History Of The Eugene O’Neill Theatre On Broadway

History Of The Eugene O’Neill Theatre On Broadway

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The Eugene O’Neill Theatre is named for the American playwright of the same name. Once upon a time, it was a Shubert Theater. However, it has since passed through several hands, with the result that it is now a Jujamcyn Theater. Situated at 230 West 49th Street, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre has a seating capacity of approximately 1,047, which has been used to host some surprisingly well-known shows.

Built Together With a Hotel

From the 1900s through the 1920s, the Shubert Brothers built and otherwise acquired a huge number of theaters in New York City. Their expansion had its limits, as shown by how they had already acquired the future site of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre before thinking better of their original plan to build not one but two large-sized theaters upon it. Instead, the Shubert brothers sold the site to the prosaically-named 224-238 West 49th Street Corporation, which built the Forrest Hotel and the Forrest Theatre in 1925. The latter is what is now called the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

It is interesting to note that the Forrest Theatre was designed by the Shubert Brothers’ favorite architect Herbert Krapp. Thanks to that, its neoclassical interior has a lot of commonalities with the neoclassical interiors of several other Krapp-designed theaters. Meanwhile, its original facade was made out of brick and terracotta. That was removed in the 1940s. The modern facade is made out of painted limestone, though its most notable feature would be the large, wrought-iron balcony.

Under the Shubert Organization For the Most Part

The Shubert brothers leased the Forrest Theatre. In November 1925, it opened its doors with a musical called The Mayflowers, which ran for 81 performances. Most of its shows from the 1920s failed to make much of an impact, which is perhaps unsurprising considering that New York City had hundreds of theaters and movie theaters by that point. The one exception to this rule was Women Go Forever, which started up in 1927 before running for 118 performances.

In the 1930s, the Forrest Theatre hosted some longer shows such as On the Spot and In the Best of Families. On top of these, it ran a very successful bar, which enabled it to continue until the Lawyers Title and Guaranty Company foreclosed on the hotel and the theater in 1933. Subsequently, the lease went to Sam Grisman and Harry Oshrin in 1934. The two moved their play Tobacco Road to the Forrest Theatre, where it would become the longest-running Broadway show of its time with 3,182 performances. The Shubert brothers regained the lease after Grisman and Oshrin, but their efforts in this later period met with general failure. Even a revival of Tobacco Road ran for just 34 performances in 1942.

Under City Playhouse Theatres

Louis Lotito of City Playhouse Theatres bought the Forrest Theatre in 1945. He had the building renovated. Furthermore, Lotito renamed the Forrest Theatre to the Coronet Theatre, reputedly because he believed the previous name was unlucky. The first show at the building – Beggars Are Coming to Town – ran for just 25 performances in 1945. However, the second show at the building – Dream Girl – ran for a much more impressive 348 performances from 1945 to 1947. City Playhouse Theatre saw several more successes from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. Examples included All My Sons in 1947, Tickets, Please! in 1950, and The Waltz of the Toreadors in 1957.

Under Lester Osterman, David Cognan, and Neil Simon

More ownership changes followed in the next two decades. First, the investment broker and theater producer Lester Osterman bought the building for $1.2 million in 1959. He was the one who wanted to rename the Coronet Theatre to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to honor his favorite playwright. There was resistance from O’Neill’s widow Carlotta Monterey, who didn’t think her husband would have wanted his name on a for-profit theater. Still, she relented in the end, with the result that O’Neill became the first playwright to have a Broadway Theater named for him. Naturally, the first show at the newly-renamed theater was O’Neill’s The Great God Brown in 1959. Afterward, the theater saw mixed results from its shows until 1964.

Osterman sold the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to David Cogan and Neil Simon for $1.35 million that year. A short while later, Simon bought Cogan’s ownership stake, meaning he controlled the theater in full from 1967 to 1982. For the most part, he used the theater to host his plays, though he also made it available to other parties from time to time. Six of Simon’s plays became hits, including Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 1969, God’s Favorite in 1974, and I Ought to Be In Pictures in 1980. Unfortunately, his ownership of the theater came to a close with two failures, one in 1981 and the other in 1982.

Under Jujamcyn Theaters

Jujamcyn Theaters bought the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in 1982. The first few years of its ownership are most memorable because of the mystery farce Moose Murders, which fared so poorly that it opened and closed on a single night in February 1983. Indeed, it was so bad that it became a new standard of comparison for a time. The theater’s luck changed for the better with the musical Big River when it opened in 1985 and continued running until 1987, thus making for a total of 1,005 performances.

The 1980s were also notable because the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission handed out a slew of landmark designations to Broadway Theaters. Something that met with a less than enthusiastic response from the three biggest theater operators because of the resulting restrictions on their ability to make changes to the buildings. In the case of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, its interior received a landmark designation whereas its facade did not, which is presumably because it no longer has its original facade.

The theater saw several successes in the subsequent decade. For instance, Five Guys Named Moe had 445 performances starting in 1992, while a revival of Grease had 1,503 performances starting in 1994. The theater even won an award for a $1 million restoration of its interior from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee in the same year. With that said, the theater also saw a couple of notable failures in 1998, thus preventing it from enjoying a perfect decade.

The Eugene O’Neill Theatre in Recent Decades

Since 2000, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre has thrived. Yes, there have been some not-so-successful shows. They have been more than counterbalanced by the hits of recent decades. One example would be The Full Monty, which lasted more than two years after starting up in 2000. Another example would be Spring Awakening, which lasted a similar amount of time after starting up in 2006. Neither of these can match The Book of Mormon. The musical opened in March 2011, made back its production costs in nine months, and has continued running since. Even COVID-19 just interrupted it for a time, as shown by how the theater closed on March 12, 2020, before reopening on November 5, 2021. Few Broadway shows can last longer than a decade. The Book of Mormon is one of them.

References:

http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1365.pdf

https://www.spotlightonbroadway.com/theater/eugene-oneill

https://www.playbill.com/venue/eugene-oneill-theatre-vault-0000000141

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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