The St. James Theatre is a surprisingly common name. Still, the one ensconced in Midtown Manhattan’s Theater District should be the best-known of the lot. Situated at 246 West 44th Street, the St. James Theater has several claims to fame. For example, it is one of the biggest Broadway theaters because of its 1709 seats. Similarly, both its facade and its auditorium interior are considered city landmarks by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. On top of this, the St. James Theater has been playing an important role in Broadway and thus American theater as a whole ever since it opened its doors in 1927.
Before the Building of the Theatre
Manhattan being Manhattan, it should come as no surprise to learn that the site of the St. James Theatre was once occupied by other buildings. Most of those were of little note. The one exception would be the continental restaurant Sardi’s, which was once based out of the basement of one of the buildings cleared to make way for the St. James Theatre.
With that said, Sardi’s didn’t get its famous gimmick until after its move. As the story goes, the restaurant owner Vincent Sardi started looking for a new way to bring in business because there was a post-move slowdown. He remembered the caricatures of movie stars hanging in a Parisian establishment called Joe Zelli’s, so he decided to do something using the caricatures of Broadway stars. Famously, Vincent Sardi hired the Russian refugee Alex Gard to do the job in exchange for one meal a day at his restaurant.
Under A. L. Erlanger
Originally, the St. James Theatre was called the Erlanger Theatre. That is because it was built for Abraham Lincoln Erlanger, a member of the six-man Theater Syndicate that dominated American theater for a time in the late 19th century and early 20th century. He had a very successful theatrical booking agency with his partner Marc Klaw. That came undone in 1919. Subsequently, Erlanger struck out on his own.
The man had plans for a new theater in New York City as early as 1921. However, construction didn’t start until 1926 because of conflicts and other issues. By that point, the plan had undergone much change. For proof, consider how the original proposal was for a 1,200-seat theater called the Model Theatre rather than a 1,600-seat theater called the Erlanger Theatre. Besides this, the plan is also notable because it had been drawn up by Warren and Wetmore. Said firm had worked on homes, office buildings, and even the Grand Central Terminal. The curious thing is that Warren and Wetmore had no experience working on theaters before Erlanger made his fateful choice for reasons unknown.
Regardless, the Erlanger Theatre was ready to open its doors in 1927. Its inaugural show was The Merry Malones, which ran for 192 performances. Erlanger himself died in 1930, but the Erlanger estate continued running the Erlanger Theatre for some time afterward. That ended in 1932 when the Erlanger estate failed to pay rent, thus causing the Erlanger Theatre to revert to the owner of the underlying land.
Under Lodewick Vroom
Soon enough, Lodewick Vroom bought the Erlanger Theatre. He was the one who renamed it the St. James Theatre in honor of the theatre of the same name in London, England. Please note that the latter is not the same as the St. James Theatre of more recent decades in London, England. The original was demolished to make way for an office building despite a nationwide campaign in 1957. London, England didn’t get another theatre of the same name until 2012, though it wasn’t too long before it was renamed the Other Palace in 2016. Regardless, Vroom operated the Erlanger Theatre from 1932 to 1941. Examples of shows from the period included but were not limited to Walk a Little Faster, the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, and May Wine.
Under the Shubert Organization
In 1941, the Shubert Organization took over the operation of the St. James Theatre. This state lasted until the 1950s when the U.S. government filed an antitrust suit because one family owed almost half of the legitimate theaters in New York City. To settle things, the Shubert Organization had to get rid of some of its theaters. As such, it sold the St. James Theatre to a group of interested individuals for $1.75 million in cash in 1956. The premiere of the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! in 1943 was an excellent example of the shows from this period. Other examples ranged from Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley? in 1948 to the premiere of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I in 1951.
The group of interested individuals who bought the St. James Theatre in 1956 went on to form the Jujamcyn Corporation. Subsequently, it bought a second Broadway theater in the 1960s and then three more Broadway theaters in the 1980s. As a result, Jujamcyn Corporation is now Jujamcyn Theaters, the third biggest Broadway theater owner after the Shubert Organization and the Nederlander Organization.
Of course, the St. James Theatre has continued to host notable shows ever since that time. It saw a string of short-lived revivals in the 1970s. Then, it hosted Barnum for 854 performances and My One and Only for 767 performances in the 1980s. Later, the St. James Theatre also hosted The Secret Garden for 706 performances, The Who’s Tommy for 900 performances, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for 715 performances in the 1990s.
The St. James Theatre has continued hosting a wide range of shows in the 2000s and 2010s. Out of those, the most notable would be The Producers. Said show was so popular that the people behind it became the first to implement a will call system for a Broadway show. Before that, scalpers would buy tickets before reselling them over the Internet, which worked because the practice was illegal in New York but not in other states. Further proof of the popularity of The Producers can be seen in how it ran for 2,502 performances from 2001 to 2007. Other shows ranged from American Idiot and Hair to Desire Under the Elms and Something Rotten!
In the late 2010s, the St. James Theatre underwent a stage expansion made possible by the purchase of the alley between it and the Hayes Theatre. That was completed in time for the debut of the Frozen musical in 2018. Anyone who remembers the phenomenon that was the movie can guess that the musical proved successful. It broke box office records for the St. James Theatre by grossing more than $2.6 million over eight performances in the last week of 2018. The Frozen musical lasted for 825 performances until its closure because of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. The St. James Theatre became the first Broadway theater to reopen with a limited number of Springsteen on Broadway shows starting on June 26 of 2021.