History Of The August Wilson Theatre On Broadway

History Of The August Wilson Theatre On Broadway

Feature Photo: Gordon Bell / Shutterstock.com

The August Wilson Theatre is a Broadway theater with approximately 1,225 seats. It was built to resemble a 15th-century Tuscan villa. Thanks to that, the building can be recognized because of several distinctive characteristics. For instance, most of its facade is surfaced using stucco. In contrast, the openings in its facade have borders of rusticated blocks. The building’s exterior even has a small loggia, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the frequency with which such spaces showed up in the Italian architecture of certain periods. The August Wilson Theatre’s ownership has changed more than once over the decades. However, the theater itself continues to serve its intended purpose.

Finding a New Home For the Theatre Guild

Four individuals founded the theater company called the Theatre Guild in 1919. Originally, it rented the Garrick Theatre on Broadway, which had 537 seats. By 1923, that had become insufficient because the Theatre Guild’s 15-strong subscriber base had grown into a 6,000-strong subscriber base. As such, the theater company needed a new home with more seating capacity. Without that, its rapid rate of expansion would come to a stop because it wouldn’t be capable of accommodating all of the interested individuals out there.

To remedy this, the Theatre Guild proposed to build a theater on Broadway with twice the number of seats, which would cost an estimated $500,000. It raised the funds by first selling bonds to its subscribers and then to the members of the general public. There was some internal disagreement over what the theater should look like. Still, everything was in place for the construction to start in December 1924. Just five months later, the Theatre Guild had a new home with more seating capacity situated at 245 West 52nd Street. Its name was the Guild Theatre.

As the Guild Theatre

The Guild Theatre’s first show on Broadway was a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, a fictionalized depiction of the two’s relationship from their fateful meeting in Alexandria to Caesar’s departure for Rome after defeating the forces of Ptolemy XIII and Arsinoe IV. In total, it ran for 128 performances. Most of the theater’s shows in those earliest times ran for several weeks, which was enough time for the subscribers to see them. After which, the shows would relocate to a bigger venue if they were successful enough to warrant a transfer.

By the late 1930s, the Guild Theatre was starting to struggle. Specifically, it couldn’t secure long-running shows. If a show was successful, it tended to move to a different venue after just 50 performances. In contrast, if a show wasn’t successful, it might not even make it to 50 performances. Eventually, the Theatre Guild started leasing the building to external producers. By the early 1940s, its interest in the building had waned even further because it had outgrown it, so much so that most of its shows were hosted at either the Shubert Theatre or the St. James Theatre.

Soon enough, the Theatre Guild parted ways with the theater it had built on Broadway. The latter came under the ownership of the West 52nd Street Theatre Company. In 1949, there was a fight over the future of the Guild Theatre because of the reorganization of the West 52nd Street Theatre Company. The Shubert brothers expressed an interest in buying it. However, that met with opposition because they were so dominant in their chosen market by that point that they owned 98 percent of the legitimate theaters in the United States. In the end, a federal judge put the building up for auction, which saw the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) as the winner.

As the ANTA Theatre

The newly-renamed ANTA Theatre’s first show was Robinson Jeffers’ The Tower Beyond Tragedy in 1950. It continued hosting shows until 1953 and 1954, which was when it closed for a major renovation of the interior that removed the interior decorations. Subsequently, the ANTA Theatre reopened with William Archibald’s Portrait of a Lady. It continued to host shows from the rest of the 1950s to the early 1980s. One example of a notable show from this period was Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night, which had the distinction of being its first long-running hit under its new name with 477 performances. Other notable shows ranged from Say, Darling and J.B. in 1958 to The Last of Mrs. Lincoln in 1972 and Bubbling Brown Sugar in 1976.

As the Virginia Theatre

In August 1981, Jujamcyn Theaters purchased the ANTA Theatre. In those times, Jujamcyn Theaters was owned by James Binger and his wife, Virginia McKnight Binger. Towards the end of the year, it was revealed that the ANTA Theatre would be renamed the Virginia Theatre in honor of the latter. This time around, the theater on Broadway ran for a much shorter time before seeing a hit. That was the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes in 1983, which saw a total of 505 performances.

With that said, the Virginia Theatre was more notable in the 1980s because the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission started moving to protect Broadway theaters in that decade. Much of the political will came from the demolition of several theaters in the area. However, the Virginia Theatre seems to have figured in the minds of relevant individuals as well. After all, it had lost its interior decorations by that point, meaning it was cited as another example of what could happen when Broadway theaters weren’t protected. Not coincidentally, the facade of the Virginia Theatre was designated a landmark in 1985, whereas the interior of the same building received no such status. As far as the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was concerned, it was already too late for the latter.

In any case, the Virginia Theatre saw some notable shows from the rest of the 1980s to the early 2000s. One excellent example was City of Angels in 1989, which ran for more than two years. Others included Jelly’s Last Jam from 1992 to 1993, Smokey Joe’s Cafe from 1995 to 2000, and Little Shop of Horrors from 2003 to 2004.

As the August Wilson Theatre

Rocco Landesman bought Jujamcyn’s theaters after the death of James Binger in 2004. In September 2005, he announced that the Virginia Theatre would be renamed for August Wilson, an African-American playwright who had won not one but two Pulitzer Prizes. The renaming was one more in a long line of honors because it made him the first black theatrical personality to have a Broadway theater named for him.

It is interesting to note that the August Wilson Theatre has seen a relatively small number of shows from the rest of the 2000s to the present. That is because of a couple of shows. First, there was Jersey Boys, which proved popular enough to run for 4,642 performances from 2005 to 2017. Second, there was Mean Girls, which was less popular but ran for 833 performances from 2017 to 2020. It might have lasted longer under other circumstances, but it was one of those shows that failed to survive the COVID-19 shutdown. The August Wilson Theatre became the first Broadway theater to reopen with Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over on August 4 of 2021.

References:

https://www.spotlightonbroadway.com/theater/august-wilson

http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1309.pdf

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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