Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Lost 1866 Theatre Francais -- 107 West 14th Street

The Theatre Francais around 1900, by now known as the 14th Street Theatre.  Next door is the imposing Ninth Regiment Armory -- NYPL Collection
 By the late 1840s fashionable homes had begun rising along broad 14th Street.  Then in 1854 the Academy of Music opened on East 14th Street at Irving Place.   The 4600 seat opera house began what would be a comfortable coexistence of well-to-do homes and places of public entertainment.

In 1866 New Yorkers were desperately in need of diversion after the horrors of the Civil War which had finally ended the year before.  Two producers of plays, M. Guignet and C. Drivet, built the Theatre Francais at 107 West 14th Street. They commissioned Berlin-born architect Alexander Saeltzer, who was also responsible for the Academy of Music, to design the structure where they would stage French plays and comic operas.   

Saeltzer’s theater would be far different from his earlier, brooding Academy.   Drawing on 18th Century English styles, he created an impressive stone building with a two-story portico and a classic, closed pediment ornamented with sculpture.  Paired, fluted Corinthian columns supported the balcony, matched above by the single columns of the second story, narrower, portico.  There were five entrance doors to the shallow lobby at street level.  The building stretched through to 15th Street.

Inside two tiers rose above the orchestra seats, supported by slender columns to lessen the obstructed views – a lesson Saeltzer learned with his much-criticized Academy.  There were four private boxes, two each at the orchestra and second level.

The theater opened on May 26.   Within three months Guegnet and Drivet leased it to Jacob Grau who had big plans for the venue.  On September 20 he achieved a theatrical coup by introducing American audiences to the acclaimed Italian actress Adelaide Ristori who played Medea here.  Grau continued to break ground, premiering original plays such as La Grande Duchesse on September 24, 1867, performed in French and La Belle Helene the same year with then well-known actress Tostee.

Despite his valiant attempts, Grau’s theater failed financially.  Only four years after opening Charles Fechter purchased it in1870 and spent $60,000 on a one-year renovation, renaming it the Lyceum in 1871.  Unfortunately for Fechter, he suffered personal financial setbacks and lost his theater.  A string of managers took over – W. L. Mauser, J. H. McVicker, James M. Hill, John H. Haverly, Samuel Colville, Bartley Campbell and Colville & Gilbert – but Laura Keene stood out.

Mary Frances Moss Taylor was a respectable English woman in Winchester, England when her marriage ended badly.  Needing income, she turned to the stage.   After achieving some success she moved to American where she changed her name to Laura Keene.   By the 1850s she had turned to managing.

It was her production of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. that Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

When she took over management of the Lyceum in 1871, The New York Times hoped she could revive the house.  “Miss Keene is so well esteemed, both as artist and manager,” it said, “that it has been felt if any one could bring up the prestige of a declining property she might do so.”

It was not to be, however, for Laura Keene died at 47 years of age in 1873 of tuberculosis.
The Lyceum was staging “English opera” in 1877, according to “New England, A Handbook for Travelers,” and was used “for dress balls in winter.” By 1879 J. H. Haverly took over.  “Appletons’ Dictionary of New York and its Vicinity” called him a “well-known theatrical speculator,” who “has been very successful with ‘star’ and popular performances.”  He changed the name once again; this time to Haverly’s 14th Street Theatre.

According to Appleton’s “The interior is handsomely upholstered, and has the most comfortable seats of any theater in New York.”

Haverly ran the theater primarily as a booking house and staged performances that appealed to a much broader audience; including minstrel shows and extravagant productions.  As with his predecessors, however, financial troubles cursed Haverly and in June 1883 the theater was seized by officials over the manager’s $24,000 debts.

The revamped interior viewed from the stage in 1883 -- Pictorial Guide to New York Theatres 1883
“Hawley’s” was dropped from the name by 1886 when J. Wesley Rosenquest managed it after he purchased “various conflicting interests in the lease,” according to “Kings Handbook of New York City.”  King's called it “a first-class combination house, in which plays slightly melodramatic or sensational are the principal attraction.”

The various renovations had resulted in a seating capacity of 1,600.  There were now eight boxes in addition to the orchestra, balcony and gallery.

The old theater struggled on until 1911 when it was, essentially abandoned.  Throughout the World War I years it would occasionally be used for motion pictures; yet for the most part it sat neglected and dark.
Young boys pose before the theater in 1916.  "The Heart of Paula" was showing.  -- NYPL Collection
Then, when things looked their worst, the powerful actress Eve Le Gallienne took over the decrepit building for her newly formed Civic Repertory Theater in 1926.  Funded mostly by her lover Alice DeLamar, the Theater would produce professional, well-cast plays with affordable ticket prices – top price being $1.50.

Presenting a range of theater from Moliere to Barrie, Le Gallienne was able to pack the house even during the Depression.   On November 25, 1929 The Times said “Typical also were the capacity crowds which last week, while a sinking stock-market thinned most theater audiences, filled the Civic Repertory Theater.”

The Times was less complimentary about the building, though.  “Situated on drab 14th Street…a dilapidated structure with a façade of fire escapes, balcony pillars obstructing the view, and an unusually oppressive heating plant.”

But LeGallienne was not interested in the interiors of the old building, she was interested in providing artful theater to her widely-varied audiences.  Her casts included performers such as Burgess Meredith, Alla Nazimova and Jacob Ben-Ami.   In 1930 she produced the Pulitzer Prize winning Alison’s House. 

Time Magazine, in 1932, described her clientele.  “Top-hats and no-hats bobbed enthusiastically through the hideous foyer of Manhattan’s Civic Repertory Theater in grimy 14th Street…Men in leather coats from Greenwich Village and tailcoats from Murray Hill, women in city silks and country tweeds were there to celebrate the return of Actress-Producer Eva Le Galliene.”

Despite the crowds, the Depression took its toll.  Le Gallienne refused to raise ticket prices and on February 13, 1933 Time Magazine announced that “Now, one by one, the Depression has picked off her backers.”  To aggravate the situation, Actors’ Equity suddenly refused to allow Sunday performances, further reducing revenue.  The Civic Repertory Theater was disbanded later that year.
Berenice Abbott photographed the theater before its demolition; the Civic Repertory sign still intact -- NYPL Collection
For a short time the Theater Union produced plays that the Federal Works Progress Administration’s "New York City Guide" said had “a pronounced social theme.”  But the endeavor did not work.

A fragment of the pediment sculpture lies among the rubble of the old Theatre Francais -- NYPL Collection
It was the death knoll for the old Theatre Francais.   The venerable structure was smashed to the ground in 1939, to be replaced by a sterile brown-brick apartment building


  1. excellent article.

    btw, one very very minor correction - the movies showing in the 1916 picture are "Still Waters" (1915 pic featuring Marquerite Clark) and "The Heart of Paula" (1916 pic featuring Lenore Ulric - though spelt differently here). "the down town home" is a reference to the location of the theatre.

  2. Wow. Someone was looking VERY closely at the photograph! Thanks for the excellent catch! I'll correct that caption.

  3. haha. I am putting together a short wikipedia article on the theatre (ideally to be as comprehensive as your post at some point!). I ran across this venue in researching "Blue Jeans", a popular 1890 play which debuted there. "Blue Jeans" was exactly the type of melodramatic/sensational fare that King's Handbook describes -- the sensation of the play is a scene where the unconscious hero is placed on a board approaching a huge buzzsaw at a sawmill. Apparently all cartoons and such with similar buzzsaw scenes derive from that now-forgotten play.

    And to look even more closely on the 1916 pic, the poster on the right side is for Victor Moore in "The Race" (1916). The pic on the left is for The Heart of Paula.

    The Heart of Paula is set to show on Mon/Tues May 1-2, 1916. Still Waters is showing on Wed Wed 3, 1916.