History Of The Ambassador Theatre On Broadway looks at a theatre built during
post World War I construction in New York. After World War I, the Shubert brothers planned to build six theaters north of Times Square on West 48th and 49th Streets. The Ambassador Theatre was the first of the four that were built. Situated at 219 West 49th Street, it has seen its fair share of struggles. Despite that, it has survived into modern times, which isn’t true for some of its contemporaries. Just three of the four theaters that were built still exist. Furthermore, the Ambassador Theatre is the only one still operated by the Shubert Organization.
The Shubert Brothers’ Continuing Expansion in the 1920s
The Shubert Brothers headed to New York City at the start of the 20th century. In those times, American theater was still dominated by the Theatrical Syndicate. However, it wasn’t too long before the Shubert brothers broke its hold before proceeding to replace it.
With that said, the Shubert Brothers didn’t rise to the top by being complacent. They were still expanding their collection of theaters in New York City and beyond at a blinding pace in the late 1910s and early 1920s. For proof, look no further than the fact that they had just purchased the Century Theatre in 1920 before revealing their intent to build another six theaters in the same year. Three of the four were ready for use in 1921, while the fourth was ready for use in 1925. Indeed, the Shubert Brothers had the Ambassador Theatre built in just 82 days, thus breaking the record for the fastest construction of a theater building in those times.
The rise of the Shubert Brothers ensured the rise of the architect Herbert Krapp. He designed a dozen theaters around Times Square for his clients over the same number of years from 1916 to 1928, which isn’t even mentioning his work for them elsewhere. Chances are good interested individuals can guess the Ambassador Theatre was one of those dozen theaters. It stands out in a couple of ways. First, its facade was ornamented using patterned brick and nothing but patterned brick. Second, its hexagonal-shaped auditorium has a diagonal orientation to increase its seating capacity, which was necessary because of its small lot size. It isn’t clear why these things happened. The speculation is that funding was tight in those times, which wouldn’t be that surprising considering the Shubert brothers’ rate of expansion.
Original Broadway Run
In any case, the Ambassador Theatre opened with The Rose Girl in 1921. Soon enough, it had its first hit with the operetta Blossom Time, which ran for 516 performances. The Ambassador Theatre went on to see other successes such as Queen High in 1926 and Night of January 16th in 1935. Unfortunately, its other shows in the 1920s and 1930s saw less encouraging results for the most part. That was a huge problem because the Great Depression started in 1929, which put enormous pressure on theaters and the companies that owned theaters to perform well. Eventually, the Shubert brothers put the Ambassador Theatre up for sale in 1935, though they retained a lease on it for a time.
The In-Between Years
As such, the Ambassador Theatre saw various uses from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. Some of these uses were non-theatrical. For example, CBS once used the building as a broadcast studio. Likewise, Cummins Pictures once used the building as a film studio. However, the Ambassador Theatre also saw some theatrical uses in that period. It lost its license because the revue Wine, Women, and Song violated ordinances against obscenities in 1942, but it managed to reclaim its license in 1943. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, the Ambassador Theatre saw use for everything from radio and TV to the showing of foreign movies.
Its Subsequent Broadway Run
By 1956, the Shubert Organization was in a position to make the Ambassador Theatre a Broadway theater once more. Subsequently, it reopened with a comedy called Loud Red Patrick. Like before, it saw somewhat mixed results. Certainly, it had its successes. For instance, The Diary of Anne Frank ran for a total of 717 performances at the Cort Theatre and then at the Ambassador Theatre. Moreover, it claimed a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1956. Likewise, the Ambassador Theatre hosted the transfer Stop the World – I Want to Get Off in 1963 and You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running in 1969. Still, its other shows tended to be less notable.
In the 1980s, the Ambassador Theatre entered the news because of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee’s efforts to preserve Broadway theaters. The latter designated both the theater’s exterior and interior as landmarks in 1985, which was met with considerable disgruntlement from the Shubert Organization. As a partial concession, the New York City Board of Estimate ratified the designation for the theater’s interior because it had both cultural and architectural significance but refused to ratify the designation for the theater’s exterior because it only had cultural significance.
Later, the Ambassador Theatre entered the news in the early 1990s because of the death of the actress Colleen Dewhurst in 1991. Essentially, she had long been associated with the playwright Eugene O’Neil. Since the Ambassador Theatre was situated so close to the Eugene O’Neil Theatre, some people thought it would be very fitting for it to receive a rename. That never happened.
Meanwhile, the Ambassador Theatre continued in much the same manner as always. Its last show of the 1980s was The Circle, which ran for 208 performances. After that, the Ambassador Theatre hosted no legitimate shows for five years. Fortunately, it would have a huge hit with Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, which ran for 1135 performances after moving there from off-Broadway in 1996. Subsequently, the Ambassador Theatre would host a small number of shows from the late 1990s to the early 2000s before securing Chicago in 2003.
The current Broadway production of Chicago is a revival that started in 1996. Initially, it was hosted at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, the same venue that had hosted the original Broadway production. Later, it transferred to the Shubert Theatre in 1997 and then to the Ambassador Theatre in 2003. Chicago is still ongoing as of 2022. It has had more than 10,000 performances, thus enabling it to claim several distinctions. For example, it is the longest-running revival on Broadway. Similarly, it is the longest-running show to premiere on Broadway. With that said, it remains to be seen whether Chicago will ever overtake The Phantom of the Opera, which is set to finish its three-and-a-half-decades-long run in early 2023.
Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.
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.
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