Theatre yesterday and today



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In three weeks, the Hudson Theatre, after an extensive makeover and having not housed a Broadway show since 1968, will reopen with a limited engagement of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George. When that happens, the Hudson will officially reclaim its place as the oldest theatre on Broadway (the New Amsterdam and the Lyceum were built at the same time, each opening within a month of the Hudson).

As Ethel Barrymore starred in the first show at the Hudson,

this photo could have indeed been taken in1903 when it opened.

That the Hudson has remained standing is something of a miracle. Save for one theatre still waiting to be refurbished, it is the last remnant of the 42nd Street restoration project that gave us the American Airlines, the Victory and the Lyric after years of decline and decrepitude. With the Hudson set to rejoin the fray, there are no more houses left to restore to glory. These architectural gems, that once numbered over a hundred, used to be scattered over a more broadly defined theatre district in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1969, at the time I began my weekly theatregoing as a teenager, I can recall the announcement that the Hudson was closing its doors as a legit theatre, and was deeply dismayed to see it quickly turn into a porno house. I would ruefully pass by and see its marquee with titles like Boys in the Attic — actually in on the joke — as I well aware that Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic had opened there in 1960.

Amazing what you can find on Google Images, isn’t it?

After this ignoble period as a porn theatre, the Hudson was transformed into nightclub for a brief period and renamed the Savoy. After it closed up in 1983, the Hudson constantly faced the wrecking ball and it’s really only by chance that it was never torn down. When a hotel was built next door, it was forced to incorporate the Hudson into its plans without touching it, due to its exterior and interior being designated historical landmarks in 1987. This was due to the uproar in 1982, when the Morosco, Helen Hayes and Bijou Theatres were all demolished in one fell swoop to make way for the Marriott Hotel between 45th and 46th Streets on Broadway. Yes, the Marquis Theatre was built to replace the three theatres, but those that saw shows in those houses still mourn their passing. No modern theatre has ever been able to replicate the warmth and beauty of these old haunts.

Interior of the Hudson Theatre. Not bad, right?

While researching this post, I discovered that the original owner of the Hudson, Henry B. Harris, went down on the Titanic, perishing in its fatal sinking. But his wife, Rene, escaped on one of the last lifeboats and subsequently managed the theatre after her husband’s death, making her one of the very first women producers on Broadway. Once offered $1,000,000 for the theatre, Mrs. Harris turned it down, only to see her fortunes vanish like so many others in the stock market crash of 1929. She was forced to sell it for a tenth of the price, when a bank purchased it in a fire sale for $100,000.

Eventually CBS bought it and began broadcasting radio and TV shows from there. Please note: Elvis Presley once sang “Hound Dog” on its stage. It became a legit house once again in 1963, only to go out with a whimper and not a bang five years later. Its last tenant was a comedy called Mike Downstairs that ran three nights. I always wished I’d seen it, not because it starred Dane Clark (Dane Clark? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? …), but because it would have allowed me to see a show there. I was intent from the time I started my weekly excursions into Manhattan to get inside every Broadway Theatre. It wound up taking a really long time, too. It was eight years after I started when I finally saw a show at the Belasco, the last one on my list. It was a doozie, too: The 1977 original production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo with Robert Duvall. Yes, it was as good as you might imagine.

Now I’ll finally get my chance to see a show at the Hudson as I already have my ticket in hand for Sunday in the Park with George. How about you?

Opening March 23rd at the Hudson Theatre

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.