Today, Times Square is filled with commercial businesses, drowned in tourists (and its famous lights), and hosts secrets under its surface. Notably, the area is also home to the city’s theater district where plays, musicals, actors, writers, and everyone in the industry go to make their mark. The area is home to beautiful historic theaters, some still standing as operating theaters, others converted repurposed, while some have closed. Just recently, the New York City Landmarks Commission removed seven theaters in Times Square from landmarks consideration, which we will note below in our collection of historic theaters in New York City’s Times Square.
17. Nederlander Theater
The David T. Nederlander Theatre opened on September 1st, 1920 as the National Theatre with 1,232 seats and is the southern-most Broadway theater. Built by Walter C. Jordan at the cost of $950,000, it was owned by the famous Shubert Organization until 1956. The Nederlander Organization, the owner of a total of nine Broadway theaters, purchased the venue from Billy Rose, a famous showman and lyricist, in 1979. They briefly named it the Trafalgar Theatre before changing it to the David T. Nederlander in 1980.
Some notable productions include Lena Horne’s 1981 one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music which won her a special Tony Award, along with two original Broadway productions: 1962 Edward Ablee, Tony Award winning production of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? and Jonathan Larson’s 1996 acclaimed Rent. Famous illusionist and stunt performer Harry Houdini appeared on stage at the National Theatre in the 1920s. Recently, Newsies was shown on its stage, and Disaster! is currently showing. Motown will be returning to Broadway once more to the Nederlander this July.
16. St. James Theatre
Opening in 1927, the St. James opened originally as Erlanger’s Theatre, built by and named after Abraham Erlanger, the founder of the Theatrical Syndicate. In 1932 it was renamed the St. James after the theater in London of the same name. After losing it in during the Great Depression, the theater was bought by none other than the Shubert’s in 1941. However, fearing monopoly accusations, they turned it over management to the Jujamcyn Amusement Corporation. Jujamcyn renovated the theater and reopened it in December of 1958.
This theater has been the location of a few famous productions and one of the biggest box office records on Broadway. In 2001, The Producers set box-office records for single-day sales, introduced “premium seating,” and garnered an impressive 12 Tony Awards.
In April and May of 2013, notable director Alejandro González Iñárritu filmed the Academy Award winner Birdman in and around the St. James Theatre for 30 days. Other notable premieres held here were Oklahoma! (1943), The King and I (1951), and Hello, Dolly! (1964). Today it hosts Something Rotten!
For more check out NYC Film Locations for Birdman.
15. Lyceum Theatre
Built in 1903 producer-manager David Frohman, the Lyceum is Broadway’s oldest continually operating theater. When the theater opened it had a state of the art ventilation system that kept it cool in the summers and warm in the winter. Forhman also built an apartment above the theater which had a small door with a view of the stage. Rumor has it that when his wife, actress Margaret Illington, was acting, he would wave a white handkerchief outside the door to tell her she was overacting.
When it was built, it replaced the original Lyceum on 4th Avenue which closed in 1902. Designed by architects Herts & Tallant in the Beaux-Arts style, today much of the original architecture survives. In 1940, the Lyceum was purchased by a consortium of producers, but changed hands once again in 1950 when the Shubert’s took ownership. It has been owned by them since then.
Along with being one of the oldest theaters still operating, the Lyceum was also the first theater to be granted landmark status in 1974. At three levels, it’s also one of the smallest theaters on Broadway in terms of capacity, able to seat only 950.
Notable productions that ran here were the Broadway debut of The Good Country Girl (1950), Hatful of Rain (1955), Whoopi Golderberg (1984) her one-woman show. Fully Committed with Jesse Tyler Ferguson is currently playing.
14. Hudson Theatre
Another one of the oldest theaters on Broadway, the Hudson was built in 1902-1904. It was one of the theaters that helped shape Times Square as New York City’s new theater district. The theater boasts a 100-foot long lobby (the largest at the time) and a backlit stained glass ceiling manufactured by Tiffany. It also had a number of impressive safety features at the time with 28 exits, completely fireproofed, and fashioned with a complete sprinkler system.
The Hudson was built by Henry B. Harris, who was at the time one of the era’s top Broadway producers. His success in New York led him to build another theater, the Folies Bergere (which became the original Helen Hayes). Harris unfortunately died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. On November 17, 1987, the Hudson received landmark status.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Hudson was a television studio owned by CBS Studios. NBC purchased it in 1950 and in 1954, was the home of The Tonight Show with Steve Allen. In 1956, developer Adam Hirschfeld turned it back into a theater, and then a movie house. In 1980 it became the Savoy Rock Club, and 1995 it was bought up by Millenium & Copthornes Hotels where the theater served as a conference and party space.
Recently, the Ambassador Theatre Group under the subsidiary, Hudson Theatre LLC entered a long-term lease of the Hudson Theatre, and will reopen for the 2016-17 Broadway season. When it does open, it will have the same number of seats as the Lyceum, also making the Hudson one of the oldest and smallest operating theaters in Times Square.
13. Helen Hayes Theatre
Helen Hayes Theatre, also known as “The Little Theatre” was built by producer Winthrop Ames in 1912 in rebellion against commercial theaters at the time (though it continues to do so today) and held only 299 seats. In the 1950s it was used as a recording studio for TV and radio. In 1983 it was renamed after American actress Helen Hayes after another theater by the same name was previously demolished (that previous theater was Henry Harris’ the Folies Bergere). The former theater was one of five that met the wrecking ball, replaced by the Marriott Marquis hotel.
In April 2015, the theater was bought by Second Stage Theatre which made it only one of four not-for-profit theaters on Broadway. However, the purchase was hard earned since the company had to fight for ownership, but ultimately prevailed. The last big show that was performed here was Rock of Ages in 2015. Recently, The Humans has been playing and will close on July 24, 2016. Today, the Helen Hayes Theatre has 597 seats, retaining its title for the smallest on Broadway.
Next, check out Celebrating 100 Years of the Helen Hayes Theatre
12. Times Square Theater
Opened on September 30, 1920 by Edgar and Arch Selwyn, the theater, designed by Eugene DeRosa has lived a long complicated life. Housing 1,057 seats, several hit plays ran here, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Strike Up The Band, and Private Lives. It ceased operating as a theater until 1934, when it was converted into a movie theater with the stage converted into a retail store. With that renovation, the Times Square Theater ended its run as a theater.
In the 1980s the movie theater closed and has since struggled to maintain a tenant. There have been multiple proposals and signings, but due to expense, none of those companies, including MTV, Ecko Unlimited, Marvel Mania, and the Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada all either considered developing, or in the case of Ecko Unlimited, leased but walked away from it after a few years.
In 2012, a chance at revitalization happened where a long term lease was signed to make a film presentation called Broadway 4D, a dedication to the history of Broadway. It was expected to open last spring, but in 2014 it was reported the project was canceled because of financial problems.
In March 2015, there was some talk going around the Ambassador Theatre Group, which controls the Lyric Theater, was in negotiations for management to convert it back into a Broadway theater. Two weeks ago, the Times Square Theater was removed from landmarks consideration.
11. AMC Empire 25 Theater
The Empire Theater opened in 1912 as the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre by Al Woods and named for Julia Eltinge, a female impersonator who helped make Woods’ career. Designed by Thomas Lamb, the theater was unique for having a new seating system that included “slender,” “medium,” and “stout” options.
Eventually Woods also lost the theater to the Depression and it was converted into a burlesque house. In 1942 it became the Laff Movie theater, and in 1954 was named the Empire Theater where it also showed only movies.
In 1997, the building was lifted from its foundation and moved 168 feet westward. The structure was changed into a retail spot and today stands as the entrance to an AMC theater. This theater was also removed from landmarks consideration, likely due to the extensive alterations.
10. Belasco Theatre
The Belasco opened in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theater for impresario David Belasco, whose name it was changed to in 1910. Designed by architect George Keister, the interior featured Tiffany lighting and ceiling panels, along with murals by artists Everett Shinn. Belsaco had an apartment above the theater, and it was rumored that after dying in 1931, his ghost haunted the theater until the 1971 production of Oh! Calcutta! It was after this rather risqué show featuring a lot of male and female full frontal nudity that Belasco’s ghost stopped appearing.
In 1948, the Belasco changed hands and came under Shubert ownership. The 2014 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch was the theater’s longest running show. Interestingly enough, this venue was also the first widely noticed successful performance of Marlon Brando where he played a small, but crucial role, in a Maxwell Anderson production of Truckline Cafe.
In 1987, the Belasco was named a New York City Landmark, along with its interior.
9. New Amsterdam Theatre
Built in 1903 by producers A.L. Erlanger and Marcus Klaw and designed by architects Hertz & Tallent, the theater was the largest on Broadway the time with 1,702 seats. It is also one of the oldest theaters in the area. It originally had a Roof Garden where more risqué shows were shown, but that part no longer exists.
From 1913 to 1927, the New Amsterdam had a lot of success as the home to the Ziegfeld Follies, a kind of show that was somewhere between a later Broadway show and high class vaudeville act. But when the Depression hit, the theater did not fare so well, not fully able to recover until the 1990s.
Although it remained pretty much in disrepair after the becoming a movie theater during the Depression, its beautiful Beaux-Arts facade and interior earned the theater a landmark designation on October 23, 1979, and was added to the National Registrer of Historical Places January 10, 1980.
Much like many of the theaters on this list, the New Amsterdam was bought by the Shubert Organization in 1982, but still remained quite unused and in a state of disrepair. The State and City of New York was able to win the theater back in a court ruling and under a new, 99-year lease signed by Disney, the New Amsterdam reopened in 1997 as a Broadway theater once more. Since then it ran many popular Disney musicals such as The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Today, it is the home of Aladdin.
8. Palace Theatre
The Palace Theatre opened in 1913 as the world’s most famous vaudeville house until the 1930s where it hosted many famous performers such as the Marx Brothers and Harry Houdini. This was the theater that if you got the chance to perform at, you “made it.” When the Depression hit, like most theaters, it had to adapt to the times, so with the increasing popularity of films, the Palace became a move theater from the 1930s to the early ’60s.
In 1966, the Nederlander Organization bought the Palace and converted it back into an operational Broadway theater. Since becoming a legitimate theater again, the venue like so many others in Times Square ran many famous shows. In the 1980s, two big hits were musicals La Cage aux Folles (the Palace’s longest running show at 1,761 performances!) and Woman of the Year, both of which garnered many Tony Awards.
Today, the Tony Award winning musical An American in Paris is housed at the Palace.
7. Lyric Theater
The original Lyric Theatre was built on 1903 by developer Eugene C. Porter intended as the home of composer Reginald De Koven’s American School of Opera, but the since the school went bankrupt before construction was even finished, Potter leased the theater to the Shubert brothers (yes, those Shubert’s).
During the 1920s, many Shakespeare plays were produced, such as The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and Othello, and in 1925, the Marx Brothers had one of their earliest Broadway shows here with The Coconauts, a show that eventually became their first feature film. Finally, Cole Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen opened here in 1929.
In 1934, the theater suffered from some major production flops and was forced to become a movie theater. In 1996, the Lyric along with the Apollo Theatre were demolished, leaving on the facade of the Lyric and proscenium arch, lobby and ceiling of the Apollo were incorporated into the new theater. It would go through a few names until March 2014 when it was renamed the Lyric Theater.
After the new theater was constructed in 1997, it became the second largest theater in Times Square behind the Gershwin. It ran the notable (and controversial) musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (2011), and ran the Broadway debut of Ragtime in 1998. This theater was just removed from consideration for landmarking.
6. New Victory Theater
In 1900, the grandfather of the famous lyricist Oscar Hammerstein built the New Victory Theater as the Theatre Republic. The architecture features a Venetian style facade with a grand staircase in the front, and on the roof of the theater something unique was offered: The Paradise Roof Gardens where a miniature Dutch village was created for theater goers to enjoy, complete with cows, ducks, chickens, and even a milkmaid to give children fresh milk.
In 1902, David Belasco took over the theater and renamed it after himself, only to change it back in 1910 to the Republic Theatre when he took control of the other Belasco Theatre. Under Belasco, the theater underwent some major technological changes so that more elaborate shows could be performed in order to compete with the New Amsterdam. With an orchestra pit, a modern stage, and new lighting system, Belasco was able to attract some great talent. In 1923, Abie’s Irish Rose was performed, giving Belasco a hit and Broadway its third longest running play in history at 2,327 performances.
From the 1930s to 1942, the New Victory was turned into Broadway’s first burlesque club and renamed Minsky’s Republic. Minsky redid much of the architecture and added many features which would remove some of the original Venetian style, but ultimately proved fruitful as it became the hottest burlesque club in town.
When Mayor LaGuardia banned burlesque in 1942, the Minsky became a movie theater, and with the eruption of World War II ushered in a period of patriotism, renaming the Minsky Republic to the New Victory. The theater suffered much like the rest of the of Broadway theater and in 1972, it became the block’s only XXX-rated movie theater.
The City and State of New York breathed new life into the theater (and many others) by establishing the New 42nd Street, a nonprofit to revamp many of the theaters put into disrepair. The New Victory opened on December 11, 1995 New York’s only full-time performing arts center for kids and families. The theater will not be considered for landmark status.
5. Liberty Theatre
Inside the Liberty Theater. Photo via Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic by Arin Sang-urai
The Liberty was a Broadway theater from 1904 t0 1933, built by the partnership of Klaw and Erlanger that brought us the New Amsterdam Theatre. It had a 100-foot long lobby and beautiful a Neo-Classical facade and had a rather patriotic theme with a carving of the Liberty Bell and a large stone bald eagle at the bottom of the facade.
Much like the rest, the Liberty converted into a movie theatre instead of going dark, which began a long process of decline for the theater. By 1996, most of the original architecture had been removed, some of it hidden behind a boxy marquee, and the rest remodeled. The inside was no better, falling into dirty and decrepit disuse, much of the beautiful older features, like the balconies, were closed off.
In 1997, a few plans were made to convert the venue into a reality arcade, a plan that fell through plunging the theater into another decade of disuse only to be revived as a Dave & Busters in 2011 (it closed in 2013). Today, the theater runs as a bar and night club, with the auditorium space used for special events. This theater was also removed from landmark status recently.
4. Selwyn Theatre
Built by the Selwyn Brothers, the theater opened on October 2, 1918 operating as a fairly successful theater until 1934. The Selwyn Brothers, who would found the American Play Company, were famous in the business and after opening the Selwyn, opened two more theaters in New York (the Times Square and the Apollo), and two more in Chicago (Selwyn and Harris).
In 1934, a similar story happened where the theater began to suffer in the decline of popular performances and was forced to become a movie theater. In 1950, it became a hybrid movie and short performance house where it was able to put on a few shows, including Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute. In 1960, it became a double-feature movie house and continued to be a movie theater throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
This theater was also part of the 42nd Street redevelopment plan headed by the city. So in 1987, when the Roundabout Theatre Company was looking to lease one of Broadway’s decaying theaters, it originally wanted the Liberty, but got the Selwyn instead. After years of renovations, Roundabout reopened the Selwyn in 2000 as the American Airlines Theatre (they were lead supporters of the renovation project). Today it continues to operate at a legitimate Broadway theater once more, but was also removed off of landmarks consideration.
3. Rialto Theatre
This particular theater started out a little differently than the other ones. Instead of a Broadway theater, it started out as a movie theater, specifically as the original “Temple of the Motion Picture” and “The Shrine of Music and the Allied Arts.” Designed by Thomas Lamb, it was built on the former site of Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, opening on April 21, 1916 with Douglas Fairbanks in The Good Bad Man.
Not lasting very long though, the original Rialto was closed and demolished in 1935, and rebuilt on the same site just on a smaller scale in an Art Deco style. As a revamped theater, the Rialto ran five shows daily including other non-movie performances by the Rialto Orchestra.
Changing with the scene in Times Square, the Rialto, too, became an adult house in the 1970s. It struggled to get by for the next two decades, and in 1998 was permanently demolished only to be replaced by the 30-story Reuters building.
2. Harris Theatre
Opened in 1914 by Coca Cola magnate Asa Candler and designed by Thomas Lamb as the Candler Theatre, situated between the New Amsterdam and Liberty Theatres. Built in the impressive Italian Renaissance style, the theatre was an architectural rival to its neighbors, seating 1,200 people.
In 1916 it was leased to Sam H. Harris and George M. Cohan to be operated as a more legitimate Broadway theater. It was subsequently renamed the Cohan and Harris Theatre. The two men had plenty of success together, but Cohan left in 1921, leaving it to Harris who renamed it after only himself.
The Harris enjoyed great success during its run as a theater, with many long running shows. With the Depression and falling popularity of theater, Harris sold it to the Shuberts who lost it in a bankruptcy claim in the 1933. Ultimately, the Harris became a movie theater.
For the next 55 years it would operate as a theater, losing much of its architectural grandeur as time went on, going dark in 1994. In 1997, there was some hope the theater would be leased and renovated by Disney Company since that’s what happened to the New Amsterdam. But since only the facade was saved in its years of neglect, the rest of the building was demolished with the facade becoming the front of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the entrance to McDonald’s.
1. Embassy Theater
The Embassy Theater opened on August 26, 1925 as an experiment by Loew’s Inc. that was a 556-seat movie theater meant for an exclusive high-class audience. As in the style of the previous theaters listed before this, it was known for its beautiful architecture, designed by Thomas Lamb.
In 1929, the theater reopened after being acquired by Guild Enterprises, and it became the first theater in the United States to have an all-newsreel format. By the 1950s, patronage began to decrease and the theater had to go back to a first-run movie theater showing feature films.
In 1987, the Embassy was designated a New York City Landmark. Despite its notoriety, the theater closed in 1997, only to reopen in 1998 as the Times Square Visitor’s Center.
Next, check out Vintage Photos: The Evolution of Times Square from 1989 to Today