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BYGONE BROADWAY - Installment Four 'The Theatre and Big Business'

Welcome to Part 4 of a 5 part series that takes us back in time to the days of Broadway yesteryear……..

By 1870, Broadway was at the center of New York urban life. Hotels, restaurants, theatres, department stores, and shops sat side-by-side yet it was theatre, Broadway's most prominent institution, that prevailed long after the others were banished to different areas of the city. The box office exercising its newfound right of eminent domain over our heart and minds that it would never relinquish. The phrase "direct from Broadway" was born in this era and succeeded in attracting audiences from all over to see what New York sophisticates found so exciting in musical and dramatic productions.

There was no denying the theatre in New York was slowly acquiring the proportions of big business. Understandably, the increases in population of the city and its suburbs had led to an explosion of theatrical activity and the building of additional theatres on Broadway. But this was only part of the reason for the transformation of theatre into a lucrative business. With the nationwide improvements in transportation and communication, New York began to "export" productions to remote areas just as it did any other manufactured product. Union Square and the new theatrical district running along Broadway to the north and south became, in effect, the suppliers of entertainment for the rest of the country. The theatre as an institution quickly transformed from an artform into an industry.

Up until this time, a Broadway manager operated by owning or leasing a theatre and surrounding himself with a "permanent" company of performers, preferably with one or more stars as magnets to attract audiences. The company was then identified with a particular theatre, in which it performed for as many seasons as possible. As the number of theatres along Broadway increased and the theatrical profession expanded, managers and companies found that if they specialized in a certain type of theatrical fare, they stood a better chance of survival than if they presented a mixture of different materials. This slow trend of specialization expanded into the establishment of a number of new theatres, each featuring a unique form of entertainment. If patrons wanted French or English farce, they went to Wallock's. They flocked to Tony Pastor's on Fourteenth Street to enjoy the best in variety entertainment. The last of the minstrels was still holding court at Bryant's and San Francisco's. There was grand opera at the Metropolitan Opera House. Harrigan and Hart offered Irish and German humor at their various locations. And so it went. What was placed before New Yorkers from the 1870s on was a theatrical smorgasbord from which they could, if they wished, make almost nightly selections. The former repertory system was consequently left without a sound artistic or commercial basis and its last gasps for life during the final decades of the century was simply a part of the natural process of the theatre, which has always tended to adjust itself to new conditions.

In 1862, Amos Eno, the owner and builder of the famous Fifth Avenue Hotel, erected a small structure next door for use as an illegal stock exchange. When his activities became known in the financial community, Eno closed the building and allowed it to remain vacant until 1865 when it was converted into the Fifth Avenue Opera House. In 1877, an inventor by the name of Steele MacKaye took over and renamed it Madison Square Theatre. MacKaye promptly redesigned the interior to incorporate his innovations, all of which were quickly appropriated in some form by other theatre builders. The English novelist, Mary Duffus Hardy, described one of its biggest attractions: "As the weeks passed, the temperature became almost unendurable. The coolest place in all New York was the Madison Square Theatre. The temperature had mounted to 100 degrees when we received a box for an afternoon performance. Immediately on entering, we felt as though we had left the hot world to scorch and dry up outside, while we were enjoying a soft summer breeze within. Where did it come from? The house was crowded – there was not standing-room for a broomstick, but the air was cool and refreshing as though it blown over a bank of spring violets. We learned the reason of this. By some simple contrivance the outer air, circulating through and among tons of ice, is forced through a thousand frozen cracks and crevices before it enters the auditorium; thus a flow of fresh air is kept in constant circulation, which renders an afternoon in Madison Square Theatre a luxury during the hottest of dog days." This primitive yet effective means of air conditioning became a legacy of MacKaye's tenure at Madison Square Theatre but it was not his only claim to fame. It was MacKaye who tackled the age-old problem of time-consuming scene changes by developing the "double stage," which allowed a setting to be placed into position on a separate platform to be quickly moved forward whenever the script called for a swap. MacKaye's early interest in the potential of lighting effects to enhance the content of a play or establish the mood lead to his experiments with gas and incandescent lighting. And, finally, MacKaye invented the folding auditorium chair, the first major improvement in patron comfort since the addition of the cushion.

In the early 1890s, Broadway's theatre district stretched from Union Square to Forty-second Street and spanned over twenty-five city blocks. Broadway streetcars not only deposited patrons along the way; they could take them to their connections with ferries, elevated roads, and other streetcars. The theatres no longer had to depend exclusively on the immediate surrounding regions for their audience as the network of public transportation expanded. As the era progressed, the theatres in the lower part of the district specialized in vaudeville, farce, and light musical fare, while the houses in the northern end concentrated on legitimate drama. In less than twenty-five years, more than twenty-five theatres were added to the existing houses, and a number of concert and lecture halls also came into being.

It is an irrefutable fact that New Yorkers now possessed a strong addiction to theatre. An 1884 guidebook reported that the total seating capacity of local houses now stood at 41,000. Moreover, vaudeville managers had begun to increase the number of performances to five a day at their theatres. During the blizzard of 1888, the Star Theatre at Thirteenth and Broadway was packed to capacity with crowds to see Henry Irving and Ellen Terry perform in Faust, while uptown at Daly's, there was not an empty seat in the house for Ada Rehan and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Patrons thought nothing of braving the debilitating cold rather than relinquishing their much sought after tickets. Such was the strength of New Yorkers' devotion.


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