History Of The Broadway Theater On Broadway

History Of The Broadway Theater On Broadway

Feature Photo: Epicgenius, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Broadway Theatre at 1681 Broadway stands out in several ways from its counterparts. For instance, it is one of a small number of Broadway Theaters on Broadway itself. Similarly, it is unusual as a movie theater turned legitimate theater. With that said, the Broadway Theatre’s history as both a movie theater and a legitimate theater has seen it hosting a wide range of shows, which include some surprising names.

Building B.S. Moss’s Century Theatre

Originally, the Broadway Theatre was called B.S. Moss’s Century Theatre, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that B.S. Moss was behind its building. However, Eugene De Rosa was the one who designed B.S. Moss’s Century Theatre. He was an architect who did very well from the late 1910s to the late 1920s because of his focus on theater-building. De Rosa’s business collapsed for the most part during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, he failed to revive his career because he died in 1945 when he was preparing to return to work in theater-building. In any case, the construction of the Century Theatre started in 1923 and finished in 1924. The initial expectation was that it would cost $350,000. In the end, it cost $2 million.

Under B.S. Moss

The Century Theatre opened with the silent swashbuckler movie The Thief of Bagdad on December 25, 1924. It doesn’t get much mention nowadays. Even so, The Thief of Bagdad was quite important, as shown by its inclusion in the U.S. National Film Registry in 1996. Subsequently, the Century Theatre showed more movies, such as Friendly Enemies and The Flaming Frontier. Besides that, it was also known to host a so-called “lingerie revue” every week.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Century Theatre continued showing movies while its management mulled over plans to host legitimate shows. Of special note was the premiere of Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928. Strictly speaking, that wasn’t Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse’s first time on the screen because Plane Crazy predated Steamboat Willie. The latter still tends to be considered their debut because it was the public’s introduction to the two cartoon characters.

Eventually, those plans to host legitimate shows led to renovations. These brought about an expansion of the building’s seating capacity to approximately 2,000. Furthermore, these resulted in the renaming of the Century Theatre to the Broadway Theatre, which was possible because the previous building to bear that name had been demolished by that point. Soon enough, the building hosted its first legitimate show called The New Yorkers, which ran from December 1930 to May 1931. That made it the biggest Broadway theater of its time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have impressed people much because the Broadway Theatre proceeded to stand empty for several months.

The Uncertain Circumstances of the 1930s

B.S Moss sold the Broadway Theatre in July 1932. From that point, it passed from owner to owner, not least because of the far-reaching effects of the Great Depression. At one point, it was even a movie theater called Ciné Roma that showed Italian movies and only Italian movies. Things didn’t settle down when Lee Shubert and Clifford Fischer took it over in December 1939. They renovated the building so that it could host the revue called Folies Bergère. Then, they used it to host both movies and live shows. One particularly well-known name was the Disney movie Fantasia, which chose the Broadway Theatre as the first stop for its roadshow in 1940. The movie was well-received but failed to make a profit because of high costs and the lack of access to the European market during World War II.

Under the Shubert Organization

The Shubert family bought the Broadway Theatre in July 1943. From the early 1940s to the early 1950s, the building continued to host both movies and live shows as the circumstances dictated. As such, the Broadway Theatre was home to everything from the operetta Carmen Jones in 1943 to the documentary This Is Cinerama in 1953. It is interesting to note that the building hosted several transfers in this period. Examples included but were not limited to Song of Norway in 1946, The Cradle Will Rock in 1948, and Where’s Charley? in 1951.

Switching to Exclusive Use As a Legitimate Theatre

In June 1953, the Broadway Theatre returned to use as a legitimate theater by hosting the transfer South Pacific. It has remained as such ever since, though it has been known to host other kinds of live shows from time to time. To name some examples, Antonio Ruiz Soler, the Comédie-Française, and the Azuma Kabuki Troupe performed at the Broadway Theatre in 1955. Similarly, it hosted the American Ballet Theatre in 1961 and the dance troupe of Martha Graham in 1962. Other notable shows from the 1950s and 1960s included Mr. Wonderful in 1956, Gypsy in 1959, and The Happy Time in 1968.

The Shubert Organization considered demolishing the Broadway Theatre to make room for an office building with a theater at the base in the late 1960s. That wasn’t particularly unusual in those times because of the high demand for office space. Matters went as far as getting a zoning permit from the New York City Planning Commission. However, the plan fell apart because of the declining demand for office space.

With that said, it is interesting to note that the Broadway Theatre is newer in some respects than what interested individuals might expect. After all, its modern auditorium comes from a renovation in 1986, while its modern facade comes from the office building at 1675 Broadway built in the late 1980s. Notably, the Broadway Theatre never received landmark status for either its interior or its exterior from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in that decade. Indeed, it is the only Shubert-owned Broadway theater to lack such recognition.

In the Current Millennium

Since the turn of the millennium, the Broadway Theatre has hosted a high number of successful shows. It started with Blast! in 2001 and Robin Williams: Live in 2002. One ran for 180 performances, while the other won multiple Emmy Awards. La Bohème went for 228 performances in 2002; Bombay Dreams went for 284 performances in 2004; while The Color Purple went for 910 performances from late 2005 to early 2008. Even Shrek the Musical did well with 441 performances after starting at the end of 2008.

The 2010s saw similar results. Promises, Promises ran for 291 performances in 2010, while Sister Act ran for 561 performances in 2011. Besides these, there were also a successful revival of Fiddler on the Roof starting in 2015, a successful revival of Miss Saigon starting in 2017, and a successful Broadway production of King Kong in 2018. Sadly, a revival of West Side Story proved unsuccessful. It had just started running in February 2020 before COVID-19 closures went into effect in March 2020. The Broadway Theatre didn’t reopen until April 2022 with a production of the musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

References:

https://shubert.nyc/theatres/broadway

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

https://www.playbill.com/venue/broadway-theatre-vault-0000000390

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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