History Of New York’s Shubert Theater On Broadway

History Of New York's Shubert Theater On Broadway

Feature Photo: Jazz Guy from New Jersey, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The history of New York’s Shubert Theatre can be traced back to Lee Shubert and Winthrop Ames and its October 2, 1913 opening. The first play was a Hamlet revival that would be the first of so many that would pave the way for this playhouse venue’s success story.

Joint Ventures

The location of Shubert’s Broadway theater sits in Midtown Manhattan’s Theater District at 225 West 44th Street. The building itself was built with the flair of the Italian Renaissance according to the specifications laid out by Lee and J.J. Shubert. It was named Shubert Theatre in memory of their deceased brother, Sam S. Shubert.

The design of the building sports three arches facing south onto 44th Street while a curved corner faces east, facing Broadway. The facade features brick and terracotta, as well as stucco-designed sgraffito decor. Inside the theater, it can hold up to 1,502 sitting people within its three levels. From inside, not only do they experience live theater but take in the murals depicting mythology stemming from the Greco-Roman age.

To the north of Shubert’s stage house sits Booth Theatre. Designed by the same architect responsible for Schubert Theatre, Henry Beaumont Hertz, this playhouse also belongs to The Shubert Organization. That one opened up its doors to the public for the first time on October 16, 1913. This one sits on 222 West 45th Street, also facing east on Broadway. This smaller venue seats up to eight hundred people and was originally managed by Ames who named the theater after Edwin Booth. Booth was a popular actor who toured across America and had his own Booth’s Theater in 1869 before it was destroyed. This is the same man whose younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, was identified as President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.

Both of the theaters on Broadway were owned and operated as Shubert’s first venues on the block. For the brothers, as well as Ames, this was their first venture after a disappointing New Theatre Group project they had on Central Park West met with failure. It was the New Theatre Group who leased the land between 44th and 45th streets on Broadway that thought to build a new venue before they abandoned it. However, Shubert and Ames saw enough potential to take over the lease from the Astor Family. From there, two playhouses were built that would be adjoined together. Lee and his brother, J.J., ran Shubert while Ames ran Booth.

On Broadway

Since the dawn of the twentieth century, Times Square in New York City became the hub of theatrical activity. As a district in Manhattan, it began to form a district of its own while Madison Square and Union Square went down their respective paths. Until 1920, there were over forty theaters built in Midtown Manhattan that graced Broadway with their presence. From Syracuse, New York, the Shuberts got in on the action as they brought their love for theater to what became America’s fastest-growing city.

When the Shuberts developed the Shubert Theatre, the brothers agreed to name it after their brother, Sam, who perished in a railroad accident in 1905. The intent was to build five theaters in his honor, each of them technically named Sam S. Shubert Memorial Theatre. However, over time the name was shortened to make these theaters become more appealing to the public.

While the Shubert Brothers were busy setting up theaters, Winthrop Ames was looking to build a theatre to replace the New Theatre as he and his fellow founders felt the original 1909 location was too far away from Times Square. Together, Ames and his associates acquired several buildings along 44th Street and 45th Street in 1911 with the intent to build their New Theatre there. The idea was to have a large complex that would have its own alley to the east. However, this project was canceled but a determined Ames was still determined to at least build a theatrical venue of his own. Across 44th Street, he built Little Theatre.

Staging Success

As for the founders of New Theatre, the loss of Ames also meant not only did they lose their director but he was now their most direct competitor at the time. When Amos and Lee Shubert teamed up in April 1912, the design and development of Booth Theatre and Shubert Theatre began to take form going into the next month. This was enough for New Theatre to withdraw their new building application as Amos and Shubert filed in theirs. Aside from a few construction-related delays, the partnership of Ames and Shubert saw their joint venture surge ahead that would see the summer of 2013 bring forth an acting couple from Britain, Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Gertrude Elliott. It was this husband and wife team that performed in the theater’s first play, Hamlet.

At the same time the October 2, 1913 play took place, Shubert Alley was opened up that was used during the first intermission of the play. At the time, it was one of three theaters that were operating in the area. Amos’s Little Theatre and the 44th Street Theatre otherwise known as Weber and Fields’ Music Hall. Aside from Hamlet, the Forbes-Robertson Company presented a series of Shakespearean plays as well as George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra.

In January 1914, Shubert Theatre presented its first original theatrical production, A Thousand Years Ago. This was followed by its first musical, The Belle of Bond Street, featuring Sam Bernard and Gaby Deslys. After this, there was a revival of George du Maurier’s Trilby. Before 1915 was over, the theater found its first big success as a venue with the operetta Alone at Last.

In 1917, Clifton Webb and Peggy Wood starred in Love O’Mike, a musical put together by Jerome Kern. Later in the year, it was Sigmund Romberg’s operetta, Maytime. This success enabled the Shubert brothers to stage productions at the 44th Street Theatre. This momentum witnessed Shubert Theatre, as well as the neighboring theaters the brothers were involved in, cater to an eager audience who witnessed stars being born before their very eyes.

Between actors and the talent behind the curtain, some of the greatest legends in the entertainment industry often got their start on Broadway. Such greats like Fred Astaire, Ann Pennington, and Frances Williams each turned Shubert and its neighboring theaters into the apple of Manhattan’s eye. It was 1933’s stage production, Gay Divorce, that witnessed Astaire make his final appearance in a Broadway musical before heading for Hollywood.

Dramatics

The first successful run of Shubert Theatre focused primarily on musicals. Going into the 1930s, it also ventured into straight-acting productions. Such nonmusicals include 1934’s Dodsworth starring Fay Bainter and Walter Huston. This was the play that earned Shubert a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

While the majority of the straight plays were successful there were a few that didn’t do quite as well. 1937’s The Maque of Kings by Maxwell Anderson was one example as it was considered a flop. That same year, however, illustrated musicals were still a big part of what made Shubert so popular on Broadway, to begin with. Babes in Arms and the Theatre Guild’s Amphitryon 38 were considerably more successful. In 1938, the Guild also had I Married an Angel, then 1939’s The Philadelphia Story. These successes, especially the latter of these plays which starred Katharine Hepburn, were key to saving the Theatre Guild from bankruptcy.

Going into the 1940s, Shubert Theatre met with a few failures such as 1940’s Higher and Higher but otherwise continued with one successful stage production after another. In the meantime, new stars were brightening up Broadway, namely Bobby Clark, Helen Ford, Al Jolson, Martha Raye, and Mae West, just to name a few. This trend continued into the 1950s, as well as the 1960s.

It was in 1962 that debuted Barbra Streisand on Broadway in her role in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. While it was her first it was Harold Rome’s last, at least as far as large productions go. When 1963 marked the year of Shubert’s fiftieth anniversary, a plaque was embedded in the corner of its Broadway theater.

In 1967, Shubert Theatre hosted the first Tony Awards which had the surrounding 44th Street covered with carpeting. The theater held the awards ceremony again in 1968. From 1967, Neil Simon’s musical Promises, Promises ran for three years with 1,281 performances. This set a new house record for the theater thanks to its popularity. Since 1968, this same theater held five additional Tony Awards shows. From 1976 until 1979, the recognition ceremonies were held year consecutively before coming back in 1985.

Shubert’s Broadway

When A Chorus Line was relocated to Shubert Theatre in October 1975, the musical’s new location increased Broadway theater attendance to over seven million people in just one year. This Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama remained at this location for over ten years. In 1983, it became the longest-running show on Broadway. It was also the first in the neighborhood to run five thousand performances in 1987. The musical’s choreographer, Michael Bennett, was honored by Shubert shortly afterward.

When April 1990 came around, A Chorus Line outlived its profitability, at least as far as Shubert on Broadway was concerned. It was replaced by West End’s musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story for a short period of time before it was replaced by Crazy for You in February 1992. This became Shubert’s next big hit that enjoyed a four-year run.

After renovations and upgrades, Shubert reopened in April 1996 with Big before Chicago relocated to this theater in February 1997. It was a big hit there until January 2003 when it chose to move to Ambassador Theatre. Before the move, lyricist Adolph Green was paid tribute by the theater. Its replacement was the musical Gypsy by Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne.

For Shubert, even though the exterior of Shubert Theatre and Booth Theatre were the same externally as a Venetian Renaissance design, the themed interior of these theaters was considerably different. Unlike the bigger of these two venues, Booth’s European elegance was somewhat simplified. Shubert Alley was a creation that allowed these two venues to sit on a corner lot yet still connect with each other as if they were one entity.

Theatrical Legacies

Together, Shubert Theatre and Booth Theatre have made such an impression on Broadway, New York, Americans, and the rest of the world that they were rightfully declared as New York City landmarks. Between the architectural splendor and the rich history, these two still define the artistic spirit that still continues to shine the spotlight on Broadway as the “it” place to be. To date, the Shubert Organization is the oldest professional theater company in America. In addition to Shubert Theatre in New York, the group owns hundreds of theatres throughout the country.

In 1973, The Shubert Organization was founded as a company designed to carry the legacy of the brothers who started it all. As a group, they operate seventeen Broadway theatres in New York City that include Ambassador, Barrymore, Belasco, Bernard B. Jacobs, Booth, Broadhurst, Broadway, Cort, Golden, Imperial, Longacre, Lyceum, Majestic, Music Box, Gerald Schoenfeld, Shubert, and Winter Garden. These, combined with the group’s off-Broadway theater locations, have been focusing on keeping the entertainment industry alive and well as one of the most important cultural influences that continue to shape society as we know it. Since the 1990s, The Shubert Organization has poured its focus on revitalizing American theater. This has included a full rehabilitation of the Times Square Theatre District.

The official recognition of Shubert Theatre took place on December 15, 1987, by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. This came five years after the committee looked into preserving this theater, as well as Booth and the rest of them on Broadway. When this was ratified in 1988 by the New York City Board of Estimate, this resulted in a lawsuit issued by the Shubert Organization, Jujamcym, and the Nederlander Organization. This became an argument that reached the New York Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States. Of the twenty-two theaters that were involved, there was a concern about the limitations that were set by the landmark designations. In the end, the collective lawsuit was unable to convince the court to force LPC to make any changes to these designations. This final decision was made in 1992.

Continuing Legacies

The legacy of Shubert Theatre still continues while embracing new challenges such as accessibility issues and societal trends. When COVID-19 caused several businesses to close their doors for the sake of public safety in 2020, Shubert was among them. At the time, a revival of To Kill a Mockingbird had been playing at the theater since 2018. When the doors opened again on October 5, 2012, the Aaron Sorkin play resumed schedule until January 2022. It was followed by a limited run of POTUS, a political comedy that’s scheduled to be followed by the musical, Some Like It Hot.

Adding to Shubert’s legacy is a genuine love of what theater can do to shape society. Through entertainment, there is a knack to bring people together regardless of their political and social affiliations. What started out as a family business has grown into a global love of what art can do on stage with just as much tenacity as what’s put on canvas or shaped as a sculpture.

Resources:

 

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.

https://shubert.nyc/theatres/shubert

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