History Of The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre On Broadway

History Of The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre On Broadway

Feature Photo: Tooykrub / Shutterstock.com

The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is named for the famous theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. However, that wasn’t always its name. Once upon a time, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was the Globe Theatre, named for the London venue where William Shakespeare premiered many of his works. The times have changed and continue to change. Even so, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre remains a Broadway Theater. Its current configuration has approximately 1,504 seats. Furthermore, its main entrance opens on 205 West 46th Street rather than 1555 Broadway.

Built For Charles Dillingham

Charles Dillingham was the man who brought the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre into existence. He became involved in the world of theater through a somewhat circuitous route. For those curious, Dillingham started as a newspaper reporter. Later, he co-founded a newspaper, which he used to support a successful candidate for the U.S. Senate. That resulted in him moving to Washington, D.C. as the newly-elected U.S. Senator’s secretary, which he doesn’t seem to have found very interesting. In 1894, he premiered his first play, which was poorly received but still worthwhile because it enabled him to befriend the theater manager Charles Frohman. Thanks to that, Dillingham would remain in the world of theater for the rest of his life.

Dillingham spent some time working for Frohman. He didn’t do so forever. Eventually, he started taking on independent work with Frohman’s encouragement, which led to him becoming one of the most successful Broadway producers of the early 20th century. By the late 1900s, Dillingham had become interested in running a theater of his own. He hired a designer in 1907 and a contractor in 1908. By 1910, the venue that is now the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was ready to open its doors.

The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is in the Beaux-Arts style. Primarily, that means a Neoclassical-looking exterior. However, the Beaux-Arts style also includes Renaissance and Baroque elements, thus making it less staid and sedate than pure Neoclassicism. Regardless, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre being in the Beaux-Arts style is wholly unsurprising. The style is named for the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where it was taught. Dillingham entrusted the design of his venue to the architect firm of John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, both of whom were graduates of that school. It is interesting to note that both the venue’s exterior and interior have seen changes over time. As mentioned earlier, the current main entrance opens on 46th Street rather than Broadway because it was once the carriage entrance. Despite this, the exterior is the less changed of the two because the current one-balcony interior isn’t a modification so much as a replacement of the original two-balcony interior.

Under Charles Dillingham

In total, Dillingham ran what is now the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre from the early 1910s to the early 1930s. He seems to have done quite well earlier in the period. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine why he would buy the venue in 1920 rather than continue leasing it as he had done for a decade by that point. Unfortunately, Dillingham was one of the theater owners who experienced serious financial problems because of the Great Depression, which had a very negative effect on the number of U.S. theater-goers. As such, the venue was auctioned off in 1932. Something that wasn’t enough to prevent its former owner from declaring bankruptcy in 1933.

As a Movie Theater

Technically, what is now the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre spent a short period as a movie house for RKO from 1930 to 1931. That was a temporary arrangement, so it returned to hosting live shows afterward. With that said, the venue soon returned to being a movie house for Brandt Theatres after it was auctioned off. Initially, it showed re-runs for the most part, which says much about its status in those tumultuous times. Later, Brandt Theatres bought and renovated the venue before making it its new headquarters, thus bringing about quite a jump in the venue’s status. The latter can be seen in how it started hosting movie premieres in the late 1930s and continued doing so until the mid-1950s. Such events don’t just happen at any movie house because marketing is such a critical part of movie premieres. Using a not-so-impressive movie house for this purpose is downright counterproductive in most cases.

Renamed the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

In the mid-1950s, various parties started showing interest in restoring what is now the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre to its original role. Eventually, the venue was sold to a group called City Playhouses, which took some time to bring together because of the extra costs of restoration. This was when the carriage entrance was reworked to become the current main entrance, while the original main entrance was rendered defunct. Similarly, this was when the original two-balcony interior was replaced with the current one-balcony interior.

On top of these things, this was when the venue was renamed the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for the theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The two were already very successful as stage actors in the 1920s. By the late 1950s, they were ready to retire, though they received one last hurrah by performing at the venue newly renamed for them before doing so. After that, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre hosted a wide range of shows under several owners before entering the control of the Nederlander Organization in 1973.

Under the Nederland Organization

For the most part, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre’s existence has been undramatic under the Nederlander Organization. It has continued hosting a wide range of shows from 1973 to the present. Amusingly, there was a point when the Nederlander Organization thought about returning it to being a movie house in the late 1980s, though nothing came out of it in the end. Other than that, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was one of the Broadway Theaters to receive official landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in the late 1980s. It was a bit unusual in that its exterior became an official landmark, whereas its interior failed to receive the same. That is because the 1950s renovation had changed too much about the latter.

In more recent times, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre has seen a mix of plays and performers. Like its counterparts, it closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequently, it reopened in October 2021 once restrictions were lifted. There is every reason to think that the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre will continue serving as a Broadway Theater far into the future.

References:

https://seatplan.com/new-york/lunt-fontanne-theatre/

http://www.tenchimneys.org/about/about-lynn-alfred

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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