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Broadway 101

The Great Depression

The 1930s arrived with bells and breadlines. The number of Broadway people affected by the stock market crash was uncountable. Everyone from producers, such as Flo Ziegfeld - who closed his hit production of Whoopie so that he could rush it into film production - to ushers, whose theaters remained dark, was affected by the crash. The 1929-30 season produced 233 productions. The 1930-31 season was reduced to 187 productions. It has been calculated that the talent that Hollywood absorbed from Broadway was in the vicinity of 75%.

This fall in new productions set a trend that (with the exception of the 1931-32 season) would continue for quite some time. New productions on Broadway dipped to 98 shows in 1939; for the first time since the turn of the century, there were less than 100 shows being offered.

Vaudeville, the lowbrow cousin, seemed to be taking an even larger stick in the eye. In 1925, there were approximately 1500 theaters in the vaudeville circuits; by 1930, only 300 were left. Of the 700 RKO circuit theaters, only 5 were still offering a "vaudeville only" bill; the rest were sharing their space or providing bills solely filled with films. RKO, the successor of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville Circuit, then included the NBC radio network and RKO Pictures. The theaters owned by this entertainment organization were wired for the presentation of the new "talking" pictures.

1930 also marked another change in theater history. In March of that year, both A. L. Erlanger and E. F. Albee died within days of each other, and vaudeville producer Fredrick Proctor died in September of that year. In May of the following year, David Belasco died. The creators of Broadway as it existed were passing, but there was new talent stepping in to take up the torch. Jessica Tandy made her Broadway debut in The Matriarch at the Longacre Theater (on 48th Street just off Broadway) in March, and just a few days later, Mrs. Herbert Sondheim presented her husband - and the world - a son, Stephen.

Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theater on 14th Street staged Allison's House, a play drawn from the life of Emily Dickinson, by Susan Glaspell. Allison's House won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and moved uptown to a commercial house. Miss Glaspell and her husband, George Cram Cook, were the founders of the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village. She was, in part, responsible for "discovering" the talented Eugene O'Neill.

That "other" Village group, the Theater Guild, was also producing plays on Broadway in 1930, and a few are important to mention. Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen , a biographical history of Elizabeth I of England, starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The play was heralded as a "fine poetic tragedy". The reason is clear - the play was written in blank verse. The show had a successful run and made a successful movie before the decade ended. Anderson followed this success with a second, Mary Queen of Scots.

A second Guild play has a much more interesting history. Lawrence Langner and the Guild acquired the rights to a somewhat autobiographical play, Green Grow the Lilacs, by author Lynn Riggs. It was produced, and presented well for a run of 64 performances. The cast included Franchot Tone as a cowboy named "Curly" and June Walker as the lady of his eye, "Laurey". It told a story of life and love in the real west - Oklahoma on the brink of statehood. In a small supporting role of that first production was Lee Strasberg. Green Grow the Lilacs was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for drama that year, but lost to Allison's House. Though the initial run was short, Green Grow the Lilacs would make significant news, being picked up by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and make theater history in its 1943 musical adaptation, Oklahoma.

Another important Guild production of the Thirties was Eugene O'Neill's Ah Wilderness. The light comedy of this work seems strange when compared to the deeper, darker side of O'Neill, as seen in such productions as Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, or the marathon trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra. Another interesting point about this particular production is that it drew George M. Cohan back onto the stage to portray the father.

Other important debuts for the beginning of this decade included Ethel Merman, who opened at the Alvin in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy. She made headlines for holding a note in "I Got Rhythm" for 16 measures. This feat led to two memorable quips. George Gershwin is said to have told Miss Merman, "Never, but never, go near a voice teacher." And the press said that Merman could "hold a note longer than Chase Manhattan." Once in a Lifetime opened at the Music Box. Not only was it a very popular show, it was the first of eight collaborations between George F. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Kaufman, then probably best known as a critic, writer and director, also took a turn at acting, and credited Hart with the majority of the writing for this show. In 1931, Kaufman picked up a Pulitzer himself (or part of one). Of Thee I Sing, for which Kaufman, with collaborator Morrie Ryskind, wrote the book, George Gershwin the music, and Ira Gershwin the lyrics, was the first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer for drama. Of Thee I Sing ran for 441 performances. The star from the chorus in this production was George Murphy, whose later career included movies and politics. Through this decade, Kaufman followed with Dinner at Eight co-authored by Edna Ferber, Once In A Lifetime, Merrily We Roll Along, You Can't Take It With You, and The Man Who Came to Dinner, all written with Moss Hart.

Casino Theater
At the Casino Theater, a very non-memorable Boom Boom opened, in which Jeannette McDonald did a very non-memorable fandango with a chorus member named Archibald Leach. "Archie" of course, went on to legend status with the changed name of Cary Grant. It was, however, the end of the Casino's history. The theater that was the most "up-town" of theaters less than 50 years prior, had become the most "downtown". After a run of Faust by the American Opera Company, it closed and was razed to make way for the expanding garment district. The theater, heralded as the best expression of Moorish architecture in the country, now exists only in old photographs.

The morality police, the arbiters of public taste, received a blow in March of 1930. A hung jury caused the judge to dismiss obscenity charges against Mae West's Pleasure Man. This is the same judge who broke a gavel, pounding to keep order and erase from the record a question by Miss West about how a police officer could tell if he were addressing a young lady or a man in drag. When the show was raided, police arrested 52 members of the cast, several of whom were men in drag. This resulted in an amendment to the "Wales Padlock Law" in New York. In the future, only the writers and producers - and not the cast or crew of a show - would be held responsible for material deemed obscene or immoral.

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