History Of The James Earl Jones Theatre On Broadway

James Earl Jones Theatre On Broadway

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

The James Earl Jones Theatre is situated at 138 West 48th Street. It served as a Broadway Theater under the name Cort Theatre for most of its century-plus existence. However, it received a rename and a renovation in the 2020s, thus giving it a new start for a new age. There is every indication that the James Earl Jones Theatre will continue hosting live shows using its approximately 1,084 seats for the foreseeable future.

Inspired By the Petit Trianon

People often think of the architect Herbert Krapp when they think of Shubert-owned theaters in New York City. The James Earl Jones might be a Shubert-owned theater. Even so, it is the design of another prolific architect from the early 20th century – Thomas Lamb. The man designed hundreds of theaters and movie theaters, meaning he played an influential role in shaping the early 20th-century trend of adapting older, upper-class styles for use on buildings catering to the general public. Sadly, just two of his theaters still stand in New York City, with the James Earl Jones Theatre being one of them.

The James Earl Jones Theatre was built in 1912. Construction started towards the start of the year. Subsequently, the James Earl Jones Theatre was ready to open its doors by the end of the year. The venue’s facade took inspiration from a Versailles chateau called the Petit Trianon, which was built under King Louis XV of France during the 1760s. That means it came into existence in a time of transition between the lavish excess of the Roccoco style and the more austere, more conventionally stately-seeming Neoclassical style. Meanwhile, the interior was more divergent from that source of inspiration, though it was still decorated using elements from the same approximate time frame.

Under John Cort

It isn’t uncommon for theater owners to name their theaters after themselves. As a result, interested individuals might have guessed that the James Earl Jones Theatre was once named the Cort Theatre because it was once owned by a man of that surname. Specifically, that was John Cort, a businessman who made himself known in Seattle before moving over to New York City in the early 20th century. As the story goes, he was once an actor. Unfortunately, he seemed to have lacked acting talent, which is why he eventually went into theater management before working his way up. In time, Cort became a name to be reckoned with out in the Western United States, so much so that he could strike deals with the Theatrical Syndicate that dominated American theater for a time. Later, he helped organize the Independent National Theatre Owner’s Association, which played an important role in bringing the Theatrical Syndicate low in the 1910s.

That was around the same time that Cort moved to New York City. Simply put, it was the center of American theater in the early 20th century in much the same way it remains the center of American theater in the early 21st century. Despite the fierce competition of the era, he did quite well for himself. His namesake venue hosted its fair share of successes under his oversight from 1912 to 1927, though some of its shows were notable for other reasons. For instance, Beyond Evil met with a great deal of hostility in 1926 because it dared to bring up the topic of interracial marriage.

Under the Shubert Organization

In 1927, Cort decided to sell his namesake venue to the Shubert Brothers before retiring. Since then, it has continued hosting live shows for the most part, with a notable exception being a short period from 1969 to 1972. That was when CBS leased it for use as a broadcast studio for The Merv Griffin Show. On the whole, its record has been very conventional. It has hosted long-running hits, which have been counterbalanced by shorter, less well-received productions. Some venues have consistently good results or consistently bad results, though the latter tend not to last for very long. The James Earl Jones Theatre falls into neither extreme.

It was also under the Shubert Organization that the James Earl Jones Theatre received official landmark status in the late 1980s. That happened because the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission became very concerned about preserving Broadway’s iconic sites after several Broadway Theaters were lost towards the start of the decade. It made an effort to consult with the theater owners so that it could achieve its goals without stepping on the theater owners’ metaphorical toes too much. In the end, the issue had to be settled in the courts anyways because the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, and Jujamcyn Theaters sued because they strongly disliked the resulting limitations on how much they could change their venues. The legal battle didn’t end until the early 1990s when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to let the official landmark status stand by refusing to hear the case.

Renamed For James Earl Jones

In 2021, a group of theater industry leaders agreed on a plan to make Broadway more inclusive. Some of the goals are abstract and aspirational. However, others could be implemented right away. One excellent example was the decision for each of the three major Broadway Theater operators – Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, and Jujamcyn Theaters – to name one of their theaters after a black theatrical personality. Technically, Jujamcyn Theaters was the first to do so because it already had the August Wilson Theatre, which had been renamed for the black playwright in 2005. The Shubert Organization became the second to do so by renaming the Cort Theatre the James Earl Jones Theatre in 2022.

Interested individuals might be familiar with the black actor from a wide range of works. Even if they don’t recognize his face, they might recognize his face because he was the man who voiced Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies and some of the Star Wars shows. Indeed, Jones has performed at the venue that now bears his name as far back as 1958, which would have been during the first decade of his acting career. A ceremony took place in September 2022, which was meant to celebrate both the renaming and the completion of the venue’s COVID-19 closure-prompted renovation. Since then, the James Earl Jones Theatre has reopened its doors to theatergoers.

References:

http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1328.pdf

https://www.historylink.org/File/3296

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/broadway-theater-renamed-for-james-earl-jones-180980752/

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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