The Booth Theatre was built at the same time as the Shubert Theatre. However, it would be difficult for interested individuals to mistake one for the other. After all, the Booth Theatre is a much smaller building with 800 seats, whereas the Shubert Theatre is a much bigger building with 1,502 seats. That is no coincidence. The Booth Theatre was meant to be a new kind of theater for a new kind of show.
Building a Small Theater For a New Kind of Show
Three parties must be mentioned when talking about the creation of the Booth Theatre. First, there were the Shubert Brothers. They weren’t as dominant in the 1910s as they would become in the 1920s. Still, they had proven themselves to be a formidable force in American theater, as shown by their building of theater after theater. Second, there was Winthrop Ames, a scion of a well-to-do family who didn’t get involved in theater until his mid-30s because of his family’s opposition. He teamed up with the Shubert brothers to build the Booth Theatre. Moreover, he was the one with the vision for what it was supposed to be. Third, there was Henry B. Herts, an architect who worked on several Broadway theaters in the early 20th century both on his own and in coordination with others.
Ames had already worked with two large-sized theaters by the 1910s. One was the Castle Square Theatre in Boston, while the other was the New Theatre in New York City. This seems to have soured him on large-sized theaters because he became a supporter of the Little Theatre Movement. As such, he built two small-sized theaters to host more intimate shows than most of their contemporaries. First, there was the Little Theatre in 1912, which lived up to its name by having just 299 seats at the start. Second, there was the Booth Theatre in 1912 and 1913, which continues to stand at 222 West 45th Street. It is interesting to note that Ames’s background enabled him to contribute to the design of his theaters. He had studied architecture and worked in architectural publishing. On top of that, Ames had taken extensive notes on the latest innovations in European theater-building, which served as a source of inspiration for him.
As for the name of the Booth Theatre, it is known that Ames wanted to call it the Gotham Theatre for some time. In the end, he went with the Booth Theatre. To an extent, that is because his father had a stake in the original Booth Theatre in New York City, meaning there was something of a personal connection. However, the more relevant reason is that Edwin Booth was still very well-respected in the early 20th century, which makes more sense because one realizes that he was a serious contender for having been the greatest American actor of the 19th century. By honoring Edwin Booth, Ames borrowed some of the man’s prestige for his theater while signaling his high ambitions for his shows.
Under Winthrop Ames
The Booth Theatre opened with The Great Adventure on October 16, 1913. That show wasn’t very successful, as shown by how it ran for just 52 performances. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before the Booth Theatre saw a hit with Experience in late 1914, which ran for 255 performances. More hits followed from the mid-1910s to the early 1920s. Examples ranged from Getting Married in 1916 and A Successful Calamity in 1917 to The Great Goddess in 1921 and Seventh Heaven in 1922. The mid-1920s proved less kind, though the Booth Theatre did see some hits during the remainder of the decade. For instance, there was Saturday’s Children in 1927, a comedy that managed 310 performances. Finally, Ames decided to retire from producing in October 1929, though he didn’t step away from the Booth Theatre altogether until 1932.
Under the Shubert Organization
Since then, the Booth Theatre has been run by the Shubert Organization. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some decades have been kinder to it than others. To name an example, the 1930s were not a good time for the Booth Theatre. Its central location made it a popular choice of venue, but it suffered from a lack of long-running hits. There were exceptions such as Another Language in 1932, but those were very much exceptions to the rule.
In contrast, the 1940s to the 1970s were kinder to the Booth Theatre. It hosted several long-running shows in these decades. One example would be The Tenth Man in 1959, which ran for 623 performances. Another example would be Butterflies Are Free in 1969, which ran for 1,128 performances. Others ranged from That Championship Season in 1972 to For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf in 1976. Eventually, the Booth Theatre received a redesign by Melanie Kahane in 1979. After this, it hosted The Elephant Man, which won three of the six Tony Awards it was nominated for.
The 1980s saw more hits such as Sunday in the Park with George in 1984, I’m Not Rappaport in 1985, and Shirley Valentine in 1989. Besides those, the decade is notable for being the one in which both the facade and the interior of the Booth Theatre received landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The designations happened in 1987, while the ratifications happened in 1988. There was a legal battle over the issue, which ended with the landmark status remaining in place in 1992.
Speaking of which, the Booth Theatre also did well in the 1990s. Once on This Island ran for 469 performances after debuting in 1990. Similarly, The Old Neighborhood managed 197 performances towards the latter part of the decade. Not every show in the 1990s was a hit. Even so, enough of them were to make the decade a decent one for the theater on the whole.
In More Recent Decades
Meanwhile, the Booth Theatre has seen fewer stand-out successes this millennium. There have been successes such as Thurgood in 2008 and Hand to God in 2015. However, most of their counterparts have been lower profile while seeing fewer runs. With that said, Bette Midler broke the Boothe Theatre’s box office record with I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers in May 2013. The Elephant Man revival broke that record in December 2014, which was followed by The Boys in the Band breaking that record in August 2018. As such, it isn’t quite accurate to say that recent decades have been bad for the Booth Theatre.
In any case, the Booth Theatre closed in March 2020 like its counterparts because of the COVID-19 crisis, which put a premature end to a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Subsequently, it reopened with a limited run of Freestyle Love Supreme in October 2021 before continuing with other shows. The Booth Theatre has been operating as a Broadway theater since 1913. It shows every indication of continuing to do so for the foreseeable future.
History of The Booth Theatre On Broadway article published on ClassicNewYorkHistory.com ©2022
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