clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The fallen five

The `Great Theater Massacre` and the war to remake Times Square

View of Times Square at night, early 1954. Visible signs include the Astor Theater marquee.
Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

On March 22, 1982, a crowd of about 170 people marched into a vacant lot just west of Broadway, between the shuttered Morosco and Helen Hayes theaters. Led by Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp, the group featured a number of famous faces, including Tony Award-winning actress Colleen Dewhurst, Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons, Treat Williams, Richard Gere, and Susan Sarandon. Carrying signs that read “Keep Broadway Alive!”, the group had come that morning in a last-ditch effort to save five historic Broadway theaters that were to be razed to make room for the Marriott Marquis hotel and a new pedestrian mall in Times Square.

Two and a half weeks earlier, United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had stayed the demolition of the theaters pending a review by the full court; however, just as the protesters were arriving that morning, the court vacated that stay. As soon as police moved the celebrities out of harm’s way (many were handcuffed for the cameras and then booked for trespassing), the wrecking ball crashed into the side of the Morosco.

“I felt like I was being hit,” Papp told the press. “I started to cry.”

The destruction of the “fallen five” theaters (if I may coin that term)—the Morosco, Helen Hayes, Bijou, Victoria, and Astor—was seen not merely as a failure of the city to preserve its culture and architectural heritage, but as the opening salvo in a war to remake Times Square.

Though the project had the backing of prominent figures within the industry and without, from the League of Broadway Theaters and Producers (now the Broadway League) to Mayor Ed Koch, it also received widespread condemnation. The new theater that was to be built inside the Marriott—its inclusion was a stipulation in the building’s development—was to be a gargantuan, 1,500-seat venue. Such a theater would be a “stab in the back to the legitimate theater on Broadway,” according to Christopher Reeve, one of the most vocal critics of the project. Not only was the hotel’s design “seriously flawed” for a theater that large, but as Reeve noted, “It'll take a massive hit, and unless there is a massive hit there isn't going to be any business. You're just going to have a dark, handsome new theater.”

The demolition wreckers’ equipment at the Morosco Theater.
Clarence Davis/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Others worried that the planned two-block pedestrian mall on Broadway could easily “become a place for vendors or three-card monte operators.”

And as for the mammoth, 50-story, 2,000-room hotel designed by Atlanta architect John Portman? As Paul Goldberger pointed out in the New York Times upon its completion in 1985, “it is to architecture as the Edsel was to automobiles—awkward, gangling and out of touch.”

As the dust settled from the “Great Theater Massacre of 1982,” the question on the lips of many New Yorkers was: When that wrecking ball hit the Morosco, did it also kill the heart of American theater?

New York’s theater scene—like the city itself—started downtown. Manhattan’s earliest performances likely took place in the many taverns that lined the streets of the old Dutch and English colonial town. By 1732, a warehouse on Nassau Street had been converted into the first official playhouse—the New Theatre—and The Recruiting Officer debuted there on December 11.

Over the next 150 years, theaters moved uptown with the general population. By the Civil War, Broadway in what we today call Soho was the center of the theater district. Theaters were so central to the city’s cultural life that they became a target of Confederate spies, who tried to burn down many of them on November 25, 1864, including the one in which John Wilkes Booth and his brothers were performing in a benefit to raise money for the Shakespeare statue in Central Park. In 1866, Niblo’s Garden—one of the most famous of these downtown houses—created the modern musical with their performance of The Black Crook.

As the city’s population began to inch toward Central Park, theaters followed suit. The first to be built in what is today’s Broadway Theater District was the Metropolitan Concert Hall, which opened in 1880. Located at the corner of 41st and Broadway, it marked an inauspicious start for a new theater district. As Ken Bloom writes in his Broadway encyclopedia, in just a seven-year period it was everything from a concert hall to “the Metropolitan Casino, Alcazar, Cosmopolitan Theater, a roller-skating rink and an exhibition hall.” In 1887, it was torn down.

Despite the Metropolitan’s shaky start, other theaters soon sprouted along Broadway in the West 30s and 40s. The Casino Theatre opened at Broadway and 39th Street in 1882, and the Metropolitan Opera was built in 1883 a block farther north; despite the building’s many problems (including terrible sightlines), the opera company would remain in that spot until the opening of Lincoln Center in the 1960s.

Not long after these early theaters proved that audiences were willing to trek uptown, the psychological barrier of 42nd Street was finally breached. In 1893, the American Theatre went up on 42nd Street just west of Longacre Square (as Times Square was then called), and in 1895, Oscar Hammerstein—the father of the great Broadway lyricist—opened the Olympia on the east side of the square between 44th and 45th Streets. While the Olympia was ultimately too large a venue to succeed—and it wiped out Hammerstein financially—it was the cornerstone of what would soon become known as “The Great White Way.” (Remnants of the Olympia were recently uncovered during interior renovations of the former Toys “R” Us flagship store.)

What really sparked the flood of theaters uptown was the coming of the IRT, the city’s first subway. Between the IRT’s groundbreaking in 1900 and its opening in October 1904—just as Longacre’s name was changed to Times Square—numerous theaters were constructed that still stand today, including three on the block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues: the Theatre Republic (now the New Victory), the New Amsterdam, and the Lyric. In 1903, the Lyceum opened on West 45th Street; today, it is Broadway’s oldest continuously operating stage. Also built in 1903 was the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street, which is now—after nearly five decades of non-theatrical use—becoming a Broadway stage once again. It reopened in February with a revival of Sunday in the Park with George starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

During its golden age between 1900 and 1930, nearly 80 Broadway houses would go up, including all of the “fallen five” theaters that were demolished to make way for the Marriott Marquis in 1982.

The oldest of those five was the Astor Theatre, which opened in 1906. Designed by George Keister—whose work can still be seen at the Selwyn (now American Airlines Theatre) on 42nd Street and, most famously, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem—the Astor was architecturally ahead of its time, housing both the theater and 12 stories of offices in an era when such mixed use was rare. In 1917, the Astor would be home to Why Marry? by Jesse Lynch Williams, the first drama to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Its most successful early play, though, was East Is West, a supposedly progressive interracial tale of forbidden love with a bizarre plot twist. (Spoiler alert: The Chinese woman who is in love with the white male lead turns out to also be white.)

The Astor’s next-door neighbor—called the Victoria when it was demolished, but originally known as the Gaiety—opened in 1909. According to Ken Bloom’s Broadway, architects Herts & Tallant, who’d previously designed the New Amsterdam Theatre, introduced two innovations at the Gaiety that would alter the shape of future Broadway theaters: cantilevered balconies and an orchestra pit.

Opening night of the movie ‘Grand Hotel’ on Times Square at Astor Theater, New York, 1932.
Bettmann/Getty Images

A cantilevered balcony provided the immediate advantage of obviating supporting columns, which obstructed views in the orchestra section. Creating an orchestra pit served a similar purpose. As Bloom writes, “This ‘invisible orchestra’ allowed the stage height to be lowered and sight lines of the first rows to be improved and brought forward.”

In 1918, the Gaiety hosted what would be Broadway’s longest-running show of the time, Lightnin’. The story of a brothel owner whose house of ill repute straddles the Nevada-California border (so that he can easily flee either jurisdiction), Lightnin’ ran for 1,291 performances. The lead actor, Frank Bacon, became such a huge star that the city threw him and the play’s cast a parade when it closed; led by Mayor John Hylan, the revelers marched down Broadway from the theater to Penn Station to send the cast off on their national tour.

Herts & Tallant next turned their attention to the short-lived Folies Bergère (which, at the time of its demise, was known as the Helen Hayes—not to be confused with the current theater named after the actress; that Helen Hayes Theatre was built in 1911 as the Little Theatre and rechristened in 1983, just a year after the Great Theater Massacre).

When it opened, the Folies was advertised as the “only theatre in America where one may dine and from the same chair witness an elaborate musical entertainment.” As Architecture and Building magazine noted on its opening in 1911, the facade was “Venetian in spirit … erected in glazed polychrome terra-cotta with tones of old ivory, turquoise blue and gold.” The seating plan was “altogether unique,” featuring cocktail tables throughout, each with “good sight lines to the stage.”

It was also a failure. Though Koster & Bial’s vaudeville theater on 34th Street had successfully featured a similar arrangement in its upper-tier seating, where food and drink were served, the Folies Bergère lasted only six months before transforming into the Fulton, a more traditional space.

The last two theaters torn down in 1982—the Bijou and the Morosco—were designed by Herbert J. Krapp for the Shubert Brothers and opened a few weeks apart in 1917. Krapp, who had once been on the staff at Herts & Tallant, became the in-house architect for the Shuberts, and today he has more Broadway houses to his name than any other architect; they include the Ambassador, Biltmore, Ethel Barrymore, and Imperial. In all, 15 of Broadway’s current array of 41 houses were either designed or redesigned by Krapp—and that’s not counting his other important theater district projects, such as the Sardi’s building and the Ed Sullivan Theater.

The Morosco, the larger of the two houses, was home to a few hits early on, particularly the drama Craig’s Wife, which won the Pulitzer in 1926. By contrast, the Bijou, with only 600 seats and a narrow stage, had trouble finding an audience and, according to Bloom, “never achieved much success.”

Nevertheless, Broadway was booming. The industry hit its peak in the 1927-28 season, when the 71 stages in the theater district hosted 257 openings. That same year, Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer in cinemas; while not technically the first “talkie,” the film paved the way for a new era in motion pictures and proved to be a seismic shift for both the stars of the silent age and for the live theater business.

By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, the fates of the “fallen five” theaters reflected the changing face of Broadway. Two years before the advent of talkies, the Astor had already become a cinema; the Gaiety soon followed suit, before being converted into a burlesque house in the early 1930s. The Bijou simply shuttered.

Only the Morosco and Fulton (as the Folies Bergère was now called) saw continued success. The Fulton—which was, perhaps, unknowingly responsible for the downturn in Broadway sales, having staged the play The Jazz Singer, on which the film would later be based, in 1925—continued to mount both musicals and straight plays, landing a hit in 1941 with Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace. The Morosco was home to George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott’s The Dark Tower (a flop) before mounting back-to-back hits with Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and John van Druten’s The Voice of the Turtle, which ran for 1,557 performances.

Morosco Theater, West 45th Street.
Historic American Buildings Survey/Courtesy Library of Congress

Meanwhile, the Broadway Theater District faded around them. In part, this was due to the economic realities of the Depression, but it also reflected the drain of theater talent as stars headed to Hollywood. On 42nd Street, the Lyric gave up the struggle and was converted to a movie house in 1933; the New Amsterdam followed in 1937. Other 42nd Street stages, like the Empire and the American, turned to burlesque, but an already struggling market was further hurt when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned burlesque in 1941. Many burlesque theaters turned to seedier entertainment, which quickened the coarsening of the Times Square area.

Still, there were bright spots at the “fallen five”: In 1949, the Morosco presented the premiere of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman; in 1955, the Fulton was renamed in honor of Helen Hayes, and the next year staged Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jason Robards and Fredric March. The Bijou, closed for decades, reopened in 1957 with O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten; in the 1960s it became a Japanese cinema, but then was converted back into a theater in the early 1970s. The Astor and Gaiety (now known as the Victoria) remained popular movie houses in these years.

However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s—despite the opening on Broadway of a wide variety of hit shows such as Hair, Pippin, Follies, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, and Fiddler on the Roof—there was no denying that Times Square was not New York’s strongest selling point. In 1972, the city under Mayor John Lindsay approached architect John Portman to build a giant hotel, shopping, and theater complex that would be “a major step in the rejuvenation of tawdry Times Square.”

The area, however, wasn’t merely tawdry. While Times Square was probably never as bad as proponents of Broken Windows theory (and MAD magazine) alleged, a proliferation of porno theaters, prostitution, and—as the decade wore on—drug sales was not the face New York wanted to present to the outside world. It didn’t help that in 1975—the worst year of the city’s fiscal crisis—the police were behind frightening “WELCOME TO FEAR CITY” flyers for tourists. Accurate or not, the campaign cannot have done much for Broadway ticket sales.

The Portman hotel plan was briefly derailed by the city’s lack of money, but the election of Ed Koch in 1977 brought a revival of the project, which he saw as the linchpin not just in the revitalization of Times Square, but of New York as a whole. As the hotel took shape, the concept of a pedestrian plaza was added, though it met with fierce criticism. Detractors argued that making a section of Times Square into a “Broadway Plaza” would not only disrupt vehicular traffic, it would—in the words of a 1977 New York Times editorial—create a “nice pimp and prostitute promenade.”

The Morosco theater marquee sign is salvaged from the wreck of the famous Broadway theater destruction site March 22, 1982, in New York City. The Morosco, the Helen Hayes and Bijou theaters were destroyed to make room for the Marriott Marquis Hotel.
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

By the time Joseph Papp and his protesters gathered in 1982 for their final effort to save the old theaters, the pedestrian plaza idea was gone—but so was any chance of preservation. When Portman’s hotel opened in 1985, it seemed like an impenetrable fortress, its lobby eight stories above street level. The goal of the hotel was no longer to integrate into Times Square, but to repudiate it. Paul Goldberger later asked Portman about why there was no relationship to the street. “Paul,” Portman replied, “there was nothing there to relate to. What am I going to relate to, Howard Johnson’s across the street?”

Meanwhile, before the Marriott was even finished, the administrations of Mayor Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo pushed for a 42nd Street Redevelopment plan to further revitalize the area. The plan called for four massive skyscrapers designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee to anchor the south side of Times Square. Nine theaters along 42nd Street would have been renovated and reopened as legitimate stages, and more hotels would have been built.

This plan from the 1980s failed for a number of reasons, not least of which was that the Johnson/Burgee towers would have overshadowed much of the rest of Times Square, and would have come at the price of the demolition of the old Times Tower—the building from which the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. In addition, as Jonathan Soffer points out in Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, the “Portman hotel protests embarrassed [Koch] into preserving the rest of the area’s theaters and its entertainment sector.”

The protests also pushed the Landmarks Preservation Commission into action. The same year the “fallen five” came down, the LPC named the New Amsterdam Theatre a landmark, which saved it from demolition; within five years, 25 stages had been landmarked, effectively halting the further destruction of the Theater District. At the same time, zoning regulations were rewritten to ensure that any renovations or new projects were supportive of Times Square’s theatrical heritage.

While the specifics changed, the Koch-Cuomo plan never actually died. The part of the plan that was to have renovated 42nd Street theaters was revived when, in 1993, David Dinkins signed a letter of agreement with the Disney corporation to invest in renovating the New Amsterdam and other properties on 42nd Street.

New hotels and office towers, such as Fox & Fowle’s 4 Times Square, began to pop up along the lower reaches of the square. Today, while the Marriott remains the second-largest hotel in the city, it is nearly indistinguishable from a sea of others in the area. When the hotel opened, the city’s visitors bureau “estimated that tourism accounted for 143,600 jobs.” That number now stands at 375,000, 15,000 of which were new in 2016.

Christopher Reeve’s fears of a corporatization of Broadway theaters weren’t wholly unfounded. However, it’s worth remembering that while Reeve thought that something as large as the Marquis Theatre—current home to On Your Feet!—would do more harm than good to legitimate theater, that house didn’t open with some Disney-fied blockbuster, but with a revival of the 1937 play Me and My Girl that ran for nearly three years.

Today, the furor over the two-block “Broadway Plaza” that was dropped in the 1980s seems almost quaint. The idea was revived and expanded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, which aggressively pedestrianized Times Square. While the new Times Square—which is mostly the work of the architecture firm Snøhetta—has had its fair share of criticism, it has also become a major tourist attraction; with more than 50 million visitors each year, Times Square is the city’s most visited spot. For those who didn’t know the area in the 1970s, it can be hard to picture pimps, prostitutes, three-card Monte dealers, or the rest of the sleaze without turning to Midnight Cowboy or Taxi Driver, in which Robert DeNiro takes Cybill Shepherd on a date to the Lyric during its heyday as a XXX theater.

It also has to be noted that while the “fallen five” protesters did shine a spotlight on historic theater preservation, not every house could be saved from the ravages of time. Today’s Lyric is actually a new theater that incorporates architectural details from the old house, as well as some from its neighbor, the Apollo, which was also beyond repair. The Empire was renovated into the the AMC Empire 25 movie theater, with the balconies and some decorative motifs incorporated into the lobby; the theater itself could not be saved.

More successful was the preservation of the Hudson, which is set to reopen. Was it saved by the wrecking ball that demolished the “fallen five”? Certainly that’s part of the story, though the 1903 theater had to survive many travails along the way.

The Hudson was the brainchild of producer Henry B. Harris, who would also open the Folies Bergère. After Harris famously lost his life on the Titanic, his widow had trouble keeping the theater financially viable. Like so many other stages, it closed during the Depression; after World War II, it would occasionally reopen as a legitimate theater, with a succession of owners. Perhaps most famously, it was owned by NBC and used as the home of The Tonight Show Starring Steve Allen. In 1961, NBC wanted to sell the theater to a new owner who planned to raze it for a parking garage. When that deal fell through, the theater space was saved, and for the next 50 years was used for everything from a porno palace to a disco to a hotel conference space.

While all those uses kept the Hudson on life support, I’d argue that the destruction of the Helen Hayes, Morosco, Folies Bergère, and the rest of the “fallen five” is what is ultimately responsible for resuscitating the theater. By pricking the Landmarks Preservation Commission into action, the “fallen five” protests ensured that the Hudson was among the theaters landmarked in that flurry of activity in the mid-1980s.

Moreover, if the success of the Marriott project is what began drawing so many visitors to the Theater District, then it shares the credit for the fact that today there’s enough demand for Broadway entertainment that an additional house can survive. Indeed, last season was—thanks to ever-inflating ticket prices (and Hamilton)—one of Broadway’s largest, both financially and in terms of seats filled. That is a state of affairs that many who wept at the destruction of the Morosco did not foresee. Part of me resists the idea that the “fallen five” were sacrificed for the greater good of the Theater District. It’s overly dramatic and it tries to shoehorn too many loose ends into a tidy narrative.

Then again—isn’t that the perfect story for Broadway?

Editor: Sara Polsky

Longform | From Curbed

How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis

Longform | From Curbed

The Neighbors Issue

Longform | From Curbed

Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform