Friday, November 23, 2018

The Orpheum Theater - 126 Second Avenue

One of two Greek-inspired drama masks on either side of the marquee can be glimpsed at the top of the ground floor pier.

In 1837 construction began on two nearly mirror-image Greek Revival homes at Nos. 126 and 128 Second Avenue.   Each three bays wide, they were three-and-a-half stories tall and featured the details of upscale residences--handsome wrought-iron basket newels at the shared stoop, paneled double entrance doors and a stone balustrade above the cornice.

In 1860 the trustees of the New-York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children purchased No. 126.  The institution was at the time located at the corner of Bleecker and Crosby Streets, but, as noted by The New York Times on May 7 that year, "The Dispensary and Infirmary patients are constantly increasing."  The "large and commodious" 25-foot wide home, according to the trustees, was "well adapted for the accommodation of patients."

The building as it appeared around 1868.  original source unknown

By the turn of the century the facility was gone.  The once-elegant neighborhood was now the center of New York's German immigrant population.  Along Second Avenue were restaurants, beer gardens, and at least one pleasure garden, the Orpheum Garden.

Pleasure gardens had been popular for most of the 19th century.  They offered food and drink and, in the warm months, open-air entertainment in the rear "gardens" where patrons could escape the stifling heat of their tenement rooms.

On February 14, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported that the vintage house-turned infirmary-turned-recreation venue was about to get a face life.  "Plans have also been filed for remodelling the four story and basement restaurant and concert hall, No. 126 Second avenue for the Orpheum Garden Company."

It is unclear how far-reaching those original exterior renovations went; but the interior was remodeled into a silent film theater.  In January 1913 the Practical Mother's Association of Greater New York sent its foot soldiers out to investigate the posters displayed by such venues.  Their intention was to attack "the films and houses which deserve reprobation."  One sanctimonious member inspected the Moving Picture Theatre at No. 126 Second Avenue, reporting "Crowd of children outside.  I did not go in, but outside of building up to standard.  Posters good."

At the time the theater was owned by Nathan Bloch.  It was doing well enough that the following year he hired architect Harold L. Young to design a replacement building.   His plans called for a "$10,000 theatre."  That figure would translate to about $253,000 today.

The result was a handsome brick-faced theater, two stories tall.  Trimmed in limestone, it was a refined 20th century take on English Regency architecture; the second floor and parapet being a near copy of the 1819 entrance to the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly.

Harold L. Young quite possibly referred to T. H. Shepherd's 1819 Burlington Arcade in London.  copyright expired
The new theater was named the Orpheum--an obvious nod to the Orpheum Garden.  The venue continued to draw crowds and two years after its opening Bloch re-hired Young to update the building with "new fire-proof widows."

The title of the property was in the name of Nathan Bloch's wife, Gizella.  The couple retained ownership for decades, but did not attempt get involved in the theater's management.  They leased it to a series of theatrical management firms--like Benjamin Sherman who took it over in September 1929 and the Danrold Amusement Company, Inc. which leased it in September 1934.

Motion pictures gave way to live entertainment in 1958 when the American Mime Theatre opened in the renovated venue.   The New York Times theater critic Arthur Gelb was not overwhelmed.  Following opening night on September 24, he wrote "Watching the American Mime Theatre is more like looking at a group of high-spirited, attractive young people playing charades than watching an artistic achievement.

"Like an onlooker at charades, a member of the audience at the New Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue can get pretty bored."  His brutally frank review ended "Once they figure out who and what they are, let them come back and try again."

Despite the lackluster performance of its opening production, the Orpheum Theatre became a popular off-Broadway venue.  The following spring Producer Philip Rose's production of the new musical, My Old Friends, was staged; and on May 18, 1959 the Peter Pell production of Chic, starring Virginia de Luce, opened.

Dancer and actress Virginia de Luce had made her Broadway debut in New Faces of 1952. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York  
Later that year a new musical Little Mary Sunshine thrust an unknown actress into stardom.  The tongue-in-check production opened on November 18, 1959 starting Eileen Breenan.  The role earned her an Obie Award.

Eileen Brennan as Little Mary Sunshine at the Orpheum Theatre.  original source unknown
Throughout the decades the Orpheum Theatre would see a succession of veteran stage stars.  On January 15, 1962 Felicien Marceau's play, The Egg, opened with Dick Shawn starring.  In the cast of Matty and the Moron and Madonna, which opened on March 29, 1965, were Katherine Ross and Sylvia Miles.  And on September 26, 1967 George Tabori's joltingly-titled The Niggerlovers opened starring Stacey Keach.  Tabori described the play as "contemporary--set in New York--and on one level of meaning about the problem of black and white."

photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In December 1979, Harvey Fierstein brought his Fugue in a Nursery to the stage here.  The Times critic John Corry was tepid in his assessment of Fierstein's offering, saying in part, "Nonetheless, credit Mr. Fierstein with warm intentions; he likes his characters...Mr. Fierstein likes them well enough to even play Arnold himself.  There is vanity at work here, but Mr. Fierstein is serious about it."

Critic John Corry was relentless in his deprecation of An Evening with Joan Crawford, which he called "a ramshackle musical at the Orpheum" following opening night on January 29, 1981.  The production, the cast of which were mostly female impersonators, "alternates between ridicule and adoration of Miss Crawford and it makes of her a holy monster."  He concluded "One imagines the actors sitting around, telling Joan Crawford stories and imagining that you will find them as amusing as they did.  You will not, and necrophilia is not nostalgia."
photo by Beyond My Ken
No one could imagine that when the production of Stomp opened in 1994 it would still be going strong nearly a quarter of a century later.  Although the sizable marquee obscures much of the lower half of the structure, little has changed to Harold L. Young's elegant 1914 movie theater.


  1. I seem to recall this theater being the site in the 80's where Little Shop of Horrors had a long run.
    The neighborhood itself was a center of the Yiddish Theater, but I'm wondering if that included the Orpheum at any point.

    1. You're right. Little Shop of Horrors opened on July 27, 1982 and ran for five years. It doesn't appear that the Orpheum ever staged any Yiddish productions, though.