Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The 1904 Yorkville Theatre -- Nos. 157-161 East 86th Street

On September 17, 1904 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that the Colonial Theatre at Broadway and 62nd Street, was under construction.  It was architect George Keister’s first endeavor at theater design; and the first step in what would become a specialty for him.

Simultaneously, the Yorkville Theatre was rising on three 86th Street plots—Nos. 157 through 161--commissioned by developer brothers Arlington C. and Harvey M. Hall.   The ornamental ironwork for the ground level front and interior spaces was executed by Harris H. Uris, at the time the preeminent ironworker in the city.  Although owned by the Halls, the Yorkville Theatre project (as well as the Colonial) was the brainchild of Meyer R. Bimberg; who closely supervised its interior design.  He would eventually be responsible for five Manhattan theaters.

The 42-year old Bimberg had made his fortune in a most unusual way.  During the 1896 St. Louis political convention, he came up with the idea of picturing the candidates on tin buttons.   Hearing that McKinley and Hobart would get the nomination, he had 100,000 buttons made—the first political campaign buttons in history.

When Theodore Roosevelt returned from the Spanish-American War and was urged to run for Governor, Bimberg took a gamble and made up thousands of buttons depicting Roosevelt in his Rough Rider outfit, with the slogan “Our Choice for Governor.”  He gave the first to Roosevelt.  Then, according to The New York Times later, “They went like hot cakes.”  Bimberg earned the nickname “Bim the Button Man.”

The Yorkville Theatre was completed just in time for the season of 1904-05.  It opened on October 3, 1904 with Henrietta Crosman in Sweet Kitty Bellairs.  The New-York Tribune said Henrietta was “as charming as ever” and commented “The maiden performance of the new theatre drew an enthusiastic crowd, and throngs packed the sidewalk and street long before the doors opened.”

Theater goers filed into an auditorium capable of seating 1,372.  There were six boxes and two balconies.  The Tribune called the façade “colonial” and said “its interior is ivory white, gold and pale blue.  The seats and carpets are a bright red.  The chief decorative feature is a group of five large panels over the arch, representing, respectively, Comedy and Tragedy at the extreme sides, while in the centre is a reproduction of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s picture representing Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse.  On either side of this centre panel are two Shakespearean scenes.”

The newspaper’s description of the façade as “colonial” was a stretch.  Keister clad the building in sandy-brown brick, trimmed in white terra cotta.  The angled piers which rose from the marquee level to the top floor were capped by Art Nouveau female busts influenced by the Vienna Succession movement.  The center figure, which rose into the peaked parapet, was backed by an explosive fan—an unintentional foreshadowing of the overblown headdresses of Follies girls of the years to come.

The New York Times called the opening “a great occasion for Yorkville and a greater for Bimberg.  The old residents of the neighborhood blossomed out in all the glory of first nighters to such an extent that standing room was sold out long before the curtain rose.  “Bim’ made a speech at the end of the third act.”

Bimberg told the audience “The old-timers in Yorkville have been talking about a theatre for forty years and I’m proud and pleased to have given ‘em one they needn’t be ashamed of.”

The Times was pleased.  “The decorations are extremely pleasing, and the temperature is regulated and fresh air supplied by the latest mechanical devices.”

Like the opening production which had earlier played at the Belasco Theatre, Bimberg’s initial offerings would be restagings of shows that had opened elsewhere and proved successful.   Such was the case, for instance when the Tribune announced that Miss Percy Haswell and Robert T. Haines would appear in The Darling of the Gods for one week only.  The newspaper noted they would perform with “a company of the same proportions as characterized the original Metropolitan production.”

And on January 22, 1905 the Tribune announced that Henrietta Crosman “and her associates” would revive Sweet Kitty Bellairs for a week.  The article pointed out “Special attention is called to the fact that the best seats will best sold for $1.50.”  It was a substantial admission price—equal to more than $40 in 2016.

A week later a young man shocked New Yorkers (and his father) by choosing the stage as his career.  Young Harry Carey had graduated from New York University where he studied law.  He was the son of former Judge Henry D. Carey and on February 1, 1905 the New-York Tribune noted “It was expected that young Carey would begin the practice of law to-day.”

Instead, he had secretly been rehearsing his part in When Knighthood Was in Flower at the Yorkville Theatre for several weeks.  The Tribune reported “it was only on Sunday that his father discovered it.  He was at first displeased, but later gave his consent.”

Not only did Harry Carey succeed in his stage debut at the Yorkville Theatre; he went on to be one of America’s most famous actors.

Bimberg scored a theatrical coup when he introduced a new production in 1905 starring the popular actress Odette Tyler.  The Times reported on March  12 “To-morrow night, and for the first time on any stage, Odette Tyler’s new Du Barry play, ‘The Red Carnation,’ will be presented at the Yorkville Theatre. Miss Tyler will appear in the principal role, and this will mark her reappearance on the New York stage in the legitimate drama.”

Odette Tyler -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
In March 1908 Meyer R. Bimberg was stricken with tonsillitis.  He refused medical attention, and when his condition worsened a few days later, he took to his bed.  He told the family “Do not disturb me until I awaken.  I feel as though I would like to sleep.”  He never woke up.  The 46-year old button-man and theater builder died in his sleep on March 25, 1908.

Bimberg’s death would take a substantial toll on the Yorkville Theatre.   A little over a year later, on October 1, 1909, the New-York Tribune reported that Bimberg’s estate was foreclosing on the $40,000 mortgage held by the Hall brothers.

Mildred Holland's (center) appearance here in A Royal Scandal in January 1909 was among the last of the legitimate dramas.  The Theatre, January 1909 (copyright expired)
The estate wasted no time in leasing the theater.  Just two weeks later it was announced that the International Vaudeville Co. had signed a five-year lease at $25,000 per year.  Meyer Bimberg’s offering of high-class theatrical productions gave way to a more pedestrian entertainment.  Admission prices dropped dramatically to 5 and 10 cents.  The Tribune noted that “vaudeville and pictures” would make up the attractions.

Moving pictures had firmly taken hold by now, threatening live entertainment.  While the International Vaudeville Co. held the lease, The New York Times reported “The Yorkville Theatre will become a motion-picture house next week, under the management of Marcus Lowe.”  Lowe would find the venue so successful that in 1914 he erected a more opulent motion picture theatre across the street, the Orpheum.  But in the meantime motion pictures and vaudeville shared the stage at the Yorkville.

Vaudeville entertainments were wildly popular for the variety of acts—jugglers, singers, comedians and animal acts among them.  On December 17, 1914 things went horribly wrong at the Yorkville Theatre.  The auditorium was filled with more than 1,000 men, women and children who thrilled at the lion act of Madame Marie Andree.  The petite and beautiful lion tamer put her six lionesses through their paces to the amazement of the audience.

When the curtain lowered, a quartet, The Four Harts, came on stage to sing “Follow the Crowd.”  Behind the curtain Marie Andree supervised her staff as they herded the animals into their “shifting den,” a light-weight cage used to transport them from the stage to permanent cages.

Marie Andree poses with her lionesses.  At the lower left is Sgt. Daniel Glenn, who was shot in the incident -- New-York Tribune December 18, 1914 (copyright expired)
But, as reported in the New-York Tribune the following day, “Instead of marching sedately in single file to the gate, the six lionesses, Belle, Alice, Queen, Grace, Lady and Lina, made a concerted rush.  In the scramble to get out of the narrow gateway, the shifting den was upset.”

One lioness, Alice, found an opening in the curtain and walked onto the stage.  “Those in the audience who noticed the cringing yellow beast as it stole forward toward the centre of the stage took it for part of the performance, and held their breath in delicious horror.”

When the Four Harts noticed the carnivore, they found the situation less delicious.   When they started off the stage, a police detective ordered “For God’s sake, go back there and sing!”  And they did.

But when one of Marie Andree’s workers came on stage with a whip and tried to induce the lioness backstage, the audience realized their danger.  Panic ensued and 1,000 patrons tried to get through the exits at once.  The chaos aroused the lionesses, who struck out in several directions, several heading directly into the audience.   One man exhibited his bravery simply by playing dead.

“Mark McDermott, of 511 East 84th st., saw [Alice] coming.  She was headed straight for him and was but a few seats away.  McDermott had heard that the thing to do when you couldn’t run away from a lion was to play ‘possum.  He lay flat on the floor.  In another instant one of Alice’s paws raked the side of his head as she stepped over him.”

In the end, the one lioness who escaped the theater was killed by policemen.  The others were recaptured.  Among the injured was Sergeant Daniel Glenn, who took a bullet in the back during the affray with the escaped beast; and a 10-year old girl who was knocked down by a lion.  The Tribune reported “Twoscore women, who sought refuge in the women’s dressing room of the theatre, were rescued by firemen with ladders while policemen and trainers were corralling the five lions which roamed the deserted theatre.”

The following year the Yorkville Theatre received another make-over.  The New York Times reported on August 8, 1915 that “after completed alterations [it] will open next Saturday evening as a burlesque theatre, with two performances a day and a new program each week.”  The opening production was Frank Calder’s The High-Life Girls.

The following week the Evening World explained that The High-Life Girls was “two one-act burlesques, ‘A Country Vacation’ and ‘At the Pekin Cabaret.’”  The newspaper opined “The favor with which the performance was received indicates a successful career for the Yorkville under the new order of things.”

The burlesque offerings were far different from Bimberg’s vision.  Later that month Parisian Flirts was staged, with Charlie Robinson featured “in comedy characterizations.”  Eight months later Florenz Ziegfeld sued the theater for advertising The Follies of 1916.  The Times reported on April 20, 1916 “Mr. Ziegfeld at once instituted proceedings to protect his title, which is copyrighted.”

By now Yorkville was the center of New York’s German population.  Many of the productions staged at the Yorkville Theatre were presented in German.  But even in German, burlesque acts sometimes stepped over the line of Edwardian decency. 

Mizi Gizi was a popular actress of the German stage and she was scheduled to appear in “a program of German playlets” here on May 23, 1916.  The Times reported the following morning that theatergoers were “disappointed because there was no performance.”  The newspaper explained that the “Police Department…notified the theatre management after last Saturday night’s performance that two of the playlets on the bill would have to be toned down before they could be given again.” According to Police Commissioner Woods, he had received “complaints as to the alleged improper nature of some of the playlets offered.”

Mizi Gizi was back on stage on October 24 in a musical comedy, Die tolle Dolly.  The Times called it “a typical and conventional German musical comedy as to plot and humor, although its pleasing, if not distinguished melodies are produced more in the Broadway manner than is customary on the local German stage.”

Although German productions continued in 1917 (in November Mizi Gizi starred in a three-act German language operetta Auto Love; and in December Johan Strauss’s operetta On the Blue Danube was staged); anti-German sentiments were high following America’s entry into World War I. 

By the following season German productions were halted throughout the city.  The Metropolitan Opera House banned German operas.  The Times later noted that German plays were barred “from the Irving Place Theatre and the Yorkville Theatre.”

The New York Times reported “The German company which has held the boards of the Yorkville Theatre in Eighty-sixth Street for the last three or four years will give way to an American company this season.”  There was little question regarding the political tone of the country on opening night 1918.

“The opening attraction will be ‘Tell That to the Marines,’ a play by Mr. Philipp and Edward A. Paulton."   The newspaper added for good measure, "Philipp is an American citizen.”

It was not until the season of 1925 that German was heard again in the Yorkville Theatre.  On October 1 that year The Times reported it “will reopen as a German playhouse.”  Later that season, in January 1926, Strauss’s opera The Gypsy Baron was staged and the following month Anneliese von Dessau debuted.  The German operetta was written by Robert Winterberg.

Heinrich Knote, renowned tenor of the Munich Opera, appeared at the Yorkville Theatre in May 1928.  His would be one of the last performances here.   The theater shut its doors for good that year and was converted to stores on the first floor, a dance hall on the second, and meeting rooms above.

Today pseudo-modern store fronts have erased any trace of the Yorkville Theater entrance.  But on the heavily altered upper floors the dramatic 1904 decorations survive.

 photographs by the author

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