Back in the early 1960s, Dave MacDonald and I traveled on the subway from Manhattan to Fordham University in the Bronx where we taped a routine for Chris Steinbrunner's WFUV radio series. The premise of this hoax was dreamed up by Marty Jukovsky, but his schedule prevented him from joining us.
Interviewed by Steinbrunner at the WFUV studio, MacDonald and I claimed to be two film buffs who believed the true art of cinema was expressed not in feature films but in the coming attractions trailers. We improvised around the concept, bolstering our case by citing current and classic trailers, notably Jack Webb’s shotgun blast at the audience in the trailer for the first Dragnet (1954) movie.
After the taping, we met Steinbrunner's other guests, the author Allen Churchill (Remember When) and the film critic Parker Tyler (Classics of the Foreign Film). Churchill, who had been listening in the adjacent room, admitted that he had fallen for the hoax and thought we were serious.
I had read Churchill's The Improper Bohemians (Dutton, 1959), a history of Greenwich Village's Golden Age and such legendary Villagers as Maxwell Bodenheim, Max Eastman, Mabel Dodge, Louis Untermeyer, John Reed, Ben Hecht, Lincoln Steffens and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I told Churchill I was fascinated by a chapter in which he described parties held in the 1930s atop the Washington Square Arch. In 1916, Marcel Duchamp and his friends had gone to the top of the Arch and declared the park the "Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square." How did they all get up there? After reading Churchill's book, I had walked over to Washington Square and discovered the padlocked door I had never noticed before. One can see what look likes a door in Everett Shinn's windswept painting, Washington Square (1910), but the door I recall is inset into the base on the other side of the Arch. Smashing the lock didn't seem like a good idea. I walked away, wondering what it was like on top of the Arch.
About a year later, I was walking through Washington Square when I observed an event at the fountain, a taping for TV’s Hootenanny or something similar. It seemed logical the director might have put a camera on top of the Arch. I looked up, and sure enough, there was a camera aimed down toward the fountain. Could the door at the base be unlocked? As soon as I saw the camera atop the Arch, I immediately dropped what I had planned for the day and walked through the crowd toward the Arch. The lock was open, hanging loose on the hasp, and no one was standing around guarding the door. Everyone was grouped around the fountain folksingers. I knew this was my chance. I opened the door, stepped inside and quickly closed the door, hoping no production assistant had spotted me.
I was standing in blackness, but that brief flash of light when the door was open revealed a spiral staircase. I reached into the darkness and found the handrail. Feeling like a character in a Poe tale, I put my foot on the first step. The small step was triangular with the inside about one inch wide and the outside edge slightly smaller than a shoe. I began climbing in the darkness, and looking up I could see light at the top. The small steps made climbing awkward, so I went slowly.
With each step, Inge by Inge, the dark at the top of the stairs diminished, and more light became visible. Finally, I reached a floor level and looked into a room, the interior of the top of the Arch, fairly well lit from skylights on the roof. Inside this room were stacks of lumber covered in chalky dust, materials left over from the 1892 construction. Graffiti on the walls indicated various visitors from previous years. I continued upward, reached a height of 77 feet and emerged from an open trapdoor onto the roof. The cameraman was quite friendly, and we talked for about 20 minutes. The folksingers below might have been "On Top of Old Smokey," but I was on top of the Arch. Before I left, I turned and looked north, imagining what those 1930s nighttime parties were like with the sparkling lights of Fifth Avenue receding in perspective while ice clinked in tumblers.
Why did I do this? For the same reason the British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory wanted to climb Everest: “Because it was there."
Above: Stewart Wilensky's Village Sunday (1960), narrated by Jean Shepherd. To read excerpts from Ross Wetzsteon's Republic of Dreams, control-click here. In 2004, as part of the Arch's restoration, it was given exterior and interior lighting, so the spiral staircase is no longer in darkness.