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A forgotten brick wall on 41st Street hides a lost grand Times Square theater

42nd Street in Times Square is simultaneously the bane of most New Yorkers’ existence but also a treasure trove of historic remnants if you know where to look. Examples include the architectural details of the former Empire Theater visible in the lobby of the AMC Theater a building which was literally moved 168 feet west along 42nd Street in 1997. But just next door is an even juicier find: the remnants of the Liberty Theater, originally located at 236 W. 42nd Street.

When walking down the street today, it’s impossible to imagine the grand Neo-Classical theater that was once the Liberty, as there is no visible remnant of the theater along 42nd Street. But the Liberty Theater was a 20,000 square foot Broadway theater that could seat 1000 guests, designed by Herts & Tallant for the theater production duo Klaw and Erlanger. It operated for Broadway productions from 1904 to 1933 and was then converted into a movie theater. It went dark by the 1980s and was purchased by the City of New York for the redevelopment of 42nd Street. The theater has re-opened only briefly for shows like a performance of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland in 1996 and Cynthia von Buhler’s Speakeasy Dollhouse: Midnight Frolic, an almost year-long immersive play, in 2015, but remains intact behind the complex overlay of new entertainment spaces along 42nd Street.

Perhaps the largest visible remnant of the Liberty Theater is on the rear facade along 41st Street, right next to the back entrance of the Hilton hotel. The approximately five-story brick facade, with a castle-inspired crenellation at the top, well-maintained green doors and vintage globe lamps, is now ensconced within the larger Hilton hotel complex that has been built around it.

But on the 42nd Street side, the original Neoclassical facade, is all gone. A visual description was provided in Lost Broadway Theatres by Nicholas Van Hoogstraten in 1997 (an excerpt posted on Cinema Treasures):

The Neo-Classical inspired facade, with a set of caryatides flanking the main entry four stories tall. A huge arched window was surmounted by a carving of the Liberty Bell, and at the summit of the facade was a large stone American eagle, its wings spread and staring downwards to the sidewalk below.

A stunning ticket counter was located in a vestibule in the lobby, which was topped with a large dome, covered in gilding and aluminum. A promenade led to the staircase leading to the balconies and the orchestra seating, with an ivory, amber and gold color theme.

What was once the lobby is partially now the entrance to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, but if you enter the Applebee’s and Dave & Buster complex you can still see another part of the lobby which was converted first into Famous Dave’s BBQ and then into the Liberty Diner, a reference to the former theater. Though shuttered since 2015 when the operators lost the lease, the diner once provided access to the auditorium itself, which as Van Hoogstraten confirms, was actually located on 41st Street.

Cynthia von Buhler kindly provided us photographs of the inside of the Liberty Theater from her 2015 immersive play, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic. Like all of the impressive plays produced by von Buhler, guests entered a whole new world, in this case, going through the hidden door in the Liberty Diner and stepping into one of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld’s extravaganzas in 1920. You can see from the photographs the intricate details that still remain of the the theater, including ornamented balconies, the stage proscenium, and box seats.

von Buhler is now producing the The Illuminati Ball, which takes place inside at Weylin B. Seymour in the Williamsburgh Savings Bank as well as at a secret waterfront estate this summer, where guests experience a recreation of a 1972 Rothschild party. You can see photographs from that experience here.

Inside the Liberty Theater. Photo via Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic by Arin Sang-urai

Photo via Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic by Mark Shelby Perry

Photo via Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic by Mark Shelby Perry

Next, check out the Top 10 Secrets of Times Square.

 

 Liberty Theater, Secrets of NYC, times square

3 Responses
  1. Charles 'Chuck' Reichenthal Reply

    When the revitalization of Times Square was planned…and when it was shown to the public….it was assured that NO THEATER along the route would be destroyed……Considering the backlog of theatrical needs and productions, the Liberty is needed….What do we have to do to get some action on this? An abandoned theater in the middle of the most important theatrical area anywhere…INCREDIBLE. And are there any chances – at all – for that least to the church that was the very important MARK HELLINGER THEATRE can be revoked? For musical shows, that theater was urgent e.g. My Fair Lady et al.

    • Craig Morrison Reply

      When the Eltinge/Empire was moved across the site of the Liberty’s lobby that lobby–and the landmarked facade—were demolished. The facade was reconstructed fairly accurately but almost immediately so covered with illuminated signs that it is all but invisible. We all hope for an eventual reuse of the auditorium. As it is protected by landmarking it will not disappear but to make it fully usable would take some serious doing. At my last visit the balcony and gallery levels were accessible only by ladder from the main floor. Even more challenging is that the stage was crippled and truncated in height when the multi-cinema development was built around it.

      • Michelle Young Reply

        Very sad! Thanks for the additional information of when the facade was demolished.

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