The New Amsterdam Theatre is one of the most notable Broadway Theaters for several reasons. For starters, Disney productions are extremely popular. Furthermore, the restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre was a significant moment in the transformation of Times Square in the late 20th century and early 21st century. On top of these things, the New Amsterdam Theatre at 214 West 42nd Street is highly-recognizable because its auditorium is joined to a much taller but much thinner office wing.
Built For Klaw and Erlanger
Speaking of which, the New Amsterdam Theatre is also notable in that it is one of the oldest Broadway Theaters still in use. For those curious, New York City’s modern Theatre District started coming into existence in the late 19th century and early 20th century. However, the three oldest Broadway Theaters still in use opened their doors in 1903. The New Amsterdam Theatre is one of these three venues, with the other two being the Hudson Theatre and the Lyceum Theatre.
As such, the New Amsterdam Theatre was built for the partnership of Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger. They were two of the six individuals who made up the Theatrical Syndicate that dominated American theater for a short time in the late 19th century and early 20th century before being humbled by the Shubert Brothers and other challengers. Regardless, Klaw and Erlanger were among those who saw the potential of Times Square before it was renamed Times Square, which is why they purchased the land before proceeding to the building in 1902.
Henry Beaumont Harts and Hugh Tallant were the ones who designed the New Amsterdam Theatre. Paris was a popular destination for Americans in those days. As such, Harts and Tallant were among the American architects who studied at the Beaux-Arts de Paris before proceeding to design buildings according to the school’s namesake style in the United States. With that said, it is interesting to note that the New Amsterdam Theatre also took cues from the Art Nouveau style, particularly when it comes to its interior. The venue is one of the earliest examples of the style in either New York City or anywhere else in the country, which makes sense because it fully emerged just a few years before the building of the venue.
Under Klaw and Erlanger
Klaw and Erlanger used the New Amsterdam Theatre to host their shows. Besides that, they also rented it out to interested parties. As such, the venue hosted a wide range of shows under its initial owners. That is particularly true because Klaw and Erlanger had decided to include a second auditorium on the roof, which could also be put to good use. For instance, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. used the main auditorium to host the Ziegfeld Follies, a series of revues famous for their chorus girls more than anything else, from 1913 to 1927. Furthermore, he used the rooftop auditorium to host the Midnight Follies, which were similar in theme but more exclusive and more scandalous.
Eventually, Klaw and Erlanger ended their partnership in 1927. Erlanger proceeded to buy out his former partner’s ownership stake in the venue before continuing to run it on his own for a short time. The New Amsterdam Theatre was one of the Broadway Theaters that experienced serious financial difficulties during the Great Depression. Due to that, it was foreclosed upon in 1936 and auctioned off in 1937. By that point, Erlanger had already been dead for several years.
Its Time As a Movie Theater
In 1937, the New Amsterdam Theatre started its five-decade period as a movie house. It continued to see changes throughout that period. For example, there were times when it was a first-run movie house, meaning it showed movies as soon as they came out. Similarly, there were times when it showed older movies and times when it showed niche movies. Over time, the New Amsterdam Theatre experienced a physical deterioration, which was connected to the general trends of the area. Those trends were most noticeable from the 1960s to the 1980s. However, their roots can be traced to the late 1920s when the Great Depression forced local venues to scramble to find a way to survive.
Of course, New York City was well-aware of the problem. Eventually, this resulted in a top-down decision to rehabilitate Times Square which had become notorious by the 1980s. This was not an easy process. For proof, look no further than the fact that people were already talking about what to do with the New Amsterdam Theatre in the mid-1970s. Despite that, a restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre didn’t happen until Disney agreed to lease the venue in the 1990s. Even so, that required a slew of incentives from New York City plus commitments from other entertainment companies.
Still, Disney was a natural choice to participate in the rehabilitation of Times Square. The company was no stranger to either musicals or other kinds of live entertainment. After all, it had already been offering live entertainment at its resorts and other venues. Moreover, it was going through its so-called renaissance from 1989 to 1999, which saw it producing numerous successful animated movies that were essentially musical adaptations of classic stories. As such, it had capabilities that could carry over to staging live versions of its stories. Best of all, Disney’s family-friendly image was exactly what New York City’s leadership had in mind for Times Square.
Since Its Reopening
On the whole, Disney’s time operating the New Amsterdam Theatre has been very successful. Not every Disney production has been a huge, runaway success. However, Disney has had an outstanding record in this regard, particularly since it has brought its formidable business sense to bear on this part of its operations. To name an example, it reopened the New Amsterdam Theatre with King David and a screening of the Hercules movie so that the reopening wouldn’t be overshadowed by The Lion King, which was a major newsmaker in its own right. As such, it is no wonder that the venue has seen just three shows since then – The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and Aladdin. Each one is a multi-year production. Indeed, The Lion King is still ongoing elsewhere, thus making it one of the longest-running and highest-grossing Broadway shows ever.
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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