from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1895 New York City's theater district was centered along West 23rd Street. But that year theater manager and impresario Oscar Hammerstein took a daring step. On January 12 the Record & Guide reported he had purchased ten plots along Broadway between 44th and 45th Street, saying he "will erect a music hall and a theatre, possibly two of them, at a cost that will nearly equal the price agreed upon for the property. This sale is peculiar inasmuch as the seller stipulates that work shall begin at once upon the proposed buildings."
The site sat within Longacre Square, known mostly for carriage building. The idea that well-heeled New Yorkers would travel north to the area for entertainment was implausible at worst and surprising at best. Nevertheless, Hammerstein declared that his creation would be a destination. He said, "My theater will make a place for itself, because I will give the public what they have never had before."
On February 16, 1895 the Record & Guide announced he had hired the architectural firm of J. B. McElpatrick & Sons to design his Olympic Theatre. The firm placed the total cost of the project, including land, at $62.8 million today.
John Bailey McElfratrick was known for his theater designs both in the United States and Canada. His focus on improving the audience's experience resulted in improved sight lines, fewer aisles and multiple exits. His Olympic Theatre would be monumental.
from the Catalog of the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York, 1895 (copyright expired)
More than 1,000 men were employed in the construction, which was completed at lightning speed within ten months after ground was broken. The New York Times reported, "The Olympia is a beautiful, massive gray stone building, extending 203 feet on Longacre Square, 154 feet on Forty-fifth Street, and 101 feet on Forty-fourth Street. Its material is Indiana limestone, richly carved and ornamented, and it presents one of the most imposing facades on Broadway."
The Olympic was, in fact, three venues--the Olympic Music Hall, the Olympia Concert Hall, and the Olympic Theatre. One fifty-cent ticket admitted a patron to all three.
Hammerstein had created a one-stop entertainment complex. There was a lavish roof garden capable of seating 1,000. On warm evenings, productions could be staged there on a fully-outfitted stage. Below street level were cafes, billiard rooms, Turkish baths and bowling alleys. Four large dynamos under the sidewalk provided electricity to the structure, including its elevators.
In his 1896 The Planning and Construction of American Theatres, William H. Birkmire said, "The architecture follows the lines of the French Renaissance period." He continued, "The main entrance to the three auditoriums...is through two massive carved doorways on the street-level in the centre of the Broadway front, leading to the marble foyer. In the centre of the foyer there are two immense passenger-elevators, which run to the upper floors and the roof-garden. To the right and left are marble staircases leading to the balconies and box-tiers of the music hall and theatre."
Birkmire made note of the decorations throughout the "immense amusement temple," saying, "The sculptural groups, figures, and designs which decorate the boxes and prosceniums in the various auditoriums make the interior appear very attractive." In the Music Hall, a massive chandelier hung from a plaster rosette of dancing cupids. "A heroic female figure upholds the forty-eight boxes, which are all different in design," he said.
Each of the venues offered a slightly different fare--legitimate theater, music hall variety shows, and "operettic" productions. The Music Hall, "devoted to vaudeville," as explained by The Sun, was the largest. The 70-foot wide auditorium had six tiers of boxes, 124 in total.
The Theatre was only slightly smaller, its auditorium being 60-feet in width. The Sun said, "The finish of the walls, ceiling, and boxes shows a blend of the severity of Greek styles with the more delicate treatment that characterizes the Louis XVI style.
Opening night, on November 25, 1895, was chaotic. The New Y0rk Times reported, "Oscar Hammerstein had to call on the police last night to help him keep people out of his Olympia. He had seating room for 6,000; he sold 10,000 tickets." As the "well-dressed mob," as worded by the newspaper, grew to hundreds and then thousands outside the still-locked doors, tensions grew. The patrons "finally, with the strength of a dozen catapults, banged at the door of the new castle of pleasure and sent them flying open. Then the tactics were changed. They had been those of mediaeval warfare; they became those of the modern gridiron, with nobody to retire the injured from the field."
Policemen were unable to close the doors. Patrons inside "were packed in denser mass than was ever the crowd at an international wedding," said The New York Times. Hammerstein shouted "Close the doors!" to which the newspaper said, "He might as well have said, 'Stop the tide!'"
Women's gowns were torn and men's top hats were crushed. The newspaper said, "Boxes were filled by main force; to reach a seat, one had to be an athlete; to stand...implied torture such as is seldom witnessed at any performance or exhibition for which the public pays." Eventually order was restored and the performances went on until late into the night.
The mayhem of opening night was followed by horrific tragedy the following morning. At 9:30 a 10-inch steam pipe running from the boilers to the dynamos burst. The explosion was heard blocks away and "a big crowd quickly gathered," according to the New-York Tribune. Tragically, 12 men were seriously scalded. One died almost instantly and another, 31-year-old Andrew Huggins died at Bellevue Hospital.
Despite the rocky start, as Hammerstein predicted, the Olympia and its three venues became a destination spot. The 1896 season opened for the Theatre on September 24 with a new comic opera, Santa Maria, written and composed by Hammerstein. The New York Times reported, "The house was jammed and the audience was particularly good looking and well dressed. The applause throughout the night was vociferous."
Nevertheless, the explosion resulted in Hammerstein's financial ruin. He told reporters in January 1897, "In the last year damage suits amounting to over $150,000 have been brought against me, most of them arising from the explosion of a steampipe a day after the opening...For reasons best known to myself, I transferred my Olympic to my wife."
Finally, on November 5 the New-York Tribune reported, "Nobody who knew Oscar Hammerstein and his affairs was surprised to hear yesterday that he had made an assignment for the benefit of his creditors. Theatrical people have often of late expressed curiosity as to how long Hammerstein could hold out."
The New York Life Insurance Co. foreclosed on the Olympia complex eight months later. On September 10, 1898 the Record & Guide reported that New York Life had sold the property "to an English theatrical syndicate...for about $1,000,000." It was a humiliating fraction of the amount Hammerstein had laid out.
Changes would soon come. The structure was closed and refigured as two theaters, the New York and the Criterion. On April 25, 1899 The New York Times reported on the opening performance in "that the big place of public entertainment which used to be called Olympia, and is now named the New York Theatre" after "a long and disastrous delay." The newspaper hoped the changes would be enough "to make the house pay."
But the bad luck of the seemingly cursed complex continued. On the afternoon of December 7, 1899 auditions were being held for the upcoming "new extravaganza, 'Broadway to Tokio,'" as described by The New York Times. The show was scheduled to open in January. Among those auditioning was the Verdi Trio, composed of tenor G. Reis, basso August Wagner, and soprano, Madame Del Costo. The New York Times reported, "After the trio had rendered several selections, Reis asked the privilege of singing a solo." He chose to sing "Di Quella Pira" from Verdi's Il Trovatore. He gave a "clear and clever" rendition "until he attempted to reach the high C," said the article.
He suddenly grasped for a chair and had to be carried to the manager's office. In the strain to hit the high note, he had burst a blood vessel in his brain. The article said, "An attack of paralysis followed."
The foresight of Oscar Hammerstein's bold move to Longacre Square was evident by the end of 1900. The Record & Guide commented on December 22, "Oscar Hammerstein's Olympia, now the New York and Criterion Theatres, like many of the schemes of that enterprising man, were a little in advance of the times. Now, however, the pace has been quickened, and one project after another has been announced." The area that would be renamed Times Square was quickly becoming the new theater district.
On the warm evening of July 25, 1900 a large audience was assembled in the Roof Garden when near a near disaster ensued. At around 10:00, as Le Belle Rita was "gliding about the stage, a wheel attached to each foot," a fire broke out in the Summer House in a corner of the auditorium. Le Belle Rita noticed it first and wheeled herself to the wings screaming. The audience rose, but luckily, panic was averted by the cool-headed employees.
The New York Times reported, "Ballet girls flying down fire escapes, some in tights, some in street dress, and some in a compromise between the two, and a compromise that was not entirely satisfactory, mingled with the more soberly clad of the New York Theatre roof garden audience last night."
After the fire was extinguished, the audience and the performers returned to the roof. "There were black eyes and bruised elbows aplenty," said the article, "but, beyond the ready fainting of a few women, nobody was hurt, and the show went on."
In 1902 the two theaters were sold separately. Famous impresario Charles Froham purchased the Criterion with partners Rich and Harris, while Kaw & Erlanger purchased the New York Theatre, which included rights to the Roof Garden.
Kaw & Erlanger did a massive renovation of the roof, resulting in the Cherry Blossom Grove. It prompted The New York Times to say on June 17, 1902, "archaeology has so far progressed that we are able to reconstruct the nightly life in the hanging gardens of Babylon." Nevertheless, the critic found the show uninspiring. "There was no feature of commanding novelty, no feature of unusual excellence," he wrote. On the positive side, the gardens were "a worthy pretext for those who wish to drink, smoke, and be merry in an atmosphere relatively cool."
Florenz Ziegfeld took over the Roof Garden in 1907. It was here he first presented his Zeigfeld Follies.
Oscar Hammerstein got a taste of revenge, of a sort, on November 7, 1910 when he premiered Victor Herbert's comic opera Naughty Marietta at the New York Theatre. The New-York Tribune said it "won an instant and distinct triumph" and said Hammerstein's "triumph was won in the very home of perhaps his worst reverse, the theatre that was cruelly torn from him nearly at the instant of its completion."
"Mr. Hammerstein built the Olympia Theatre when Long Acre Square was the habitation of bats and wolves," it reminded readers. "It is said that until last night he had never re-entered his old theatre. Long Acre Square is now the centre of New York's theatre world, and it welcomed back its father right royally."
In 1915 the New York Theatre was absorbed into the Loew's motion picture theater chain and the Criterion was leased to the Vitagraph Company. Among that theater's first screenings was The Battle Cry of Peace. On November 28, 1915 The Sun noted it "is still drawing large audiences."
The Daily News reported on June 8, 1935, "The New York Theatre, and the roof above it, will be dark on Monday for the first time in twenty years. On that day the legend-laden structure on Broadway will pass into the hands of wreckers." At 11:00 that morning, just before the demolition began a number of old Broadway performers gathered on the stage for a last good-bye.
The New-York Tribune reported, "Victor Moore will sing a chorus from "Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, in which, as Kid Burns, he made a hit in the early 1900's." Also there were producer George B. Lederer, actor Gus Edwards, song writer and producer George M. Cohan, and Oscar Hammerstein's son Arthur. The article noted that the Criterion "is also soon to come down."
Interestingly, seven decades later, in July 2016, demolition crews were working on renovations of the Toys 'R' Us building into the flagship store for Gap and Old Navy. They uncovered the foundations of the theater and orchestra pit of the Olympia Theatre.