History Of The Hudson Theater On Broadway

History Of The Hudson Theater

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The Hudson Theatre at 141 West 44th Street can make a good claim to being the oldest Broadway theater in existence. It was one of the three Broadway theaters that opened in 1903, with the other two being the New Amsterdam Theatre and the Lyceum Theatre. However, it opened its doors on October 19, meaning it preceded the other two opening their doors on October 23 and November 2. With that said, the Hudson Theatre isn’t the oldest continuously-operating Broadway theater in existence. That is because it hasn’t had the smoothest of times. Fortunately, the Hudson Theatre has been back as a Broadway theater ever since its reopening in 2017.

How the Hudson Theatre Came to Be

Broadway Street saw its first theater in the early 18th century. With that said, New York City’s current Theater District is a product of somewhat more recent times. For those curious, people built theaters more and more northwards because of cheaper real estate costs and other concerns. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, that process had reached Times Square because of the latter’s then-newfound status as a mass transportation hub.

The site of the Hudson Theatre was owned by a financier named George Gustav Heye. He tends to be much better known because his collection of Native American artifacts became the foundation of the National Museum of the American Indian. It was the producer Henry Harris who leased the site before proceeding to build a combination of a theater and an office building upon it. Originally, he had something even more ambitious in mind, as shown by the intent to have ten floors of office space. In the end, there was a change of plans. As a result, the exterior of the building is based on the original design from J.B. McElfatrick & Son, while the interior of the building is based on the later design from Israels & Harder.

Under Henry Harris

Harris was already successful when he built the Hudson Theatre. He wouldn’t have been able to build a theater in New York City if he hadn’t been. His subsequent career wasn’t perfect, as shown by how he had to convert the experimental Follies Bergere Theatre to the more conventional Fulton Theatre in 1911. Still, he had a very successful Broadway career. The Hudson Theatre was no exception, hosting a series of successful shows such as The Marriage of Kitty and Sunday. Moreover, it had a real cultural impact. For proof, look no further than how Sunday was when the actress Ethel Barrymore first said the famous phrase, “That’s all there is, there isn’t anymore.” Something that is still been referenced in modern times.

Sadly, Harris died at the peak of his Broadway career because he and his wife Renee Harris returned from Europe on the RMS Titanic in 1912. Harris died during the ship’s sinking, while Renee Harris came close to death not once but twice during the same incident. First, she refused to part with her husband until Captain Edward John Smith told her there were still lifeboats in the stern for the men. As a result, she left on the last lifeboat just 15 minutes before RMS Titanic went beneath the waves. Second, she was one of three individuals who had to row the lifeboat even though she had fractured her elbow. Even so, their lifeboat came very close to sinking, so much so that the water had almost reached its gunwales when the rescue ship RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene.

Under Renee Harris

Renee Harris inherited the bulk of her husband’s estate. That was worse than it sounds because it turned out that her husband had more debts than assets. The situation was so bad that her father-in-law outright recommended that she sell, which she refused to do because she felt she would wrong her husband’s memory by doing so. Instead, she took charge as the first female Broadway manager and producer bolstered by her husband’s known confidence in her capabilities, while her father-in-law helped out in whatever ways he could.

Soon enough, Renee Harris was able to put the company on a much better footing by selling some of the assets. Subsequently, she kept the Hudson Theatre very busy under her oversight. Examples of notable shows ranged from Friendly Enemies in 1918 to So This Is London in 1922. Sadly, Renee Harris was one of the people hit hard by the Great Depression. She sold her possessions to keep things running, but she lost the Hudson Theatre anyway when the bank foreclosed on her in 1932. Despite this, she doesn’t seem to have regretted anything about her life with Harris, seeing as how she once said she had four marriages but just one husband.

The In-Between Years

The period from 1932 to 2017 was a time of much uncertainty for the Hudson Theatre. It saw some use as a theatre under Sam Grisman and then the Shubert Organization from 1937 to 1950. Then, it saw some further use as a theatre during the late 1950s and early 1960s, more because plans to do something else with the building fell through than anything else. By 1968, the Hudson Theatre had become the Avon-Hudson Theatre, which was a dubious distinction because that meant it was the flagship of a porn theater chain. Later, it became a movie theater in 1975, a diner club in 1981, and a hotel conference center in 1988.

That was the same decade in which the Hudson Theatre’s exterior and interior received landmark status because of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee’s efforts to preserve Broadway theaters. In part, its spree of designations in 1987 had been sparked by the earlier demolition of the Helen Hayes Theatre, which had once been called the Fulton Theatre.

A Broadway Theater Once More

In 2015, there was a report that the Ambassador Theatre Group had plans to turn the Hudson Theatre back into a Broadway theater. By December, a subsidiary had signed a lease with M&C Hotels. Upgrades and expansions followed, with the result that the Hudson Theatre was able to reopen with either a 948 or a 970 seating capacity depending on the utilization of the orchestra pit in 2017.

Its first show was the second revival of Sunday in the Park with George. Since then, the Hudson Theatre has hosted a regular succession of shows. American Utopia started in 2019 but ended its run earlier than expected because of the COVID-19 crisis. Instead, the Hudson Theatre reopened with Plaza Suite in February 2022 before following up with Death of a Salesman in October 2022.

References:

http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1340.pdf

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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