Have you heard of the national Broadway shows Stalag 17 or Mark Twain Tonight? These shows originated at The Lambs, America’s first professional theatrical club. The club also functions as a historical society and houses fun, unique knick knacks such as speakeasy cards from the Prohibition-era, actors’ railroad tickets from when they would travel to perform, and a fan favorite of the Lambs: a ferocious portrait of the cowardly lion, Bert Lahr, as a clown! Untapped Cities recently gained access to the Lambs Clubhouse at a private club facility known as 3 West Club, a building shared with the Women’s National Republican Club, where we spoke with The Lambs’ historian Kevin Fitzpatrick and current members to learn more about the history of this landmark association.
“The Lambs,” unique name, right? The club was named in honor of the English essayist and poet Charles Lambs (1774-1839). His main body of work consisted of prose and verse for children and critiques of Elizabethan drama by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. A group of actors frequently visited Charles Lamb and his sister Mary, who hosted dining salons, to talk about the arts. Charles and Mary were very supportive of actors during a time when actors could not belong to a club or organization. Charles Lambs died in 1839 and when a group of actors in London created a men’s theatrical and dining club thirty years later, they named it after him. The Lambs was established in the spring of 1869. At the club, Mary was the host to actors and literati.
One of the club’s members, actor Henry J. Montague, formed the New York companion club during Christmas week of 1874 and thus became America’s first shepherd! Today, the London club no longer exists but the New York City club continues to thrive.
In the late 19th century, Broadway theaters reached their peak in New York City. There were eighty Broadway theaters in operation compared to thirty today. During Broadway’s golden age there were 2,000 Lambs members and the club kept outgrowing the townhouses and spaces they were renting in New York City. The Lambs built their own clubhouse on West 44th Street, which also included their own restaurant and cocktail bar, in 1905. The palatial building was designed by renowned architect Stanford White.
Over time, Broadway’s popularity in New York decreased as did the amount of operating theaters and likewise the number of Lambs shrunk. Currently there are about 200 Lambs. Since the club’s founding in 1874 there have been more than 6,600 members. Due to the diminished number of members, the club could not afford to keep up their giant custom-made clubhouse. The Lambs moved out in 1975 and after bouncing around for almost a year, settled in 1976 at their current and 14th location on the 5th Floor of the 3 West Club at 3 West 51st Street. Today the 44th street clubhouse is home to the Chatwal Hotel and The Lambs Club restaurant, no longer associated with the theatrical club.
The Lambs’ legacy is rooted in helping actors. In the early 20th-century, powerful management groups exploited actors which led to a huge strike (the 1919 Actors Equity Association Strike) in which actors demanded rights. The actors won with the help of the Lambs and thereby gained rights by actors equity. The Lambs continue to raise money for charities that support actors, such as The Actors Fund of America which was founded by the Lambs. What makes their history so remarkable is that the club functions today just as did in the late 1800s when it was the first gathering space in which actors could meet.
Besides being a theatrical club, the Lambs is also a historical society. The clubhouse’s walls are adorned with an abundance of portraits, letters, autographs, and drawings. There is about $1 million worth of art and memorabilia at the club including sets of martini glasses, a few hundred railroad tickets, speakeasy cards, letters, china, and more! “It’s about the continuity of connecting to the past and present,” says current member Peter Dizozza. All the portrait paintings in the club were done by well known artists of their era, such as James Montgomery Flagg who designed the iconic “I Want YOU!” 1917 political poster. You can also spot a portrait of John Barrymore and Edwin Thomas Booth, art by Stanford White, and a ghostly portrait of Montague.
Many of the portraits on the walls are of Lambs such as Fred Astaire, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, John Phillip Sousa, Oscar Hammerstein, and Charlie Chaplin. Members of the Lambs can be professionals in the entertainment industry and arts or simply people who enjoy theater. Actors, singers, comedians, stage managers, writers, radio artists, entertainment lawyers, college students, composers, and Clergy members are all Lambs. “A club isn’t just the structure or address. The people make the club. This membership is very welcoming and friendly,” says current member and club historian Kevin Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has been club historian for the past two years.
Members have access to a Grand Salon with catering services, a Solarium, concierge service, rehearsal rooms, a pool room, and cocktail lounge at the clubhouse. Members freely showcase their talents during events, such as musical readings, recitals, author nights, and performances.
Members today emphasize the social and community aspects of the organization. They absolutely love getting to meet other individuals who share the same level of passion about the arts. “What I get most out of the Lambs is that the people have such stories and history in show business. It is an opportunity to meet those who have been in the business for such a long time and to get their feedback,” says current member Deborah Stone. It’s in this spirit that the enthusiastic and supportive institution keeps growing, reinforcing the club’s motto: Floreant Agni — “May The Lambs Flourish.”
Interested in membership? You can make an appointment to tour the club by sending an email to [email protected] and check out more photos from inside the clubhouse below!