History Of The Neil Simon Theatre On Broadway

History Of The Neil Simon Theatre On Broadway

Feature Photo: Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Neil Simon Theatre’s original name was the Alvin Theatre. Interested individuals might guess that the venue’s original name was a reference to its owners, its operators, or someone else along those lines. If so, they would be right because the venue’s original name did come from its first pair of operators. The funny thing is that neither one was called Alvin. Instead, they cobbled it together using parts of their first names. With that said, the Neil Simon Theatre has borne its current name since the early 1980s, though it has been a Nederlander-owned venue since the mid-1970s. It has been a Broadway Theater with approximately 1,445 seats throughout that entire time.

Built in the Late 1920s

One can make a decent case that the Neil Simon Theatre wasn’t built at the best of times. Construction on the venue started and finished in 1927. For context, New York City’s modern Theater District started coming into existence towards the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century. By the late 1920s, it was already well-established, as shown by how the majority of the Broadway Theaters still in use already existed by then. Those were prosperous times for the Theater District, but those were also extremely competitive times for the Theater District. Furthermore, the Great Depression was just around the metaphorical corner.

Alexander Pincus was the man who had the Neil Simon Theatre built. It wasn’t a new thing for him. Pincus had already been responsible for the building of more than one venue in New York City. This time around, he had the venue built for the producers Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley, who had formed a successful partnership in 1924. These two were the venue’s original operators, who cobbled “Al” and “Vin” together to create the venue’s original name the Alvin Theatre.

Designed By Herbert Krapp

The Neil Simon Theatre was designed by the architect Herbert Krapp. It wasn’t the last theater he ever designed. After all, Krapp went on to design the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre for the Shubert Brothers in 1928. Still, it was towards the end of his theater-building career, which came to an abrupt stop in the late 1920s and never resumed afterward.

Exterior-wise, the venue is Neo-Georgian. For those curious, Georgian refers to the period from 1714 to 1830, which encompasses the reigns of four British monarchs by that name. It isn’t a single architectural style, as shown by how it included both Palladian and Neoclassical styles. Neo-Georgian refers to the Georgian revival in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It was a popular choice for residential buildings. Due to that, the Neil Simon Theatre and its Neo-Georgian compatriots were built to have a more welcoming though still extravagant feel when compared with their Beaux-Arts counterparts. Examples of the venue’s Neo-Georgian elements include but aren’t limited to the brick facade, the multi-paned windows, and the relatively restrained use of Classical-inspired ornamentation. As for the interior, Krapp had a preference for the Adam style, which was a subset of the Neoclassical style. This venue was no exception to that rule.

From the Late 1920s to the Mid-1940s

Aarons and Freedley enjoyed a short period of success. However, their partnership broke up in the early 1930s. The exact cause is unclear, but there is speculation that it crumbled beneath the weight of financial pressure from the Great Depression. Subsequently, Pincus took over the running of the Alvin Theatre. This lasted until 1945, during which time there doesn’t seem to have been any risk of him losing control of the venue. Something that was far from being guaranteed for Broadway Theaters during the Great Depression.

Under CBS Ownership

Pincus sold the Alvin Theatre to CBS in 1945. The broadcast network wanted it for use as a broadcast studio because its lease for the then-named Hammerstein’s Theatre was coming to a close. That was an issue because the latter’s owner Howard Cullman wanted to return it to legitimate use. Amusingly, CBS’s concern never came to fruition. It managed to renew its lease on Hammerstein’s Theatre, while Cullman agreed to lease the Alvin Theatre for legitimate use. This arrangement seems to have worked well for both parties because they renewed it more than once.

From the Late 1950s to the Mid-1970s

In 1959, the Alvin Theatre went to Max and Stanley Stahl. It continued to serve as a Broadway Theater under their ownership. Eventually, they sold the Alvin Theatre to Rock-Time in 1967. In turn, the company would hold on to the Alvin Theatre until the mid-1970s.

Under Nederlander Ownership

The Nederlander Organization made the Alvin Theatre its fourth Broadway Theater in 1975. Later, the 1980s would prove to be a time of considerable change for the venue. First, it received a rename for the playwright Neil Simon in 1983. He was an extremely prolific individual who wrote 32 plays, which rises to 34 plays depending on whether one counts the rewrites or not. On top of that, he wrote a huge number of screenplays, which were often adaptations of his plays. Thanks to this, Simon’s output earned him several remarkable distinctions. One excellent example would be how he received more Oscar and Tony Award nominations than anyone else. Another example would be how he became the first living playwright to have a Broadway Theater named for him.

Second, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission acted to preserve New York City’s Theater District by handing out a large number of official landmark designations in 1987. Both the Neil Simon Theatre’s exterior and its interior received that status, which makes sense because neither had received a major change throughout the venue’s existence. The Nederlander Organization and two other Broadway Theater owner-operators went to court over the designations because they didn’t like the attendant restrictions on their actions. Since the Neil Simon Theatre’s exterior and interior are still official landmarks of New York City, interested individuals should have no problem guessing that the owner-operators’ lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Since then, the Neil Simon Theatre has continued hosting shows. For the most part, its track record in recent decades hasn’t been noticeably better or worse than in the past. However, there has been a notable exception in the form of Hairspray, which ran from August 2002 to January 2009. The musical won eight Tony Awards. Moreover, it set a record for the venue by lasting 2,642 performances. The Neil Simon Theatre closed in March 2020 because of anti-COVID-19 measures. After that, it was able to reopen its doors in December 2021.

References:

https://seatplan.com/new-york/neil-simon-theatre/

http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1305.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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