Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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THE GHOST OF BROADWAY

Originally named the Stuyvusant Theatre, the Belasco (as it is known today) first opened this week 109 years ago back in 1907. It was with an operetta called A Grand Army Man, co-written by David Belasco, who had built it to house his own productions. As a popular producer-playwright, he aided its architect as well in designing a ten-room duplex penthouse apartment that adorned it. Renaming the theatre for himself in 1910, it proudly stands today ready for its next tenant, the seventh Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, this time with Sally Field as the indomitable Amanda Wingfield.

The Belasco boasts my favorite interior of all the Broadway theatres. Perhaps it's because for years the gorgeous frescos and murals were hidden under layers of black paint. So that when a painstaking restoration was undertaken a few years ago, what was revealed underneath was nothing short of staggering. Although as an usher told me at a recent visit, some of the genuine Tiffany lamps were pilfered at some point, nothing can take away from the Shubert Organization making sure the theatre has been brought back to an approximation of its original prominence.

The Belasco all dressed up and ready to raise its curtain.

Of its first production, A Grand Army Man, what detective work I conducted yielded few results. What I found out is that it featured Jane Cowl, forgotten today, but at one time one of the most famous names to light up a Broadway marquee. She was cast in what was her first leading role in the very next show at the Belasco, Is Matrimony a Failure?, followed then by the play that made her a star when The Gamblers opened at the Belasco in 1917. Over a thirty-seven-year career, she appeared in an impressive thirty-five Broadway shows. She was adept at Shakespeare, and among her favorite roles she played were Juliet, Viola and Cleopatra. With a friend, Jane Murfin, a playwright and screenwriter, they wrote under the name Allan Langdon Martin. Assuming they might be better treated by audiences and critics as one man, rather than as two women, they wrote four plays together, all of which starred Cowl.

The Belasco played host to the fabled Group Theatre in the 1930s. This radical group of actors, writers and directors had more failures than successes, but nothing could take away from their passion and commitment to speaking to the issues most on everyone’s minds during the Great Depression. There were no frivolous plays or musicals from this serious gang of artists that included the directors Elia Kazan (who also acted in their plays) and Harold Clurman;

and actors such as John Garfield, Frances Farmer, Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky and Lee J. Cobb. The Belasco saw the original productions of new and emerging playwrights like Clifford Odets with Golden Boy and Awake and Sing; Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End and Irwin Shaw’s The Gentle People.

After the dissolution of the Group Theatre, the forties didn’t bring many distinguished plays to the Belasco. There were a couple of long-running comedies in the fifties: George S. Kauffman’s last hit play, The Solid Gold Cadillac, written with Howard Teichman and George Axelrod’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter. For whatever reason, the 1960s only brought one hit, All the Way Home, Tad Mosel’s adaptation of James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Death in the Family. And when I began seeing plays as a teenager later in the decade, the Belasco was essentially off-limits to me as Oh! Calcutta!, the infamous nude revue parked there for about a year-and-a-half. I tried to buy a ticket (more than once, I think), but it was a no-sale.

Yup. This was the Playbill cover in 1969 for Oh! Calcutta!

After it closed, the Belasco was dark for much of the four-year period that was the heyday I attended the theatre. I had no idea at the time that Broadway was in such a bad way then. How could I? I was having too much fun seeing a play every week.

I didn’t see the inside of the Belasco until 1977 when David Mamet’s first Broadway play, American Buffalo (starring Robert Duvall), moved from the Ethel Barrymore for a brief two months before closing. Lackluster comedies and dramas dominated the eighties, while the nineties didn’t bring any better luck, even with the Shuberts giving the actor Tony Randall the theatre at a discounted rate to present plays with his National Acting Company. None of those productions made any money. A lot of the disinterest in the Belasco was due to its being located east of Broadway and closer to Sixth Avenue than any other theatre, making it a little off-the-beaten track. It’s only in recent years that it has become a desired house, mainly due to the scarcity of theatres available, making it more a default choice for many producers. Although I’m sure there are those who recognize its beauty and suitability and indeed seek it out without feeling their show is missing out on the action of being situated on 45th Street. The Belasco, with its warm and beautiful interior is a fine fit for plays (and even musicals). Ask those who saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had a very successful one-year-plus run entirely at the Belasco, or Mark Rylance and his acting company that played Richard III and Twelfth Night in repertory, which played to sold out crowds in 2014.

But no reporting on the Belasco would be complete without mentioning that it’s haunted, as the tantalizing title of this piece hinted. Many actors who have played there will swear that they have felt the presence of Mr. Belasco, who was known to have used his apartment above not only for bedding actresses, but for keeping a close eye on things below by way of a window that allowed him direct access to viewing what went on onstage.

Those who claim to have come in contact with the ghostly Belasco always have him dressed in his mandatory uniform: a cassock and clerical collar. Known as both “The Monk” and the “Bishop of Broadway,” this has undoubtedly helped to spot him more easily in the afterlife. Twenty years ago, when Ralph Fiennes and a British company of actors were appearing at the theatre in Hamlet, reports of odd sounds, curtains moving and sightings of Belasco were not uncommon.

"Faithfully David Belasco."

I am willing to make a bet that when Sally Field begins doing press for the upcoming Glass Menagerie someone is going to ask her whether she's come in contact with the ghost of Mr. Belasco. And don't be surprised if she says

that she has.

Ron Fassler's Up in the Cheap Seats, a historical memoir of Broadway, will be coming soon from Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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