Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.
Midtown's Belasco Theatre is not only an architecturally notable neo-Georgian structure?it has also garnered attention for its most spirited resident, the ghost of its namesake David Belasco. What better building to consider in the days leading up to Halloween?
Belasco, a theater actor, manager, dramatist, and director, had the 111 West 44th Street building designed by architect George Keister, and it opened in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre. The structure, brick with limestone trim and a crowning pediment, dentil cornice, fluted iconic pilasters, and quoins, was meant to evoke a temple. But even with the traditional exterior, the theater was quite distinct from its neighbors: Belasco, in addition to all of his other professional titles and accomplishments, was a pioneer in the American little theater movement.
The movement advocated that dramatic experience depended on close contact between the actors and the audience, as the Landmarks Preservation Commission's designation report for the building explains. Although it was smaller than its palatial predecessors, the theater's space was designed to offer an equally dramatic, yet more personal setting. And since he wanted his theater to be akin to the intimate experience one has in his/her own living room, Belasco chose the neo-Georgian style, perceived as domestic yet stately.
The building's interior is every bit as impressive as its façade. The vestibule and doors were designed by John Rapp, considered one of the finest theater designers of his day. The light fixtures and ceiling panels were provided by Tiffany Studios and the auditorium featured eighteen murals by the American Ash Can School artist Everett Shinn. In addition to staging performances, the theater became Belasco's laboratory to test out new conventions and technologies. Considered a "man of the century," he made sure that his theater was outfitted with the most current innovations, such as a sophisticated lighting and hydraulics system, an elevator stage, vast wing and fly space, and a special effects studio. In fact, his lighting system, the first of its kind, was so highly regarded that it was replicated by theaters worldwide. And like any person so invested in his or her craft, Belasco made sure he was never too far from the action; in 1909, he had a 10-room duplex penthouse apartment built for him that operated as both a living quarters and working space.
In 1910, three years after the theater's first-ever performance of a production of A Grand Army Man, Belasco renamed the theater after himself. Reportedly, he spent almost all of his time within the theater's walls, living in his duplex penthouse until his death in 1931?.and possibly thereafter.
Multiple sources claim that there have been consistent sightings of a spirit in Belasco's image and likeness, wearing a clerical collar and cassock, garb he frequently wore when he was alive and that left him with the nicknames the "Bishop of Broadway" and "the monk." Actors have reported seeing a lone dark figure watching from the balcony who would then attempt to speak to them after a show. Others reported the frequent sounds of footsteps, doors opening and closing at random, curtains swaying without being touched, and the elevator moving even when it wasn't in operation. If this is all too unbelievable to grasp, it should be noted that the Times once reported the possible existence of the ghost?the story held that a dog would growl at an invisible figure in the theater every day at precisely four p.m. because it felt the presence of Belasco's spirit. However, it may not be just the theater's namesake who inhabits the building as a ghost. It has been believed that a second ghost, referred to as the "blue lady," also inhabits the theater. Many assert that she is a companion of Belasco's, claiming that his love of women had followed him into the afterlife.
Even without the supernatural occurrences, the Belasco Theatre is a historic and highly revered building in its own right. It is the sixth-oldest existing Broadway theater and has been home to countless productions that have shaped American theater. In fact, the Belasco was where a young Marlon Brando made his theatrical debut in 1946, in a production of Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Café. It has always been used primarily for stage productions, with the exception of three years, from 1949 to 1952, when the theater was owned by the Shuberts and leased to NBC for use as a radio station. Today, the theater retains its original character and, like the prototypical temple it was modeled after, the theater has also become a sacred space for its patrons.