NEW YORK -- The year was 1960. Chubby Checker was doing the Twist, Sen. John F. Kennedy was headed for the White House, and Carmen Bilbao, a student at New York University, walked to a movie in Times Square. "It was a better time," she recalls. "I thought it was safe."
Then, in the old Apollo Theater on West 42nd Street, Bilbao made the mistake of placing her pocketbook on the empty seat next to hers, making it an easy mark for the thief who lay in wait until the lights went down.
So began a curious tale, extending nearly 40 years, for Bilbao and dozens of others who were victimized by a petty criminal (or criminals) who preyed at the Apollo from 1959 until at least 1961, stealing wallets and pocketbooks.
The wallets were found a week ago by workers who are demolishing the Apollo to make way for a new, larger theater, part of the revitalization of Times Square.
The peculiar stash -- more than a dozen wallets and pocketbooks -- raises tantalizing questions: Was the thief a theater employee? A movie buff with a criminal bent, or a criminal who liked movies?
Bilbao -- now Carmen Watson, a 56-year-old marketing executive who lives in Boonton, N.J. -- is one of only two victims who are still living and have been found.
As a reminder of a particular time and place -- a turning point in the social history of New York City's most famous crossroads -- the wallets and their discovery provide rich symbols of the long decline, and now the rapid renaissance, of Times Square.
"The Times Square of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the capital of pickpocketing," said Luc Sante, a social historian. "What the pickpocket needed was people to prey on, and Times Square was a center of the world for crowds."
As artifacts of human behavior, the wallets offer a portrait of how the most mundane requirements of daily life, as reflected in what people carry in their pockets or purses, have changed in 40 years.
In contrast to the wallets most people now carry -- bulging with credit cards and other forms of plastic -- most of what was contained in the Apollo cache was personal memorabilia, often touching in its lack of financial or professional practicality.
There was the wallet of 17-year-old Joan Ascolese of Bayonne, N.J., whose motor-vehicle learner's permit was to expire Nov. 29, 1960. It was crammed with more than a dozen photographs and, inserted between them, little printed platitudes, apparently saved from fortune cookies.
Pub Date: 12/02/96