Monday, July 18, 2022

The Lost Miner's Eighth Avenue Theatre - 312 Eighth Avenue


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society 

Henry C. Miner had one of the most varied resumes of his day.  After graduating from the American Institute School he became a pharmacist.  The New-York Tribune would say of him, “He grew tired of the drug business and studied medicine under his brother, Dr. Edward Miner.”  When the Civil War broke out he enlisted as a pharmacist in the Mechanics and Artisans’ Regiment.

A string of careers followed the war: a stint as manager for magician and bird trainer Signor Blitz; manager of the Thayer & Noyes Circus; secretary of the Crystal Palace in 1868; and a policeman stationed at the Mercer Street Stationhouse.  (The last profession was Miner's lease favorite.  “This was even more unpleasant than being a drug clerk and Mr. Miner decided to get into something else,” said the New-York Tribune.)  He then turned to theater management, building and operating a series of theaters including the London Theatre in the Bowery, the Fifth Avenue Theatre, and Miner’s Bowery Theatre.

On May 7, 1881, The Real Estate Record reported, "A new variety theatre, capable of seating 3,000 persons, is soon to be built on the west side of Eighth avenue, between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth streets.  It will be T shaped, and be known as Harry [sic] Miner's Eighth Avenue Theatre.  Thomas Canary is connected with Mr. Miner."

The partners, in fact, did not erect a new building, but substantially renovated the existing structure.  Architect William Graul filed plans a month later that included modifications like new girders and posts, roof, and "interior alterations, front repaired, new iron cornice."   It was a significant savings, the total project costing the equivalent of $65,300 by today's standards.

Miner's Eighth Avenue Theatre building included a café, entered south of the main entrance.  Graul reserved most of the ornamentation for the ground floor, where stained glass fan lights lined up below signage, also in stained glass, that read "Vaudeville" and "Burlesque."  A half-circle, cast metal pediment directly above the entrance announced the theater's name.  The three stories of cream-colored brick above were sparsely adorned with classical cast iron garlands and a wreath-enclosed cartouche with Miner's initial.  The openings were embellished with ancient Roman style lattice work.

The seating capacity upon completion was slightly smaller  than originally anticipated, at 2,300.  Opened on November 21, 1881, Miner's Eighth Avenue was, indeed, a variety house.  Patrons would enjoy a diversity of entertainments including boxing contests, minstrel shows, political rallies and debates, burlesque shows and vaudeville.  King's Handbook of New York put it succinctly, saying that it "furnishes variety entertainment for the West Side of the City."

Thomas Canary and Henry Miner went their separate ways in July 1893 with Miner buying out Canary's portion.  The Sun reported, "Mr. Miner is having improvements made to the theatre in the way of decorating and is also having a complete electric plant put in."

The wide mix of programs was evidenced on October 30, 1894 when The Evening World reported that champion middle-weight boxer had appeared the previous evening.  "He gave exhibitions of his fistic skill with Ike Williams."  The bout was followed by vaudeville skits.  "The specialty company included the Fitzgibbons family, Joe Hardman, John R. Harty, Miss Nellie Franklyn, Gordon and Lick, Barron and Forrest, the Tremonts, William E. Whittle, and Hawley and Doyle."

Vaudeville theaters too often attracted rowdy patrons, one of whom a month earlier, had provided more excitement in the balcony than was presented on the stage.  Robert Jones, described by The Evening World as "a six-foot youth of twenty," bought a ticket for the matinee on September 25.  The newspaper said, "He had more liquor aboard than was good for him."

Jones took his seat in the front row of the balcony, and just as the curtain rose, he jumped to his feet and "fired a volley of oaths at the stage and shouted that he could lick any man in the house."  Special Officer Carroll, one of the New York Police Department's "theatre force," tried to take control of Jones.  As the two struggled at the railing high above the orchestra pit, Jones tried to wrestle his opponent over the railing.

"The women in the balcony had fled to the rear, while the occupants of the orchestra chairs had risen en masse and rushed into the aisle to escape the expected downpour of arms and legs that were seen wildly flying in the upper regions," said the article.  Twice Jones managed to get one of Carroll's legs over the railing, but two audience members helped pull him back.  In the meantime, Carroll had managed to land a "dazing blow on Jones's nose," causing blood to pour forth that added to the excitement," according to the writer.

Finally, "With much cursing and howling on the part of the captive, Jones was got outdoors by Policemen Riley and Carroll."  He was sent to prison for ten days.

Among the political meetings held here that same year was a Tammany Hall rally on November 4, 1894.  The New-York Tribune did not disguise its contempt for the group, saying "John A. Grow, a renegade Republican, presided, and an ill-smelling mob of blear-eyed, besotted thugs, tramps, toughs and vagabonds, whose Democratic enthusiasm had been wrought up to a high pitch by a liberal distribution of free rum, howled and shouted for Hill and other candidates on the Democratic and Tammany tickets."

The Evening World reported on a typical evening's fare on November 6, 1894.  "Robert Manchester's French Folly Company supplied the entertainment at Miner's Eighth Avenue Theatre, yesterday...The after-piece, entitled 'The King's Daughter,' caused much laughter."

A broadside, or announcement, of the acts presented the week of February 5, 1894 (copyright expired)

A notable incident took place on stage on September 10, 1896.  The Colored Sports, an all-Black song and dance troupe, was performing that week.  The New York Times reported, "David Barton, a mulatto comedian, and Edith Hughes, a singer and dancer and an exceedingly pretty octoroon, were married last night, with great theatrical effect, on the stage of Miner's Eighth Avenue Theatre."

The theater was crowded with an audience eager to witness the marriage of two performers.  "The event had been well advertised, and the 'cream of society' of Thompson Street, Seventh Avenue, and other centres of the colored population was well represented," said the article.

After "a long variety bill," the stage manager stepped on stage and announced that "just before the cakewalk, a marriage between two members of the company would take place."  Then, led by the "champion cake walkers, Mr. and Mrs. George Weston," fifteen couples in evening dress processed onto the stage and formed an aisle.

Edith Hughes was the daughter of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, known internationally as the Black Swan.  "Then down the centre of the stage marched the bride, leaning upon the arm of the bridegroom.  She was clad in white silk, with a long train, and her head was covered with a long, white veil."

After rings were exchanged and David Barton "implanted a kiss upon her lips," the show went on.  The New York Times reported, "the cakewalk then proceeded.  Of course, the bridal couple carried off the honors, according to the judgment of the spectators...There was a wedding banquet on the stage after the theatre had been closed."

On New Year's Eve 1901, the Merry Maidens burlesque troupe closed the night.  Shortly afterward, disaster struck.  The following morning the New-York Tribune reported, "the audience had been out of the building only about fifteen minutes when the fire started.  It was caused by a lighted cigarette which one of the chorus girls dropped while smoking in a dressing room on the Twenty-sixth-st. side of the building."

The fire spread rapidly, causing the chorus girls and other employees to flee into the street in panic.  "Many of the girls were only half clad when they reached the street," said the New-York Tribune.  "They wept hysterically."  The thousands of people celebrating New Year's Eve in the neighborhood soon crowded around the burning building.  The Sun reported, "At 3 A. M. only the walls remained and the front wall, facing Eighth avenue, was in danger of falling.  Men were summoned from the Building Department to shore it up."

By now Henry Miner's sons operated the theater.  Just two days after the blaze, Edward Miner told reporters "the theater would be rebuilt at once."  Architect George M. McCabe was hired to renovate the burned out shell.  He encountered problems with the Department of Buildings when his plans called for repairing a building that predated the current fire laws.  The Department of Buildings rejected his plans, saying that "the reparation necessary to restore it to its original condition is equivalent to the 'erection' of a theatre."  An agreement was finally reached, and McCabe's altered plans went forward.

The restored structure gave little hint of the inferno that had gutted it.  photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The remodeled theater opened in 1903.  In April that year the fireman who had been detailed to the building on December 31, 1901 was found guilty for not enforcing the theater fire laws.  Fire Commissioner Sturgis found that he should have prevented the chorus girls from smoking in the theater and, especially, discarding their still-smoldering cigarettes.

On September 1, 1917 the Estate of Henry C. Miner leased the building to the Criterion Theatre Company for a term of five years.  The Real Estate Record & Guide commented, "The theatre will be used for motion pictures."

Now a movie theater, by the end of World War I the building had been renamed the Chelsea Motion Picture Theatre.  On April 26, 1925, The New York Times entitled an article, "Famous Old Theatre Swept By Flames," and reported that a porter had discovered smoke coming from a dressing room and turned in an alarm.  When firefighters arrived, the blaze had spread from the rear of the building, and "flames were sweeping across the balcony which surrounded the centre part of the building and leaping toward the gallery."  Interestingly Fire Chief Joseph B. Martin had also responded to the 1901 fire.  The New York Times reported that most of the seats in the balcony and gallery were destroyed, and "The dressing room in which the fire started was burned out."

image via

As had been the case a quarter of a century earlier, the damage was repaired and the theater reopened.  It survived another quarter century.  Demolition permits were issued in 1959 and the venerable building was razed in 1960.

image via

The Chelsea Park apartment building, completed in 2013, occupies the site today.

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  1. Do I see rail tracks in the old photos?

    1. Those are the 8th Av streetcar tracks. Made obsolete by the 8th Av subway.