Monday, August 11, 2008

Saving the Theaters

During the first decades of the twentieth century dozens of new playhouses were built in the Times Square theater district. The year 1927 marked the end of the building boom and the high water mark of the legitimate theater in New York as well. 1927 also marked the advent of talking pictures with the premier of The Jazz Singer at Warners Theater on October 6. The “talkies” had a profoundly negative effect on live theater. Another blow was struck in October of 1929 with the Wall Street stock market crash and the ensuing depression that was to last through the 1930’s. The building boom was over by 1928 and no new theaters were built again until 1970. During those years 27 theaters fell to the wrecking ball as developers gobbled up real estate in the theater district.

Some of the theaters, particularly those along 42nd Street, survived because they could be easily converted to accommodate movies or burlesque shows. The Empire (nee Eltinge) accommodated both. Money to produce plays and musicals began to dry up and only the Federal Theater Project kept many houses open during the late ‘30s. Others were saved by conversion into radio studios and later into stages for live television. An excellent example of this process is Studio 54, once New York’s late 70’s uber-Disco. It started life in 1927 as Fortune Gallo’s Gallo Opera House with La Boheme as the opening production. By 1930 it was re-named The New Yorker Theater and became a home to serious drama. In 1936 the Federal Theater Project leased the playhouse and presented a jazzed-up version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado, staring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. CBS purchased the theater in 1942 to house live radio broadcasts. By the 1950’s it became a stage for live television broadcasts and home to shows like The $64,000 Question and Captain Kangaroo. In 1976 CBS moved television production into the Ed Sullivan Theater (once connected to Studio 54 by a passageway) and sold what was to become Studio 54. The Sullivan theater had started life as the Hammerstein Theater, later home to the Ed Sullivan Show and now home to Late Night with David Letterman.

The post war years were not kind to much of the theater district, particularly 42nd Street and specifically to the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. This block was lined with bawdy entertainment and drew a scruffy and sometimes menacing crowd. Mayor Wagner noted in a 1965 interview that never once, in his entire tenure as mayor, had he set foot on that block. Ironically he was to be its inadvertent savior. One of Mayor Wagner’s last acts was the creation of the New York Landmarks Commission after the egregious destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station in 1964. The New York Times, from its offices a block away on 43rd Street, declared that this block of 42nd Street was “the single worst block in the town”. Hookers, hustlers, junkies and derelicts made it such a dangerous place that real estate values crumbled and the old Knickerbocker Hotel, once Jack Astor’s glittering showplace, was sold by its owner for one dollar in 1965. John Lindsay was elected mayor in 1965 and the slow process of saving the theaters and especially 42nd Street, had begun. By 1970 the beloved Astor Hotel, filling the Broadway block from 44th to 45th was demolished, to be replaced by an ugly high rise courtesy of developer Jerry Minskoff. His intention was to use the lower floors for a JC Penney store but Mayor Lindsay bullied him into building a huge theater (Lindsay threatened to delay the building permits indefinitely) instead. The Minskoff is currently home to The Lion King.

New York in the late 60’s and early 70’s was not exactly a real estate developer’s dreamland, so many playhouses somehow survived, including the Empire and the other grand old houses along 42nd Street (most by then featured XXX movies and peep shows). By 1972 the real estate climate began to change and the Capitol Theater, a huge movie palace on west 50th Street, was demolished and replaced by two new theaters, the Uris (later wisely named the Gershwin Theater) and Circle in the Square. In 1982 the Marriott hotel chain received permits to demolish three playhouses – the Bijou and the Morosco on 45th Street and the Helen Hayes on 46th Street – to be replaced by a high rise hotel and one huge theater along Broadway. The process had been so secretive that the theater community realized, too late, what was about to be lost. They organized an eleventh hour protest and prominent actors carried protest signs in a heartfelt demonstration, but to no avail. When Marriott announced that the new theater would be named for Helen Hayes she rejected the gesture on behalf of her fellow actors and the saddened theater community. Ms Hayes was later honored by her peers when The Little Theater on 45th Street was re-named in her honor. Today the Gershwin, the Minskoff and the Marquis are booked with musicals.

The loss of these three theaters in 1982 galvanized the Broadway community just as the wanton destruction of Pennsylvania Station had galvanized the architectural community in 1964. A coalition of politicians, actors and preservationists called on the Landmarks Commission to save the remaining theaters in Times Square and the commission responded and began designating both the interiors and exteriors of most of the remaining playhouses. The theater owners fought back in the courts, led by Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs of the Schubert Organization, the largest owner of theaters in the district. The case crept through the courts for the next ten years. Finally, when the US Supreme court refused to hear the case in 1992, the theaters were saved. Today 23 pre-1928 playhouses have both interior and exterior landmark status, six more have interior designation and three have exterior designation only – the Empire is one of these. New York is truly a city of irony. Two Schubert-owned houses on 45th Street were recently re-named for Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, the same lawyers who had fought for ten years in the courts for their demolition.

The Times Square theater district to be preserved was then considered to be the blocks north of 42nd Street – that benighted thoroughfare was thought beyond hope by most New Yorkers. Except for a forward-looking group of planners and city and state officials who saw beyond the tawdry peep show facades and realized that the grand old theaters were worth saving. In 1984 they established a thirteen-acre urban renewal site along 42nd Street, from Broadway to Eight Avenue with the aim of preserving and restoring the theaters along that block. By early 1990, after years of litigation, the state took ownership of two thirds of the project site, including six of the theaters. In September the announced a new controlling entity, The New 42nd Street, with a 99 year lease on six theaters – the peerless New Amsterdam and the Empire remained under state ownership.

By 1996 the last of the peep shows was closed and the big New York developers Forest City Ratner signed a long term lease on the Empire Theater and began to restore the old playhouse. In March of 1998 they moved the theater 170 feet toward the Hudson, providing the city’s “sidewalk superintendents” with several days of excitement. The purpose of this remarkable feat was to provide a main entrance to a new AMC movie theater complex. Today the escalator that carries patrons up to the theaters passes under the proscenium arch of the old theater where Clark Gable and Lawrence Olivier once took their bows and Bud Abbot and Lou Costello performed their “Who’s on First?” routine for the first time. The AMC Empire 25 opened for business in April of 2000.

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