Booth's Theatre

Booth's Theatre was a theatre in Manhattan built by actor Edwin Booth.

History

In 1869, Edwin Booth, then one of the world's most distinguished stage tragedians and arguably America's greatest Hamlet, opened his theatre, Booth's Theatre, in Manhattan on the southeast corner of Twenty-Third Street and Sixth Avenue. Booth had been drawn to the idea of erecting his own theatre when a tragic fire of 1867 consumed The Winter Garden Theatre - Booth's usual performing home in New York - and with it much of Booth's personal wardrobe. The new theatre was to be one of the finest of its time, called in the press "A fitting temple for the presentation of Shakspearean drama." ["The New York Times", December 23, 1881.]

Booth's Theatre remained Booth's new performing home for several years, during which time Booth and his elder brother Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., produced productions of the classics and hosted guest artists, such as Joseph Jefferson in his popular "Rip Van Winkle". Finally, due in part to bad management, Booth lost the theatre to bankruptcy in 1874, and "never again participated in theatrical management." [William Winter, "Life and Art of Edwin Booth". (London: MacMillan and Co., 1893) pp. 46-97.] In 1883 the theatre was converted into a department store, which was demolished in 1965. Presently, the land is occupied by a parking lot.

Construction

On April 8, 1868, after the removal of several old structures and blasting out an unexpected "stone ledge" at the corner of Twenty Third and Sixth Avenue, Edwin Booth, after "Masonic observances", laid the corner stone for his new theatre. [Winter, p. 48.] The theatre was made of granite in the Second Empire style, with an impressive front facing north on Twenty Third Street of one hundred and fifty feet in length. An additional wing extending to Sixth Avenue to the west, housed construction shops, studios and additional rooms. North to south, the theatre was one hundred feet, and stood at a height of one hundred and twenty feet, topped with a mansard roof, including three towers. Under the side walk along Twenty Third Street was the carpenter's shop, as well as a boiler-room with a steam engine used to heat the theatre through extensive hot-air pipes. The entire theatre was heated and cooled with forced air.

Several arched doors lead to a grand vestibule, where a large statue of Edwin Booth's father, the great Shakespearean actor, Junius Brutus Booth, by the sculptor Gould, greeted the audience. The floor was Italian marble, the ceiling was covered with frescoes. [Winter, p. 49.] In the theatre, a large chandelier, lit by gas-jets ignited by electricity, hung above the auditorium. Marble pillars, adorned with statues, surrounded the box seats. In the center, above the proscenium arch stood a statue of Shakespeare by the Italian sculptor Signor G. Turini. Portrait busts of David Garrick, Edmund Kean and other great actors adorned the proscenium arch.

The stage itself was equipped with the most modern stage machinery then in use. The deck of the stage had double-floors. Four spiral staircases surrounded the stage leading to four fly galleries. Scenery was raised and lowered by hydraulic rams under the stage.

These were but some of the innovations in the theatre that made the theatre an architectural marvel in New York. Others included one of New York's first sprinkler systems for fire prevention, and, backstage, sets of hydraulic ramps were used to raise moving bridges and platforms to change scenery. In addition, stage lights - for the first time in America - could be completely extinguished both in the auditorium and on the stage during the performance through the use of an electric spark ignition system. This facilitated being able to plunge the entire theatre - both stage and auditorium - into complete darkness during a performance of Booth's Hamlet. [Winter, pp. 47-48.]

Booth's Theatre, modeled after the finest theatres of Europe, and using American inventiveness, was a marvel of technology and a palace of theatrical pleasure.

Opening night

", starring leading actress Mary F. McVicker as Juliet and Booth as Romeo, supported by a "full and efficient company" of actors (see program, right). The program also noted that "The tragedy will be produced in strict accordance with historical propriety, in every respect, following closely the text of Shakespeare. [First page of the program for the opening night performance of "Romeo and Juliet" at Booth's Theatre, February 3, 1869.]

Opening night was called "a great event in theatrical circles" by the "New York Times." ["The New York Times", December 23, 1881.] Seats for the opening performance were sold at public auction for a total of $10,000.

The popular run of "Romeo and Juliet" lasted ten weeks, earning nearly sixty thousand dollars, then considered an exceptional triumph. Two years before Booth had played Hamlet to McVicker's Ophelia at the famous McVicker's Theatre in Chicago, leading to his invitation for her to play opposite Booth in New York. McVicker's performance at Booth's Theatre marked her New York stage debut. That same season she played Desdemona to Booth's Othello at Booth's Theatre, and, on May 29, 1869, made her farewell performance in that role. A little over a week later, Booth married McVicker, and then returned to acting at his theatre. [Ruggles, p. 242.]

For five years - called "five brilliant but disastrous seasons" in the "New York Times" ["The New York Times", December 23, 1881.] - Edwin Booth struggled to make his theatre a profitable enterprise, but it was not to be. Despite his performing on the stage, and booking some of the leading talent at Booth's Theatre, such as his friend Joseph Jefferson, it was not possible to pay the bills. As William Winter, Booth's friend and eventual biographer wrote:

:Booth was a dreamer; and in every part of his life as it was known to me during an intimacy extending over a period of about thirty years, I saw the operation of Hamlet's propensity to view all things as transitory and immaterial, and to let everything drift. He was happier as an actor than as a manager." [Winter. p. 78.]

Try as he might, Booth could not make his theatre into a viable business enterprise. Once again he turned to touring with his successful productions of Hamlet, Othello, and Cardinal Richelieu, to raise funds he sent back to New York, but nothing could produce enough money to keep the doors of Booth's Theatre open. [Ruggles, p. 245.] He relied on the advice and "experience of others" to run the theatre, but it was not in his nature. The press, in writing of Booth's departure from managing his own theatre, suggested that "it is true that the frames have sometimes outshone the pictures," meaning that the spectacle of lavish sets and costumes at times upstaged the performances of the actors in Booth's productions, expecially, apparently, the performances of the women. ["The New York Times", June 13, 1873.] Even when shows were financial successes, such as the revival of the popular "The Little Detective" and the hit drama "Little Nell and the Marchioness" both starring the renowned Charlotte Crabtree in 1871, the theatre was still in debt. Finally, in 1874, only five years after the triumphant opening "Romeo and Juliet", Booth lost the theatre to bankruptcy, and "never again participated in theatrical management." [Winter, 63-64.]

Closing

After being sold by Booth, the theatre was owned by several different managers, including the theatrical impresarios Augustin Daly, Tomasso Salvini and Dion Boucicault.

Despite the appearances by important talent of the times, such as Dion Boucicault Jr., who made his stage début in his father's play, "Louis XI", Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle, Polish born actress Helena Modjeska as Juliet, and the French-born "devine Sarah" - Sarah Bernhardt - who appeared in her acclaimed production of "Adrienne Lecouveur" in 1881, and despite successful runs of comedies, such as Bronson Howard's smash hit "Love in the Green Room", and spectacular productions featuring lavish historical recreations such as Shakespeare's "Henry V" (see photo, left), the theatre could not sustain itself. [Ruggles, p. 301.]

Ironically, Booth's Theatre ended as it began, with Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". The last performance at Booth's Theatre was played by the famed actress Helena Modjeska, portraying the role of Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet" in 1883. The production was given as a benefit performance (as was common in the era), for Andrew Boyd, beloved janitor of the building - a fitting farewell, perhaps, to one of New York's great theatres. After the production closed, the building was turned into a large department store. [Ruggles, p. 310.]

On December 33, 1881, a headline in the "New York Times" read:

::BOOTH'S THEATRE SOLD::THE PLAY HOUSE TO BE MADE A DRY GOODS STORE

:Booth's Theatre was sold yesterday for $550,000, less than half its original cost. The building will be devoted by its new owners to business purposes, and it is probable that as early as next May the work of altering it will be begun, although it may be continued as a theatre for another year. It is rather a singular coincidence that one of the gentlemen interested in the present purchase of the property should be a gentlemen who sold the original site to Mr. Booth when he conceived of the idea of erecting a theatre that should be a fitting temple for the presentation of Shakespearean drama. ["The New York Times", December 23, 1881.]

The building lived on as the McCreery & Co. department store, and was finally demolished in 1965 to make room for a parking lot.

In December of 1878, Booth wrote an open letter in "The Christian Union", in which he observed:

:If the management of theatres could be denied to speculators, and placed in the hands of actors who value their reputation and respect their calling, the stage would at least afford healthy recreation, if not, indeed, a wholesome stimulus to the exercise of noble sentiments. But while the theatre is permitted to be a mere shop for gain, - open to every huckster of immoral gim-cracks, - there is no other way to discriminate between the pure and base than through the experience of others.

:Yours truly, "EDWIN BOOTH", December, 1878. [Quoted in William Winter, "Life of Edwin Booth". p. 80.]

References


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