The Lena Horne Theatre is the third Broadway Theater to bear the name of a black theatrical personality. However, it still stands out because it is the first Broadway Theater named for a black woman rather than a black man. With that said, the Lena Horne Theatre has existed at 256 West 47th Street since the 1920s, though it bore a very different name in those days.
Built By Irwin Chanin
For those curious, the Lena Horne Theatre came into existence because of a man named Irwin Chanin. He came from a humble background as the son of Jewish immigrants. Despite that, he managed to get an engineering education from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which was already tuition-free in the early 20th century. Thanks to that, Chanin started working in construction. Following the First World War, he gathered enough capital to become involved in the building of residential real estate properties, which coincided with a construction boom in New York City. Chanin rode that wave to spectacular success, so much so that he started indulging in his interest in theaters after just a few years.
People were still building theaters at a frenetic pace in New York City in the 1920s. As such, Chanin’s theater-building spree wasn’t as strange as it might have seemed in a different setting. He hired Herbert Krapp to design his first theater in 1924, which made sense because the man was already an experienced theater architect who had worked on several projects for the Shubert Brothers by that point. It seems safe to say that Chanin was pleased with Krapp’s work because he hired the man to design two more theaters in 1925. The Lena Horne Theatre is the one that opened in February 1926 rather than December 1925.
The Lena Horne Theatre was something of a transition point in Chanin’s theater-building. Its predecessors were built in the Neoclassical style, which has often been popular because of its ability to look impressive without relying on excess ornamentation. Meanwhile, the Lena Horne Theatre was built in a modern interpretation of the Spanish style, thus becoming the basis for the Chanin-built theaters that followed in its footsteps. That isn’t to say the venue has no Classical-inspired elements whatsoever. The Lena Home Theatre’s facade has rounded arches and rusticated terracotta, but it also has columns and pilasters crowned with Corinthian capitals.
As the Mansfield Theatre
Chanin named the venue the Mansfield Theatre to honor an actor turned manager named Richard Mansfield. The latter had the chance to rename a theater for himself when he took over Harrigan’s Theatre but instead renamed it the Garrick Theatre in honor of someone he respected. As such, Chanin followed in the man’s footsteps by doing the same, which seems to have garnered him a fair amount of good press because of a glowing letter from the man’s widow that was widely publicized.
Regardless, the venue went by the Mansfield Theatre from its opening in 1926 to its reopening in 1960. The latter happened because it was one of several Broadway Theaters that stopped seeing use as such around the mid-20th century. Specifically, a theater producer named Michael Myerberg leased the venue in 1943 before buying the venue in 1944. He continued hosting live shows for a time. However, he leased the venue to CBS for use as a broadcast studio from 1950 to 1960. Subsequently, he announced his decision to rename and renovate the venue to make it ready for use in hosting live shows once more.
As the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Myerberg chose to rename the venue for a theater critic named Brooks Atkinson. The man had just retired from working for The New Times at the time, which explains much about the decision to do so. In any case, the venue operated under that name from 1960 to 2022. It hosted a wide range of live shows in that period. Some of those shows were successes, while others were failures.
Besides that, the venue went through some other notable experiences. One example would be the Nederlander Organization’s acquisition of its ownership. The venue went through a rough period from 1965 to 1967. The Nederlander Organization used that as a chance to buy a 50 percent ownership stake. Myerberg held onto the remainder until he died in 1974. At that point, the Nederlander Organization bought the other 50 percent ownership stake to bring the venue under its full control.
Another example would be how the venue’s exterior and interior became official landmarks in the late 1980s. The gist of it is that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission became very concerned about preserving the historical look of the city’s theater district because of the demolition of two Broadway Theaters despite sizable opposition. As such, it gradually worked its way towards protecting other Broadway Theaters by making them official landmarks, which placed strict limitations on what their owners could and couldn’t do with them. The Nederlander Organization was like the Shubert Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters in that it was less than pleased by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s slew of designations in 1987. Together, they sued over the issue in 1988, which failed to overturn the decision when it was upheld in 1992.
Renamed the Lena Horne Theatre
Events in the late 2010s and early 2020s convinced a wide range of industries to examine their stances on equity, diversity, and related issues. Broadway was no exception to this rule. As such, a group of theater industry leaders came together to create a plan for working towards those goals. One of their short-term steps was the reveal that the Nederlander Organization, the Shubert Organization, and Jujamcyn Theaters would each have a theater named for a black theatrical personality. Jujamcyn Theater already had one because of the August Wilson Theatre. The Shubert Organization decided to rename the Cort Theatre the James Earl Jones Theatre, while the Nederlander Organization decided to rename the Brooks Atkinson Theatre the Lena Horne Theatre.
Lena Horne was a very successful black actress in the early 20th century. That alone made her something of a groundbreaker because of the inherent difficulty of her doing so in those times. However, Horne was also involved in the civil rights movement, as shown by her participation in the March on Washington in 1963 plus her participation in other rallies held elsewhere. She didn’t have much of a connection with the venue that now bears her name, but she did collaborate with the Nederlander Organization. For instance, James M. Nederlander produced her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music in 1981, which earned her a Tony Award in that year.
No one can predict the future with perfect certainty. Still, it seems safe to say the newly-named Lena Horne Theatre will continue hosting live shows for the foreseeable future. Certainly, it has been doing exactly that ever since it reopened in September 2021 following the COVID-19 closures in March 2020.
For a complete list of all Broadway Theaters that includes addresses, transportation information, and Theater seating statistics as well as ticket info please check out our complete list of Broadway Theaters article by clicking on the link below.
Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.
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