Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The 1913 Shubert Theatre - 233 West 44th Street

On June 17, 1905 the Chicago Eagle reported distressing news--among the 22 persons kills in "the terrible railroad disaster near Harrisburg, Pa." was 23-year-old Sam S. Shubert.  The young man's rise from near poverty to a nationally-known theatrical manager smacked of a Horatio Algier story.  "Sixteen years ago he was selling papers on the streets of Syracuse, N. Y. and at the time there was nothing to distinguish him from the hundreds of other newsboys in that city," said the newspaper.

The course of his life took a decisive turn when he landed a job as an usher in a theater.  By the time he was 18 he managed a road company, and not long after leased a theater and then another, until by the time of his death he owned or controlled around two dozen playhouses in America and two in England.  His amazing, 15-year career generated an estate of $500,000--about $14.7 million today.

Shubert had taken his brothers Lee and Jacob (familiarly known as J. J.) into the business.  The Chicago Eagle advised "they will carry on the many undertakings of which he was the head."  And indeed they did.

The following year, on July 27, 1906, The New York Times ran the headline "Another Shubert Theatre."  In reporting on the upcoming opening of the Lincoln Square Theatre, the article noted it would be the seventh Shubert-owned playhouse in Manhattan.

And then on June 8, 1912 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that Henry Beaumont Herts had filed plans for still another--a $150,000 theater to be built at 221-233 West 44th Street.  It was half of a joint project by the Shubert brothers and Winthrop Ames.  Herts also designed the abutting theater facing 45th Street to be operated by Ames.  A unique characteristic of the site was the private roadway connecting the two streets, eventually named Shubert Alley.  It allowed Herts to design what otherwise would be mid-block buildings as corner structures.

Shubert Alley accommodated automobiles at the time of this photograph, around 1915.  To the west foundations are being excavated for another theater.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In honor of their brother, the Shuberts named the venue the Sam B. Shubert Memorial Theatre.  Competed in the summer of 1913, the five-story theater was designed in what is loosely termed "Venetian Renaissance."  Herts's ornamentation relied as much on sgraffito--a process of etching and coloring plaster while wet--as on carvings.  Delicate panels recalled the frescoes of Pompeii.

The intricate decorations were painstakingly executed on wet plaster.
Herts left his mark on his work by placing an oval sgraffito depiction of a winged fairy-like figure directly above the corner entrance.  She holds in a plaque announcing the architect's name and the construction date.

Despite the overall stately appearance of the design, Herts managed to sneak in playful details.  The Corinthian capitals of the rusticated piers at the corner, for instance, depict pairs of goats apparently trying to escape from the snarling lions' heads directly above them.

The press never seem to have warmed to the official name of the venue and from the first referred to it simply as the Shubert Theatre.  The Shubert brothers scored a coup for opening night.   British actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson was hailed as one of the finest thespians of his time; and now he was retiring.  In September 1913 he arrived in New York to begin his farewell tour, which would begin with Hamlet on October 2 at the Shubert.  Co-starring with him as Ophelia would be his wife, Gertrude Elliott.

Following the performance Forbes-Robertson addressed the audience after numerous curtain calls.  The New York Times reported "Then...he spoke to the standing audience very briefly, dwelling upon the beauties of the new theatre which he had opened and speaking of what a fitting monument it was to the late Sam Shubert."

The auditorium features sumptuous plaster work and painted panels. photo via
The overflow crowd, prompted both by the last appearance of the celebrated thespian and curiosity to see the theater, proved the efficiency of Hertz's many exits and of Shubert Alley.  The Times said "despite the lateness of the hour, many persons in the audience spent some time in inspecting the new theatre.  Outside the congestion of vehicles of all sorts was greatly relieved by the private roadway connecting Forty-fourth and Forty-fifth Streets."

The Evening Telegram, November 14, 1920 (copyright expired)
With a seating of about 1,400, the Shubert was the scene of benefit performances early on, like the spectacular variety show to benefit disabled World War I soldiers in 1920.

An unusual event took place on March 3, 1922 when the memorial service for Ellin Prince Lowery Speyer was held here.  Speyer was the founder and president of the Women's League for Animals.    A headline in The Evening Telegram on March 1 announced "Actresses to Honor Memory of Woman Friend of Animals" and the article reported "Women of the stage will conduct memorial services in honor of Mrs. James Speyer in the Shubert Theatre...Actresses regarded Mrs. Speyer as their especial friend."  Along with recognized names like Elizabeth Marbury, Elsie De Wolfe and Julia Arthur, a sole male, producer Daniel Frohman, served on organizing committee.

Mrs. Speyer's would not be the last memorial service in the Shubert Theatre.  For years, into the 1930's, it was the scene of the annual Police Department ceremonies to honor officers who had died the previous year.

The Greenwich Village Follies had been staged for several years at the Greenwich Village Theatre.  But by 1918 its success had outgrown the neighborhood venue.  On November 19, 1922 The Evening Telegram reported on the fourth annual production at the Shubert.  It had run 11 weeks at the time with no end in sight.

The Shubert Theatre saw illustrious plays and illustrious thespians throughout the decades.  On March 28, 1939 Katharine Hepburn opened in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story; the following year in August 1941 Pal Joey moved here from the Barrymore Theatre because of the Shubert's larger capacity.   The Rodgers & Hart musical starred the 29-year-old Gene Kelly opposite the significantly older Vivienne Segal.

Two months later, on October 22, Maxwell Anderson's Candle in the Wind opened, starring Helen Hayes.  It was directed by Alfred Lunt and the cast included actress and singer Lotte Lenya.

Among the Othello cast members in this 1943 photo are Richard Basehart and Jose Ferrer.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Productions which became American classics that opened here included Paint Your Wagon, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Bye Bye Birdie, Oliver!, The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd, and A Little Night Music.  In 1975 A Chorus Line opened in the Shubert and ran for fifteen years--a total of 6,137 performances.  It set the record for the longest running play on Broadway.

The large capacity of the auditorium has made it a repeat venue for the Tony Awards ceremonies.

Other than the removal of the pediments of the rooftop dormers, inside and out the Shubert Theatre has changed little.  Its location on Shubert Alley makes it one of the most recognizable of the Broadway theater icons.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the Shubert story.

    I was writing about the French actress Sarah Bernhardt who was doing an American tour. I knew she was in La Dame aux Camelias by Alexander Dumas but when the notes said the play was presented by Shubert, I knew very little about that theatre family. Bernhardt's connection to La Dame aux Camelias brought a lot of happiness for years.