we try to do at least a ten-year deal per position. On the other three sides, it's a six-month minimum leasing arrangement on the building. As of Spring, 2002, 99 % of the building is completely covered in signs. At that time, one position was opening up for leasing."
The signage on One Times Square has dramatically changed since its latest owners, Jamestown and Sherwood Equities have taken over the building management. As advertising leases end, some clients renew while others move on and are replaced with new clients. (New make-overs are discussed in Part II: One Times Square: The Incredible Changing Building)
One Times Square under wraps
Tony Calvano, president of Landmark and his staff, keeps the signs on the building in pristine shape. "We put up all the vinyl on One Times Square and maintain the incandescent lighting systems that illuminate the signs at night. There is also some chase lighting on the building that we also service." Calvano noted that Landmark also deals with all the electronic signs on the building's famous North face. "We survey all those electronic signs at least twice a day to make sure they're always at 100%. We do a lot of preventive maintenance for them and have crews that go into the signs to maintain the integrity of each unit's heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. We're constantly changing out filters and cleaning fans as there's a lot of construction going on right now in Times Square and the fans and filters tend to get clogged up quickly."
The Time Ball drops
106 years later, Times Square is still the number one place to gather in the US for New Year's Eve and each year, over a half million people will hold court in the Square, waiting for that final moment. Being in Times Square on New Years Eve, people come to watch the countdown and see the moment of transition which is symbolically marked by the dropping of the silver crystal illuminated ball from the roof of One Times Square.
The Ball Drop, as it is known, occurs one day a year, several strokes before midnight. Although the Ball Drop is quick, its sixty-second descent is planned for during the entire year that precedes it. While One Times Square is partially owned by Sherwood Outdoor, the ball drop is maintained as a separate event and owned and managed by Countdown Entertainment, who is the exclusive representative of the Ball Drop's year end celebration. "The Ball Drop," as noted by Jeff Straus, president, of Countdown "is New York's biggest annual promotion and takes all year to plan for, including finding sponsors, coordinating all the event participation during the six hours between the raising of the ball at 6:00 PM till its drop at midnight. There's also the planning and management of the pyrotechnics which go off at midnight."
As for the famous last sixty seconds when the crystal ball is actually lowered down the flagpole, its organization is managed by Landmark and Tony Calvano's staff who prepares the ball for its one minute prior to midnight claim to fame. "To get the crystal ball ready for that night, Calvano said, "We install the rigging and the ball on One Times Square's roof top pole. Before that it takes us about two weeks of prep work for the final sixty- second drop, which includes fabricating each New Year's new numbers for the upcoming year and installing them. We also maintain the actual sixty second ball drop operation as the clock strikes midnight."
The Time Ball circa 2000 A.D.
A giant among its peer skyscrapers
Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance (TSA) noted, "For all the activity of new construction around Times Square, One Times Square remains a constant in the sea of change of its surrounding skyline amidst all the heightened intensity and frenetic energy of the area, it continues to be the "voice" and representational icon of Times Square."
One Times Square articles by Louis M Brill
Since this article was completed in 2003, the sign activity on One Times Square has continued non-stop with new spectaculars replacing those whose leases were not renewed.
Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications.
He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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