History Of New York’s Winter Garden Theatre

Winter Garden Theater History

Feature Photo: Brian Kachejian © 2022

The Winter Garden Theatre is one of New York City’s 41 Broadway theaters. It is situated at 1634 Broadway, thus making it one of a small number situated on the road itself. Furthermore, it boasts a capacity of 1,600, meaning it clears the minimum capacity of 500 needed to be considered a Broadway theater by a considerable margin. The Winter Garden Theatre has been in near-continuous operation since 1911, though the building itself can trace its roots further back.

The Forerunners of the Winter Garden Theatre

Confusingly, the Winter Garden Theatre isn’t the first theater to bear that name in New York City. Previously, there was a theater situated at 667 Broadway, which existed for just 17 years from 1850 to 1867. Despite that, it went through a succession of names, culminating in it being called the Winter Garden Theatre for the last eight years of its existence from 1859 to 1867. It burned down on March 23 of 1867. Rather than rebuild it, the co-manager Edwin Booth chose to build a new theater called the Booth Theatre, which isn’t the same as the current Booth Theatre. As for the site of the first Winter Garden Theatre, it went on to host a hotel and then a student residence.

Instead, the Winter Garden Theatre was preceded by William Kissam Vanderbilt’s American Horse Exchange. The initial building was completed in 1811. Unfortunately, it went through a horrific fire in 1896, which killed closer to a hundred horses. Vanderbilt paid for a replacement, which incorporated a part of the initial building that had survived. That replacement is what would become the Winter Garden Theatre in 1911.

How the American Horse Exchange Became the Winter Garden Theatre

Once upon a time, horses were an important source of power. However, there was a near-total shift from a reliance on horses to a reliance on motor vehicles in the first half of the 20th century. That process happened sooner in some places than in others. Still, it was clear that a shift was happening by the late 1900s and early 1910s, not least because the Model T came out in 1908. As such, it was clear that horses and horse-related institutions would be seeing a massive fall in relevance, though it would take some time for the shift to finish even in cutting-edge New York City. Something that presumably played a role in Vanderbilt’s choice to lease out the building for the American Horse Exchange.

Meanwhile, the Shubert brothers were building an empire. Their family moved from Eastern Europe to the United States in 1882. Subsequently, the three Shubert brothers started working as children because their father couldn’t support their family. Eventually, they became involved in theater, rising through the ranks until they were in theater management. That wasn’t enough for the Shubert brothers, who proceeded to borrow money before heading to New York City in 1900. The middle Shubert brother Sam Shubert died from injuries sustained during a train wreck in 1905. After this, the remaining Shubert brothers started expanding their theater empire by leaps and bounds. Supposedly, they had thought about giving up in the face of entrenched competition but became more determined than ever when one of their leading competitors insulted their brother’s memory. By 1916, the Shubert brothers had become the dominant force in American theater.

It was the youngest Shubert brother Jacob Shubert who took the lead in establishing the Winter Garden Theatre. At the time, the American Horse Exchange was quite a bit north of the established theater district. However, Jacob Shubert liked the look of the building, which was good because that coincided with Vanderbilt’s interest in seeking an alternative given declining horse sales. As a result, the Shubert brothers leased the site in 1910. Originally, they intended to rework the building in partnership with the producer Lew Fields. That plan fell through when Jacob Shubert made changes to Lew Fields’ plans for the buildings before criticizing him for overspending. Eventually, Lew Fields stepped away from the project by transferring his stake to the Shubert brothers.

The Winter Garden Theatre became ready for use in 1911. That was made possible under the direction of the architect William Albert Swasey, who turned the American Horse Exchange’s show-ring into the Winter Garden Theatre’s auditorium. Later, a couple of other architects also got the chance to work on the building in a notable way. One was Herbert J. Krapp, who oversaw the building’s renovation in 1922, which involved lowering the ceiling, eliminating a once-famous runway, and bringing the building closer in style to the Shubert brothers’ other theaters. Another was Francesca Russo, who oversaw an enormous amount of restoration work in 2001.

Famous Productions At the Winter Garden Theatre

At first, the Winter Garden Theatre started with the musical revue La Belle Paree. Following that, it hosted two more musical revues, one called Revue of Revues and the other called Vera Violetta. La Belle Paree was where Al Jolson had his Broadway debut. That is notable because Jolson went on to become one of the highest-paid stars in the United States in the 1920s. In considerable part, that was because the Shubert brothers recognized his ability to win over the audience, which contributed a fair amount to the Winter Garden Theatre’s initial success.

Since then, the Winter Garden Theatre has continued to host famous productions. It would be an exaggeration to say that every single one has been successful. Still, chances are good that interested individuals can recognize at least some of them. For instance, the original production of West Side Story debuted at the Winter Garden Theatre, where it would remain for 732 performances before heading out on tour. Meanwhile, Cats debuted in London in 1981, but it wasn’t too long before an American production of Cats started at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1982. People were skeptical of the idea for various reasons. In the end, Cats proved the doubters wrong by becoming a multi-billion-grossing musical that lasted for 18 years at just the Winter Garden Theatre. In more recent times, there was the School of Rock musical based on the movie of the same name, which run for 1,309 performances over three years.

As such, it is no exaggeration to say that the Winter Garden Theatre has been one of the most important locations for American theater and beyond ever since it opened its doors in 1911. Its exact offerings have changed in close coordination with the times themselves. Even so, the Winter Garden Theatre is a place where both people and productions make their names for a century and counting.





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