HomePast ColumnsAbout

Broadway 101

The Great White Way

Broadway is the street in New York that has come to symbolize live theater entertainment throughout the world. Today the area, known to tourists and theater-goers, stretches from W.41st Street, where the Nederlander Theater is located, up to W. 53rd Street's Broadway Theater. Only four theaters are located physically on Broadway, the Marquis at 46th Street, the Palace at 47th Street, the Winter Garden at 50th Street and the Broadway at 53rd. All the other legitimate houses are located east or west of this twelve block stretch.

This was not always the case. In 1810, if you wandered up Broadway, north from the Battery, towards the villages of Greenwich or Harlem farther to the north of the common pasture, Sheep's Meadow; past Wall St. and Maiden Lane, at City Hall Park you would have passed The beautiful Park Theater on Park Row. A second theater, "The Bowery", was built in 1821, on the Bowery, of course, and the migration of "mid-town" towards the north was well under way. The 19th Century saw the de- velopment of American theater throughout the country. It also saw the development of the all powerful "Syndicate", which was a cartel of the owners of regional theaters who joined forces under the influence of one of Broadway's early great producers. Though often at odds with the Puritan morality that underwrote the founding of the new nation, theater was the only mass entertainment of the day.

European actors were imported and America soon produced its own stars and companies. In 1821, Junius Brutus Booth came from Drury Lane to perform, and established, with his sons, Junius Jr., Edwin and John Wilkes, the first of the great acting families of the American Stage. When the renowned actor John Drew's sister, Georgina met and married Maurice Barrymore, yet another family of Broadway "aristocrats" was established.

Because America was a land of freshly arriving immigrants, most theater was imported from Europe. Plays and operettas were deeply entrenched in a heavy style soon to be identified as "Victorian". The great American playwrights didn't appear until the 1920's, and most plays were formula contrivances of morality with young maidens, Dapper Dan heroes and the required shady evil villain who was always hissed and booed. The style of acting of the day would be considered "over the top", or at least, greatly exaggerated and emotionally filled nonsense today. There was a common cry against that particular form of "emoting" from both actors and critics of the caliber of Edgar Allan Poe. It wasn't until the 20th Century that that style of acting began to wane and the century old argument for realism on the stage began to overtake the Victorian style.

Shakespeare's plays managed for the most part to escape this Victorian "emoting". They were performed from the earliest days of American theater as part of the repertoire brought by English actors. The first British actor of record is George Fredrick Cook, who accepted an American engagement in 1796. He died in New York in 1812, and his remains were deposited in a "stranger's crypt" until 1821, when a fellow British actor, Edmond Kean, had them removed to the church- yard and sponsored a memorial to be built over them. There is a legend that not all of Mr. Cook was removed to the church- yard however, and that Mr. Cook returned to the stage later in the century in the role of Yorick.

The nature of theatergoers of the period can be attested by the results of Kean's second tour of the U.S. in 1825. The play was, Richard III, and Kean was driven from the stage by eggs and rotten fruit. The actor escaped, but the riot that followed wrecked the interior of the Park Theater.

By the 1830's America was exporting "stars" to Europe. The first notable American actor to make a successful tour was Edwin Forrest, who, at nineteen, had played Iago to Edmond Kean's Othello. Forrest's second tour of Great Britain, in the following decade didn't fare as well. He was hissed off stage. Though the disruption of his tour was a personal feud with a British actor, its results were well publicized in the American Press and his return to the American stage was received with populist fervor. This "personal feud" became an international incident and demonstration of class struggle in 1849, when the British actor in question was scheduled to perform at the Astor Place Opera House in New York. A riot ensued on the night of May 10th which was put down with troops and cannon.

In 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin was the novel of the day, with 300,000 copies in print. It was a highly inflammatory novel and was soon turned into a highly inflammatory play. In August of that year, the first adaptation (with a newly devised happy ending) appeared at the National Theater. Though raged against by the press as, "an insult to the south", and a vehicle that would, "poison the minds of our youth with the pestilential principles of abolition", it ran well and was revived a few times during the season. In the following year, at the same theater, another production was mounted which followed the original story line. The cast was led by a five-year-old child prodigy, Miss Cordelia Howard, and included most of her family. The play was an instant success and a great part of that must be attributed to the child star. The National Theater and Uncle Tom's Cabin provided Broadway with its first matinee performances, and the child appeared in 12 performances a week. So much for 19th Century Child Welfare laws.

In the same year, another controversial play arrived on the ]American scene. In 1853, Miss Jean Davenport adapted and starred in Camille, or, the Fate of a Coquette, the Dumas drama which had received lauds from the Parisian aud- iences the year before. Knowing the mind of America, Miss Davenport had altered the story line such, that one critic reported that, "divested of all the immoral, objectionable features", it was, "an entertainment of virtuous instruction." Miss Davenport's wasn't the only well received production of Camille. Other performers also produced their versions after copious changes to the story line, but there were always pockets of objection to the moral tone of the play. In 1857, Miss Matilda Heron presented her adaptation on Broadway. Having seen a production in Paris, Miss Heron changed nothing. La Dame aux Camelias presented to Broadway a production with "startling realism in acting", and a "problem play of contemporary 'real life'." Miss Heron and company were greeted with standing ovations.

Why were there so many "adaptations"? It was common for an actor or producer to write dramatizations of popular works or re-write scenes of plays to show-case the performer or merely refit the part to the available casting. Along with Miss Davenport's there were several other "sanitized" versions of Camille being presented during this decade. America didn't always rate high in world literacy tests, and the stage brought a good part of the population its introduction to books and authors. The first copyright law protecting playwrights wasn't passed until 1856. It gave the playwright sole right, "to print, publish, or perform, or represent the same". It was rather difficult to enforce, though it was a start, and provided a means for demanding royalties. Still, it was largely ignored, and the "dramatization" of literature went on.

In 1851, Junius Booth refused to appear on Broadway feigning illness. He sent as his stand-in, his eighteen-year-old son, Edwin. The performance was applauded, and a new star was in ascendancy. He returned to Broadway as a star in his own right in 1857. He had made a name as an example of the new "realism" on stage. Unlike Forrest (after whom, he was named) and the generation that preceded him, Booth didn't "stand and deliver" his lines, but moved on the stage and with, "intonation, gesture, and posture", he introduced to theater- goers, "a nervous embodiment of all the passions." The style brought unanimous praise from his audiences and critics alike.

In 1860, Forrest, who was nearly 60, and Booth dueled it out on Broadway. Forrest at Niblo's Garden, and Booth at the Winter Garden were giving the audiences two interpretations of the same roles. It seems that Booth was winning. The Civil War disrupted this and Booth went to England. He studied theater in England and France and returned to the fray in 1863. After a year of personal tragedy, Booth mounted a production of Julius Caesar in the Winter Garden on November 25, 1864. Edwin played Brutus, His brother, Junius Jr. played Cassius, and brother John played Mark Anthony. It was the only time they were ever to act together.

[Image] On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth found another way to make headlines at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C.. The assassination of Lincoln brought Edwin Booth under suspicion as well and sent him into instant retirement. It only lasted a year. His contribution to the Broadway we know was not complete. The audiences who attended his return were adamant is showing their support and belief in his innocence and welcomed him joyously. In 1869, Booth opened his own theater on 23rd and Sixth Ave. It cost a million to build and amazed audiences with the effects that were possible with the latest designs in stage equipment. But Broadway (and technology) being what it is, the stir soon abated. The theater failed under bad management and was razed a few years later.

Plays had always had an orchestra to entertain theatergoers while entering the theater and during intermission, and while Vaudeville and Burlesque had its share of musical performers, the Broadway Musical is purely an American art form. While many consider 1927's Showboat as the first great book musical, the use of drama, dance, and music in one production all happened quite by accident and over seventy years earlier.

In 1866, a Parisian ballet troupe was imported to perform at the Academy of Music. The theater burned to the ground before the show could be staged, stranding the performers and financially draining the show's producers. They, in turn, went to another impresario, William Wheatley, manager of Niblo's Garden, who was preparing a melodrama called The Black Crook. Niblo's Garden, on Broadway and Prince Street, was a palatial theater by the day's standards. Built in the early 1840's, it became famous for producing small dramas and comedies interspersed with "musical entertainments". Wheatley decided to turn The Black Crook into a musical extravaganza. For the first time ever, audiences saw a drama; were entertained by an orchestra, and saw a hundred gypsies kicking up their heels. When it opened, it shocked, outraged and totally delighted American audiences, and a new, totally American art form, the Broadway Musical, had been created. The Black Crook had a run of 16 months, and grossed over 1 million dollars. A witness to this nightly event was a young boy who sold programs to patrons in the audience: his name... Charles Frohman.

In 1870, another Broadway institution was established. In December of that year, actor George Holland died. British by birth, he had debuted here in 1827 at The Bowery Theater. After a long career that lasted into his eighties he had recently retired. When approached for the arrangements for the funeral, the Church of the Atonement refused to conduct the services of an "actor". The Rector told actor, producer, and theater owner, Joseph Jefferson, who was representing the family, that there was a little church around the corner. Jefferson is quoted as saying, "Thank God for the Little Church Around the Corner." The Church of the Transformation on 29th and Fifth Ave. aka, "The Little Church Around the Corner", has been identified with the theater profession ever since. One can visit the church today and note the stained glass windows that depict actors rather than saints.

In the years that followed, several other institutions familiar to Broadway fans appeared. The Lamb's Club was established to be the American equivalent of Garrick's Club, the British arena that gave actors the ability to meet "gentlemen and patrons of the drama on equal terms". Edwin Forrest had bequeathed his home and an endowment to house aging and indigent actors and actresses. And In 1882, the combined efforts of Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, and Lester Wallack resulted in the Actors Fund of America. For almost a century, this organization supported itself through benefit performances.

The final contribution Edwin Booth made to the Broadway we are familiar with came in 1888. Booth had purchased a townhouse facing Grammercy Park. He had it refurbished by the architect Stanford White and reserving top floor for himself, he established The Players on the lower floors. In 1888, the property became legally the property of The Player's Club. Membership was open not only to actors, but also to any member of the arts and their patrons.

The Park Theater that had stood on 24th St. just West of Broadway burned. Two brothers bought the space and financed a new theater on the site. It opened in 1880. Its magnificent interior was further enhanced by greater technology than had been used by Booth, including a double stage with elevator mechanics. Madison Square Theater became the best known theater in the country, and not only for the mechanical stage. The brothers, one of whom was ordained, were editors of, The Churchman. A major blow was struck in the long intellectual debate over the morality of the theater in general and actors and actresses particularly. The Madison Square Theater was the creation and enterprise of unquestionably moral men. Employees of this new theater included David Belasco and Daniel and Charles Frohman.

Behind the scenes of this show-business world, long before unions or Equity, was the all powerful Syndicate. Nineteenth Century theater was based on stars or companies with a repertoire of programs who would perform until they ran out of material or audiences, and then move on to the next theater. Entrepreneurs succeeded by building strings of theaters and booking companies to travel their "circuit". To insure profitable circuits for his productions nation-wide, in 1896, producer Charles Frohman invited the owners and managers of the country's theater chains to a conference. The result was the "Syndicate", under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln Erlinger, a booking magnate who dominated the south. The power was vast, as the Syndicate controlled the bookings of theaters all across the country. Erlinger booked everything from actors to playwrights and without an association with the Syndicate, it was difficult or impossible to book a show or find employment as an actor. There were those who were opposed to the Syndicate, especially the Shubert Brothers who went into competition with the Syndicate. It eventually became a war with the Syndicate being crushed by the Shubert empire. Erlinger and his group were interested in only one thing, and that was money. Others, especially the Shuberts, had an interest in serving the arts as well as the box office.

[Image] Vaudeville and its low brow comic cousin, Burlesque, also played a major role in entertainment at this time. Unlike a Broadway musical or play with a script to follow, Vaudeville was a series of acts presented by comics, singers, acrobats and other performers. The Palace Theatre is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Vaudeville, but that wasn't built until 1913 and Vaudeville was alive and well long before the Palace opened its doors.

The "act" was held sacred by the Vaudevillians and these performers toured the country perfecting their act on the circuits hoping to make the big time. Similar to the booking offices of Broadway, the Keith organization dominated the bookings all over the country right up until the time when Vaudeville began to die. Talking motion pictures became Vaudeville's kiss of death, and the replacement for low priced mass entertainment. Still, Vaudeville was extremely popular entertainment and its growth ran parallel to that of Broadway plays and musicals in the next decade.

In the world of burlesque, the clownish Weber and Fields performed their buffoonery in their Music Hall at 29th Street. What is most interesting about their act was that they were the first to lampoon Broadway shows, very much similar to the Gerard Alessandro's Forbidden Broadway series of the 1980's and 1990's. As it is now, it was considered an honor to be a recipient of such lampoonery. However, the Music Hall closed in 1904 as audience taste was beginning to favor the more respected Vaudeville houses and Broadway plays and musicals.

In 1891, the first electric marquis was lit on Broadway. The theater was on Madison Square at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue at W. 23rd Street. The Flatiron Building now occupies the site. By midway through the following decade, the street blazed with electric signs as each theater announced its shows and stars in white lights. By the turn of the 20th Century the street had an entirely different look, with as many as sixteen theaters on Broadway itself and many others located on the side streets or other avenues. Broadway was much more than a mere twelve blocks. It started at 13th Street and wound its way a mile and a half up the Avenue to 45th Street, ending in the heart of Longacre Square. This first decade of the century also saw the construction of many theaters, most notably the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street in 1903, along with four others in that same year, that are still standing today.

Longacre Square had the first moving electric signs, and it was when the Times Building was erected in 1904 that Longacre Square ceased to exist. It was now known as Times Square. And because of the magnificent illumination of the Avenue and the Square, Broadway had been christened "The Great White Way".

In the 1900-1901 season there were seventy plays or musicals being produced on Broadway. It was the beginning of the boom, and the decades that followed saw that number quadruple. In addition, there were seven Vaudeville houses and six Burlesque theaters presenting their shows to a theater thirsty population of just over three and a half-million inhabitants.

Join us each month as we take a look at Broadway, decade by decade.


Next: 1900-1910: Give My Regards to Broadway
Broadway 101 Virtual Tour


Wanna' talk to others about this column or anything else theatre related? Check out All That Chat!







[ © 1999 Talkin' Broadway! | Produced by hijinks design ]