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Learn the Stories Behind the Playhouses of New York's Theater District

August 17, 2018 - by Mari Gold
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Beyond Broadway plays and their endless lore, there's a rich history to New York City's theaters. Read on to learn more about the back story behind the legendary Theater District of midtown Manhattan.

The Booth Theater /Shubert Theater 

The Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, opened on October 16, 1913. It was designed back-to-back with the Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street, with which it shares a Venetian Renaissance-style façade. The theater was named in honor of 19th-century actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln. This Booth was the second theater to bear that name; the first was built by Booth himself in 1869 on 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue. The Booth is the smaller of the two theaters, with 766 seats; the Shubert holds 1,460.

The Belasco Theater 

Belasco Theater 1921

The Belasco Theater, 1921 (Facebook)

The Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street, is said to have a ghost (although this is probably an urban myth). The theater was built for impresario David Belasco, whose ghost supposedly appears each evening. Belasco built a duplex apartment above the theatre, decorating it in Gothic style; he lived there and also housed his collection of theatrical and erotic memorabilia. Although Belasco was Jewish, he fancied a style of dress that made him look like a Catholic Bishop.

Belasco was deeply involved with every aspect of his theater, which has a shallow auditorium so the audience is close to the actors, as he felt a theater should be ‘intimate’ like a living room to enhance the dramatic experience. When it opened, the theater had a state-of-the art lighting board and used colored gels to produce magical effects; the theater also boasted a freight elevator connecting the basement workshops with the stage. Over time, the Belasco began to look run-down; in 2010 it was entirely renovated down to removing, re-leading, and replacing the extensive collection of Tiffany lamps. Downstairs in the bar level, a series of murals depicts scenes from Rienzi, an early Wagner opera. Just to the left of the bar is a portrait of a red-clad pope with Belasco’s face. Another series of murals by Ashcan artist Everett Shinn graces the back of the house.

The Hayes Theater 

The Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, was originally known as the Little Theater. The Little Theater, with only 300 seats, opened March 12, 1910; in the 1920s it was redesigned to hold almost 600 seats and in 1931 was sold to The New York Times and converted into a conference hall. In 1983, the theater was named for actress Helen Hayes (another theater named for her had been torn town along with other buildings to create the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel). Helen Hayes, often referred to as “The First Lady of American Theater," had a distinguished 80-year theatrical career. The Hayes was sold to the Second Stage Theater Company, upgraded, and now operates as a non-profit theater company.

The Richard Rodgers Theater 

Richard Rodgers

The most salient factoid about the Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46th Street, is that it was the first to have so–called “democratic” seating so theatergoers in the cheaper, upstairs areas entered through the same door as audience members headed for the orchestra. (Earlier in theater history, up and down had separate entrances.) The Rodgers, originally called the 46th Street Theater, opened in 1924; in 1990 it was renamed in honor of composer Richard Rodgers who wrote the music for Oklahoma, Carousel, and South Pacific, among other legendary hits. The theater, which now belongs to the Nederlander Organization, was refurbished in 2006 and has a gallery with memorabilia from Rodgers's long career. It's currently home to the 11-time Tony winner Hamilton.

The Winter Garden

Located directly on Broadway at 1634, (50th Street), the building that houses The Winter Garden was built in 1896 as the American Horse Exchange when the surrounding area was the center of the horse and carriage trade. In 1911 it was redesigned as a theater. It opened with a show starring Al Jolson with a specially designed runway enabling the star to slide on his knees practically into the audience, which went wild. The stage is very large as is the house itself, with 1,498 seats.

The Lyceum Theatre

Opened in 1903, the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, is one of the oldest surviving Broadway venues and the oldest legitimate theater to have operated in New York City. It was named the Lyceum from the start and landmarked in 1974. Designed in the Beaux Arts style, when it opened it was remarkable for a ventilation system that kept the auditorium cool in summer and warm in winter by means of air passing over either ice or steam coils. The theater was built by producer/manager David Frohman, who added an apartment for himself right over the stage, with a door offering a bird's eye view of below. A story, possibly apocryphal, holds that Frohman waved a handkerchief out of the door to alert his wife, actress Margaret Illington, when he felt she was overacting.

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