History Of The Belasco Theatre On Broadway

History Of The Belasco Theatre On Broadway

Feature Photo: debra millet / Shutterstock.com

David Belasco was a notable figure in American entertainment from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. He was the one who commanded the construction of the building that bears his name. Since then, the building has served as a theater, except for a short period in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Nowadays, the Belasco Theatre situated at 111 West 44th Street is one of the numerous Broadway theaters belonging to the Shubert Organization, which is still the biggest operator of such venues by a considerable margin.

The Building of the Belasco Theatre

The Belasco Theatre on 44th Street isn’t the first building to bear that name in New York City. That is because David Belasco leased the Republic Theatre on 42nd Street before renaming it for himself in 1902. As such, it wouldn’t have made much sense for him to name a second building for himself when he had a new theater built on 44th Street in 1906 and 1907. Instead, it received the name Stuyvesant Theatre to honor Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of New Netherland. It wasn’t until 1910 that the Stuyvesant Theatre became the second Belasco Theatre while its predecessor reverted to its previous name.

In any case, Belasco didn’t prioritize size when building the Belasco Theatre. He is known to have shared the Little Theatre Movement’s interest in hosting more intimate shows by bringing actors closer to their audience. However, he didn’t hesitate to spend when it came to the building’s interior. Examples of the gorgeous ornamentation include but aren’t limited to the rich woodwork, the sweeping murals, and the Tiffany Studios-designed lighting fixtures. On top of that, Belasco provided the Belasco Theatre with the latest systems of his time, not least because he had a strong interest in stagecraft tools.

Under David Belasco

In 1907, the Belasco Theatre opened its doors with a musical called A Grand Army Man. Some theaters take years and years before securing a hit. The Belasco Theatre had a smoother experience in the earliest part of its existence. For instance, it hosted The Concert in 1910 and Return of Peter Grimm in 1911, both of which managed to run for more than 200 performances. Furthermore, most of the almost 50 shows that Belasco either directed or produced at the theater from 1907 to 1931 managed to run for at least 100 performances. A record of surprisingly consistent success that was enviable, to say the least.

Between Belasco and the Shubert Organization

Belasco’s direct ownership of the theater came to an end with his death in 1931. Subsequently, it came under the control of various parties. However, the Belasco Theatre continued to host notable shows from 1931 to 1948. Sometimes, these shows were notable because of their success. One example is how the Guild Theatre showed Dead End from 1935 to 1937, which set a record for the theater’s longest-running show with 684 performances. Other times, these shows were notable for much more dramatic reasons. In 1945, The owners of the Belasco Theatre evicted Max Jelin despite his two-year lease because his Trio brought up themes of lesbianism. That was still a very controversial topic in those times, seeing as how even the Stonewall riots wouldn’t happen until 1969. The New York Supreme Court reinstated Jelin in 1946. Later, the New York Supreme Court also made him leave when he refused to do so after his lease ran out in 1947.

Under the Shubert Organization

The Shubert Organization gained control of the Belasco Theatre in 1948. For a time, it leased the building to NBC for use as a broadcast studio. By 1953, the Belasco Theatre was back to being a theater. It had some successes in the 1950s and 1960s. In particular, All the Way Home won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1960. Unfortunately, it was hit harder than most of its counterparts when Broadway went into a downturn in the late 1960s. Eventually, the situation became so bad that the Shubert Organization started using the Belasco Theatre as a home for the final runs of shows that had been playing at its other Broadway Theaters. A choice that says much about how it was perceived at this time.

In the 1980s, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission started moving to preserve Broadway Theaters. The Belasco Theatre was one of the theaters that had both its interior and its exterior designated as landmarks in 1987. There was a legal fight because the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, and Jujamcyn Theaters didn’t like the additional restrictions on what they could and couldn’t do with their buildings. In the end, the designations were upheld when the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case in 1992.

The Belasco Theatre Since the 1980s

The Belasco Theatre has continued hosting shows since the 1980s. For the most part, these haven’t been very notable. However, there is a notable exception with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which ran for 507 performances from 2014 to 2015. Amusingly, the show even mentions David Belasco. For those curious, the Belasco Theatre is one of the Broadway theaters with a reputation for being haunted. Supposedly, David Belasco continues to live in the building in death much as he did in life. His appearance is a sign of good luck, which is perhaps unsurprising considering his record with his shows. As such, the people behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch decided to have the lead character ask the audience members seated in Box B whether they have seen Belasco every single performance.

Since Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Belasco Theatre has seen another succession of shows come and go. A couple of things are worth mentioning. One, it had its first movie screening when Netflix leased it to show The Irishman in 2019, which necessitated some retrofitting of the building to make that possible. Two, Girl From the North Country proved decently popular, as shown by how it started in 2020 and then survived the COVID-19 crisis to return in 2021 and 2022.

References:

 

http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1317.pdf

https://shubert.nyc/theatres/belasco/

https://www.spotlightonbroadway.com/theater/belasco

Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.

https://www.playbill.com/article/scandals-and-secrets-of-the-supernatural-the-stories-behind-broadways-haunted-theatres-com-334137

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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