Monday, April 24, 2023

The Lost Majestic Theatre - Columbus Circle at 59th Street


The gently curved structure conformed to the rounded shape of Columbus Circle.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

At the turn of the last century, the Upper West Side was fully developed.  Mass transit had been extended northward into the district now filled with lavish homes and apartment buildings.  Residents, who already enjoyed shops and social clubs in the relatively new neighborhood, saw entertainment venues beginning to arrive.  In 1902 developers E. D. Stair and A. L. Wilbur broke ground for a lavish new theater on the western side of Columbus Circle, between 58th and 59th Streets.

Designed by John H. Duncan, the crescent-shaped Beaux Arts style structure gently followed the curve of Columbus Circle.  Four stories tall, the ground floor held two restaurants, one for men and the other for ladies.  The main entrance was protected by a glass-and-iron marquee.  Above it a broken pediment was fronted by a carved lyre, a symbol of entertainment.  Directly above was a round window surmounted by a carved female portrait and palm fronds.  But stealing the show was the tower, carved with a dramatic figure of a winged male and topped by a domed roof and electric-lighted finial.

photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Inside, patrons found themselves in a grand lobby with a double staircase, marble wainscoting, and white columns.  The auditorium, which could seat 1,584, was inspired by European opera houses, and featured two balconies and two sets of box seats.   On either side of the proscenium were trumpeting figures and gilded eagles.  The state-of-the-art 80-foot-wide stage was equipped with all the latest mechanics necessary for elaborate productions.  And it would be tested on opening night with the new play based on L. Frank Baum's book The Wizard of Oz. 

photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On January 11, 1903, the New-York Tribune reported, "January 16 is the date set for the opening of the new Majestic Theatre, with a performance of 'The Wizard of Oz,' in which Montgomery and Stone, as the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, play leading parts."  And on Monday, January 19, 1903 Theatrical Notes hinted that this would be no run-of-the-mill production:

"The Wizard of Oz" will wave his magic wand before the gaze of New Yorkers for the first time on Tuesday night next, when he begins his reign at the Majestic Theatre, 59th street and Broadway, or what is known as the Grand Circle.  "The Wizard of Oz" is described as an entertainment compounded of the most attractive elements of smart up-to-date musical comedy, extravaganza and old-fashioned Christmas pantomime.

The lavish production featured a jaw-dropping on-stage tornado scene, an all female poppy field, and vaudevillian Fred Stone as the Scarecrow whose "boneless" performance made him more famous than he already was.  Audiences came back multiple times and the play prompted a flurry of sales of Baum's book, phonograph records, sheet music and piano rolls.  The Wizard of Oz played for nine months.

Dorothy meets Glinda after having crash-landed in Munchkinland.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On October 14, 1903 The New York Times wrote, "The great success of 'The Wizard of Oz' at the Majestic has caused a good many persons to wonder how the management could follow it with an attraction that by contrast would not seem 'stale, flat, and unprofitable.'  Well, 'The Babes in Toyland' is not stale, it is not flat, and it certainly will prove highly profitable."  Once again the Majestic debuted a new extravaganza suitable for family fare.   The article said "'Babes in Toyland,' had its first production before an audience that for two hours and a half took everything that came its way and then greedily cried for more."  The critic from The Evening World pronounced, "Scenically and musically, though not humorously, 'Babes in Toyland' outshines 'The Wizard of Oz.'"

A much more somber event took place the following month.  On November 8, 1903 it was the scene of the memorial service for Emma Booth-Tucker, daughter of the founder of the Salvation Army, killed in a train crash on her way to Chicago.  The New York Times reported, "The theatre was crowded, and not a few wept as Capt. Norma Durand sang 'She Died at Her Post."

The success of Babes In Toyland fostered a close relationship between Victor Herbert and the Majestic Theatre.  Plays were outlawed on Sundays, but concerts were not.  Starting in 1904, Victor Herbert gave weekly concerts, continuing at least through 1905.  On December 5, 1904 The New York Times said, "The popularity of the Victor Herbert Sunday night concerts at the Majestic Theatre was demonstrated again last evening by an audience that filled the house, and that applauded each number on the programme."

In February 1906 the management staged what unnecessarily became a controversial production, Abyssinia.  The all-Black musical featured music by Will Marion Cook and Bert A. Williams.  The Freeman reported on March 17, "Shipp and Rogers' 'Abyssinia,' with music by Will Marion Cook, is scoring at the Majestic in Broadway and 59th street, and is indeed a worthy achievement of Negro ideals, playwrights and performers."  

Unfortunately, not all white critics were pleased with a play written and played by Blacks.  Charles Darnton, writing in The Evening World, compared Bert William's performance of the song "Nobody" as being "reminiscent of the howl of a pensive coyote across a lonely prairie (prairies are always lonely), an asthmatic calliope getting up steam for the circus parade, or Marie Dressler getting her second wind."  Another, Alan Dale, accused the actors of "trying to be too much like white people."

The Freeman's critic, Sylvester Russell, lashed back on May 19, 1906.  He wrote in part, "If color is the ground upon which white critics build their nests, it is up to the black critic to throw rotten eggs...Let this be the last time that otherwise critics of New York will overlook art for the mere mortification of color."

Robert Warwick and Virginia Harned were the lead actors in the 1907 production of Anna Karenina here.  For some reason or other, before the October 5 show the two "had a lively discussion," as worded by The New York Times, "over the presence of mind of men and women in moments of excitement."  Warwick believed that women "had no presence of mind" in emergencies, while Harned insisted they were more dependable than men.  As fate would have it, the debate would be solved on stage.

During the third act, Warwick, was on stage when a actor playing a servant entered and accidentally overturned an oil lamp.  The New York Times reported, "in an instant the entire top of the table was ablaze."  Warwick realized something was wrong by the murmurings of the audience.  The article said, "Glancing quickly around, he saw that the actor who impersonated the servant was doing his best to put out the fire, but without success."  The action on stage stopped and the audience was now focused on the fire.

Virginia Harned, as Anna Karenina, was not to appear on stage yet.  Nevertheless, she jumped into action and entered the scene.  She whispered to Warwick, "get the cushion from the chair!"   He did so, and in a moment smothered the fire.  The actress saved the scene and proved her point.

Frank McKee and William Harris leased the venue in 1911.  The New-York Tribune reported on August 25, "with the beginning of their lease of the Majestic Theatre at 59th street and Broadway it will be renamed the Park Theatre.  This is due to their desire to apply an historic name to a New York theatre."  Indeed, there had been a Park Theatre in New York City since 1798.

The Park Theatre opened with The Quaker Girl on October 23, 1911.  It ran for 240 performances.  Before long, however, The Park Theatre was staging vaudeville.  Eva Tanguay, known as the Queen of Vaudeville, opened here on March 24, 1913.  She headlined what the program called "cyclonic vaudeville."  The New York Times remarked, "there was no doubt that she won her audience completely."

The sometimes naughty Eva Tanguay.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Park Theatre began showing motion pictures in 1913, starting with a controversial film, The Inside of the White Slave Traffic.  Produced by the Social Research Film Corporation and endorsed by the Sociological Fund of the Medical Review of Reviews, it dealt with a serious problem at the time--abduction and forced prostitution.  Not all New Yorkers were convinced of its educational value.  The New York Times reported on December 20 that complaints had "flowed" into Police Headquarters.

On December 19 the theater was raided and closed down.  The Park's manager, Alfred P. Hamburg, was charged with showing a picture "of a character likely to impair the morals of young girls."  The action drew the wrath and indignity of women like Alva Belmont, Carrie Chapman Catt, and the associate editor of Harper's magazine.

photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A month later, on January 18, 1914, The New York Times reported that Kinemacolor had taken over the lease of the Park Theatre.  The article said, "The Kinemacolor people aim to make the Park in the moving-picture world what the Princess theatre is to the legitimate--a theatre of thrills for the silent drama."  The venue opened with the four-reel film Sin, and silent shorts of "Ethel Barrymore and her children at home," a comedy, The Note in the Skirt, and "a trick picture which contains the very highest art known to the producers in this sort of work," said The New York Times.

The stint as a silent movie theater was short lived.  On July 19, 1914 The New York Times reported on the opening of the play The Garden of Paradise.  The article described the production as "a vast spectacular offering."  The following fall, the famous actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell appeared here in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.

In 1917, the Park Theatre turned to opera and operettas, staging The Pirates of Penzance in November 1918, for instance.  The following year, on October 12, the New-York Tribune reported "Von Suppe's 'Boccacio' is the opera which will open the Society of American Singers' third season at the Park Theatre to-morrow evening."

Change came again in the fall of 1922.  On September 16 the New-York Tribune reported, "'Burlesques--Girls, Travesties, Laughs.'  Presented last night at the Park Music Hall by the Minsky Brothers...At the Park Music Hall the Minsky Brothers spell it 'burlesques.'  They declare that the final letter makes a difference."  The article said the brothers "have made a brave start to build a permanent institution in Columbus Circle."  The New York Times noted, "The theatre recently underwent complete renovation, and its interior was almost entirely an expense of $62,000."

But the Minsky's Park Music Hall did not survive.  On August 2, 1923 The New York Times reported that William Randolph Hearst had purchased, remodeled and redecorated the venue, renaming it the Cosmopolitan Theatre (most likely after his popular magazine of the same name).  Now a motion picture theater, perhaps not coincidentally it opened with the film Little Old New York starring Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress.  More coincidentally, however, it was accompanied by Victor Herbert and his orchestra.

In 1925 Hearst turned the operation over to Florenz Ziegfeld who hired architect Joseph Urban to update the interiors.  On January 11 The New York Times reported, "Mr. Ziegfeld will convert the former Park Theatre to the drama again...The late Park, which is now Mr. Hearst's Cosmopolitan, will be opened in four weeks or so with 'The Comic Supplement' as its attraction."  The deal was always intended to be temporary, however.  The article noted that Hearst was in the process of erecting the Ziegfeld Theatre for the impresario on Sixth Avenue.

The Ziegfeld Theatre opened in February 1927.  The Cosmopolitan continued, without the famous Ziegfeld, to stage plays and operettas.  In May that year Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore opened.  In February 1928 Robert Warwick was back to star in William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes; and in December 1929 the melodrama Damn Your Honor opened.  That would be the last production for some time to come.  The Cosmopolitan closed its doors and did not reopen until 1931, once again a motion picture and vaudeville venue.

After undergoing several more incarnations--the legitimate Theatre of Young America in 1934, the Park Theatre again in 1935, the International Theatre in 1944, and the Columbus Square Theatre in 1945--the the building sat vacant until early 1949 when it was acquired by the National Broadcasting Company as a television studio.  It opened with the premier of the Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.

The end of the line for the building came with Robert Moses's "Slum Clearance" of Columbus Circle.  In 1954 he assembled the Slum Clearance Committee, of which he was chairman.  The New York Times noted on July 5, 1954, "Columbus Circle is not, of course, the only project" in his slum removal vision.  Also included were "Morningside-Manhattanville, West Park, Harlem, North Harlem, Corlears Hook, Fort Greene and Pratt Institute."  But it was Columbus Circle--and the Majestic Theatre--that was first in his crosshairs.

The Majestic Theatre in the course of demolition (lower left).  The New York Times June 22, 1954

The New York Times, June 15, 1954

In his 2015 book Blue-Collar Broadway - The Craft and Industry of American Theater, Timothy R. White notes, "As in many other Moses projects, wrecking crews got to work before local leaders understood what was happening."  The "stately playhouse," as described by White, was razed to make way for the New York Coliseum, designed by Leon and Lionel Levy.

from the collection of the Library of Congress.

That structure was replaced in 2003 by the current Time Warner Center.

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  1. One more reason to dislike Robert Moses

  2. What is the tall building to the right in the second to last photo?

    1. The Gotham Bank & Manufacturer's Trust Building, built 1915.

  3. FYI: The History of What Was Formerly Known as the Time Warner Center

  4. It was actually "Broadway Admiral Revue" (on both NBC and DuMont) that premiered at the theater in 1949. After about a half a season of of B.A.R. (still mostly available on Kinescope, amazingly), it was cancelled by its sponsor, essentially, owing to the fact the Admiral Appliances couldn't keep up with the demand for TV sets advertised during the show's 90 minute episodes. NBC retooled the show and introduced it on the same stage as "Your Show of Shows", in 1950. Sid Caesar continued on and was now established as the star. Eventually, for a time, "Your Show of Shows" was telecast from the Center Theatre (also demolished in the early 50s) at Rockefeller Center.