Monday, February 24, 2014

The Lost Harrigan's Theatre -- No. 67 West 35th Street

The Greater New York Album pictured the theatre in 1895, just before the name was changed.  (copyright expired)

In 1890 Edward Harrigan could do it all when it came to the theater.  He had earned his reputation as an actor, vaudevillian, playwright, composer and theater manager.  Born in New York of Irish parents, he traveled to San Francisco just after the Civil War.  Here the 22-year old began his stage career, singing comic songs in a saloon.  Within a few years, in Chicago, he formed a stage partnership with Anthony J. Cannon, whose stage name was Tony Hart.

Edward Harrigan

As Harrigan & Hart their blackface and tenement class German and Irish characters comically depicted everyday street life of New York City.  In 1872 Harrigan developed an ongoing act that became the pair’s staple—The Mulligan Guard.  Harrigan & Hart’s overwhelming popularity was due to the duo’s ability to depict real life issues of common people in the city—interracial and class differences, gang terrorism, political and police corruption—in a comical presentation.

In 1881 Harrigan hired Francis H. Kimball to renovate the Church of the Messiah at No. 728 Broadway as the Theatre Comique.  Only three years later it burned to the ground.  Shortly thereafter the team of Harrigan & Hart dissolved with Tony Hart retiring. 

The break-up came at a time when theater audiences were changing.  As the 1880s drew to a close, the younger generation of theater-goers did not identify with the characters Harrigan & Hart had depicted.   

By the time Harrigan and his acting company returned from a tour in California in 1889, the entertainment district was gradually inching northward from 23rd Street; eventually to settle around Times Square.

Edward Harrigan embarked on a project to build a new, lavish theater for his company.  He came across a vacant African American Methodist church at 35th Street and Sixth Avenue.  In its place Harrigan once again commissioned Francis H. Kimball to design a lavish new theater.   As Kimball’s new structure neared completion in November 1890, the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide made note of the Italian Renaissance-inspired design.   “For a long time past the favorite copy-book to which [American architects] have turned for inspiration or something in default of it has been the Romanesque, and it must be acknowledged that though a considerable amount of very credible work has been done in that style; there has been, however, very little vitality in the work.” 

On the other hand, the Guide recognized in the new Harrigan Theatre a fresh trend.  “We may see how rapidly we are running towards the rusticated, pedimented, corniced, festooned, balustrade, pilastered, columned style of building.”

On December 5, 1890 The New York Times said “This house promises to be one of the coziest and prettiest places of amusement in the city.  It is necessarily small, as it is constructed on a lot 75 by 100 feet, but all the space has been so admirably utilized that there will be ample room for as many people as Mr. Harrigan cares to have at one of his performances.”

Edward Harrigan preferred small auditoriums, feeling that “the spectators are brought into closer and more sympathetic connection with the players,” creating a more effective delivery of the play.  Nevertheless, the new theater would accommodate a substantial audience of 915.

Kimball clad the theater in red brick abundantly ornamented with terra cotta.  The New York Times said “This terra cotta has the effect of white marble, and this is the first instance of its use for such a purpose in America.”   Various theatrical motifs were molded into the terra cotta and a large panel announced “HARRIGAN’S THEATRE.”  Two stained glass windows depicted the figures of Mulligan and Pete, two of Harrigan’s most famous roles; and in the frieze were 80 heads representing difference facial expressions. 

On January 28, 1893, when the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide published this photograph, West 35th Street around the theater was still lined with brownstone homes (copyright expired)

The interior was as lavishly ornamented as the façade.  “Panels and fluted pilasters with carved capitals are abundant,” reported The New York Times.  “The floor of the vestibule will be in mosaics.  All the lobby woodwork and plaster will be in an ivory tone except that the walls will be in soft blues and dull reds with stencil work in silver and gold.”  Two stairways led off either end of the lobby to the balcony.

The balcony and the galleries were ornamented with heavy molded plasterwork.  “Around the upper portion of the walls will be a frieze with panels and fluted pilasters, the panels to bear ornaments and stencils in gold and silver.  Above this frieze the ceiling starts with a succession of groins, enriched with figures and ornaments in relief.  The figures are of women upholding festoons and garlands.”

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide published sketches of the façade and interior on February 21, 1891.  Spanish tiles protected the roof and electric lights illuminated the interior (copyright expired)

Frescoes depicting Poetry, History, Comedy, Music, Tragedy and other allegories of the theater decorated the spaces between the groins.  Above the audience the domed ceiling was encrusted with plaster festoons of fruits and flowers and from the center hung a 40-light chandelier.  In 1890 the reliability of electricity was iffy at best and the chandelier was “surrounded by a circle of gas jets to be used in case of necessity,” advised The New York Times.

According to the newspaper, the architect was happy with his completed structure.  “Mr. Kimball is satisfied with his work.  He is the architect of the Madison Square Theatre, the Casino, the Harrigan and Hart’s old Theatre Comique.  He feels that the fruits of his experience in building these theatres have been fully utilized in his latest structure.  Mr. Harrigan will open the theatre with a new play written by himself.”

Two weeks later, on December 22, Harrigan’s Theatre opened.  In his opening day advertisement in The Sun, Harrigan called it “The most exquisite play house in America.”  The ad said “Mr. Edward Harrigan will inaugurate his New and Beautiful Theatre with his latest work Reilly And The 400.”

“The 400” was a reference to Ward McAllister’s newly published book Society as I Found It in which he estimated the number of Manhattan’s most socially elite at 400.  Edward Harrigan played the title role of Willy Reilly, an Irish pawnbroker attempting to elbow his way into society.

The play and the theater were a success.  On July 7, 1891, The New York Times noted “At Harrigan’s, “Reilly and the 400” is still drawing excellent business, and Manager Hanley has not yet found it necessary to announce the close of his season.  The play is now in its sixth month.”

For the next five years theater in New York struggled, due mostly to the Financial Panic of 1893 and 1896.  Harrigan dredged up tried-and-true plays including the Mulligan series; although he peppered the fare with a few new productions like The Woolen Stockings.

In 1894, when Harrigan advertised in The New York Clipper Annual, he still called the theater America's "most exquisite."  (copyright expired)

On March 21, 1893 The New York Times reviewed one of the revived Mulligan plays, Cordelia’s Aspirations.  The critic deftly avoided overly-criticizing the production, saying that a Mulligan play would not be a success without Harrigan in it.  “But there is no need to criticise or analyze a ‘Mulligan’ play.  They are all amusing and they are different from anything else put on the stage in their time.”

Directly below the review was an unrelated article noting that popular actor Richard Mansfield had returned to New York “after a long absence.”  Mansfield and Harrigan would soon cross paths at Harrigan’s Theatre.

In 1895 Mansfield took over the theater, renaming it the Garrick.  Harrigan went back to his roots, performing vaudeville at Proctor’s Twenty-Third Street Theatre, Tony Pastor’s, and Koster & Bials.  He would go on writing and performing until March 16, 1910 when he made his final bow at the age of 66.  He died the following year.

The new Garrick Theatre opened on April 23, 1895 with what The New York Times called “the presentation of a work by an Irishman of slightly different ilk—‘Arms and the Man, by Bernard Shaw.”  A year later Mansfield hired the well-known theatrical producer Charles Frohman to manage the Garrick.  Frohman, despite his many other endeavors, maintained control of the Garrick until 1915.  Among the greatest successes during this time was Sherlock Holmes, starring William Gillette.  The play opened in 1899 and ran for over a year.  On January 28, 1900 the New-York Tribune wrote of the nightly audiences “at the Garrick Theatre where William Gillette is still playing ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ with the house as full at every performance as it was the first week—that is to say, as full as it could be.”

The same newspaper wrote a florid review of The Sign of the Rose on October 12, 1911.  “Melodrama, whose death has been taken for granted for some time, although, it is true, it has never  been officially announced, arose phoenixlike from the ashes last night at the Garrick Theatre in George Beban’s semi-Italian play, ‘The Sign of the Rose,’ in which the author undertook the leading character.  It is one of those dramas in which ‘local color’ plays the star part, and in ‘The Sign of the Rose’ local color is so thick you could not scrape it off with a palette knife.”

Another highly successful and memorable production was that of The Little Minister with famous stage actress Maude Adams.

When Frohman left the Garrick, the Shuberts purchased the theater.  They leased it to millionaire Otto Kahn who had visions of a grand French theater in Manhattan.  He renamed it the Theatre du Vieux-Colombier.  On February 8, 1918 the New-York Tribune, in reviewing La Traverse, offered its own opinion of the French fare offered here.

“The management of the Theatre du Vieux-Columbier departed from its honored practice of giving bizarre and exotic plays taken from the repertory of the realist theatres of Paris by giving its habitués a real ‘premiere’ never before presented either at the Grand Guignol or the Theatre de l’Oeuvre and by an author of as yet obscure name, Auguste Villery.”

By now the theater district was firmly planted ten blocks to the north in Times Square.  The popularity of the theater declined around the time of World War I.  In 1919 Kahn donated the aging theater to the newly-formed Theatre Guild “just fresh from the workshops of Washington Square,” as noted in The New York Times.

The Guild opened its first season on April 14, 1919 with Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benaventa.  For the next seven years the Theatre Guild called the old Harrigan Theatre home.  It produced nearly the entire repertory of Bernard Shaw’s plays, along with works by Molnar, Milne, Strindberg and others.

Although the Provincetown Playhouse company also presented several plays in the old house; it was had become outdated, drafty and dingy.  Around 1930 the theater was taken over by the Columbia Burlesque Company “and thenceforth the once dignified stage was a platform for dancing girls and slap-stick comedians,” said The New York Times.

In 1931 even the burlesque company abandoned the old Harrigan’s Theatre and it sat vacant, dark, and neglected on the corner of Herald Square.

The end came on Valentine’s Day 1932 at 3:00 in the morning.  Fire broke out in the deserted building which quickly spread to two alarms.  Despite the early hour, hundreds crowded along Broadway and Sixth Avenue to watch the venerable old theater burn.

When morning dawned, Edward Harrigan’s once-proud theater was a smoldering shell.  It was demolished to be replaced by a 16-story bank and office building.

photograph by the author


  1. Harrigan's theatre facade was one of the most beautiful and elegant ever built in New York City in my humble opinion.


  2. This one gives a good run for the money to the beautiful Lyceum theatre which luckily still exists.

  3. Ed Harrigan was my g-grandfather this is wonderful and I was never sure of exactly where the theater was. My grandfather worked in the Empire State Bld. on the 3rd floor at the time the theater was torn down and retrieved one yellow brick. It was used in 1941 as the keystone and it contrasted with red bricks in a fireplace he had built in his summer home in East Dorset Vermont.