Monday, November 23, 2015

The Lost Ziegfeld Theatre -- 6th Avenue and 54th Street

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1925 news that the Sixth Avenue elevated train was soon to be demolished sparked excitement and speculation among real estate operators.   Sixth Avenue in Midtown was still mostly lined with humdrum brick buildings three stories tall.   And its location between Fifth Avenue and the theater district made it deliriously exciting for developers.

By now William Randolph Hearst’s publishing empire included 27 newspapers and nine major magazines like Cosmopolitan.   He opted in on the Midtown real estate potential.    On June 13, 1925 The New York Times announced his ambitious intentions.

Hearst, with Arthur Brisbane, had purchased 14 old buildings which were already being demolished.  In their place he planned a $7 million group to include a theater, a residence hotel, and two office buildings.  The hotel, which would be completed in 1926, became the luxurious Warwick Hotel; and the theater would be known as the Ziegfeld Theatre.

Hearst was well-acquainted with Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegeld, who was disgruntled with owner of the New Amsterdam Theatre, Abe Erlanger.   But, of course, the construction of a theater was not simply out of the goodness of his heart for an old friend.  Hearst realized that a high-class theater diagonally across from his hotel would enhance business.

In announcing the project, The Times noted “Thomas W. Lamb will draw the plans for the new theatre, which, according to tentative plans, will have a seating capacity of about 1,650 persons.  The stage will be unusually large and especially adapted to Ziegfeld productions."

Florenz Ziegfeld thought big and he thought flashy.  His set designer, Vienna-born Joseph Urban, understood the producer’s mind and for years had supplied the sensational stage sets audiences came to know as pure “Ziegfeld.”  While Thomas W. Lamb was a veteran of theater designing; his reported neo-Georgian design that he submitted to Ziegfeld fell flat.

Two days after The Times’ announcement, another article appeared in the newspaper.  In it Ziegfeld made a surprising change of course.  “The plans have been drawn by Joseph Urban in conjunction with Thomas W. Lamb, architect.  Mr. Urban will act also as artistic director.”  It was perhaps the last time Lamb’s name would appear in conjunction with the structure.

Ziegfield said he had hoped to have his own venue for 30 years.  “Now at last I shall have such a theatre.  I shall be able to build what I call a super-theatre that will startle the public by its modernity and equipment.”

He enumerated a few of the modern features, including “a revolving stage, hydraulic stage, and remarkable electrical equipment, capable of producing all sorts of stage effects.”  The impresario told of an early form of air conditioning.  “There will be a cooling plant, capable of keeping the theatre at 50 degrees if desired.”

By November 7, 1926 Lamb’s involvement had essentially been swept under the carpet.  On that day The New York Times ran a headline reading “Joseph Urban Turns from Scenery to Architecture and plans a Theatre with Highly Original Features.”

The article reminded readers that, indeed, Urban had worked as an architect in Austria “before he got mixed up in the theatre at all.”   The Times’ journalist H. I. Brock wrote “Now he builds a theatre.  And his theatre is not the conventional type.”

Brock called the proposed exterior “unique” and the interior “novel.”  The façade was designed to mimic a theatrical auditorium.  The bowed section above the lobby entrances was meant to depict a gigantic theatrical proscenium.  The boldly Art Deco façade featured clean geometric carvings above the “proscenium” and heroic-sized console brackets that flanked the bowed section above its cornice.

Brock explained further, “The base represents the stage.  The mock-stage front framework rises above it, with architectural simulation of the curtain above the row of tall windows.”

Fluted pilasters suggest open curtains beside the proscenium -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
More than the exterior, Brock was impressed with Urban’s innovative design of the auditorium, calling it “the shape of an egg.”  Urban had done away with all corners and areas out of eyesight.  The goal was acoustical perfection.

“The inside of this egg is decorated after the fashion of the outside of those very gay, giant, egg-shaped candyboxes which are sold to the guileless at ruinous prices around Easter time.  A design of romantical personages and creatures from the legends of the Middle Ages covers it with rich colors and curious, intriguing forms…Thus one sits under a canopy composed of a mad medley of knights, ladies, knaves, archers, men-at-arms, charging steeds antelopes, unicorns, castles in Spain.”

The cornerstone laying ceremony, on December 9, 1926, was a Ziegfeld spectacular.  Will Rogers was master of ceremonies and Vincent Lopez and his entire orchestra played.  Following Rogers’s amusing remarks, Billie Burke (who was married to Ziegfeld) and their daughter Patricia placed the chosen items into the box—photographs of the Zeigfeld family including Florenz’s mother; one of A. L. Erlanger; a copy of Theatre Magazine; a program from Sally, the show Ziegfeld considered his greatest success; another of the first Follies; a photograph of Charles Frohman who had made Billie Burke a star; and an ancient brick from a Greek theater.

Patricia Ziegfeld cemented the stone in place.  Afterward, many of the 1,500 present filed into the Warwick Hotel “for coffee.”  Included in the crowd were many notables of the entertainment industry including Marilyn Miller, lyricist Gene Buck, actress Ada May, cartoonist Harry Herschfield, and comedian Bert Wheeler.  The Times noted that Mr. and Mrs. Josef Urban were in the assemblage.  No mention was made of Thomas Lamb.

On February 1, 1927 the theater prepared to open.  The Times reported “The cast of ‘Rio Rita’ [went] through their preliminary paces in the $500,000 stage of [the] $2,500,000 Ziegfeld Theatre, in preparation for tomorrow night’s opening.”

Theater critic J. Brooks Atkinson suggested that Urban’s innovative and wonderful decorations could possibly steal the show from the production.  “For the wall and ceiling decorations of this elliptical playhouse Mr. Urban has unfolded one of the most extravagant and bizarre cycloramas of imaginative designing to be found this side of fairyland.  It is not only splendid but appropriate…Mr. Ziegfeld must take care lest his productions on the stage prove inferior to the sweep of carnival beauty on the walls of his theatre.”

As far as the play went, Atkinson was tepid on its content, saying it broke “no fresh trail…the book is commonplace enough and the humor will never hold both its sides with laughter.”  But, he admitted, Zeigfeld’s trademark lavish production pulled it off.  He said “for sheer extravagance of beauty, animated and rhythmic, ‘Rio Rita,’ has no rival among its contemporaries.”

Ada May played Dolly in Rio Rita - photo by Ira D. Schwarz from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Ziegfeld had every reason to be pleased.  That evening he received scores of congratulatory telegrams including those from President Calvin Coolidge, Mayor James Walker and Eddie Cantor.  The audience was packed with luminaries, including Charlie Chaplin, polar explorer Roald Amundsen, and former Ambassador to Spain Alexander P. Moore.   Manhattan’s top echelon of society was well represented by Otto H. Kahn, James A. Blair, Jr., Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Pulitzer, and others.  Patrons purchasing the highest priced tickets that night would spend $5.50—more in the neighborhood of $75 in 2015.

Following on the tail of Rio Rita was the smash success, Show Boat which opened on January 7, 1928.  Called by one critic the following day “the best musical show ever written,” Zeigfeld used his showmanship to transform Edna Ferber’s novel with music by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II into a stage extravaganza.  On stage with the trio of stars—Howard March, Helen Morgan, and Norma Terris—were 31 featured players, 95 dancers and singers, and 18 sets designed by, of course, Joseph Urban.  The cast also included Tess Gardella, Edna May Oliver, Charles Winninger, Eva Puck, Sammy White and Jules Bledsoe.

When Flo Ziegfeld died on July 22, 1932 the Great Depression was taking a toll on Broadway.   One newspaper attributed the producer’s death partly to the economic situation.  Ziegfeld had been ill for some time, and “a hard season after his illness caused a relapse and complications.”

Theater-goers and players grieved.  One cast member said “We are all shocked and saddened and we do not feel like singing and laughing.  But Florenz Ziefeld would want the show to go on.  It will go on as our tribute to him.”   But in the meantime, business was attended to.

Almost immediately an armed guard was placed at the door of Ziegfield’s private office “with instructions to permit no one to tamper with the innumerable knick-knacks and mementoes with which the producer surrounded himself,” reported The Times.  Among the “knick-knacks” were two gold telephones.

Hard times continued and in December 1932 a dispossess warrant was tacked on the main entrance to the theater.   Two month later, on February 2, 1933 The Times reported that “The Ziegfeld Theatre at Sixth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, the home of the ‘Follies’ and other Ziegfeld productions, was leased yesterday by the Loew theatre circuit.  It will reopen in about four weeks under a different name, with a policy of continuous motion picture entertainment.”

Somewhat wistfully, The Times wrote on April 18, 1933 “The theatre, which housed the latter-day Ziegfeld success—‘Show Boat,' the ‘Follies,’ ‘Bitter Sweet’ and ‘Rio Rita’—will show second-run films with a tri-weekly change of program."

On the afternoon that the movie theater was to open—Friday, April 21, 1933—a stunning assemblage of chorus girls, stars and stagehands threw a Florenz Ziegfeld-worthy spectacular as a tribute to their former boss.  Eddie Dowling was master of ceremonies and Abe Lyman and his orchestra provided the music.  The who’s-who of the American state that afternoon included Marilyn Miller, Ruth Etting, Jimmy Durante, Fannie Brice, Ed Wynn, Lupe Velez, Bert Lahr, Will Rogers and others.  Fifty of Ziegfeld’s famous chorus girls showed off their legs for the last time.

William Randolph Hearst felt the financial hit of the Depression and in 1944 he found himself forced to liquidate real estate.  Among his most expendable properties, of course, was the Ziegfeld Theatre.   After some back and forth negotiations, it was another bigger-than-life impresario who bought the theater—Billy Rose.   Rose spent $630,000 on the building that had cost $2.5 million; then hired Joseph Urban’s daughter, Gretl, to restore it to its original condition.

Billy Rose returned the venue to legitimate theater.  Clifford Orr, writing in The New Yorker, said “Mr. Rose, who does not expect the reopening to be an anticlimax, is presenting ‘The Seven Lively Arts,’ a review which will combine the talents of Markove, Stravinsky, Cole Porter, Beatrice Lillie, Bert Lahr, Norman Bel Geddes, and (for all we know) Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Carol Channing and Anita Loos backstage of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -- photo by Sam Siegel from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The theater would produce hits like the 1947 Brigadoon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949 with Carol Channing and Yvonne Adair, and George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in 1951.  These were followed by Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which ran for 305 performances; and Kismet in 1953.

Loew's added a movie marquee to the entrance.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Billy Rose closed the curtain in 1955 when he leased the Ziegfeld to NBC as a television studio.  It was from here that the Perry Como Show was broadcast, as well as the Emmy Awards ceremonies in 1959 and 1961.  Although Rose briefly returned the theater to a legitimate stage; the musical Anya was the last production here.  It opened on November 29, 1965 and lasted only 16 performances.

Within months the wonderful Art Deco building, Joseph Urban’s fantastic interpretation of the inside of a theater on the outside, was bulldozed.  In its place rose the Burlington House building, designed by Emery Roth & Sons, completed in 1969.

photo by Americasroof

The box from the cornerstone was removed to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  And one surviving chunk of the façade sculpture was carried away to the Upper East Side where it remains today.
The only surviving fragment of the facade sits on the Upper East Side -- photo by Tim Buchman


  1. Wonderful write up. My aunt was a Ziegfeld girl. :)

  2. A brief note on Joseh Urban: he was Marjorie Merriwether Post's unusual but inspired choice to design her flamboyant Palm Beach house, Mar A Lago. The theatricality for which Urban is famed is much in evidence at Mar A Lago. Even if not to your taste, it is hard not to admire its inventive over the top exuberance. They say that even late in her life, Mrs. Post would secret herself in an unpstairs gallery to overhear first time guests' astonished gasps when they walked into the vast gilded confection of a drawing room.

  3. Thanks for the post. The Ziegfeld and the Center theatres should never have been demolished. If they existed today they would be major tourist attractions. By the way, most people don't realize that there's a shout-out to the Ziegfeld in the façade of the NY-NY Hotel in Las Vegas.

  4. As close to an architectural crime as one can get along with Penn Station, the Singer Tower, MM&W's Madison Square Garden, St Johns Church, etc, etc, ughh such a very long list. A spectacular showstopping theatre gone too soon.

  5. I can't believe they tore this down. Why can't we appreciate are architectural gems? Modernity is not everything.

  6. The post did not include images of the interiors which are astoundingly brilliant. Photos can be found online if you search them out but you may be heartbroken. An unfortunate loss along with the Center, Academy of Music, the Roxy and original Helen Hayes to name but a handful of lost theaters. NYarch