History Of The Studio 54 Theater On Broadway

History Of The Studio 54 Theater On Broadway

Feature Photo: Anne Czichos / Shutterstock.com

Currently, Studio 54 is serving as one of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s three Broadway Theaters. However, it is unusual in that it is well-known for its non-theatrical use in bygone decades. After all, Studio 54 is named thus because the building was once home to a famous nightclub by that name, which continues to maintain a presence in the popular imagination.

Built For an Impresario

Studio 54 came into existence because of a man named Fortune Gallo. He was an Italian immigrant who became a successful band manager before becoming a successful operatic impresario in the United States. Gallo was notable for a couple of reasons. One, his opera company was profitable. That stood out because opera had a reputation for being a money-loser rather than a money-earner, meaning opera companies tended to survive on the generosity of their patrons. Two, he made opera accessible to a wider range of interested individuals. Some of that was because of touring. The rest was because he marketed tickets to a broader swathe of society rather than sticking strictly to the moneyed class who served as opera’s traditional patrons.

By the mid-1920s, Gallo was ready to build a new theater for his opera company. It wouldn’t be a year-round home because his opera company was a touring opera company. Instead, Gallo’s theater would host his opera company in the fall but be rented out for legitimate theater the rest of the time. On top of that, his venue would serve as the base for a fully-functional office building, thus enabling the stakeholders to get more value out of the site than otherwise possible. For the architect, Gallo chose another Italian immigrant named Eugene De Rosa. The latter designed a huge number of theaters and related buildings in the 1920s before his architectural career came to a stop during the Great Depression. De Rosa had plans to return to theater design in the post-war period. That never happened because he died in 1945.

From the Mid-1920s to the Early 1940s

Gallo leased the site for his theater in 1926. It was ready to open its doors the very next year. Unfortunately, Gallo’s plan for his theater took a serious blow when his opening production of La Bohème failed to make it to three weeks. He remained involved until 1930. Still, it says much that his theater hosted just one opera.

The 1930s proved to be a tumultuous time for the theater, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the Great Depression’s effect on Broadway as a whole. For a time, the theater operated under the name New Yorker Theatre. Then, it was converted into a nightclub called Casino de Paree, which opened in 1933 before shutting down in 1935. Soon enough, the theater had become a music hall of the sort that gradually gave ground after the First World War before dying off with the advent of rock and roll around the mid-century point. That lasted a matter of months. The theater did see a period of stability from 1936 to 1940 when the Works Progress Administration rented it for its Federal Music Project. Following that, it saw miscellaneous uses until 1942, when things settled into place for it for the next while.

Used By CBS

Specifically, 1942 was when CBS started using the theater as a broadcast studio. That wasn’t an uncommon fate for Broadway Theaters at the time. Simply put, there was a demand for broadcast studio space but not enough broadcast studio space to meet it. Thanks to that, more than one Broadcast Theater was converted for that purpose. CBS would continue using the theater as a broadcast studio for more than three decades before putting it up for sale in 1976.

As Studio 54

The famous nightclub called Studio 54 didn’t last very long. It opened in 1977 and closed in 1986, meaning it didn’t even manage to last a decade. Furthermore, it had long since faded from its glory days by the end. Depending on how one interprets things, one can argue that the most frenzied period ended as early as 1980. That was when the original operators – Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager – went to prison for tax evasion. Despite this, Studio 54’s status as the place for celebrities provided it with a disproportionate impact on the popular imagination. To name an example, it was supposedly where the red velvet rope started seeing use in front of nightclub entrances.

Afterward, various people continued running Studio 54 with various results. The nightclub struggled with licensing issues throughout its existence. However, that combined with an inability to secure insurance related to a succession of lawsuits brought it down in the end. That wasn’t the end of the theater for nightclub use, but that was the end of the theater for nightclub use under that incarnation.

Returned to Theatrical Use

In 1998, the Roundabout Theatre Company was hosting a revival of Cabaret at Henry Miller’s Theatre. Things were going well until a construction accident at a nearby building made it impossible for the production to continue at that venue. As a result, the Roundabout Theatre Company scrambled to look for a replacement. Eventually, it settled on the theater that had once hosted Studio 54. The building wasn’t in very good condition. Fortunately, that gave it the right atmosphere for Cabaret. After all, Henry Miller’s Theatre wasn’t in very good condition either before the construction accident forced a change of venue. By the early 2000s, everything had proceeded so smoothly that the Roundabout Theatre Company decided to buy Studio 54, thus making it the owner of a Broadway Theater for the first time.

Since then, Studio 54 has become well-established as a Broadway Theater in a way that it never was before. It would be an exaggeration to say that every single one of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s productions has met with an enthusiastic response. Still, Studio 54 has continued hosting productions ever since Cabaret ended. It was closed because of COVID-19 from March 2020 to October 2021. Other than that, Studio 54 seems to have finally settled into its current role as a home for Broadway productions.

References:

https://www.ggarchives.com/Immigration/ImmigrantStory/ImmigrantBoyWhoMadeGrandOperaPopular-1923.html

https://www.playbill.com/venue/view-more?venue=00000150-aacd-d8be-af71-ffef1882000a

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/mar/13/studio-54-exhibition-brooklyn-museum

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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