Doesn’t seem like much of a bargain, does it? Getting one item for the price of five? And yet, that was the bargain made by the City of New York and the Portman development company in the 1980’s.
At the time, adding a theatre to a proposed building allowed the building to be built taller than allowed by law. By the time Portman was looking at property along Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets as a prime place to construct a new hotel, adding a theatre for the extra height was not as attractive. But for the hotel project to proceed, a patchwork quilt of plots of property also had to be assembled and the buildings already there had to be demolished.
Five of those plots contained Broadway theatres. Because the new construction would remove five theatres, the Portman company agreed, as a condition of acceptance from the city, to include a new Broadway theatre in the design of their proposed hotel.
The demolition of the old, beloved Empire Theatre in 1953 had saddened the theatre community, which realized that the relentless march of development in midtown Manhattan could spell doom to other old theatres. But the knowledge that five theatres would be destroyed galvanized the theatre community into action. Architects were hired to show that the new hotel could be built over the five theatres without reducing the amount of usable hotel space. Motions were filed with the city’s Landmarks Commission to get at least some of the theatres designated as city landmarks for design and historical reasons. Petitions went out to Washington, Albany, and New York City to get the Times Square area proclaimed an historic district. Protests and benefits, featuring top stars and theatre historians, were held to try changing the Portman company’s mind about the planned demolitions.
But all to no avail. After being turned down by the Landmarks Commission, and having a temporary injunction against demolition removed by the state supreme court, the five theatres—and all other buildings on the construction site—were demolished in 1982.
What was lost? The Astor Theatre was the largest of the five, with approximately 1600 seats. Built in 1906, it had been converted into a movie theatre by 1925. A modernization in 1959 removed all the interior ornamentation, and a single mezzanine replaced the balconies and boxes. By 1972, the orchestra seats were removed and the auditorium and lobby area was an on-again/off-again retail space.
The Bijou Theatre, at 600 seats the smallest of the five, was built in 1917. Over the years it would switch back and forth between live theatre and film. In 1977, toward the end of its life, the Bijou was home to its biggest hit: the Swiss mime troupe Mummenschanz.
The Gaiety Theatre from 1908 had a rockier life than its compatriots. Not only did it go from live theatre to film, but it would stage high-class burlesque in 1933, presenting such stars as strippers Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio along with comics like Abbott and Costello. After Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia cracked down on burlesque in 1943, the Gaiety changed its name to the Victoria Theatre and finally the Criterion Five, showing only films.
The Helen Hayes Theatre started life in 1911 as the Folies-Bergere, Broadway’s first dinner theatre. The novelty soon faded, and by October of 1911, renamed the Fulton, it had transformed itself into another standard Broadway theatre. During its existence, the theatre hosted the long-running romantic comedy Abie’s Irish Rose, the Broadway debut of Bela Lugosi in Dracula, and Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Long Day’s Journey into Night. In 1955, the Fulton changed its name to honor actress Helen Hayes, the “First Lady of the American Theatre”.
The Helen Hayes was the last of the five theatres to fall; a court injunction was issued to halt work until it could be determined if undue influence was wielded by the Reagan Administration to allow demolition to proceed. The court found no such influence, and the theatre was finally torn down.
The Morosco Theatre’s loss was the most keenly felt. As beloved by actors as the old Empire Theatre had been, the Morosco at that time held the distinction of hosting more Pulitzer Prize-winning plays than any other theatre—five, to be exact—including Beyond the Horizon, Eugene O’Neill’s first play; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The five theatres combined held a total of close to 5,000 seats; the Marquis Theatre, which was built into the hotel, holds 1,611 seats. While the Astor would probably never have been used for legitimate theatre again, the Gaiety could have been restored to the ranks of legitimate stages and the other three would have continued on with live theatrical productions.
However, one good thing came from the destruction of the five theatres. The Landmarks Commission finally opened its eyes to the possibility of losing more of Broadway’s grand old theatres. By 1987 landmark status, either externally, internally, or both, was granted to most of the remaining Broadway houses in midtown Manhattan. There will never again be such a wholesale demolition of legitimate theatres in the name of progress. Unfortunately, it took the destruction of these five older theatres to gain this protection.