History Of The Walter Kerr Theatre On Broadway

History Of The Walter Kerr Theatre On Broadway

Feature Photo: Tooykrub / Shutterstock.com

The Walter Kerr Theatre was once called the Ritz Theatre. It started as one of the Broadway Theaters that the Shubert Brothers built in the 1920s. Unfortunately, it didn’t see much success during the earliest decades of its existence, which is why it spent much of the 20th century serving other purposes. It didn’t return to use as a Broadway Theater under Jujamcyn Theaters’ ownership until the 1980s. As such, one can make the case that the revival of the Walter Kerr Theatre reflects the revival of its surroundings to a considerable extent.

The Shubert Brothers’ 48th Street and 49th Street Ambitions

By the 1920s, the Shubert Brothers had become very powerful in New York City’s Theater District. However, they remained enthusiastic participants in the theater-building frenzy that consumed most of the decade. For instance, the Shubert Brothers revealed a plan to build six Broadway Theaters on 48th Street and 49th Street in 1920. They built four of the six. Out of those, one still stands on 48th Street, while two still stand on 49th Street. The Walter Kerr Theatre would be the one continuing to operate at 219 West 48th Street.

Those theaters were a bit out of the way because they were northward of the Theater District’s hub in those times. Something that would have hurt their ability to attract theater-goers. Still, the Shubert Brothers were willing to make such a great commitment of resources because they believed in the area’s potential.

A Herbert Krapp Design

Herbert Krapp did the design work for the Walter Kerr Theatre. He had started working for the Shubert Brothers back when he was still at the architectural firm of Herts & Tallant during the first half of the 1910s. However, he went independent in 1915 before proceeding to design a considerable percentage of the Broadway Theater built before the Great Depression. Those make it clear that Krapp was more than capable of coming up with pleasing designs. Alas, the Walter Kerr Theatre and the rest of its cohort tend not to be counted among those.

It isn’t 100 percent clear why the Walter Kerr Theatre and the rest of its cohort received more limited building budgets. One proposed explanation is that funds were tight even for the Shubert Brothers following the First World War. Furthermore, it isn’t hard to imagine why they would have wanted to reduce the cost of building each theater when they were planning to build six of them in short succession. Regardless, the result is that the Walter Kerr Theatre is one of the plainer-looking Broadway Theater. Its facade is most notable for two things. One would be the diamond patterns on its brickwork, while the other would be the fire escapes mounted in open view. With that said, the Walter Kerr Theatre’s interior did share the same Classical-inspired look characteristic of Krapp’s designs.

The First Two Decades

The venue opened in March 1921. It wasn’t too long before the producer William Harris Jr. decided to lease it for a decade. Said individual was the brother of Henry Harris and the brother-in-law of Renee Harris. As such, William Harris Jr. became a producer because he was one of the people who gave the latter a helping hand when she decided to keep her husband’s theatrical empire running after he died during the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. He continued running the leased venue until the end of the 1920s, which makes sense because the Great Depression had started by then.

Subsequently, the venue went through a decade of lackluster results. The Federal Theatre Project did make use of it on several occasions. Even so, that didn’t help much because the program ran for just four years, from 1935 to 1939, before Congress pulled its funding for being too political in the wrong ways. As such, it was no wonder that the Shubert Brothers started looking into other options.

Going From Role to Role

In 1939, the venue became a broadcast studio. There was a surplus of theaters and a shortage of broadcast studio space in New York City. As a result, several Broadway Theaters experienced this fate during the mid-20th century. The venue did return to hosting productions for a short time in the early 1940s. Other than that, it served as a broadcast studio until the mid-1960s. The venue went out of use until 1970. Once again, it returned to hosting productions for a short time in the early 1970s. Then, it switched through several roles throughout the rest of the decade, which should make it clear that its situation was unstable in that decade.

Under Jujamcyn Theaters

Jujamcyn Theaters acquired the venue in 1981. This time, it returned to hosting productions on a more permanent basis. Specifically, the venue was ready for use by 1982, though it didn’t host its first production under Jujamcyn Theaters’ ownership until the following year. It is interesting to note that it was considered for designation as an official landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission starting in the early 1980s. However, it didn’t receive official landmark status for either its exterior or its interior when the organization handed them out in the late 1980s. Amusingly, this is one of the things that help the venue stand out from its counterparts.

Renamed For a Drama Critic

The venue did see a change of note happen in 1989. That was the decision to rename it for the drama critic Walter Kerr, which went hand-in-hand with a major renovation. Kerr had once taught drama, which gave him an excellent background when he decided to move from academia to the newspapers. His importance can be seen in how he was a Pulitzer Prize winner. Moreover, Kerr worked as either a director, a writer, or both for several Broadway productions. One time, he was even a lyricist.

On the whole, the Walter Kerr Theatre is faring much better than when it still bore its original name. It has been consistently in use. Something that wasn’t always true throughout its existence. It should also be mentioned that the Walter Kerr Theatre is currently hosting a musical called Hadestown, a very modern take on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The musical started running in April 2019, meaning it is now the venue’s longest-running production ever.

References:

https://www.walterkerrtheatre.com/biography.php

https://www.playbill.com/venue/view-more?venue=00000150-aacd-d8be-af71-ffef18930006

https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/HADESTOWN-Becomes-Longest-Running-Show-at-the-Walter-Kerr-Theatre-20230104

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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