Our History of The American Airlines Theatre On Broadway looks at a theater
revitalized for a new millennium. Broadway theaters experience highs and lows in much the same way as everything else. To name an example, the formerly-named Selwyn Theatre at 227 West 42nd Street went through decades of use as a grindhouse theater. Fortunately, New York City included it in the redevelopment plans for a sizable portion of West 42nd Street during the 1980s and 1990s. Thanks to that, the newly-named American Airlines Theatre was revitalized in time to greet the new millennium in 2000. It has continued serving as a Broadway theatre ever since.
The Building of the Theater
Archibald Selwyn and Edgar Selwyn were notable figures in American entertainment in the first half of the 20th century. The brothers were two of the three co-founders of Goldwyn Pictures, which passed its lion mascot on to its successor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). It is important to note the Selwyn brothers weren’t satisfied by being involved with just one kind of American entertainment. They were also quite interested in theaters.
The building that once bore their name was one of their later projects. In short, the Selwyn brothers teamed up with William Brady and the Shubert brothers to build the Princess Theatre in 1913. The theater had a slow start, so they sold their ownership stake. Then, the Selwyn brothers bought the Boston-based Cort Theatre before renaming it the Park Square Theatre in 1915. By 1921, they had renamed it after themselves, which meant very little because 1926 saw its demolition to make way for a parking lot. After that, the Selwyn brothers decided to build a George Keister-designed theater named for them accessed through another building named for them. That theater would be the one now called the American Airlines Theatre.
Under the Selwyn Brothers
In October 1918, the Selwyn Theatre opened its doors with Information Please. That was a flop with just 46 performances. Still, it wasn’t too long before the Selwyn Theatre had its first hit with Buddies, which started in October of 1919 before running for 269 performances. Matters proceeded in much the same manner throughout the 1920s. The Circle was a hit in 1921, while Battling Buttler was another hit in 1923. Other hits ranged from Charlot Revue in 1924 and 1925 to Wake Up and Dream in 1929. The issue is that these were counter-balanced by their not-so-successful counterparts. These seemed to have had enough of a negative impact on the Selwyn Theatre’s revenue stream to make the Selwyn brothers host Sunday night shows, host miscellaneous events, and otherwise increase their revenues.
Those measures weren’t enough when the Great Depression came around in the late 1920s. The Dry Dock Savings Bank went lenient on the Selwyn brothers by promising it wouldn’t foreclose on the Selwyn Theatre so long as they could produce a hit. Sadly, their efforts failed repeatedly, not least because the Great Depression was a very bad time for Broadway as a whole. Eventually, the Dry Dock Savings Bank foreclosed on the Selwyn Theatre in 1934. Afterward, the Brandt family bought it in 1937.
Its Life As a Movie Theater
The Selwyn Theatre became a grindhouse theater. Interested individuals might associate that label with theaters specializing in exploitation movies. However, that association came about later when various socioeconomic factors pressured less expensive theaters to differentiate themselves by offering something that TVs did not. In earlier times, grindhouse theaters were defined by how they continuously showed a wide range of movies while charging low fees. Those movies didn’t have to be bad from a conventional perspective. They were often that anyway.
Curiously, the Selwyn Theatre did host live shows for a brief period in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Specifically, there was The Respectful Prostitute from 1949 to 1950, which rotated with movies. Subsequently, there was Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath. Following that, the Selwyn Theatre returned to showing just movies because there wasn’t enough interest from either internal or external parties to sustain live shows at the venue.
Put bluntly, the Selwyn Theatre did not do well in the second half of the 20th century. By the late 1950s, it had become a “move-over house,” meaning it showed relatively recent movies transferred from first-run theaters. That would continue into the mid-1980s, though it had started showing exploitation movies by that point as well. Unfortunately, stories from the period make it clear the Selwyn Theatre was undergoing a gradual decline, which is unsurprising because the entire area was undergoing a gradual decline.
Interest in redeveloping the area existed at least as far back as the mid-1970s. Still, it took a long time for the funds to be found, the political will to be mustered, and everything else to come together. Even so, the Selwyn Theatre received little interest until late into the process. That can be seen in how it was added to the redevelopment plan in 1982 but wasn’t restored until the end of the 1990s, which was particularly notable because it lagged behind its counterparts in this regard. Things didn’t start settling into place for the Selwyn Theatre until the Roundabout Theatre Company started looking for a new home in 1996.
With that said, the Selwyn Theatre ran into one more complication when the Selwyn Building just straight-up collapsed at the end of 1997, which was a huge problem because that was its original means of access. Reportedly, the collapse was caused by the Big Apple Wrecking and Construction Corporation when it failed to underpin the foundation while excavating a different site. The New York City Department of Buildings found the company liable, thus resulting in a fine of several thousand dollars.
As for the Selwyn Theatre, New 42nd Street reworked its plans for its new building so that the Selwyn Theatre could be accessed through it rather than through the collapsed Selwyn Building. Meanwhile, the Roundabout Theatre Company continued to raise funds, which had become even more urgent after the owner of the Criterion Center terminated its lease in March 1999 because of the marked increase in local real estate valuation. Fortunately, it managed to get everything into place in time. However, the Roundabout Theatre Company had to get assistance from American Airlines, which agreed to give an annual payment of $850,000 for at least 10 years in exchange for the theater’s renaming rights.
Under the Roundabout Theatre Company
In 2000, the Selwyn Theatre reopened its doors as the American Airlines Theatre with The Man Who Came to Dinner. It had an unusual number of new shows in that first decade. That wasn’t because it had a succession of flops. Instead, that was because the Roundabout Theatre Company went with limited runs whether shows succeeded or failed. The American Airlines Theatre continued to do well in the 2010s. For example, the Roundabout Theatre Company became somewhat more flexible with its policy of limited runs, as shown by the extension of The Importance of Being Earnest in 2011. Something that wouldn’t have happened if the show hadn’t been popular. Likewise, the Roundabout Theatre Company renewed its deal with American Airlines, which is why the theater continues to bear its name. The American Airlines Theatre did see a stop from March 2020 to October 2021 because of COVID-19. It reopened with Trouble in Mind before continuing with other shows as before.
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.
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