Hammerstein’s Olympia Entertainment Complex or Lyric Theatre between 1900 and 1915. Image from Library of Congress.
New York City has been a hub of artistic endeavors and creativity since its inception and as a result, the city, the art, and the theater scenes have rapidly evolved and reinvented themselves to keep up with the changing times. Since 1798, when Park Theatre was built, theaters have been built, demolished, rebuilt, moved, evolved, and abandoned.
These twelve lost theaters in New York City provide a rich glimpse into the changing tides from historical to modern Broadway.
12. Criterion Theater
Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia’s Indiana Limestone building extended hundreds of feet across Longacre Square (now Times Square) between Forty-fifth Street, and Forty-fourth Street. In addition to creating the Olympia, Hammerstein also fathered a son with the same name, the famous lyricist and opera writer who flipped the normal musical writing process on its head by writing the lyrics first and following it with the score. His famous musicals such as The King and I and The Sound of Music are still performed and celebrated today.
After taking over a thousand men to build it, the Olympia opened the following day. The building showcased a music hall, roof garden, a concert hall, and the Lyric Theater which was decked out in Louis XIV style decorations in predominately blue and gold hues. The Lyric was only open for three years before a bankrupt Hammerstein sold the Olympia and the theater became Criterion Theater.
The Criterion was ever changing in both name and focus and eventually became one of Broadway‘s first “movie palaces” for movie musical releases. In 1935, the Olympia was demolished in order to make room for more modern buildings, including a new Criterion Theater.
When buildings are renovated or even demolished, the original structures aren’t always completely destroyed because it’s easier to build a new building on top of one that has some of its foundation intact. As construction workers dismantled the massive Toys ‘R’ Us in Times Square, they discovered the foundation of a theater and an orchestra pit that once stood tall in the stunning Olympia.
11. Astor Theater
Interior of Astor Theater in 1906. Image via Library of Congress, Unknown Photographer.
The Astor, a Neo-Classical and Second Empire styled theater within the Hotel Astor, was designed by George Keister and built on Broadway at Forty-fifth Street. The Hotel Astor had a green copper mansard roof, a Louis XV-style Rococo ballroom, and a rooftop garden for entertainment, drinking, and dining. While the Astor Theater only remained a performance theater from 1906 to 1925, it made its mark on Broadway with over 21,000 shows including Why Mary?, which won the first Pulitzer Prize for drama. The first production in the Astor was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which starred Annie Russell.
Hotel Astor. Photo via Library of Congress.
Like many Broadway theaters, it suffered the fate of becoming a movie theater in 1925. The Astor served as a “roadshow” theater for MGM Studios, meaning it would take part in a small number of first-time screenings in big cities before the general release. Two notable films that made their debut at the Astor are Gone With the Wind and Grand Hotel.
The Astor closed in 1972 because the old building had maintenance issues. It was slated to be destroyed and turned into an office tower along with several other theaters on the block, but the community intent on preserving the integrity of the theater fought against its destruction for twelve years. They were unsuccessful and the Astor, the Helen Hayes Theater, the Morosco Theater, and the Bijou theater were torn down to build the Marriott Marquis Hotel. The hotel itself lives on in an illustration on Dr. Brown’s Soda cans.
10. Metropolitan Opera House
“A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937.” Image from National Archives and Records Administration from Wikimedia Commons
The original Metropolitan Opera House opened its doors on October 22, 1883 on Thirty-ninth and Broadway. The architect, J. Cleveland Cady was responsible for the design of the building in 1883. After a fire in 1892, architects Carrere and Hastings redesigned the lavish interior. They created a gold auditorium which included the largest proscenium in America at the time, inscribed with the names of six composers: Beethoven, Gluck, Gounod, Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. The famous gold damask stage curtain was not installed until 1906.The two architects also restored its Diamond Horseshoe box seats where the Vanderbilts and Astors watched the performances, along with five thousand others.
Operas were performed up until April 1966. There were several plans in place to save the Met Opera House from demolition, including the attempt to raise $8 million dollars and an effort to declare the building a city landmark by the Metropolitan Opera Association. Both attempts failed and fearing another company taking over the building, The Metropolitan Opera Management fought and sued to have their own building destroyed. They got their wish in 1967 a year after the new Metropolitan Opera House opened at the Lincoln Center in 1966.
9. The Majestic Theater
Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in Columbus Circle on far left c. 1907. Photo from Library of Congress.
Columbus Circle once had a row of Victorian-style buildings, none of which survive today. On the right of this photograph was the Pabst Grand Circle and the Majestic Theatre, built for the Pabst Brewing Company in 1803. In this photograph, the sign above the building advertises Majestic Theatre’s production of “Babes in Toyland.” The complex was demolished in in 1954 and replaced by the New York Coliseum, a convention center that was demolished in 2000. Today it is the site of the Time Warner Center, which opened in 2004.
8. Casino Theater
Photo from Library of Congress
Located on Broadway at Thirty-ninth Street, the Casino Theater was the first theater in what is now considered the Broadway District. Back when the Casino Theater was built, the theater district was between 23rd Street and Union Square. Casino Theater was built for Rudolph Aronson and opened on October 21, 1882. The theater caught on fire in 1905 and the Shuberts, who took over two years prior, had to rebuild.
After the fire, Casino Theater put on the hit musical The Earl and the Girl. The theater did well for itself during its initial three decades but there were many newer theaters that had been built in the area and the Casino Theater was torn down in February of 1930 and turned into clothing stores.
7. Bijou Theater
Bijou Theater. Photo from NYPL Digital Collections via Wikimedia Commons.
Bijou Theater, the smallest of the Shubert theaters was designed by Herbert J. Krapp and was built in 1917 on Forty-fifth Street. While the theater mostly showcased plays by writers like Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and Sacha Guitry, it was one of three theaters that premiered the musical Fancy Free.
Emerging from its comfort zone once again in 1950, it showed one film, Cyrano De Bergerac. A year later, Bijou Theater became a CBS radio station and was later renamed D.W. Griffith Theater to showcase art films. The theater took up the name Bijou Theater once again in 1965 until was torn down in 1982 for the Mariott Marquis Hotel.
6. Wallack’s Theater (later Star Theatre)
The Star Theatre in the background. Photo from Library of Congress.
Like most historic theaters in New York City, Wallack’s Theater, located at Broadway at Thirteenth Street, had a bit of an identity crisis since its opening on September 25, 1861. In 1881 it was renamed The Germania Theater and then only two years later, it was changed again to the Star Theater. The German Romanesque theater was opened by actor James William Wallack and was originally named after his son, actor John Johnstone Wallack. Like the theater that was named after him, Wallack has gone by several names including Allan Field and John Wallack Lester.
James Wallack appeared for the last time on any stage at the opening of the comedy, The New President, when he addressed his theater for the first time. Wallack’s Theater was known for booking some of the most prominent names in theater at the time, including John Gilbert, Helen Tracy, and Frederic Robinson. Following the success of the first theater, another Wallack’s Theater was built on Thirtieth Street and Broadway. Four Broadway theaters once bore the name Wallack’s Theater and none are left standing today.
The Star Theater was sent off with The Man-o’-War’s Man starring Thomas E. Shea as its final show on April 20, 1901. Destruction of the theater began that same April and the demolition was recorded in time-lapse.
5. Candler Theater
Photo from Library of Congress.
Rather than just looking like an office building from the outside, Candler Theater was actually inside of a five-story office building on West Forty-second Street. The outside of the theater was lacking in pizazz but the Italian Renaissance-style theater with its elliptical dome and use of marble made the inside look larger than life.
The Candler remained a live theater from 1914 to 1933 with varying degrees of success. It only took two years for Candler Theater to be renamed Cohan and Harris Theater when the Candler family, (the creators of Coca-Cola) leased it out. It was renamed Harris Theatre shortly after and it finally made its mark when John Barrymore played Hamlet for the 101st night in a row, beating out Edwin Booth’s previous record of 100 nights.
The final performance at Harris Theatre lacked success and the theater was turned into a movie theater while it was slowly stripped of its iconic interior. The Harris Movie Theatre functioned until 1994 when it closed. It was demolished in 1996 to make way for the Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum much to the dismay of protestors who had hoped it would be restored to a performance theater again like the New Amsterdam Theatre was.
4. The Princess
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
The Princess, located on Thirty-ninth street, was among the smallest Broadway theaters when it opened in 1913. The outside of The Princess may have been reminiscent of a tall office building but the theater’s musical comedies from 1915 to the early ’20s were anything but boring. The inside of the building was a sharp contrast to the outside with its Georgian and French Renaissance styles, antique French tapestries, and neoclassical plasterwork.
The Princess was built for one-act dramatic plays, quickly developed into musical comedies, and then switched back to dramas in its final seven years before it was sold to The New York Assembly where it had its brief stint as the Assembly Theater before it closed within a year.
The Princess went through several different owners and functions. It was turned into a movie theater, a recreation center, a performance theater once more, and finally a movie theater again until it was torn down in 1955.
3. Playhouse Theater
“Photograph of the original Broadway production of Street Scene.” Image from Wikimedia Commons via White Studio, photographer – Theatre Magazine, Volume 51, Number 5, May 1930.
The first theater on Forty-eigth Street was the Playhouse Theater built in 1911 for William A. Brady. In 1929, the theater performed Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Upon Brady’s death in 1944, the theater was sold to the Shuberts.
Surprisingly, the theater’s name remained the same and the Shuberts’ management made way for the theater’s most famous production, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. The theater eventually became an ABC radio station and instead of turning into a movie theater, Playhouse Theater made it onto the big screen as a set in 1968 with Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The theater was demolished the following year.
2. Park Theater
Park Theater and the surrounding area drawn and engraved by C. Burton for the New York Mirror, 1830. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Park Theater, built on Park Row in 1798 by Mark Isambard Brunel, (the engineer and builder of the London Thames tunnel), is regarded as the first piece of Broadway’s puzzle. The stone theater was three stories high, seated 2,000 people, and the interior color scheme was pink and gold. In true 1700s fashion, women were not allowed in the first or second tiers unless they had a man on their arm. The highest ticket price for a box seat was one dollar, which roughly translates to about nineteen dollars today. In 2017, nineteen dollars generally won’t even get someone a mostly obstructed view in a Broadway theater.
Park Theater literally put Shakespeare on a pedestal when the theater erected a statue of the Bard on a pedestal. Fitting into their Shakespearean theme, the theater opened with his play, As You Like It. The destruction of Park Theater was unintentional not once, but twice when it burned down in 1820, was rebuilt, and burned down a final time in 1848. While Park Theater didn’t last very long, its popularity paved the way for Broadway to become the prominent and integral part of New York City that it is today.
While these theaters no longer exist, their legacy is preserved through the advancements in architecture, innovation, and evolved subject matter and their presence remains strong in the Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters that re still standing today.
1. Punch and Judy Theater
The Forty-ninth Street Punch and Judy Theater was built for Charles Hopkins in 1914 and only seated 300 people. The theater’s mural of Punch and Judy fighting and the lobby that was modeled after a 16th Century English pub were good indications of the experimental nature of the venue. As most of its performances were experimental, the Punch and Judy Theater didn’t do very well financially and even the few successes out of its 18,000 performances were modest.
Once Charles Hopkins renamed the theater after himself in 1926, it fared better. However, when the Great Depression hit, the theater could no longer sustain live performances and the last live show took place in the spring of 1932. The following year, Punch and Judy became Westminster Cinema and showed only British films. The name was changed again in 1960 to The World Theater and focused mainly on foreign films.
The theaters around The World Theater were thrust into a major financial decline and many of them decided to show adult movies to keep from going under. The World followed their example with the premier of “Deep Throat.” The theater was renamed one final time when it was taken over by Embassy Theatres. The Embassy forty-ninth Street was still standing in decent shape when it was torn down to build the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in 1987.
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