HomePast ColumnsAbout

Broadway 101

1900-1910, Give My Regards To Broadway!

The first decade of the 20th Century was both boring and transformational in the history of "our" Broadway. The seeds of that transformation go back to 1882, and the construction of The Madison Square Theater at 24th Street. The Mallorys, who had built the theater, had employed a young actor-manager from San Francisco along with two brothers from the lower Eastside to help manage the theater. David Belasco, who had the distinction of appearing on stage with another unknown child, Maude Adams, in San Francisco in 1877, was soon to become a playwright, theater owner and builder. The two brothers from the lower Eastside were, of course, Charles and Daniel Frohman. The first sign of the transformation occurred when producer Rudolf Aronson decided to build a theater of his own. At the time, theater was concentrated between Union Square and 24th Street.

While looking for space in the area, Aronson was approached by a friend who had a vacant lot "way up-town", at Broadway and 39th Street. Procuring financing from some of the wealthiest finance wizards of the day, the Goulds, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts and Morgans, Aronson built a splendid theater on that site. When it opened in 1882, the Casino was considered the finest example of Moorish architecture outside of Spain. It was also considered too far from the center of things to ever make a profit. It did modestly well for the first ten years, offering not only light operas and operettas, but New York's first "roof garden". Aronson was ousted in 1892, when his change of venue to vaudeville flopped. But he had, under his management, brought some of theater's best-known stars up-town. Lillian Russell and Marie Dressler, were among the stars who appeared for Aronson.

Daniel Frohman had departed the Mallorys, and was establishing a repertory company and a reputation at the Lyceum theater on 24th Street. He had taken David Belasco with him as the "house writer". Charles Frohman had begun his separate career as the manager of theater professionals and in 1893, opened his own theater, The Empire, one block up from the Casino. In November of that Year, Abbey's Theater opened next door to the Casino, and the uptown migration of the theater continued. The Casino led the way for a number of entrepreneurs to build in the vicinity of Longacre Square; a long open promenade where Broadway crossed 7th Ave. Following Aronson's lead, the likes of Charles Frohman, Henry Abbey, and Oscar Hammerstein and the Shuberts were among the investors and creators of the new theater district.

The first decade of this century witnessed the creation of numerous theaters in the new Longacre Square area. And, in 1902, when the Hotel Pabst was razed to allow the Times Building to be built on that spot, Longacre Square became Times Square. New theaters in the area include the Victoria, At 42nd St. and Seventh Ave., built in 1899; the Republic, on 42nd St. built in 1900; the Lyric, a few doors down and next door to that, the New Amsterdam, both built in 1903. The following year the Lew Fields theater was built on the same block. There were several others built in the area from 39th Street to 45th Street, and some enterprising individuals were progressing even further uptown to Columbus Circle and Central Park West.

Belasco separated from Daniel Frohman and was producing his own shows, generally the same style of melodrama and light comedy that was popular at the time, and Charles Frohman had become a "star-maker". Working both in the United States and in Europe, he had acquired the contracts of a number of actors and actresses. He had an uncanny ability to link certain roles to certain personalities to maximize their appeal to the public. An example is Maude Adams, who had grown up on stage, but had little or no "presence". Frohman managed to talk James Barrie into writing a script for his novel, The Little Minister, as a vehicle for Miss Adams. Produced first in Drury Lane, then in New York, both the play and Miss Adams were received enthusiastically. By 1901, Miss Adams, in her second Barrie play, Quality Street, was a bankable box-office draw.

In 1905, Frohman again assailed Barrie to write a script from one of his novels; an improbable play concerning alligators and pirates, baby-sitting dogs, little boys trapped in eternal child-hood and a character that was a wandering spot of light. When Maude Adams stepped to the apron and asked if the audience believed in fairies, the theater roared. Miss Adams, the play and Frohman became theater legends. She played the role for eight years and although Peter Pan was not made into a full-fledged Broadway musical until 1954, for Mary Martin , the play was always accompanied by music and Peter always sang a song or two, usually songs that were popular at the time.

Theater during the "Gay Nineties" was still an ensemble production. Stars and their "hits" were still packing their trunks, and since trucks and buses weren't available, they boarded trains, often with the greater stars in their own private cars, to take their shows on the road. Traveling across country, the whistle-stops and one-night- stands were very lucrative for performers. To insure that his stars had lucrative routes and theaters along the way, particularly in the smaller towns, Charles Frohman instigated the creation of the "Syndicate". They picked the stars, the plays, and the theaters for the entire season. Though Erlanger controlled the Syndicate, Frohman's influence was such that he controlled the open time for hundreds of theaters throughout the country. His stars, and he, made huge amounts of money.

The second sign of the transformation was the acceleration of the argument for "realism" in theater. Two playwrights were introduced to American theatergoers in the Nineties, who, either encouraged the change or merely revealed that Americans were more sophisticated than the self-appointed arbiters of public morality. Both Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw had plays produced by American companies. Different styles perhaps, with different focuses and intentions, they were thinking man's (or woman's) plays. While at the time they each had only a cult following, it wouldn't be long before their works were greeted enthusiastically.

In addition, two actresses made it clear that "realism" was the wave of future American theater. European star, Eleonora Duse, relatively unknown in the States made her debut at the Star Theater in a four-week engagement. Ms. Duse believed that the art of "acting" was to reproduce what would be, if the events on the stage were being lived at the moment by the participants. It became clear to audiences, colleagues and critics, that Ms. Duse knew what she was about.

In the same year, (1893), Minnie Maddern, who had resigned from the stage to take up the part of society matron after marrying Harrison Grey Fiske, returned to the stage. Mr. Fiske was owner and editor of the Dramatic Mirror. Mrs. Fiske's chosen role was Nora in Doll's House, which she, too, performed without "dramatizing" the part. Like Camille earlier in the century, the first Ibsen productions were "purified", and they caused little stir, but the style in which they were presented was noted by critics and audiences alike.

The Shuberts were just beginning to make their mark. Three brothers who ran a chain of theaters in up-state New York, the Shuberts, Samuel, Lee, and Jacob, leased a theater in Manhattan and were soon building others. Gradually acquiring theaters nation-wide, they began producing and financing the works of other "independents": independent of the "Syndicate" that is. Joined by other producers and a group of prominent actors, the opposition between the Syndicate and the Independents developed into a war of sorts until the middle of the second decade.

Now that the stage is set for the first decade of the new millennium, let's take a look at what was transpiring in the first decade of this New Age.

In 1900, Broadway (the Broadway we're interested in) extended from the Star Theater on 13th Street, to the New York Theater on 45th Street. Patrons were paying $1.50 to $2.00 each for the best seats to see their favorite stars. At the Casino Theater, a British production came to town. Florodora, a play about romance and perfume on an island in the Philippines, had a bevy of lovely ladies twirling parasols and a string of gallant gentlemen in morning suits singing "Tell Me Pretty Maiden" to them. The song, the play and the girls all became instant favorites. Florodora was a huge hit. The show ran for 553 performances and was revived many times. All six of the "Pretty Maidens" became the wives of millionaires within a very few years. Although not an original cast member, 16 year old Evelyn Nesbit, the infamous girl on a swing, became a Florodora Girl. She went on to greater fame in 1906, when her jealous husband shot and killed architect Stanford White, her versatile but unfortunate lover, at a production of Mamzelle Champagne, at the Madison Square Theater. White's house, where the infamous red velvet trapeze was installed, can still be seen on West 24th Street.

Perhaps the most famous Shakespearean production of the new Century was Sarah Bernhardt's, Hamlet, in 1901, performed in French, no less. Mlle. Bernhardt's interpretation was less than graciously received, and at the end of her tour she vowed never to return to America. She kept her word too, until 1906.


In 1904, a musical opened called, Little Johnny Jones. It was the third attempt by its author to succeed on Broadway, however, it was a failure. Still, George M. Cohan persevered. He took the show on tour and reworked it several times before returning it to the Great White Way. The second time around it was well received. The story of an American jockey accused of miscreance in England, Little Johnny Jones introduced two songs to America. The first was "I'm a Yankee Doodle Boy", the second song was called "Give My Regards To Broadway". Along with Irving Berlin's 1940's song, "There's No Business Like Show Business", from "Annie Get Your Gun", "Give My Regards", is considered one of the national anthems of the Broadway Theater. Cohan's next show, in 1906, was called, Forty-five Minutes from Broadway. The score had some standards that are still sung today; most notably, "Mary is a Grand Old Name". For the rest of the decade and most of the next, Cohan, young, brash and arrogant, assured of his own talent wrote and starred in hit after hit. By the beginning of the next decade he will build his own theater. (Cohan's Theater opened in 1911, on the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street with a transfer of his hit Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.) >From the acceptance of Little Johnny Jones, to the end of the next decade, the actor, singer, dancer, writer, director, manager, George M. Cohan, truly owned Broadway. In 1909, he opened another hit called The Man Who Owned Broadway, and, indeed he did.

In 1905, the Casino Theater, now in the control of the Shubert organization, was severely damaged by fire. It was rebuilt and opened the new season with a musical starring Eddie Foy. In it, Foy sang a small song called, "How'd You Like to Spoon with Me?" It was written by a 20 year old unknown, Jerome Kern. Control of the Casino passing to the Shuberts must have seemed a blessing to Mr. Fiske. The offices and plant of the "Daily Dramatic Mirror" was surrounded by Frohman's Empire Theater, which had entrances on both Broadway and 40th Streets. Fiske's offices on that corner were just one block north of the Casino.

Fiske, and his wife posed ardent opposition to the Syndicate. When a production of Mrs. Fiske's was evicted from a Syndicate theater to engage a Syndicate production, Fiske bought and renovated the Manhattan Theater on Sixth Ave. and 33rd St. for Mrs. Fiske. Likewise, "under pain of dismissal", Syndicate actors were forbidden to read or buy advertising space in the "Daily Dramatic Mirror". Maurice Barrymore, on hearing this, posted his subscription.

1905 was also the year that almost saw the end of the feud between the Syndicate and the Independents led by the Shuberts. Samuel Shubert was killed in a train-wreck in Pennsylvania. His grieving brothers were all for withdrawing from New York theater and met with Erlanger to discuss the possibilities. One of the points of contention was a contract that Samuel had made with Belasco. Erlanger, with all the tact that he was known for, stated, "I do not honor contracts with dead men". This so shocked and offended the Shubert brothers, that they were, from that moment, determined to remain in New York and destroy the Syndicate.

Notable productions during this period were L. Frank Baum's, The Wizard of Oz, in 1903, and operettas such as Victor Herbert's, Babes in Toyland, in 1903, and, Naughty Marietta, in 1910, and Franz Lehar's, The Merry Widow, in 1907, and Oscar Straus's, The Chocolate Soldier, in 1909. 1900 to 1910, was also the decade that saw the productions of Belasco's Madame Butterfly and Girl of the Golden West. The most memorable thing about these is that Puccini saw a production of Madame Butterfly, in London, and wrote his opera.

Belasco, whose life was theater, also considered theater as life. In 1902, when he acquired a long-term lease on an Oscar Hammerstein theater, The Republic, he changed the theater's name to his own. When he decided to rename the Stuyvesant Theater which he was building at the time to The Belasco, he promptly reverted the Republic to it's original name. The Stuyvesant, on 44th Street east of Broadway, is still called The Belasco. He affected the collar and dress of a cleric and lived in an apartment attached to his offices over his theater, and while he may have been, "the Bishop of Broadway," he certainly didn't act the part in private. There are many lurid tales of the gothic canopied bed and the chamber that adjoined his office. One humorous tale involves the incredible Jean Eagels, but that's for the next decade. Let's just say that "dramatize everything," seems to have been his motto.

As an author, Belasco was prone to use the stock format he had learned as an actor in San Francisco. The Hero, Villain, and Damsel in Distress, were the characters of importance and any "scandalous" situations which might arise in the telling of their story were always resolved with the highest of proper Victorian morals intact and in the melodrama of the day, there was always a little scandal. In all things, "virtue" must triumph.

Imagine the furor which was created by the production of Eugene Walter's, The Easiest Way in 1908. In this, a woman with little talent for acting but a genuine ability as a mistress has the misfortune to fall in love with a newspaper man crusading for purity. The lady in question finds that living on a "virtuous income" is difficult and depriving, and the relationship is hopeless. The "heroine" closes the last act with the line, "Dress up my body and paint my face. Yes I'm going back to Rector's to make a hit, and to hell with the rest."

Not only did it create a flood of moral indignation, it caused some to wonder about their being seen at Rector's. The play, despite the furor, was a hit. The play was deadly to Rector's though. The "Place to be Seen" after the theater suffered irreparable damage from the play. This fore-runner of Sardi's, and the playground of the likes of "Diamond" Jim Brady and Lillian Russell was shunned by the majority of same people who created it's "bon soire" atmosphere. The conception of the "bottle and bird" dinners of Rector's after-theater crowd was changed forever. The Party-palace never recovered.

Another important playwright of the first decade is Clyde Fitch. Not that his plays are particularly memorable, but Fitch was a prolific writer and understanding the mechanics of the day, wrote plays that were acceptable by the day's standards and with distinctly American themes. He gave his plays intense personal direction, often rehearsing several plays at the same time. Fitch is regarded by some as being responsible for the proliferation of American playwrights in the coming years. In 1910, there were, for the first time, more American plays than foreign plays on Broadway. In a career spanning only twenty years, from 1889, when he was hired by Richard Mansfield to assist with a script for Beau Brummell, to his death in 1909, at the age of 43, Clyde Fitch had written 33 original plays, and 22 adaptations and dramatizations of other works. He had at one point five different plays running simultaneously on Broadway, and personally saw each through rehearsals. An early workaholic, Fitch wrote constantly. There are tales of him making appointments to answer his phone. He worked hard but lived well with liveried house men. When his Long Island estate became too small to house his art and memorabilia, he bought another nearby and aptly named it, "The Other House".


Besides the growing popularity of the operetta in Broadway's repertoire, the other notable musical event of the decade occurred in 1907; The Follies of 1907, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. While not the first revue on Broadway, it was certainly the most lavish ever to be produced and Ziegfeld would produce 20 more Follies in the ensuing years. Half the budget went to gorgeous costumes in these shows which glorified the American Girl with huge musical production numbers. Comic sketches and other varieties balanced the program. Others tried to imitate the Ziegfeld Follies (as they became known in 1911) but none were as spectacular or nearly as successful. A Follies ticket was $2.50, making it the most expensive show in town. While Rector's was "THE" after-theater experience, the various "roof-gardens" which had followed that of The Empire Theater were also rich draws. Ziegfeld managed to enrich this experience (and himself) by presenting his own form of cabaret entertainment following his stage extravaganzas. One could see more "All- American Girls" or, more of the "All American Girl," while relaxing over a dinner and drinks after the show at the theater's roof-garden.


Before we leave this decade, let's take a quick look at some of the other stars of the day. John Drew is still performing as he will for several more years. He's been joined by his nephews, John, and Lionel and his niece, Ethel Barrymore. Drew, who had been a rapier flexing interpreter of Shakespeare in his earlier career, has settled into drawing room dramas and light comedies under the management of Frohman, and is playing opposite such leading ladies as the ingenue Helen Hayes and his own niece. Other important stars include Julia Marlowe, E. H. Sothern, and Richard Mansfield.

Julia Marlowe, who has created a name for herself in standard Broadway fodder, but who aspires to greatness as a Shakespearean dramatist, is paired with E. H. Sothern, son of R. H. Sothern. Sothern was also trapped in light fare with aspirations of Shakespearean greatness. Together the two make history both on and off the stage. After the proper sequence of mutual divorces, they marry and become what neither had managed to accomplish alone.

Laurette Taylor, whose life is truly food for a Belasco melodrama, and who began her career in Belasco clap-trap, becomes a star for her role in, The Girl in Waiting, in 1910. James Hackett, has become a matinee idol. Men love his swashbuckling roles, women think he's the handsomest man in town and the tights show off great legs. Hackett is also managing another Hammerstein theater, also on 42nd Street, down the block from the Republic. Mme. Modjeska is still appearing. Billie Burke ("Are you a good witch or a bad witch?") and Helen Hayes have begun their careers. Miss Alla Nazimova has migrated, first from Russia, then from Thirteenth Street theater to take her place as a translator of Ibsen's work. In 1910, the Shubert brothers named a theater for her, on Broadway and 43rd. It was a short-lived alliance. The following year, Nazimova signed with Frohman and the Syndicate, and "The Nazimova" became simply, "The 39th Street Theater".


In 1906, New York had seen its first "moving" electrical billboard. Some critics suggested that this "novelty" was in part responsible for the success of Victor Herbert's operetta,The Red Mill, which opened the new season at Abbey's Theater on Broadway and 38th. Most theaters being built now were more intimate houses, with seating for 1,000 or fewer, but the New Theater, built in 1909, at 62nd Street and Central Park West seated 2,813, and the capacity of the Hippodrome, which stretched the entire block on Sixth Ave. between 43rd and 44th, could seat over five thousand. When it opened with it's 4 hour premier show on April 12, 1905, it featured 280 chorus girls, 480 soldiers, an elephant parade, dancing horses, and a cavalry charge through a lake. The stage and it's mechanics and tanks, were overwhelming to theatergoers. Though the spectacle shows were popular, the theater was soon in financial trouble. The Hippodrome was very soon to become another Shubert theater.

In comparison, Miss Maxine Elliot's theater, aptly named, Maxine Elliot's Theater, opened on 39th St. in 1908, seating 900, Nazimova's which opened in 1910, had seating for only 699 patrons. The tiny rose and cream colored jewel, the Comedy Theater, also built by the Shuberts on 41st St. in 1909, only had 623 seats.

In 1910 there were 40 legitimate theaters in the new theater district around Times Square and it was only the beginning. The heyday was yet to come for both Broadway and Vaudeville. The next decade belonged to George M. Cohan and as a tribute for his contribution to Broadway, a statue in Times Square celebrates the Yankee Doodle Boy!

This first decade with its silly dramas and entertaining musicals and spectacle can be summed up in one word, Entertainment.

Next: 1910-1920: Over There
Broadway 101 Virtual Tour

Terms of Service

[ © 1997 - 2016 www.TalkinBroadway.com, Inc. ]