Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Lyceum Theatre -- 149 West 45th Street

A carriage waits outside the new Lyceum Theatre. -- photo from author's collection
At the turn of the 20th century, theatre producer Daniel Frohman was faced with the loss of his Lyceum Theatre on 14th Street to commercial development. At the time the entertainment district had significantly moved away from 14th Street and Frohman set his sights on the essentially untried Times Square area.

Partnering with his brother Charles and the producer William B. Harris, Frohman commissioned the innovative theatre architects Herts & Tallant to design his new Lyceum Theatre at 149 West 45th Street.

At a time when the city was swept up in the “City Beautiful” movement and grand edifices rose across Manhattan, the architects produced a lavish Beaux Arts structure. Completed in 1903 it appeared as much a grand municipal building as a theatre. Six banded Corinthian columns rose above an undulating marquee to uphold a robust cornice supporting a limestone, balustrade balcony. From large tripods on the corners of the balcony bright flames drew the attention of passersby on the nearby avenues.

Six copper-clad oculi, or round windows, projected from the slate mansard roof which was trimmed in copper. It was a design that nearly a century later the AIA Guide to New York City would describe in one word: magnificent.

French-inspired motifs adorn the auditorium -- photo shubertorganization.com

Herts & Tallant used their innovative ideas inside. The neo-Baroque auditorium featured the city’s first cantilevered balcony. Theatre goers who were accustomed to craning their necks around supporting columns could now enjoy an unobstructed view of the stage. To keep patrons cool in the warm months and warm in the winter, air was circulated over blocks of ice or steam coils.

Gilded molded plaster adorned the ceilings and arches, marble panels, hand-painted murals by James Wall Finn, bronze statuary, and curving white marble staircases awed the patrons.

Behind the auditorium was a 7-story annex that included scene painting studios, 14 dressing rooms, and costume and carpentry shops. Frohman had a suite of rooms serving as his private office at the exterior balcony level included in the plans. From his private apartments above the orchestra he had a direct view of the stage through a small window. According to Ken Bloom in his 2004 “Broadway: Its History, People and Places: an Encyclopedia,” “When Frohman’s wife, Margaret Illington, acted on the Lyceum state, her husband would signal her from his window if she was overacting.”

In the mansard was a large rehearsal hall.  The small theatre (it had only about 900 seats) opened on November 2, 1903 with a production of The Proud Prince.

Daniel Frohman had distinctive ideas about running a theatre. “You cannot fill American galleries by offering indecent plays,” he once said. Instead, he attracted the foremost actors of the day; mostly due to the efforts of his brother Charles who was manager until his death on the Lusitania in 1915.

The year after opening Lionel Barrymore appeared in The Other Girl and his sister, Ethel, starred in A Doll’s House in 1906. Stars who would become famous on the screen, like Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Leslie Howard and Walter Huston played here. Florenz Ziegfeld staged a production here and on April 11, 1914, between the matinee and evening performance, married Billie Burke who was starring.
Despite the Great Depression, the Lyceum still managed to stage productions -- photo NYPL Collection

The Great Depression devastated many Broadway theatres, forcing them to turn to vaudeville or to introduce motion pictures. Frohman remained stalwart, however, refusing to produce anything but legitimate theatre in the Lyceum. Although a number of plays still opened, there were long periods when the impresario worked away in his private office upstairs while the lobby doors remained locked and the auditorium silent.

In 1939 the majestic building was threatened with demolition. A conglomerate of Broadway producers including George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart purchased it, saving the Lyceum from the wrecking ball. The hard-up Frohman was permitted to stay in his apartment for $1.00 a year rent. Six years later the theatre had its biggest hit – Born Yesterday starring Judy Holiday. The play ran for an astonishing 1,642 performances and assured stardom for the young actress.

A well-dressed crowd of 1950s theatre-goers awaits admittance in the lobby -- photo NYPL Collection

In 1949 the Shubert family bought the theatre and continued its tradition of top-level productions. That year Uta Hagen won a Tony award for her work in Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl. Shelley Winters and Ben Gazzafra would star in A Hatful of Rain in 1955 and other significant productions would include Walter Pidgeon in The Happiest Millionaire in 1956, Alan Bates in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1957), and the powerful A Taste of Honey by 19-year old Shelagh Delaney, starring Billy Dee Williams, Angela Lansbury and Joan Plowright.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century audiences experienced the talents of Whoopi Goldberg, Mandy Patinkin, Tony Randall, Matthew Broderick and socially meaningful plays like Harvey Fierstein’s Safe Sex and William M. Hoffman’s As Is – both of which dealt with the AIDS epidemic. 2003 saw the staging of the Pulizer Prize and Tony Award winning I Am My Own Wife.

photo by Andreas Praefcke

In 2005 the Shubert Organization conducted a full restoration of the theatre and moved their extensive archives into Daniel Frohman’s old offices.

photo by Andreas Praefcke

Daniel Frohman’s imposing theatre was the first to be designated a New York City Landmark, gaining that distinction in 1974. Thirteen years later the interior was landmarked as well. Today the grand dame of Broadway is the oldest continually-running legitimate theatre in New York.

1 comment:

  1. And what a grand, glorious theater it is. Thanks for writing about it Tom.