The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is unusual because it is named for a publicist. Granted, its namesake was a Broadway publicist. Still, people tend not to think of publicists when they think of the kind of people theaters are named for. With that said, the Friedman Theatre has more claims to fame than that. After all, the venue is a Broadway Theater once more despite the fact it was once gutted by fire, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that it has quite a story of its own.
Irwin Chanin was an architect who made his fortune in real estate development after the First World War. He had no background in theater-building. However, he had a longstanding interest in theater, which is why he had six theaters built in New York City in the 1920s. The second of those six theaters was the Biltmore Theatre. That was the original name of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Chanin had strong opinions about what his theaters should look like. Even so, he wasn’t shy about using his fortune to hire the theater-design expertise and experience he didn’t have. For proof, look no further than how Chanin hired Herbert Krapp to design his six theaters, which included the Biltmore Theatre. Said individual was responsible for more than a dozen Broadway Theaters still in use. As such, it is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most influential individuals for the look of New York City’s Theater District.
Krapp designed Chanin’s first two theaters according to the Neo-Renaissance style. As such, the Biltmore Theatre was built with a white brick exterior bearing a fair amount of Classical-inspired terracotta ornamentation. One example would be the four pilasters crowned with Composite capitals, while another would be the entablature with carvings of waves and rosettes. The Biltmore Theatre’s interior is unusual in some respects but not in others. It has a horseshoe-shaped layout that makes it highly recognizable. Despite this, its interior is in the Adamesque style, which it shares with more than one of Krapp’s other designs. The choice is apt. After all, the Adamesque style is also Classical-inspired in many ways.
Under Irwin Chanin
Chanin owned the Biltmore Theatre for a short period. The venue opened its doors in December 1925. Unfortunately, that was just a few years before the onset of the Great Depression, which caused severe financial problems for a wide range of people. Chanin was one of them. Thanks to that, he lost his six theaters during the Great Depression.
From the 1930s Through the 1940s
It is interesting to note that the Works Progress Administration leased the Biltmore Theatre in 1935. For those unfamiliar, that was a governmental agency that hired millions of unemployed individuals to work on public projects during the Great Depression. Sometimes, that meant building roads and other kinds of infrastructure. Other times, that meant working on public projects of a more artistic sort. The Works Progress Administration used the Biltmore Theatre to host so-called living newspapers, which communicated information about current events to interested individuals.
Warner Bros. bought the Biltmore Theatre in 1936. It did nothing to change the venue’s function. Instead, it continued to use the Biltmore Theatre to host shows from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, when it decided to sell the venue.
From the 1950s Through the 1980s
Following the sale in 1951, the Biltmore Theatre hosted one more show. Then, CBS leased it for use as a broadcast studio in 1952. That lasted throughout the rest of the decade, which is connected to the lack of sufficient broadcast studio space to meet the demand in New York City at those times.
David Corgan bought the Biltmore Theatre in 1960. Subsequently, he returned it to use as a Broadway Theatre for the first time. The Biltmore Theatre continued serving in that role until the 1980s, which was a terrible decade for the venue for several reasons. First, it struggled to secure shows, so much so that the Nederlander Organization leased it in 1980 but declined to renew the lease in 1984. Second, Corgan sold the venue to Samuel Pfeiffer in 1986, who proved to be less than ideal as a Broadway Theater owner. Third, the Biltmore Theatre’s interior suffered a devastating fire in December 1987. That last incident was particularly memorable because it happened just a month after the venue’s interior had received official landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Deterioration and Restoration
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pfeiffer decided to sell the Biltmore Theatre. The process dragged out for various reasons. Due to that, the Nederlander Organization didn’t get its hands on it until July 1993, which was made possible by the Manufacturers and Traders Trust foreclosing on Pfeiffer’s defaulted-upon mortgage. By that point, the best thing that could be said about the Biltmore Theatre was that it was still standing. As a result, the venue’s future was in serious doubt, particularly since there was some back-and-forth over whether it would remain as a theater or not.
That ended when the nonprofit theatrical company called the Manhattan Theatre Club proposed to take over the Biltmore Theatre in 2000. Restoring the venue wasn’t easy. The renovation costs were in the tens of millions of dollars. Still, the Manhattan Theatre Club managed to pull together the funding by drawing upon various sources in the end. Examples ranged from a fundraising campaign to support from a consortium interested in building an apartment building nearby. Soon enough, the Biltmore Theatre was ready to reopen in November 2003.
Renamed the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
In 2008, the Manhattan Theatre Club renamed the Biltmore Theatre the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. That might seem strange to interested individuals. However, it should be mentioned that the Dr. Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman Foundation donated to the theatrical company before the renaming. The exact numbers have never been revealed. Still, it seems safe to say that they were very persuasive, which in turn, suggests that they were very substantial.
Since then, the Manhattan Theatre Club has regularly hosted its productions at the Friedman Theatre. It tends to host three productions a season, though it hasn’t held to this pattern every single year. The Friedman Theatre closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic but was able to reopen in September 2021.
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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