History Of The Palace Theatre On Broadway

Palace Theatre History

Feature Photo: Architecture. v.27-28 1913., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Palace Theatre is one of those venues that can be described as being both very old and very new. On the one hand, it came into existence in the 1910s. On the other hand, it has undergone a great deal of change. Indeed, the Palace Theatre is continuing to evolve in modern times, which is possible because its interior is a protected landmark whereas its exterior is not. Something that various parties haven’t hesitated to capitalize upon. Please note that the Palace Theatre is not the same as the United Palace Theatre. It is situated at 1564 Broadway, whereas the similarly-named venue is situated quite some distance away at 4140 Broadway.

Funded By Martin Beck

Regardless, the Palace Theatre can trace its roots to Martin Beck. He went to the United States with a troupe of German actors in 1884. Subsequently, he went into the business side of things, where he became one of the most powerful figures in American vaudeville. Beck’s Orpheum Circuit dominated the west, whereas Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Albee’s Keith Circuit dominated the east. Even though the two sides had struck a deal to split the country between them in the late 1900s, Beck made a fateful decision to enter the NYC vaudeville market in the early 1910s.

The result was strange. Beck revealed that he was going to build the Palace Theatre in 1912. Shortly after, he lost control of his vaudeville venue, as shown by how he retained a 25 percent ownership stake while Keith and Albee picked up the remaining 75 percent ownership stake. It isn’t 100 percent clear what happened. However, it seems to be connected to how Willie Hammerstein held an exclusive franchise for vaudeville performances around the Times Square area at the time. Keith and Albee convinced him to sell by exploiting his financial woes. After that, they used that leverage to gain the Palace Theatre.

Interested individuals should know the Palace Theatre’s original exterior has been gone for decades. The part that is still preserved is the original interior, which is contained in a hard shell separate from the structures that have housed it since then. It would be an exaggeration to say that it remains unchanged. Even so, most of it has remained the same over time, particularly because of the efforts of various parties to preserve it.

As a Vaudeville Venue

Keith and Albee were in firm control of the Palace Theatre when it opened its doors in 1913. Their circuit was named for the former rather than the latter. Despite this, Albee was the more dominant of the two partners. Something that became even more true with the death of Keith in 1914 and the death of Keith’s son in 1918. Albee used his position to turn the Lion Theatre into the greatest vaudeville venue in the United States. Moreover, he used his position to extract the lion’s share of the benefits.

With that said, vaudeville itself proved to be transitory. Movies became more and more accessible in the early 20th century. As a result, vaudeville gave ground to its competitor in a process sped up by the enormous number of vaudeville performers who jumped over to the movie industry. The trend of the times became even clearer when “talkies” were introduced in the second half of the 1920s because sound erased one of the last factors that enabled vaudeville to differentiate itself from its film-bound counterpart. It is telling that the combined Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit was already involved in movies when Joseph Kennedy Sr. and others executed a hostile takeover in 1928, thus resulting in the formation of Radio-Keith-Orpheum.

Struggling to Survive

The Palace Theatre remained a venue for exclusively vaudeville for a time. By 1932, that had become unviable, so it transitioned to vaudeville before movies and then exclusively movies in the same year. The Palace Theatre’s symbolic role made that a major moment in the decline of vaudeville in the United States. Interest didn’t go away altogether. For instance, the Palace Theatre saw an attempt at reviving vaudeville from 1949 to 1957. Still, it was clear that the times had changed. The period from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s was not a good time for the venue, as shown by its efforts to find a safe niche amidst a sea of competition.

As a Broadway Theater

In 1965, RKO sold the Palace Theatre to the Nederlander Organization, which paid quite a bit of money to return it to use as a legitimate theater. The venue continued operating as such throughout the 1970s. Then, the Palace Theatre became one of the Broadway Theaters considered for official landmark status by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in the 1980s. As mentioned earlier, its interior became a protected landmark, whereas the exterior was refused the same.

That was important because that opened the way for Larry Silverstein to build a huge hotel on the site rather than around the site. It is no exaggeration to say that the people who built the Palace Theatre wouldn’t recognize its exterior following this renovation from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. One example of the changes was the loss of the venue’s office wing, which was demolished except for the lobby. Another example was the removal of two floors that once existed above the venue’s auditorium. The fact that the Palace Theatre’s interior remains intact despite these changes is a testament to modern construction capabilities.

Renovation After Renovation

With that said, other spectacular changes were still to come. The Palace Theatre continued to serve as a legitimate theater from 1991 to 2018. After that, it closed its doors so it could be incorporated into the new TSX Broadway development, which required the demolition of the hotel once built on the site. The process has taken longer than expected. Funny enough, the COVID-19 pandemic only played a minor role in that because the project was deemed essential. Instead, much of the delay came from the refusal of the owners of a neighboring structure to let the builders onto their premises to conduct inspections and install monitoring equipment.

Still, much progress has been made. For instance, the builders finished lifting the Palace Theatre to its new home situated 30 feet above ground level in April 2022. That was one of the biggest challenges in the construction process. As such, it seems safe to say that the Palace Theatre will be returning to use as a legitimate theater in the not-too-distant future.

References:

https://broadwaydirect.com/theatre/palace-theatre/#section-history

http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/6635

https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Palace-Theatre-Renovations-Delayed-Due-to-Setback-20190114

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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