Monday, June 3, 2013

The Lost 1882 Casino Theatre -- 39th Street and Broadway

Postcard from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1882 New York City’s entertainment and theater district was firmly rooted along 23rd Street.  But that year Rudolph Aronson made a daring and risky move.  He built a grandiose theater sixteen blocks to the north—far too remote to be successful, according to common opinion.

Aronson, who was a prolific composer, had been the manager of the Metropolitan Concert Hall.  Now he sought to create a venue for mostly light musicals and operetta.   He convinced influential Manhattan businessmen—among them Jay Gould, Louis C. Tiffany, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. P. Morgan—to finance the precarious project.   Architects Francis Kimball and Thomas Wisedell were given the commission to design the uptown theater.  And if the location did not draw patrons, the architecture certainly did.

The fantastic structure sat at the southeast corner of Broadway and 39th Street and was called by some “the best example of Moorish architecture in the country.”  The description was a bit overstated, but the brick and terra cotta building was indeed eye-catching.

In 1896, when this photograph was taken, the roof garden had been added -- Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

Horseshoe arches, arcades and a soaring corner tower combined to make the theater unlike any other of the time.  The architects compounded the Moorish theme inside with brilliant metallic colors, a jewel-laced velvet stage curtain, boxes encrusted with carved arabesque patterns, and an intricate auditorium ceiling of fans, arches and filigree details.

The ornate plasterwork was studded with artificial jewels -- Byron Company, photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

Aronson’s forward thinking resulted in firsts for New Yorkers.  The 1,300 seat theater would become the first in to be lit by electricity.  It boasted an attractive café; it too smothered in Moorish detailing.

Opening night was on October 21, 1882 with the Strauss operetta Queen’s Lace Handkerchief.    Unfortunately, it was a stormy night and construction had not been completed.  Well-dressed patrons sat below a dripping ceiling.  Despite the less-its less than perfect debut, the theater endured.

Fancy wicker furniture (albeit non-matching) furnished the orchestra boxes.  An electric fan provided air circulation -- Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Aronson’s initial productions were lavish adaptations of European and British comic operas.   The gamble paid off.  Later The New York Times would remark that “The Casino became the recognized home of light and comic opera in New York.”  Aronson scored tremendous hits with Nell Gwynn and the enormously successful Erminie which ran some 1,200 performances.

The Moorish motif spread into the cafe -- Byron Company, p hoto from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Throughout the years the Casino would be responsible for the stardom of entertainers like Lillian Russell, De Wolf Hopper, Jefferson De Angelis, Marie Dressler and Francis Wilson.  In 1890 Aronson introduced another first—the first roof garden in the country.  The breeze-cooled roof venue meant that Aronson could operate year-round.

The roof garden audience stands to get a glimpse of the performance -- photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

That same year unknown Italian composer Pietro Mascagni took Rome by storm when his Cavalleria Rusticana won a competition staged by publisher Edoardo Sonzogno.  The one-act opera premiered on May 17, 1890 in the Teatro Costanzi and was a phenomenal triumph.  It was just the sort of production Aronson looked for.

photo by Bryan Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On October 1, 1891 The Casino premiered Cavalleria Rusticana in America with a matinee performance.  That evening Oscar Hammerstein opened his house with a production of the same opera.  It created what The New York Times would gently describe as “a famous incident.”

The mosaic floor of the lobby imitated an Oriental carpet -- Kurtz Brothers, photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1894 came another first.  The Passing Show was the first American revue.  Then four years later the roof garden staged the premier of The Origin of the Cake Walk; or Clorindy.  It was the first African-American musical to be presented before a white audience.

The Casino would break ground again in 1899 when it staged the English musical Floradora.  It introduced the chorus line to America and became one of the most famous productions in Broadway history.  The “Floradora Girls” ignited the trend of chorus girl revues that lasted throughout the 20th century.

Floradora would become on of Broadway's greatest hits -- Byron Company, photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

So popular was the beautiful chorus line that a musical, The Casino Girl, was written in 1900, based on the fictitious exploits of one of the girls.

Early in February that year the curtain caught fire from the footlights during a performance.  One patron described the scene.  “The house was packed, with seats all full and hundreds standing in the rear.  As the flames spread and crackled it was almost beyond human sense to hope for safety.” 

Cool heads prevailed however.  “The men on the stage acted with the utmost coolness, and must have credit for their share in averting a calamity, but their bravery would have availed little had not their efforts been seconded by the people on the floor.  At the first sign of fire men in all parts of the house stood up on the seats and urged the people to keep cool and not stampede.

“Women, more excitable, as a rule, attempted to make their way to the rear, but men stood in the aisles and prevented a stampede and panic  It was a spectacle to make every one proud of our American type of manhood.”

Disaster was averted; but five years later the theater, now managed by the Shubert organization, would be less lucky.  On February 12, 1905 The New York Times reported that “Broadway between Herald Square and Times Square was thrown into wild excitement shortly after noon yesterday by a fire in the Casino Theatre, where Lillian Russell has been playing in ‘Lady Teazle.’”

Over one hundred chorus girls were in the house rehearsing, but everyone escaped unharmed.  The theater itself did not fare as well.   Stage hands scrambled to rescue props and expensive sets.

“Seldom has Thirty-ninth Street witnessed such a scene,” said The Times.  “Out of the stage entrance came a line of men, bearing everything, from pink silk slippers to bulky scenery…There were the ancestral portraits which Charles Surface auctions off  in the play and silk goods of every hue.  There were beflowered skirts and powdered wigs, decanters, ribbons, and petticoats, picture hats—and everything else that has any part in the setting of ‘Lady Teazle.’”

Although the magnificent auditorium was not threatened by the fire, it was heavily damaged by water.  “After the firemen turned off their hose it was more like a swimming pool than a theatre,” said the newspaper.  “The red plush seats had become red sponges, the marble floors were three or four inches deep in water, and streams fell from the ceiling to add to the flood.”

The serious damage prompted Fire Chief Croker to tell reporters that “the fire would lead to certain alterations that the Fire Department had long demanded.”  Lillian Russell looked on the bright side.

“Just think of what it would have been two hours later.  Personally, I consider that I got off very light.  Not only was I not in the fire, but my costumes, valued at about $5,000, were all saved. Lillian Spencer, a girl who played with me thirteen years ago, got them out of my dressing room.”

The building was closely examined by the fire department and the main structure was deemed “absolutely perfect.”   Nevertheless it would be ten full months before the renovated theater reopened. 

Over the next two decades the Casino would stage memorable performances like Vagabond King in 1925 and Desert Song the following year.  It was also the highly-anticipated scene every year of the Kiddie Klub Christmas performance.  The management donated the use of theater for free Christmas presentations for New York children. 

The operators of the Kiddie Klub understandably desired to maintain good favor with the Casino.  On December 12, 1922 it reminded its little club members that “There are one or two ways in which we can show our gratitude to Messrs. Shubert for having given us their fine, big playhouse.  The first is to be very quiet and well behaved, another is to keep the theatre clean.”

Ironically, by the time of the Great Depression, the Casino Theatre was again in a remote neighborhood from the entertainment district.  On January 4, 1930 The Times reported that “The Casino, once the furthest north of the uptown playhouses, has seen the theatrical district march by it, until now, with the passing of the Knickerbocker, only the Garrick, of the so-called Broadway theatres, remains below it.”

The theater, which the newspaper said “has housed some of the biggest musical comedy successes of the American theatre,” was doomed.  “Lee Shubert said yesterday that he understood the theatre would be torn down and a large commercial structure erected on its site.”

photo by Bryon Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Two weeks later the final performance was held.  The Times reported “With a performance by the American Opera Company of ‘Faust’ last night at the Casino Theatre, the career of that house was brought to a close after almost fifty years in which it had been devoted principally to musical productions.”

In place of the Casino Theatre rose a soaring modern office building.  Before long the theater that introduced the roof garden, the chorus line, African-American casts and electrically-lit theaters to American audiences was forgotten.

photo by the author


  1. Tom:

    You have a wonderful ability to bring these fascinating buildings to life- Great post. Thank you.

    1. Thanks a lot. I am glad you (still) enjoy the posts!

  2. Wow, what a beaut! Thanks for the post.

  3. It's Bill from Ottawa. What an amazing structure. I like the "café" but I will save my favorite for that roof garden. As the other commenter stated as I had,you truly bring these structures to life. Thanks always !!!

  4. I love historical stories like this especially when talking about some old buildings :) Amazing... Look at the internal design of the building, how the wooden walls look like! Woodcarver would have so much work to do!!! COOL :) And now in this place some crapy building :( I wish that our generation will leave many architectural monuments untouched heh

  5. I have in my possession a playbill from the Casino Theatre. It is of the Ziegfeld Production of Showboat with Helen Morgan as Julie among others. My grandmother went to see this production and the date on the playbill says "beginning Monday evening, May 30, 1932"
    So how can this be when you say the theatre closed in 1930?

    1. There were at least two subsequent Casino Theatres that opened; one on Broadway and another on 86th Street.


  6. In 1902, my great grandmother, Gladys Earlcott, performed in THE GIRL FROM UP THERE at this Casino Theatre.

  7. Googled this theater and found this great article. I just reposted it on a Facebook group that appreciates classic NYC architecture. Thank You!