A History of Broadway's Lost Theatres

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Apr. 23, 2023

Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This month, the reader question was: Which Broadway theaters have been demolished/repurposed and when/why?

Remembering lost Broadway theaters is such an important part of theater history. There are many that have sadly been demolished or repurposed over the years.

I've written about this topic extensively in my book series The Untold Stories of Broadway. Each volume of the book series features at least one chapter about a lost Broadway theater. In addition, one of my favorite books about lost Broadway theaters is (the appropriately titled) Lost Broadway Theaters, by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, which I highly recommend.

In this piece, I will highlight two Broadway theaters that have been demolished or repurposed, and tell their stories.

A History of Broadway's Lost Theatres

The Mark Hellinger Theatre

One of our top heartbreakers, the Mark Hellinger Theatre, for many years a jewel of Broadway, is now the Times Square Church. On 51st Street, across the block and slightly east of the Gershwin Theatre, the glorious venue that originally opened in 1930 as a movie palace named The Warner Bros. Hollywood Theatre still stands.

Few Broadway theaters actually have entrances on Broadway, but this one originally did. A narrow entrance on Broadway once existed, but was closed in the 1930s; the theater's main entrance and stage door are both on 51st Street.

The theater hosted films only for a short period of time, before attempting to incorporate vaudeville as well in 1932. 1934 brought the theater's first legitimate production: a revue called Calling All Stars, which starred Martha Raye. The 1930s and 1940s saw productions like Banjo Eyes with Eddie Cantor and Romeo and Juliet with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, as well as films including the premiere of Casablanca.

From 1949 to 1989, the theater was a legitimate Broadway house, presenting live performance. During this time, it was named The Mark Hellinger Theatre, after the journalist and film producer. The Hellinger had several individual owners, including the Broadway producer Anthony Brady Farrell, before The Nederlander Organization purchased the house in 1976.

A capacity of about 1,600 and a gorgeously constructed interior made the Hellinger a great home for large musicals.

The Hellinger's biggest hit was My Fair Lady. The record-breaking Lerner and Loewe musical starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison ran for six years, from 1956 to 1962, and was at one time the longest running show in Broadway history.

In the 1950s, notable productions included Two on the Aisle (1951), a revue by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, Hazel Flagg (1953), also with music by Styne, The Girl in Pink Tights (1954), and Sigmund Romberg's final Broadway musical. For many years, Styne also had an office in the Hellinger Theatre building.

The 1960s welcomed The Sound of Music (1962), which played its final seven months at the Hellinger after opening at the Lunt-Fontanne, Rugantino (1964), an Italian musical transferred from Rome, Fade Out-Fade In (1964), another Styne-Comden-Green project, this time starring Carol Burnett, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), featuring visits from Dr. Feelgood, A Joyful Noise (1966), featuring Michael Bennett's first choreography on Broadway, Dear World (1969) with a score by Jerry Herman, starring Angela Lansbury, and Coco (1969), starring Katharine Hepburn as Coco Chanel. Yes, during On A Clear Day, Alan Jay Lerner welcomed doctor Max Jacobson to the Hellinger to give the company what at the time were considered rejuvenating vitamin injections, and later on were discovered to be amphetamines and meth.

Productions at the Hellinger in the 1970s included Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Andrew Lloyd Webber's opus which became the theater's third longest-running show, Seesaw (1973), a beloved flop musical with score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), the Leonard Bernstein-composed short-lived epic about life in the White House, Timbuktu! (1978) starring Eartha Kitt, and Sugar Babies (1979), starring Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney, which ran for almost three years.

The Hellinger's final Broadway decade to date featured A Doll's Life (1982), a Hal Prince-helmed musical sequel to A Doll's House, Merlin (1983), one of the longest running Tony nominees for Best Musical to not receive a cast album, Oliver! (1984), a revival that starred Patti LuPone and eked out only 17 performances, Grind (1985), another short-lived and ambitious Prince musical, and Rags (1986), the shortest-running Tony nominated Best Musical in Broadway history.

The Hellinger also hosted several broadcasts of The Tony Awards (1969, 1970, 1980, and 1987), back when the ceremony was held in a Broadway house.

As the theater experienced more than its fair share of flops, in the desolate Times Square landscape of the 1980s, the Nederlanders considered selling. Many of their houses sat empty for months and years during the 1980s and early 1990s, and it made good business sense to look for a buyer. When the Times Square Church was in the market for a Broadway theater-sized venue in the area, they considered several houses, also including the Nederlander Theatre. After the Hellinger's final production, Legs Diamond, scored by and starring Peter Allen, in 1989, the deal went through.

Since 1989, the Hellinger has been kept in excellent shape by the Times Square Church. The theater is landmarked so it cannot be demolished, but it also is unlikely to be turned back into a Broadway theater any time soon due to the length of the Church's lease. Over the years, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Bennett, Garth Drabinsky, Cameron Mackintosh, The Shubert Organization, and Disney have all contemplated or attempted to purchase the Hellinger and bring it back to legitimate use, but none of these sales have come to fruition.

You can still peek inside the doors on 51st Street and see the former Mark Hellinger Theatre...

A History of Broadway's Lost Theatres

The George Abbott Theatre

Within two years, three Broadway houses were built on 54th Street. Only one still stands.

In 1927 and 1928, 54th Street saw the Gallo Theatre, the Ziegfeld Theatre, and the Craig Theatre all rise between 6th Avenue and 8th Avenue.

The Gallo Theatre became Studio 54 and survived for 71 years without a hit show. The Roundabout house we know and love today lived a fascinating life as an iconic discotheque and much more, overcoming the odds.

The Ziegfeld Theatre, built by the Follies impresario of the same name, was home to hits like Show Boat, Brigadoon, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but demolished in 1966 to make way for a skyscraper. This was before the reverence that led to landmarking Broadway theaters reached the apex it would later on.

The Craig Theatre, an odd duck of a Broadway house, close to 7th Avenue on the south side of the block, had seven names during its 42 years of life. At the time that it was destroyed in 1970 to make way for an extension of the Hilton Hotel, it was named the George Abbott Theatre, after the prolific Broadway director. Unlike most Broadway houses, which were built from scratch, the Craig was built upon the existing structure of a large brownstone. Its interior was simple and modest.

The Craig's early history was filled with flops and the theater sat empty for months at a time. This was true of many houses during the Great Depression. The Federal Theatre Project eventually produced several notable productions in the space.

For three years in the 1940s, the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians took over the space. This was followed by a rental by the Yiddish Arts Theatre. In 1944, the venue became the Adelphi, and was returned to legitimate Broadway use.

In 1944, theatre newcomers Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein opened On The Town at the Adelphi. The wartime musical about brief connection, opening as it did in the midst of World War II, was relatable and meaningful to a generation who treasured "Some Other Time" and "New York, New York". Shortly after, in 1947, the pioneering operatic musical Street Scene based on Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and adapted by Rice with Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill, came to the Adelphi and won the first Best Score Tony Award.

The Adelphi was often used by long-running productions that had a few months of life left but had to vacate their theaters for new incoming shows. This was true of Damn Yankees in 1957 and Bye Bye Birdie in 1960. It was also used by productions like No Strings (1962) who were waiting for another, more prime house to be vacated. It was also often utilized for auditions for Broadway shows that played elsewhere.

The last production at the George Abbott Theatre was Gantry in 1970. The musical, which starred Rita Moreno, closed on opening night, on Valentine's Day. An article on the day of its first preview just weeks earlier, had declared that Gantry would be the theater's final production and whenever it closed, the venue would be demolished to make more space for the Hilton Hotel.

The destruction of the George Abbott Theatre did inspire protests from theatre folk, who gathered after the theater had turned to rubble to perform a memorial for it. A petition circulated, imploring New York City not to destroy any more precious Broadway houses. Among those who signed it were Burt Bacharach and Molly Picon. Many knew that the Morosco and Hayes were next on the chopping block, even in 1970, and wanted to prevent future destruction.

Sadly, not until the Morosco, Hayes, Bijou, Astor and Gaiety were actually destroyed in 1982 would the dream of landmarking our remaining Broadway houses become a reality.

More on that next time...


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From This Author - Jennifer Ashley Tepper

Jennifer Ashley Tepper is producer of the musicals Be More Chill, Broadway Bounty Hunter, and Love In Hate Nation. She is also the Creative and Programming Director at Feinstein's/54 Below, and th... Jennifer Ashley Tepper">(read more about this author)



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