from the collection of the New York Public Library
On December 20, 1860 Irving Hall opened with a grand ball. Situated on the southwest corner of Irving Place and East 15th Street, one block east of fashionable Union Square, it would be the scene of concerts and balls for years. But despite the famous performers who appeared here--George Christy's Minstrels, Madame Parepa-Rosa and Artemus Ward among them--the opening of Steinway Hall a block away in 1864 brought unwanted and intense competition. In his 1903 A History of the New York Stage, historian T. Allston Brown wrote, "As a concert hall this place lost caste as soon as Steinway Hall was opened, and Irving Hall gradually fell into disuse."
On January 22, 1887, The Real Estate Record & Guide reported, "Gustav Amberg, manager of the Thalia Theatre on the Bowery, has leased Irving Hall" and an adjoining house, and "will so alter and remodel both buildings as to convert them into an opera house." The article noted that architect G. B. Pelham was drawing the plans, which placed the cost at $65,000 (about $1.8 million in today's money).
"Mr. Amberg says he was induced to take hold of this project by the very general wish expressed by the better class of the German population for some up-town theatre where opera might be rendered in German," said the article. Prominent German citizens had financially backed Amberg's project, guaranteeing him $45,000 to stage 120 performances.
Irving Hall was not remodeled, but demolished in July 1888. The new structure was completed before the end of the year. It was, perhaps, G. B. Pelham's last work. He died of a stroke on May 2, 1889.
The three-story Amberg Theatre was Pelham's take on Spanish Moorish architecture. The Evening World called it "one of the handsomest houses in the city." Patrons passed through two grand arches framed in carved stone. A romantic cast iron balcony at the third floor was roofed in Spanish tiles, and two picturesque faux bell towers perched upon the corners. Capable of seating 1,528 people, the Amberg Theatre boasted "thirty proscenium boxes," according to the Record & Guide, and was electrically lighted. The curtain had been designed by artist Karl Geiger of Vienna, Austria.
The venue opened on December 1, 1888 with the operetta Fortunio's Lied. The Evening World reported, "The new house is said to be absolutely fireproof. The staircases are of iron and stone, and the walls of fireproof brick. Then there are fire-escapes on each side of the house, and twenty-one exits. Mr. Amberg says that an audience can leave the building in from three to five minutes."
The Sun anticipated success for Amberg. "The large company has been carefully picked, and the repertory of plays embraces the best German things to be had in this country." But the newspaper was wrong.
Less than three years later, on June 4, 1891, a "stormy" meeting of Amberg's backers was held. Three, William Steinway, William H. Jackson and John Weber, were infuriated about the net losses of $75,000 since the opening. The Sun reported that a "new syndicate of prominent and public-spirited German-American citizens" had been formed to run the theater, including wealthy Germans like Steinway, Theodore A. Havemeyer, Jacob H. Schiff and George Ehret. At least for now, Gustav Amberg was retained as the salaried manager. The Sun said, "The house will open in September, and there will be no lowering of its old standard of meritorious and diversified performances of operas and plays in the German language."
Under Amberg's management the venue continued to flounder financially. So, in 1892 William Steinway met with Austrian-born theater manager Heinrich Conried, and convinced him to take control. The following year, on May 1, the name of the venue was changed to the Irving Place Theatre.
Under Conreid's management, things turned around. Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide of 1897 called the Irving Place Theatre, "the most prominent German theatre that the city boasts of...where the best German company in the United States can be seen." Ticket prices ranged from 35 cents general admission, to $1.50 orchestra seats (the most expensive being about $50 today).
Along with classic plays, Conreid staged works of playwrights unknown in America. Years later The Argonaut would recall, "He was ever vigilant in search for new material. The new playwrights--Sudermann, Fulda, Bleihtren and Hauptmann--were made familiar at the Irving Place Theatre before they known to the English stage." It was here where several of Henrik Ibsen's plays were first staged in America. On April 12, 1896, for instance, his The Doll House opened here.
The Argonaut said:
From the very outset, therefore, the Irving Place Theatre became unique and synonymous with all that was artistic. People knew that they could depend on seeing really noteworthy plays. An evening spent there was in the way of an intellectual treat. And more than that, Conried succeeded in unifying his German audiences. Night after night they came, until they began to regard themselves as one big family. They visited each other between the acts, and when the play was over they went to Luchow's for supper and to exchange opinions. Over the beer, of an evening, one could see the critic, the actor, and those interested in the welfare of the German Theatre. It was as near the Continental idea as one could get in New York.
In 1903 Heinrich Conried was recruited to succeed Maurice Grau as the manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Otto Weil took over as manager of the Irving Place Theatre. His views could not have been more different than those of his predecessor. Sweeping changes soon came. In its September 1908 issue, The Theatre noted, "Realizing that the German-speaking public in this city is more keenly interested in the lighter forms of art than in the works of the more tragic and classic repertory, Mr. Weill has announced his intention of confining his productions to comedy and farce." The article added, "He has completely reorganized the Irving Place company.
Real trouble came with America's entry into World War I. Anti-German sentiment swept over the country and German businesses and citizens with German surnames became targets of vitriol. On June 6, 1918, the New-York Tribune reported, "Preliminary steps to stop the production of plays in German theatres of New York were taken yesterday by members of the Intimate Committee for the Severance of Enemy relationship." A letter had been sent to the Irving Place Theatre "to cease further productions in the enemy tongue."
Two months later, on August 21, the New-York Tribune reported, "The Irving Place Theatre, once the home of German drama, has been leased by Maurice Schwartz, and will be devoted hereafter to Yiddish plays." Some of the most recognized names in the Yiddish theater appeared on its stage over the next few years. In October 1920 the play Hard To Be a Jew by humorist Scholem Aleichem, called the "Jewish Mark Twain," was staged here, for instance.
A stark change came in 1922 when the Irving Place Theatre was converted to a burlesque venue, although Yiddish plays were still staged at least through 1927 (Dostoyevsky's The Idiot opened on March 25 that year in Yiddish, for instance).
Reginald Marsh depicted a scene titled Irving Place Burlesque in 1930. from the collection of the Whitney Museum.
By 1934, motion pictures were being screened here along with live performances. That summer a strike of the "film employees" of the Theatrical Protective Union was held. Then, on April 16, 1938, The New York Times reported that owner Judge Thomas C. T. Crain had leased the building to a new tenant, mentioning "it has been in the Crain family for more than a century and one time was one of the finest legitimate houses in the city." The article noted that the renters "intend to modernize the building for motion pictures and stage shows."
The theater in 1938. photograph by Berenice Abbott, from the collection of the New York Public Library
Almost a year to the day later, on April 11, 1939, The New York Times reported on the screening of Il Grande Appello (The Last Roll-Call), "with which the old Irving Place Theatre is beginning what Clemente Giglio hopes will be a series of first-run Italian films." His hopes were not to be. In 1940 the venue was converted to the New Irving Place Theatre, a cooperative theater. The venture by the Merely Players, described by The New York Times as "a group of youthful actors," drew the wrath of unions, who picketed outside. In response, a placard was posted that read:
We are a young cooperative group, pro-labor to a man, anxious to create jobs for ourselves and the union. Because our ideas and talent are worthy, we are working on a cooperative basis to get your support. By helping us you will make jobs for the union as well as for all of us.
By the onset of World War II the Irving Place Theatre was exclusively a motion picture theater. Many of the films were war-related propaganda. On January 3, 1942, for instance, The New York Times reported, "Revivals of Wings of Victory and Edge of the World, have started a week's engagement at the Irving Place Theatre." And on September 12, the newspaper reviewed Scorched Earth, saying "it gives a harrowing impression of Japanese depredations in China."
Renovations that transformed the theater into a warehouse made in 1962 included the boxing-in of the towers. photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon
On January 21, 1962, The New York Times reported, "The Irving Place Theatre, where Ibsen's plays were introduced to New York, will become an adjunct of S. Klein on the Square." The article explained, "It is being converted into a warehouse." The auditorium, "which until recently had been nearly intact, is being stripped of its boxes, balcony, gallery, ornate plasterwork and ornamental molded metal ceiling." Architect Fred L. Liebmann was responsible for the renovations, which included
dissecting the auditorium to three floors.
The structure survived until 1984, demolished for the block-engulfing Zeckendorf Towers, completed in 1987.
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