History Of The Barrymore Theatre On Broadway looks at a theater that has never been sold and never renamed. A true rarity in the history of Broadway Theaters. The full name of the Barrymore Theatre is the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It is notable in several ways. For example, it is the last theater that Lee and Jacob Shubert ever built, thus making it the last theater that the Shubert Organization ever built until 2003. Likewise, it is unusual in that it has remained under the same name and the same ownership from the start. Now as then, the Barrymore Theatre continues to entertain interested individuals with its 1,058 seating capacity at 243 West 47th Street.
Built For One of America’s Great Actresses
By this point, interested individuals might be able to guess that the Barrymore Theatre was named for an actress. After all, Drew Barrymore is known to have come from a famous acting family, so it isn’t a huge conceptual jump to think that a theatrical personality with the same surname might have been a relative. Specifically, Ethel Barrymore was the middle child of Maurice Barrymore and Georgie Drew Barrymore, thus making her a great-aunt to Drew Barrymore.
With that said, the Shubert brothers built the Barrymore Theatre. They had become so dominant in American theater that they controlled a quarter of plays plus three-quarters of bookings in the country by 1925. However, the Shubert brothers continued to build and otherwise acquire Broadway theaters in the 1920s. Eventually, they offered to build one named after Ethel Barrymore if she agreed to be managed by them. It seems safe to say the Shubert brothers made the offer because she remained one of the greatest actresses around in her late 40s. She agreed, so the work on the building started and finished in 1928.
The Barrymore Theatre was another Broadway Theater from this period designed by Herbert Krapp. The Shubert brothers were very fond of his work, so they consistently chose him for their theaters and other buildings. Furthermore, Krapp designed other theaters for other clients, meaning it is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most influential figures for the look of the Broadway Theater district as a whole. The Barrymore Theatre stands out because it has one of the more striking facades. A huge, Roman-inspired screen dominates, so much so that it looms over a marquee providing cover for the pair of archways flanking a door. Curiously, the limestone-looking blocks on the ground floor aren’t limestone. Instead, they are terracotta painted to look like limestone. As for the interior, it took influence from Elizabethan, Mediterranean Revival, and even a neoclassical-derived style called the Adam style.
During the First Half of the 20th Century
Unsurprisingly, Ethel Barrymore starred in The Kingdom of God, the first play at the theater bearing her name. The theater was completed a bit behind schedule, so the show had to go on tour for a few weeks. Still, Ethel Barrymore met with an enthusiastic response on December 20, 1928, when the theater bearing her name opened its doors. Subsequently, the Barrymore Theatre hosted a succession of other shows, some of which had her in the starring role whereas others did not. That initial period ended in 1932 when Ethel Barrymore left the Shubert brothers’ management.
Of course, the Barrymore Theatre continued to host shows throughout the remainder of the first half of the 20th century. There were flops, but there were also hits to counterbalance those flops. For example, the all-women cast of The Women proved popular in the mid-1930s, thus enabling the comedy of manners to run for 657 performances. Likewise, the war drama Tomorrow the World ran for 499 performances after starting in 1943, presumably because its themes resonated with its audience. On top of these, the Barrymore Theatre was one of the hosts of the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which cast Marlon Brando even though he was a relative unknown at the time. That show managed 855 performances before closing in 1949.
During the Second Half of the 20th Century
The Barrymore Theatre continued to host shows throughout the second half of the 20th century. Its 1950s hits included Bell, Book, and Candle in 1950, Look Homeward, Angel in 1957, and A Raising in the Sun in 1959. Meanwhile, it saw more hits in the 1970s than in the 1960s. Examples ranged from Wait Until Dark in 1966 to Travesties in 1975, I Love My Wife in 1977, and Romantic Comedy in 1979.
In the 1980s, the Barrymore Theatre hosted several hits, such as Baby in 1983, Hurlyburly in 1984, and Social Security in 1986. However, that decade also tends to be remembered for a couple of other things. First, the Barrymore Theatre was renovated because of the Shubert Organization’s restoration program for its theaters in the late 1980s. Second, both the facade and the interior of the Barrymore Theatre received landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on November 4 and November 10 of 1987 respectively.
As for the 1990s, several shows stood out in that decade. One was an off-Broadway production called The Sisters Rosensweig, which transferred to the Barrymore Theatre in 1993 before running for 556 performances. Another was an off-off-Broadway production called The Life that transferred to the Barrymore Theatre in 1997 before running for 465 performances. The last show at the theater before the start of the 21st century was Putting It Together, a musical revue centered on the American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s music.
This Side of the Millennium
This millennium opened strong with The Real Thing and The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife in 2000. The latter ran for 777 performances, a record that few shows at the Barrymore Theatre have managed to match. Since then, other hits have ranged from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to The Band’s Visit. The first ran for 800 performances from October 2014 to September 2016, whereas the second ran for 36 preview performances and 589 regular performances from October 2017 to April 2019.
On March 12 of 2020, the Barrymore Theatre closed its doors because of the COVID-19 crisis. That interrupted The Inheritance, which had been running since November 2019. However, that wasn’t too bad of an interruption because it had been scheduled to close just a few days after that date. On September 4, 2021, the Barrymore Theatre reopened its doors, hosting a limited production of Waitress scheduled to run until the end of the same year. More shows have followed since.
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.
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
ClassicNewYorkHistory.com claims ownership of all its original content and Intellectual property under United States Copyright laws and those of all other foreign countries. No one person, business or any organizations is allowed to republish any of our original content anywhere on the web or in print without our permission.