The Music Box Theatre at 239 West 45th Street is a fully Shubert-owned venue. It wasn’t one of the numerous theaters built by the Shubert Brothers during the early 20th century. Instead, it came into existence through a partnership between Irving Berlin and Sam H. Harris, who specifically came together to stage revues. Unlike some of its counterparts, the Music Box Theatre followed through on that intention for quite some time. However, it has since hosted a much wider range of shows.
Irving Berlin and Sam Henry Harris
Irving Berlin is a name that remains well-known in modern times. That is because he is one of the greatest American songwriters of all time. Chances are good that interested individuals have heard some of Berlin’s songs even if they didn’t realize it. After all, Berlin wrote “White Christmas,” which is still the best-selling single because of the Bing Crosby version. Furthermore, he was the one who wrote classics that include but aren’t limited to “Always,” “Anything You Can Do,” and “God Bless America.” Regardless, Berlin got started at a young age. He was born in 1888. Subsequently, he sold his first song in 1907, so it should come as no surprise to learn that he was already a major creative force with a music publishing company in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
Sam Henry Harris is much less well-known in modern times. Still, he was a notable theatrical personality during the first half of the 20th century, as shown by how he could form a partnership with Berlin. Harris was a well-established theater owner and producer in the late 1910s and early 1920s. As such, it wasn’t particularly strange for him to embark on a new project after the breakup of his previous partnership with the actor-producer George Michael Cohan. Something connected to a disagreement over the Actors’ Strike of 1919. Harris seems to have been sympathetic toward the actors. In contrast, Cohan became infamous for his opposition to them, so much so that he retired from the theater industry for several years after the actors’ victory. The two remained friends, but that was it for their working relationship until a short team-up in the late 1930s.
The Building of the Music Box Theatre
Supposedly, Harris mentioned his interest in building a theater to Berlin in 1919. Soon enough, Harris, Berlin, and the movie studio executive Joseph Schenck started work on the project in 2020. They paid $400,000 for the land and $600,000 for the building. The construction went over budget. As a result, they spent more than $1 million on the Music Box Theatre.
Charles Howard Crane did the design for the building. He was an American architect who did a great deal of design work for theaters and office buildings, though he also designed other buildings from time to time. Most of Crane’s buildings are in either Detroit, MI, or the rest of the United States, but some are found in Canada and the United Kingdom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his two Broadway Theaters – the Music Box Theatre and the August Wilson Theatre – stand as two of his best-known designs. Curiously, Crane never blended several architectural styles to create a distinctive look for his theaters in the same way as some of his contemporaries. That was a deliberate expression of his belief that theaters should be archetypal examples of specific architectural styles. As such, the Music Box Theatre is an archetypal example of Palladian buildings.
Interested individuals might guess that Palladian buildings are Classical-inspired. After all, the name “Palladian” calls to mind Pallas Athena, one of the most famous epithets for the Greek goddess of war and wisdom. They’d be right for the wrong reasons. The Palladian style is named for its founder Andrea Palladio, an architect of the Italian Renaissance who brought Roman architecture into the early modern era. Its influence can be seen in the Music Box Theatre’s symmetrical limestone facade, the colonnade for the upper floors, the columns with Corinthian capitals, the pilasters with Corinthian capitals, and even the presence of iconic Palladian windows.
Under Berlin, Harris, and the Shubert Organization
The Shubert Organization became involved in the Music Box Theatre at an early point in the venue’s existence. Schenck stuck around for the construction. After that, he sold his stake to the Shubert Organization. Moving on, the Music Box Theatre opened its doors by hosting Berlin’s Music Box Revue in September 1921. The venue didn’t host its first play until 1925, though it proceeded to do so with considerable success throughout the 1920s and even the 1930s. It is telling that Harris and Berlin managed to hold on to the venue throughout the Great Depression, which was a very bad time for Broadway as a whole.
Gradual Changes in Ownership
Harris died in 1941. His ownership stake went to his widow Kathleen Marin, who sold it to Berlin and the Shubert Organization in 1950. Meanwhile, Berlin doesn’t seem to have had much interest in the Music Box Theatre’s operations during the subsequent decades. He made it clear that he didn’t consider the venue very relevant to his calling as a songwriter in 1971. Instead, he held on to his ownership stake because of sentimental reasons. Eventually, Berlin passed away in 1989. His estate continued to own half of the venue until it decided to sell to the Shubert Organization in 2007.
The Music Box Theatre hosted a wide range of shows from the early 1940s to the late 2000s. Like most venues, its numbers flourished in some periods but wilted in others. Still, it saw a regular succession of shows, which suggests that it did well enough. Other than this, the Music Box Theatre was one of the Broadway Theaters that received official landmark status for both its exterior and its interior in 1987. Something that makes sense because it was a regularly-used venue with an exterior and an interior that had never undergone any dramatic changes.
Under the Shubert Organization’s Full Ownership
Since the Shubert Organization gained full ownership of the Music Box Theatre, the venue has continued hosting a wide range of shows. One example was a revival of Pippin, which took its name from a Carolingian prince called Pippin the Hunchback but is at most tenuously-connected to that source of inspiration in other respects. It did well enough, as shown by how it ran from 2013 to 2015. Another example was a limited run of King Charles III transferred to Broadway from London’s West End in 2015. It is about more-or-less what most people would guess based on that name. As for its details, well, it did manage to guess King Charles III’s regnal name right. Something that wasn’t certain at the time because Charles I and II weren’t exactly the luckiest of his predecessors.
In December 2016, the Music Box Theatre started hosting the musical Dear Evan Hansen. The latter had already had a Washington, D.C. debut and an Off-Broadway debut, but it proceeded to do very well with its Broadway debut. Indeed, Dear Evan Hansen claimed six of the nine Tony Awards it had been nominated for that year. Unfortunately, the flop of the film adaptation and the hit in ticket sales from the COVID-19 pandemic came together to end the musical’s run in September 2022. Even so, the Music Box Theatre itself is doing just fine.
History Of The Music Box Theatre On Broadway article published on ClassicNewYorkHistory.com ©2022
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