Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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BROADWAY EAST OF BROADWAY

Of the forty current Broadway theatres, only five are located east of Broadway and 7th Avenue. The Cort on 48th, the Lyceum on 45th, the Belasco on 44th and, also on 44th, the Hudson (only recently reopened after a 49-year hiatus). Lastly, there's the Stephen Sondheim on 43rd, which occupies the space where a theatre called the Henry Miller once stood. Built in 1918, nearly a hundred years ago, the theatre is no longer standing—and this is where it gets a bit confusing—because in 2009 there was a gala re-opening of the Henry Miller Theatre. Here's the story:

When I began my weekly trips into Manhattan as a teenager back in 1969, the Henry Miller was already a ghost of its former self. Named for a famed actor-director-producer, upon his death in 1926 it was run by his son Gilbert for many years. Then, after his death, his widow sold it in 1967. But even in its hey day (due to its location), it was always considered a bit off the beaten track, forever contending with competition from theatres that sported far better locations. At the time of its sale, Broadway was suffering from low attendance, so there wasn't much incentive to do much with the Miller, save for its value as a potentially good real estate investment. Sold to the developer Seymour Durst (yes, the father of Robert Durst, famous as the infamous probable murderer and star of the Netflix documentary, The Jinx), it just sat there for awhile—empty and unloved.

The Henry Miller Theatre, once upon a time.

Again, since the Miller was situated east of Broadway, between 7th and 6th Avenue, I didn't have much occasion to walk past it. I also didn't want to. I always felt safest between Broadway and 8th, where the majority of the theatres were located. Buttressed by the crowds, I didn't like going east ... and don't get me started on the terror of going west. Whenever I had to cross 8th Avenue to see a show at the Martin Beck (now the Al Hirschfeld), my heart was in my mouth. Honestly, if you've watched the new HBO series The Deuce, which takes place in 1971 at exactly the time I was traversing Times Square all on my own at fourteen, it gives a harrowing account of why my fears were not misplaced.

On most matinee days I would eat my lunch at Nathan's on the corner of 43rd and 7th, and was well aware of the state of the Henry Miller a few doors up. I mourned that I might never get to see what it looked like on the inside, as in those days (same as today), I was as much in love with every one of the playhouses I entered as I was with the theatre itself. The marquee for the Miller's final tenant, a tepid comedy titled But, Seriously…, remained unlit and unwelcoming since the day it closed in 1967 after just four performances. All that was left to admire of the Miller was its beautiful outer structure; a red-brick facade and a trio of arched windows offset by carved depictions of the Greek Muses.

Then one day, while having my weekly hot dog, I noticed a different marquee was up and that it was boasting a new name for the theatre: The Park-Miller. But what kind of title was Trick and Trade anyway?

Well, "Male Nude Shorts" certainly gave it away. The Henry Miller was now a gay porn house—and, as my research suggests, a successful one at that. In fact, its all-male fare managed to out-gross some of the final shows that played the Miller. According to author Hilary Radner, in her book, Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960’s, at an admission price of $5, the Park-Miller’s weekly box office take was $30,000, conceivably more than one of the usual short runs at the Henry Miller’s, such as 1968's Portrait of a Queen (not to be confused with one of the Park-Miller's more salacious titles, but actually a play about Victoria Regina).

For a couple of years, titles like Sex and the Single Gay, adorned the Park-Miller marquee before it was transformed into a discotheque. After a $2 million renovation, it re-opened as Xenon at the height of the late 70s-early 80s disco craze. Then, once its cocaine-fueled patrons burned themselves out, the Miller became a nightclub called Shout!, which lasted about six years.

It wasn’t until 1998 that it was brought back to life as a legitimate theatre again. The non-profit Roundabout Theatre was granted a twenty-year lease for exclusive use of the theatre to house its own shows, or rent it out for purposes of other commercial productions as it might see fit. They hit it big with a hit revival of Cabaret, starring Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson. No effort was made to clean it up in any way (the producers specifically wanted a sleazy setting), and audiences probably got a bit more sleaze than they were prepared for. Tables were installed down front, in addition to traditional seats, and a perfectly marvelous fabrication of Berlin’s “Kit Kat Klub" aided the show immeasurably. The Miller proved a perfect setting for the sell-out show, and just as it was settling into what promised to be a nice long run, a crane fell on the theatre by way of the construction of a skyscraper being built next door. Forced to evacuate, Cabaret fortunately found a new home at another resurrected former disco, Studio 54, where it ran for nearly six years.

There was only one more occupant at the Miller before it shuttered for good and it was one that demanded equal squalor to that of Cabaret. It was the Tony Award-winning musical Urinetown, where patrons' shoes once again stuck to the floor; deemed appropriate for the dystopian, near-apocalyptic atmosphere that defined Urinetown.

After the crane accident, with the theatre now in a horrific state of disrepair, Bank of America teamed with the Durst Organization to build a 55-story office tower. And though over the years many Broadway theatres have been declared landmarks (and therefore unable to be torn down), the commission in charge of such decisions determined that only the Miller's facade should be protected, and not the theatre itself. However, strict rules were set in place that forced a creation of a space that must be utilized as a working theatre. This left the architects free to replace the theatre with their own design and in 2004, the Miller was torn down.

The 1998 crane collapse on West 43rd that killed one woman and injured a dozen.

Today, all that remains of the original structure is its bricks, windows and Greek muses, making one feel as if the theatre never left the street. When it reopened in 2009 with a poorly received Roundabout revival of Bye, Bye Birdie,, it became the first new house built since 1986, as well as the first with an environmentally sustainable design. Then in 2010, in a surprise ceremony, it was rechristened the Stephen Sondheim, honoring the composer’s 80th birthday. Under its new name, the theatre opened with Paul Reubens starring as his eponymous character in The Pee-Wee Herman Show (but, seriously…) for a limited Christmas engagement.

The design works, doesn't it?

Today it houses the hit Carole King musical, Beautiful. Long may they both reign.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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