Monday, November 18, 2013

The Lost Proctor's Theatre -- Nos. 139-145 W. 23rd Street

photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1883 Manhattan’s entertainment district ran along West 23rd Street.  The thoroughfare was dotted with music halls and theaters between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.  Some were quite grand like the white marble Grand Opera House on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue and Booth’s Shakespearean Theatre at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue; others were noisier and robust like Koster & Bial’s Music Hall.  But when Salmi Morse tried to get into the act, he was met with stern opposition.

Morse purchased “the Armory,” an old structure previous used a “Dr. Sause’s church, on the north side of 23rd Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and set to work converting it to a theater.  His intention—a quite lofty one in his mind—was to stage a Passion Play here.  As rehearsals and $70,000 renovations continued, he applied for a license for run his theater.

Mayor William Russell Grace was the founder of W. R. Grace & Company and the city’s first Roman Catholic mayor.  He denied Morse’s application because, according to The New York Times, he “thought the play sacrilegious.”  Witnesses at a subsequent hearing were confused—testifying that rehearsals proved that the play was simply a reenactment of the life of Christ.  (It is quite possible that the religious mayor was offended by a church building being used as a place of entertainment; or possibly it had something to do with Samuel Morse’s real name being Solomon Moses.)

When Grace’s term ran out Morse reapplied to the new mayor, Franklin Edson, who also denied the license on the grounds that the play was sacrilegious.  The producer pressed on, continuing rehearsals in February 1883 in his Temple Theatre.  When police arrived to make sure he was not operating without a license, an offended Morse replied “My object is too dignified for me to try to bring out the Passion surreptitiously or to evade the law.”

Morse tried another tactic.  He planned a full dress rehearsal and issued invitations to prominent citizens.  The publicity of the several hearings regarding the supposedly irreverent play worked to Morse’s advantage.  According to newspapers, no fewer than 2,000 people crowded into the Temple Theatre.

“Gentlemen whose clothes and air were clerical mingled in the throng; the Hebraic element was noticeable, and there were many actors and actresses whose successes, such as they were, were made years and years ago.  Sealskins and diamonds were as plentiful as at a Wallack or Union-Square matinee, and everybody seemed to expect an evening of uninterrupted pleasure,” reported The New York Times.

An uninterrupted evening was not to be. The audience was thoroughly enjoying the lavish production when suddenly the producer’s attorney stepped in front of the footlights.  “He emphatically expressed his regret that in the midst of beautiful concerted sacred music Mr. Morse had been arrested by the Police.  A storm of hisses filled the house, and cries of ‘Shame! Shame!‘ were heard in the balcony and orchestra.”

Ironically, Morse received his license within a few months—public outcry no doubt having much to do with the decision—then died under suspicious circumstances (he drowned in a bathtub) a year later. 

The Temple Theatre was purchased by the Gospel Tabernacle and reopened as the Twenty-third-Street Tabernacle.  While it was supposedly a house of worship, the first thing the Tabernacle did was stage “Othello.”  On April 10, 1884 The Times reviewed the play, approving black actors on stage rather than whites in black face.  Heretofore there “were the minstrels and the ham-fat men, to be sure, but no self-respecting colored man would give countenance to such low-down imitations of white trash foolishness.  It has long been felt that no person in the upper circles of colored society could as much as think of a race theatre until one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies had been placed upon the boards by colored actors and actresses of undoubted ability.”

The Tabernacle Theatre did not survive and on June 21, 1888 The Times reported that “The walls of the old church in Twenty-third-street just west of Sixth-avenue, which afterward became Salmi Morse’s theatre when the unfortunate manager undertook to produce the Passion Play, have been leveled to the ground, and work on the new theatre which is to rise on the site is being rapidly pushed.”

Impresario Frederick Francis Proctor built an impressive structure in the latest architectural rage—Flemish Revival.  The brick-clad theater, which quaintly recalled Manhattan’s Dutch heritage, featured a central and flanking stepped gables, picturesque capped dormers and a wide exterior balcony.  Large brass letters were embedded into the sidewalk spelling out PROCTOR’S.

Inside patrons were dazzled by electric lighting (although, as was customary, gas fixtures were available should the often-unreliable electricity fail).  The 1,550-seat auditorium featured gilded railings, velvet draperies and a gray-blue ceiling above red-toned walls.

While Proctor, at least initially, offered legitimate theater; he sought out innovative means to lure audiences.  On December 2, 1890 The Times wrote a critique of the afternoon performance the day before—during which bird-imitator Mable Stephenson shared the program with a one-act play “Barbara” and an exhibition of the new-fangled phonograph.

The newspaper (while noting the “not very numerous audience”) thought Mable “a remarkable mimic;” panned “Barbara” as “an early work and bears the impress of juvenility, and is based on a mock sentimental idea such as might occur to a very young person who had read too many books of fiction and not seen much of the world;” and had mixed thoughts about the phonograph.

“The exhibition was startling, but not pleasing.  The phonograph emphasizes defects and blemishes as the camera used to before photographers became artists.  A cornet is distressing enough at any time.  When its notes are treasured up on the phonograph cylinder and ground out by electricity the result is almost maddening.”

That same year David Belasco and Henry DeMille produced Men and Women here, a drama that dealt with the political and business life in America.  Later DeMille staged his last play, The Lost Paradise, at Proctor’s before his sudden death.

In 1892 Proctor switched from legitimate plays to vaudeville, becoming the first such venue in New York.  He offered continuous performances from noon to midnight six days a week.  For the price of admission a patron could stay all day and New Yorkers became familiar with his marketing slogan “After Breakfast Go to Proctor’s, After Proctor’s Go to Bed.”

In November that year Annie Eva Fay took the stage to conduct a séance before an audience of 1,500.   Although Fay was internationally famous as a medium and mentalist, The Times was not impressed.  “There was nothing in the performance given by Miss Fay last evening that was remarkable,” it said and added “It was the usual old cabinet performance, in which a lot of tambourines, banjos, guitars, and bells played the principal roles.”

The newspaper, as it would turn out years later, was correct.  Annie Fay was later exposed as a fraud.

Proctor managed to draw a wide variety of talent to the Twenty-third Street Theatre.  During the 1890s Ruth St. Denis landed an engagement here, dancing twice a day.  Her artistic talent, however, was in stark contrast to the sometimes-plebian vaudeville acts.  When the wealthy Mrs. Orlando Rouland saw St. Denis’s “hindoo” dance drama one afternoon, she was taken with the dancer; but appalled at the monkey act that followed.  She offered to sponsor St. Denis in a “proper uptown theatre;” the dancer’s first real break.

A newspaper at the time complained about the theater’s admission prices.  “At Proctor’s one has to pay fifteen cents to roost ‘among the gods,’ and the prices range as high as $1 for ‘a seat in a box.’”  But Proctor countered explaining it was “a first-class place of amusement at reasonable prices, that will combine the comforts and privileges of a ladies’ club with the entertainment of a select and carefully-managed theatre, where comic opera, the cream of the vaudeville stage, with musical sketches and crisp, bright comedy will be presented.”

Proctor was proud of his innovative “ladies’ club.”  Women of the 1890s were necessarily careful about their reputations and the theater was a perfect place to lose them.  On January 10, 1893 The Times noted that “The ‘ladies’ club’ idea is one that the management wants particularly to emphasize.  According to the announcement the ‘features include cozy parlors, dressing and toilet rooms, decorated and furnished artistically and luxuriously, where ladies may enjoy the same degree of privacy and comfort that they would if at home.’  This ‘ladies’ club’ idea is rather indistinct at present, but may develop.  The management reserves the right to exclude objectionable characters.”

A sign above the entrance announces "Moving Pictures" in 1895 -- King's Photographic Views of New York City, 1895 (copyright expired)
Proctor kept his theaters current with changes in public taste and technology.  By 1895 he was showing "moving pictures" and in 1899 he formed a relationship with filmmaker William Paley, screening his first kalatechnoscope projected motion picture at Proctor’s on October 9, 1899.

By the turn of the century F. F. Proctor had opened his second vaudeville venue, the Pleasure Palace on East 58th Street.  He added a third, the former Fifth Avenue Theatre, in 1900.  Somewhat confusingly, he would call all three “Proctor’s Theatre.”

Along with the vaudeville acts were plays staged by the Proctor Stock Company.  In May 1901 the group produced the two act musical comedy Cinderella at School; preceded and followed by “high-class varieties and novelties” including Lillie Western, “the musical artiste;” comediennes the Doherty Sisters; vocalist Kathryn Pearl; and Tegge and Daniels, “Dutch comedy.”

Variety acts included the Cycle Whirl in 1901 -- photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Buster Keaton appeared here with his family, The Three Keatons; and in 1903 the former boxer James J. Corbett took the stage in a one-man show telling audiences “some of the funny things that happen to a champion pugilist.”  That year audiences would be amused by the low-brow humor of the comic acts like Mooney and Holbein, and Barton and Wakefield.

“Did you ever hear the peacock story?”
“No. What is it?”
“Oh, it’s a beautiful tale.”

One quick joke would be followed rapid-fire by another.

“Did you know my sister who worked in the rubber factory?”
“Yes, What of her?”
“Well, she got bounced.”

Audiences were treated to more upscale humor when Will Rogers signed on on July 1, 1905 at $150 per week for two performances a day.  Sharing the bill was comedienne-singer Edna Wallace Hopper (who got top billing over Rogers), actor Charles Grapewin, the Elinore Sisters, To-To The Mysterious Musician, The Esmeralda Sisters and the Four Flower Girls among others.

Roger’s salary was nothing when compared to the amount Proctor was willing to pay for big names that would attract his audiences.  On March 17, 1905—when the average American worker was earning between $200 and $400 per year--he offered the famous actor Joseph Jefferson $5,000 a week for twelve weeks, “twenty-five minutes twice a day for six days a week.”  That would translate into about $95,000 a week in today’s dollars.

Jefferson turned down Proctor; but a few months later the famous Lillian Russell accepted.  “Many managers have tried to get Lillian Russell to go into vaudeville,” reported The New York Times on August 1, 1905, “and now F. F. Proctor has succeeded.  She has consented to appear in the Proctor theatres at a weekly salary which is said to be somewhere near the $4,000-mark.”

The theater is plastered with signs announcing the appearance of the great Lillian Russell in 1905 -- photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The star started her tour at the 23rd Street theater in October, staying for several weeks.  The Times said “She will sing new songs and some of the old ones familiar to the vaudeville audiences of years gone by  She is going to get the handsomest gowns, the press agent says, that were ever seen on the stage.”

The days of live shows at Proctor’s Twenty-third Street Theatre were quickly drawing to a close.  Motion pictures were the new rage and on December 6, 1907 Moving Picture World announced that the theater would become a motion picture theater exclusively.  “Admittance will be five cents and ten cents.”  The magazine noted “With the change in style of amusement, the theater’s name will also be changed.  Thenceforth it will be the Bijou Dream.”

In the spring of 1929 F. F. Proctor retired.  On May 14 the Radio-Keith Orpheum Corporation purchased his four New York City theaters, including the 23rd Street venue.  RKO screened motion pictures in the Flemish Revival building for only about seven years.  On March 7, 1937 a devastating fire swept through the theater.

RKO moved its theater into the former Grand Opera House on Eighth Avenue.  Before long only the brass letters in the sidewalk announcing PROCTOR’S would remind passersby of the long-gone 23rd Street entertainment district.  Those, two, disappeared in the 1970s.

When the unexciting brick building was constructed in the second half of the 20th century the brass letters PROCTOR'S inlaid into the sidewalk were lost.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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