Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The 1903 Hudson Theatre -- No 139 W 44th Street

photo by Andreas Praefcke
At the turn of the last century the migration of the theater district from 23rd Street to Longacre Square began in earnest.  On a single day, January 18, 1902, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported on two planned theaters in the area that would soon be renamed Times Square.  Klaw & Erlanger had purchased two 5-story apartment buildings on 42nd Street “and will erect a theatre on the site;” and George G. Heye purchased the five three story houses at Nos. 136 to 144 West 45th Street, as well as No. 139 West 44th Street, to the rear.  The periodical noted that Heye “will erect on the site a theatre, which has been leased for twenty-one years to Henry H. Harris.”

On March 26 Heye’s architects, J. B. McElpatrick & Sons filed plans for the new structure.  They estimated the cost on filing at $175,000.  But that would soon change.  Within a month the old buildings were being demolished and Heye was receiving bids for contractors.  On April 5 the Record & Guide noted “The theatre will seat 1,400 persons and be fitted with tile, mosaic, marble, brasswork, etc., electric light, steam heat, ventilators, plumbing, etc.”  Along with the electric lighting, Heye wanted all the modern conveniences, including electric elevators.  The estimated cost of the theater had now risen to $250,000.

Construction was underway in October that year; but something seems to have gone awry between Heyes and his architects.  Before the building was completed the following year, Israels & Harder were the architects of record.

Producer Henry Birkhardt Harris had signed the long-term lease on the theater even before the land was acquired.  And so now, as the building rose, George Heye wisely stepped back and let Harris take the publicity reins.  At 9 a.m. on March 30, 1903 Harris hosted a splashy event to name the theater and to garner newspaper attention.  He assembled his business staff and stage celebrities, including stars Alice Fischer and Robert Edeson at the construction site.

“Miss Fischer and Mr. Edeson scaled ladders to the roof, where a large white flat bearing the insignia of the company and the words ‘Hudson Theatre,’ in green letters, was adjusted ready for the raising.  As Miss Fischer smashed a bottle of champagne against the flagstaff, saying ‘I christen thee Hudson,’ Mr. Edeson hauled the flag into place.  Three cheers and a tiger were given, and then the companies assembled in the theatre and partook of luncheon,” reported The New York Times the following day.

It would still be months before the theater was ready to open.  The newspaper said “The Hudson will be opened on Sept. 7 by Ethel Barrymore in a new play, to be followed by Marie Tempest in ‘The Marriage of Kitty,’ and then by Mr. Edeson in a new play of American life.”

The projected opening date came and went.  The Times explained “the labor unions decided that the completion of the theatre was not as important as their disputes.”  Finally, over a month later on October 15, the theater announced that “The sale of seats for Ethel Barrymore’s ‘Cousin Kate’ will begin at the New Hudson Theatre this morning at 9 o’clock.  Miss Barrymore will give only Saturday matinees.”

The curtain finally rose on Ethel Barrymore and Cousin Kate on October 19, 1903.  The drama critic for The Times was tepid in his assessment of her performance, saying “What might have been a moment of strong and varied and dramatic acting failed really to convince.”  But, he added, “It was only a moment, and Miss Barrymore glided speedily back into the part again; but it was the supreme moment, and the defect converted what might have been a triumph into a success.”

The newspapers were as interested in critiquing the new building as they were the performance.  The Times was especially taken with the Tiffany art glass used in the ceilings.  “It is impossible to close without a word of rapture on the new playhouse.  Its verd-antique, in Graeco Roman marble, silk plush and metal trimmings, harmonizes admirably with the dull old ivory of the proscenium arch, tricked out with the iridescence of favrile glass.  The masked lights in the golden house coffers and the moons of opalescent luminaries of the foyer ceiling, the constellations of dull incandescence in the ceiling of the auditorium, all combined to suffuce [sic] the house with a rich brilliancy never to be forgotten.”

The decorative elements of the auditorium were Roman-inspired.  The ceiling lighting in the promenade (below) were by Tiffany -- photos by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The writer gushed “No richer and more tasteful auditorium is to be found short of the splendid Hofburg Theater in Vienna, with its old crimson, ivory, and gold.”

The architects made full use of electrical lighting.  Each of the 264 coffers in the ceiling “modeled after a design suggested by an old ruin in Rome” contained an electric light.  Around the domed ceiling were lights hidden behind a frieze.

The lobby was separated from the foyer by massive bronze doors.   The lobby ceiling was triple-domed, supported by arches and pilasters.  “These arches have subdivided mirrors in the style of the famed salon of glass at Versailles,” reported The Times.   But the domes were by no means ordinary.  “The triple-domed ceiling of Tiffany glass and bronze, framed by conventional ivy bands, gives and effect of airiness and height,” said the newspaper.  The Tiffany ceiling was back lit by concealed electric lights.

The ladies' lounge was likened to Versailles -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the promenade at the rear of the auditorium were classical sculptures.  The area was lighted “by disks of Tiffany glass set in the paneled squares of the ceiling.”  To the right was the “ladies’ reception room” which was deemed a “copy of the boudoirs of the Louise XVI.”  The Times said its walls were “of mirrors, in which the feminine theatergoers may gaze at themselves from head to foot between every act, if they so wish.  The furniture is decorated with French tapestry.”

In stark contrast to the French-style ladies’ room was the men’s smoking room.  Exposed beams of Flemish oak matched the paneled walls and a masculine chandelier of iron and copper was inlaid with art glass.

Much was made of the fact that there were no obstructive columns in the auditorium.   The Greco-Roman motif was carried on in the proscenium vault which sat on “Roman columns.”  The decorated panels of the vault were said to be “copied from those in the Golden House of Nero.”

The lavish interiors were not particularly reflected in the restrained classical Beaux Arts façade.   The New York Times was seemingly unimpressed.  “As to the outside of the Hudson there is nothing very unusual, as Mr. Harris, according to his statement, thought the inside of much more importance to the public…The façade of the front of the building is four stories high and is simply treated.  The design of the façade in the rear is carried out in severely classic lines.”

When Ethel Barrymore opened in Cousin Kate in October 1903, the theater was flanked by brownstone houses -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

New York drama critics then, as now, relished their power to decide the success of a play.  In April 1904 actor Henry Miller was starring with Margaret Anglin in Camille at the Hudson when he reached his breaking point.  Following the third act on April 30 the audience applauded so vigorously and continuously, that Miller stepped on stage before the curtain to address them.

“He said that critics in this city did not take a serious actor seriously, and that, as a rule, they had shown themselves to be ignoramuses,” reported The Times the next day.  In a follow-up interview he complained that critics were tasked by their editors to write something witty rather than to seriously critique the performance.  “In their ignorance they do not understand that Miss Anglin’s ‘Camille’ is not a lady of the Tenderloin.  They wanted to write something funny—and some of them succeeded.”

As with other theaters, the Hudson was also a venue for political and social meetings.  On November 4, 1905 Dr. Edward Everett Hale of Boston addressed an audience of women on “Moral Forces.”  The issue was universal suffrage.  He told the women “It will succeed, not by its intellectual force, nor its physical force, nor its aesthetic force, but by its moral force…Universal suffrage must rely on the average citizen.”

Clara Bloodgood stars in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman here in 1905 -- photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In March 1906 the pioneering modern dancer Ruth Saint Denis first appeared here.  It was the first of her long succession of appearances on the Hudson Theatre stage.  Around the same time the Actors’ Society laid plans for a benefit performance at the Hudson on May 4 for the society’s building fund.   Then, on Wednesday April 18 at 5:12 am California was struck with an earthquake that devastated the city and set off gas-fueled fires that raged for several days.  More than 3,000 people perished and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed.  Five days later the Actors’ Society voted to donate the proceeds of its upcoming benefit to the “theatrical sufferers” in San Francisco.

Throughout the next few years the Hudson would host lectures and meetings in addition to the plays.  Repeatedly the venue for suffragist meetings, it was also used for church services.  Groups as diverse as the New York County Medical Society and the Elks New York Lodge No. 1 used the space.

In March 1908 Henry B. Harris purchased the theater from George B. Heye for a reported $700,000—a staggering $18.3 million in today’s dollars.  He continued his formula for drawing audiences by booking stage celebrities in plays by well-known writers.  On December 23, 1908 alone it was announced that he had acquired the rights for Channing Pollock’s Such a Little Queen; had extended Ethel Barrymore’s engagement in Lady Frederick until February; and that L. Frank Baum, forever remembered as the author of The Wizard of Oz would give a special matinee on Christmas Day.

Ethel Barrymore’s extended appearance in Lady Frederick was almost cut short the following month.   During the January 9 performance some in the audience were concerned.  “Those who sat in the boxes and the front rows of the orchestra had noticed that Miss Barrymore looked ill, and that she grew more pallid as the play proceeded,” reported The Times.  Nevertheless, the valiant actress completed the play.  The audience enthusiastically applauded and demanded a curtain call.

“The people in front noticed that she clung to the side of the proscenium arch as if for support when she bowed her acknowledgments,” said the newspaper.  “When the curtain was about to descend again she fell backward in a faint.”

The actress was carried to her dressing room, and then sent home in her carriage.  Her co-star Bruce McRae brushed it off, assuring reporters that she was suffering from a cold and that he did not think her “slight indisposition would interfere with the continuance of the play on Monday.”

Apparently the old imperative “the show must go on” was strictly followed by Henry Harris.  “It came out last night that Miss Barrymore fainted on Wednesday night at the end of the performance, but few in the audience knew about it,” noted The Times.

The beautiful Ethel Barrymore in her role as Lady Frederick in 1910 -- photo by Pach Brothers, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Not content with his Hudson Theatre, Henry B. Harris opened the Harris Theater in 1906 and the magnificent Folies Bergere in 1911.  The year after the opening of the Folies, Harris and his wife traveled to Europe.  They headed back to New York from Southampton, England, on April 10, taking Cabin C-83 on the luxury steamship the RMS Titanic.

While at sea three days later Irene Harris had an accident and fractured her shoulder blade.  The following night, April 14, the couple was shaken when the ocean liner struck an iceberg.   With panicked passengers crowding the deck, Henry Harris carried his wife to a lifeboat.  She later recounted that she asked the ship’s officers if her husband could join her in the lifeboat to attend to her.  She was told he could not.

Mrs. Harris said her husband stepped aside, saying “I understand.  The women must go first.”  Billboard Magazine, on April 27, 1912, wrote “When Mrs. Harris saw her husband last, he was calmly waving goodbye to her from the deck of the Titanic.

“Henry B. Harris died like a brave man.”

On April 19 both the Hudson and the Harris Theatres were closed as a gesture of respect; and on April 28 a memorial service was held in the Hudson Theatre.  The Sun reported that “The foyer and lobby of the theatre were filled with floral offerings from the theatrical profession and personal friends.”  Mrs. Harris sat in a box and the New-York Tribune said “the audience…filled every seat and even stood, unmolested on this occasion, six or more deep behind the last row in the orchestra circle.

The New York Tribune reported that during the ceremony August Thomas, speaking for the Lambs, mentioned “the manager’s production and reproduction of ‘The Scarecrow,’ in spite of its failure, ‘for the poetry that is in it.’”  What no one in the theater that night, most likely including Mrs. Harris, knew, was that the string of failures had serious repercussions. 

Harris died with an estate of $368,443; but his debts totaled over $400,000.  General Manager F. Howard Schnabbe explained to Percival Nagle, who appraised the estate, that Harris lost “about $360,000 in the Folies Bergere venture, which was a music hall built to emulate the Paris idea of vaudeville entertainment.”

His equity in the Hudson Theatre was $168,232; but it was appraised at only $84,710.  He had lost heavily on several productions, including The Quaker Girl, which lost $10,000; Sham which lost $9,000; and An American Widow, which lost $12,000.
Another problem was Harris’s insistence on booking big name stars even at extravagant salaries. Schnabbe pointed out Rose Stahl who was appearing in Maggie Pepper.  “It isn’t a bit of good without Rose Stahl.  In other words, if we wanted to sell the play we would have to sell Rose Stahl with it.  She receives 33 1-3 per cent of the profits of the play and a big salary.”

Irene Harris, faced with her husband’s debts, took on the management of the Hudson Theater.  She successfully turned the fortunes of the theater around.  In January 1915 The Theatre gave a rave review of The Show Shop, saying that on opening night the “audience roared with delight at Mr. James Forbes’ latest farce and if all signs go not awry it will be one of the laughing successes of the season.”

As the U.S. entered World War I, actresses in New York sought a way to help.  On April 9, 1917 The Evening World reported that “An organization known as the War Relief of the Women of the American Theatre, the aim of which is to give every woman of the stage a chance to do her ‘bit’ for her country, will meet at the Hudson Theatre next Friday at 3 P.M.”

Irene Harris continued to stage successful plays, including Booth Tarkington’s World War I comedy Clarence, about an American family and a “slowgoing, philosophic doughboy.”  Helen Hayes was back to play Cora Wheeler in the cast.  The same year W. Somerset Maugham’s Too Many Husbands was staged here.

In the 1920s Irene booked Barbara Stanwyck and Judith Anderson for their first New York appearances; and throughout the next decade audiences would see Dorothy Gish, Edward G. Robinson, William Holden and Douglas Fairbanks.  Irene Harris took a gamble in 1927 when she booked The Irish Players in The Plough and the Stars.  Irish plays with Irish actors had a bad history on the New York stage; with audiences sometimes degrading into vegetable-throwing rioters.  But when the play opened on November 28, 1927 there was, according to Dawson Byrne in his The Story of Ireland’s National Theatre, “a little hissing, but on the whole…an enthusiastic audience who applauded them so insistently at the end that the entire company took ten curtain calls.”

In 1929 Irene took another risky step when she staged the all-black production of Hot Chocolates.  The production featured Fats Waller’s song Ain’t Misbehavin’, sung by Cab Calloway which became a hit.  The same year Irene was reportedly refused an offer of $1 million for the theater.  Had she seen the onset of the Great Depression coming later that year, she most likely would have reconsidered.

Among the first of the luxuries that cash-strapped New Yorkers cut out of their budgets was the theater.  Managers scrambled for ways to keep their theaters afloat—some turning to the motion pictures, others to live events like boxing—but many were simply boarded up.  Irene Harris lost the Hudson Theatre to foreclosure in 1933.  It was sold at auction for $100,000; one tenth of what she had been offered.

The following year the Hudson became a CBS radio studio, housing the CBS Radio Playhouse.  By 1943 it was returned to legitimate theater. 

That year on December 12 the Professional Children’s School presented a juvenile cast production of Arsenic and Old Lace.  It was not well-received by the acerbic drama critic George Jean Nathan.

“The presently considered exhibit was drolly acted by the little boys and girls bent on future histrionic careers in some of its roles; but travesty melodrama nevertheless offers difficulties that straight melodrama does not, and some of the children found it beyond their resources.”  He offered “I like children myself; I think that some of them are cute; I even think that some of them are peculiarly very good in the acting craft.”  But not these.

Nathan had been no less critical of the all-black production of Run, Little Chillun produced in part by George Jessel.  “The struggle between Good and Evil for the soul of man, a theme favorite of contemporary Negro drama and even musical comedy, provides the evening’s sub-stratum, superimposed upon which is a folk song festival, choreography of a sexual pattern hardly exceeded by the late Nazi Strength Through Joy exercises even when under the supervision and encouragement of Julius Streicher, and a Baptist revival meeting so equally ecstatic that the difference between its religious fervor and the sexual fervor of the opposing pagan church is indeterminable.”

In 1945 Ralph Bellamy (left), Herbert Hayes and Edith Atwater played in State of the Union, from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1950 NBC purchased the theater, and in 1956 aired the first nationwide broadcast of The Tonight Show with Steve Allen.    On the stage of the Hudson Theatre Allen would greet guests like Milton Berle, Elvis Presley and Ernie Kovacs.  The theater was shared by the Jack Paar Show, which gave Barbra Streisand her television debut.

In February 1960 legitimate theater returned to the Hudson with Lillian Hellman’s masterful Toys in the Attic starring Maureen Stapleton and Jason Robards, Jr.  The play ran for 556 performances and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1960.  A year later readers of The New York Times, on December 8, were shocked to read “The Hudson Theatre has been sold to a garage-builder and operator who plans to have it razed as soon as its last tenant, Robert Breen, moves.”

The negotiations apparently fell through; but on May 18, 1962 The Times reported that the deal seemed to have been cemented.  It said that the National Broadcasting Company had sold the theater “for about $1,250,000” to the Sommer Brothers Construction Company.  “It was learned that N.B.C. had given orders yesterday to board all doors, remove telephones, turn off steam connections and drain the air conditioning system,” said the newspaper.  The sub-headline read “Buyer is Said to Plan Offices and Garage—N.B.C. Silent.”

The Times’ “reliable Broadway sources” were half correct.  Negotiations were underway; but the resulting public outcry and demonstrations by Actor’s Equity changed the minds of NBC executives.  But the Hudson Theatre would never return to its glory days.  For a while it was operated as a burlesque theater, briefly as a legitimate theater, then in 1968 a motion picture house.

The lavish interiors are creatively used today for special events -- photo

After sitting vacant for five years the Hudson Theatre was bought by Ron Delsner, a rock music promoter. He established the Savoy Rock Club here; but that, too, was a failure.  Harry Macklowe, who planned his 52-story Macklowe Hotel and Conference Center, purchased the old theater from Delsner.  The complex opened in 1989 with the Hudson Theatre as an architecturally fascinating special events space.


  1. Your last photo isn't the Hudson Theatre. It appears to be the Times Square Church (formerly the Mark Hellinger Theatre).

  2. yes the 2 photos are not of the same interior. If the second photo is the Mark Hellinger, now a church, it is supposed to be a great old movie palace with incredible interiors. have you featured that theatre yet?

    1. Oops! Sorry about that! Removed. I have not written about the Hellinger Theatre yet. Thanks for the nudge.

  3. When Helen Hayes opened in Cousin Kate in October 1903,

    I think you meant Ethel Barrymore

    1. Wow. That was rather glaring! Thanks for catching it.

  4. It would be nice if this entry could be updated to reflect that the Hudson now has been restored as a magnificent house for Broadway shows. The downstairs lounge features an exhibit about Henry B. Harris and Titanic, while the bar behind the mezzanine features photos of famous events staged at the Hudson. In its sightlines, general seating comfort, and architecture, the Hudson is a Broadway beauty.