Monday, September 17, 2012

The Lost 1861 Wallack's Theatre -- Broadway at 13th Street

By the time this photograph was taken in 1900, the exterior had been heavily altered.  The 13th Street side had been raised to match the Broadway elevation, matching window openings covered the side, the tall oriel window was gone and the parapet remodeled -- photo NYPL Collection.
John Johnstone Wallack was born in New York City on New Year’s Day 1820.   But the newborn did not stay in the city for long.  His British acting parents were in New York on their first tour and the baby boy was soon taken back home. He was educated in England and at the age of 20 was commissioned a lieutenant in the British Army.  But Wallack preferred the stage to the barracks and left the army for a life in the theater.

Wallack’s passion for acting came naturally—his father James William Wallack was an actor.  Using the name Allan Field, he toured with his father.  When he appeared in Dublin as Don Pedro in “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1842 he changed his stage name to John Wallack Lester.

He was back in New York in 1847 where he debuted at the New Broadway Theatre.  While he appeared in Shakespearean roles in various Manhattan theatres, his father opened the hulking Wallack’s Theatre at the northeast corner of Broadway and 13th Street on September 25, 1861. 

Designed in the German Romanesque “Rundbogenstil” style, its many arched openings could not relieve the heaviness of its red brick mass.   Yet the building had delightful decorative touches.  At the corner a story-tall oriel window terminated in a balcony within a concave niche.  Ornate sculptural ornaments filled the spandrels between the colossal second story windows.  On the 13th Street side, the fourth and fifth floors slanted back as a high mansard roof, partly broken by a giant arched stained window that interrupted the flat cornice.

Before the alterations, a second entrance cut into the corner -- photo NYPL Collection
The Wallack was 75 feet wide and stretched 148 feet back along 13th Street.  The spacious stage measured 48 by 45 feet and the auditorium, decorated in red and gold, could seat 1,600.   The new theater opened with Tom Taylor’s comedy, “The New President,” and before the curtains opened, James W. Wallack, Sr. strood on stage and made an address to the audience.  It would be his last appearance on any stage.

James W. Wallack, Sr. lived only three years after opening his theatre, and upon his death in 1864 John Lester Wallack took over as sole proprietor and manager--as well as leading actor.    

In his 1919 book “A History of the Theatre in America” Arthur Hornblow remembered the dazzling seasons here.  “In this new Wallack’s, for more than twenty years the most famous playhouse in America, some of the greatest triumphs connected with the name of Wallack were achieved.  For the lavishness of its productions and the brilliancy of its casts, this theatre has never been equaled in this country.”

John Lester (Wallack) dressed as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing -- A History of the Theatre in America, 1919 (copyright expired)
John Lester lured the greatest names in American theatre to the stage of Wallack’s Theatre:  John Gilbert, Frederic Robinson, Owen Marlowe, H. J. Montague, Rose Eytinge, Helen Tracy, Maud Granger and Maurice Barrymore among them.

photo NYPL Collection
Recognizing the marketing potential of Charles Dickens’ visit to New York in 1867, Lester mounted a production of “Oliver Twist” on December 27 with an all-star cast.  It was the sort of production that prompted “King’s Handbook of New York City” to say that the house and the company were “famous for the general excellence of the productions, rather than for the brilliancy of particular events.”

In 1874 Lester produced what would be his greatest success.  He nearly did not accept Dion Boucicault’s Irish drama, “The Shaughraun,” because he feared audiences would not be able to pronounce the title.   But Boucicault’s reputation convinced him.  Producer-playwright David Belasco pronounced Boucicault “the greatest genius of the theatre at that time.”

According to theater historian Lewis Hardee, “On Saturday evening, November 14, a crowd of eager spectators dressed in their finery, drawn by word that The Shaughraun would be a special event.  They pulled up in their carriages and stepped down from trolleys and omnibuses, filed into the theatre, and filled it from parquet to roof.  They were not to be disappointed.”

An 1874 cabinet card captures the playwright, along with John Gilbert and Ione Burke, in a scene from Shaughraun at Wallack's Theatre -- NYPL Collection
The play ran for 118 evening performances; nearly a year and a half—until the following March--with the playwright himself taking the leading role.  The receipts for the 1875 Thanksgiving Day matinee totaled $2,250; the highest ever recorded for a single performance in New York City.  The play amassed a fortune of half a million dollars for Boucicault, which he reportedly quickly squandered away.

A light carriage pauses before the gates to Wallack's Theatre around 1875 -- photo NYPL Collection.
Within a few years, however, the aging John Lester built a new Wallack’s Theatre further uptown.  By 1881 most of the Lower East Side neighborhood had become “Little Germany” as German immigrants filled the neighborhood with music halls and biergartens.  Adolf Neuendorff ran the Germania Theatre and its success resulted in his need for a larger space.  In May 1881 he took over Wallack’s, signing an 8-year lease for $40,000.  Neuendorff remodeled the interiors that summer and, to great acclaim, opened the new Germania on September 15, 1881.

The New York Times remarked on the new German company.  “The company of the theatre is large, and for the most part, competent; the policy which was once esteemed to be the safeguard of true stage art, and which is now ridiculed by practical directors and other believers in the long run system—sharpens their dexterity and keeps them on the alert and mentally active.”

But Neuendorff had overestimated the popularity of his theater group.  The venue was too large and, faced with serious competition from other German theatrical groups, the Germania failed.   Before completing his second season in the old Wallack’s Theatre, Neuendorff closed the doors on March 24, 1883.

Later than year it was renamed the Star Theatre, managed by Lester’s longtime business partner, Theodore Moss.  Although the interiors had just been redone, Moss remodeled them again.  On  August 21, 1883 The New York Times reported “Artists, masons, and carpenters have been busy during the Summer preparing the interior of the Star Theatre (Wallack’s old house) for the coming season, and when it is thrown open to the public next Monday evening its old patrons will hardly recognize it.’

Moss covered the walls with “rich paper, the prominent color of which is gold,” and he gilded the iron railings.  The domed ceiling was painted by the artist Goatcher.  “The prevailing colors are gold and deep blue,” said The Times, “which tapers off to a very light blue on the outer circle, giving the effect great height to the dome.”

The stage was completely rebuilt and was now “composed of a vast number of pieces, and can be taken entirely apart if desired.  Traps can be arranged in any portion of it without cutting, and platforms can be raised at any point without calling in the aid of a carpenter.  It is claimed to be the best practical stage in America.”

The tourist guide “How to Know New York City” called the newly redecorated Star’s auditorium “large and brilliant.”

Yet despite the star-filled productions such as Dickens’ "The Pickwick Papers" in 1887, the Star Theatre felt the need to lure more crowds..  And so the interiors were redecorated again in 1888.   The dome was repainted in “the Italian Renaissance order,” said The Times.  “In the centre is a huge star, the tones being of the most delicate tints of blue, gray, and gold.  In the centre of this, above a huge electric light, is a large ventilator to be kept constantly revolving, but noiseless in its action.”

New proscenium boxes were installed, upholstered in green, blue and gold with scarlet satin damask draperies and gray-green plush.  The balcony was raised two and a half feet to reduce viewing obstruction and the chairs throughout were reupholstered in scarlet velvet.

“Thus improved the Star starts out for the season one of the most attractive and cozy theatres in the city,” remarked the newspaper.  The auditorium could now seat 1,750 persons.

It was not all Dickens and comedy in the Star Theatre, however.  In 1888 the auditorium was the scene of the presentation of the National League pennant to the Brooklyn Giants.  Among the entertainments that evening was DeWolf Hopper’s second public recitation of “Casey at the Bat.”

The Broadway and 13th Street neighborhood, by the turn of the century, was less one of theaters and entertainment as it was the garment and millinery center.   On April 7, 1901 New Yorkers were saddened to read in The New York Times “The theatre built by the Wallacks in 1861, in association with Theodore Moss, on Broadway at Thirteenth Street, and which was for twenty years the abiding place of the Wallack stock company, and later, after the stock company had moved still further up town, continued to present great stars up to 1895, is to be torn down.  The old Star Theatre is to make way for a clothing house.”

The Times somehow procured one of the programs from opening night in 1861.  Although the handbill was “crude,” the reporter noted “However the art of praising one’s wares was not undiscovered, as may be seen in the description of the building, claiming that it is absolutely the most magnificent in the whole world.”

Directly across the street were the offices of American Mutoscope—an early motion picture company.  The firm set up a camera to take exposures every four minutes during every 8-hour day while the demolition of the old Wallack’s Theatre progressed.  When the building was gone, the film was produced—a two minute motion picture called "The Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre.”

Movie goers sat in the dark and, as the film commenced, saw a normal Manhattan street scene.  There was the Star Theatre as men in derby hats and women in shirtwaists busily crossed the street and dismounted from trolleys.

Suddenly the speed increased and the street cars and passersby whisked by at lightning speed.  Window sashes disappeared, then nighttime engulfed the structure for moments, before sunlight quickly reappeared.   Demolition workers sped along the roof like insects as the height of the building decreased before the audience’s eyes.  On nearby buildings the canvas awnings rolled out, then in, in a dizzying manner.

Little by little the Star Theatre crumbled away until it was no more.  And then, to the surprise of the audience, it began arising from the rubble.  The inventive movie producers reversed the action and the movie-goers were amazed to see the entire structure rise again.  But the film was more than a gimmick.  The American Mutoscope Company meant for the film to symbolize New York City’s continuous building, razing and rebuilding.

Wallack’s Theatre, at one time the most famous and illustrious theater in New York and possibly the country, was no more.  Few people today know that it stood on the corner of Broadway and 13th Street and the names of the legendary thespians who trod its boards are largely forgotten.

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