The Bishop of Broadway: Belasco Theatre


These photos are of the Belasco Theatre on 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Ave. It opened in 1907, the era of the “impresario”on Broadway when showmen built or rented there own theatres to produce their own productions.

Impresario David Belasco was known as “The Bishop” of Broadway because he wore clerical-like garb. He preached a decidedly different catechism, however: More realistic sets and more realistic acting than was the norm of his time. He pursued this belief in his overlapping work as producer, director, playwright and set designer. He also had a unique opinion on theatre design. He insisted on the most advanced stage technology of his day, including a permanently installed 65 channel dimmer rack, stage elevator and studio area for set building.

He also wanted the theater building to be warm and comfortable feeling to make patrons feel they were watching a production in their living rooms — albeit, absolutely breathtaking living rooms. As a consequence, the Belasco Theatre features deep colors and indirect lighting from spectacular Tiffany glass fixtures — including back-lit column capitals. Everett Shinn designed murals that show allegorical human fixtures that embody the various emotions Belasco hoped to evoke in his eponymous playhouse. The Belaso cost $750,000 to build, and originally sat 1,100.

The Belasco also featured a private elevator for “The Bishop” to whisk guests — including leading ladies — to his private apartment in the building. Despite his penchant for priestly clothing, there is no evidence that he practiced celibacy.

The Belasco’s inaugural production was A Grand Army Man (1907), with a cast that included Antoinette Perry, the namesake of the Tony Awards®. Over the next two decades, David Belasco produced and directed nearly 50 shows, many of which he also wrote. Not surprisingly, performers now familiar to film fans performed at The Belasco, even in the early years: The Warrens of Virginia (1907) featured Cecil B. DeMille and Mary Pickford, and in 1929 Humphrey Bogart starred in its a wild child.

In the late 1930s, the innovative Group Theatre called the Belasco home. Among Group Theatre actors and directors were such luminaries as Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Lee J. Cobb, Howard da Silva, Frances Farmer, John Garfield, Elia Kazan, Karl Malden, Sanford Meisner, and Sylvia Sidney.

The 1940s and 1950s at the Belasco included John Barrymore’s final Broadway appearance in My Dear Children (1940), Kiss Them for Me (1945) with Judy Holliday. After four years as a radio playhouse for NBC, the Belasco returned to theatrical legitimacy with The Solid Gold Cadillac(1953) starring Josephine Hull.

All the Way Home (1960) featured Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish and Colleen Dewhurst.

The late 1960s and 1970s brought both new styules of productions and economic stress to many Broadway theatres. In 1971, the ground-breaking Oh Calcutta! moved uptown to Broadway at The Belasco. A few years later, the British-import The Rocky Horror Show opened at the Theatre, only to close fairly quickly, but not before ripping off the lower set of the Belasco’s ornate boxes. Over the years, grey paint covered walls and even Everett Shinn’s allegorical murals. Many of the beautiful Tiffany light fixtures were damaged or removed.

As late as 2009, the Belasoc was also one of the last Broadway houses to still have what was once the customary second, and decidedly lesser entrance for patrons who could only afford the “cheap seats” in the upper balcony — a vestige of class-based discrimination that many Movie Palaces like the Loew’s banished.

At their zenith, there were over 80 Broadway theatres; changing times, economies, tastes and real estate values have brought that number down to about 40.

New York City’s landmark designation and protection of many of the older surviving Broadway theatres, a vastly improved show economy compared to the 1970s — including a huge increase in business from New York’s burgeoning tourism trade, generous regulations for the sale of air rights, and the practice of adding a theater maintenance fee to tickets has thankfully encouraged restoration on Broadway.

In 2009 the Schubert Organization undertook a major restoration. The results are seen in the photos here.

In the view of some, The Belasco shares the title of unique and beautiful of all the surviving old Broadway theatres with The New Amsterdam. And it also has something else in common with the New Am: the legend of a ghostly presence. David Belasco’s ghost was long said to inhabit his theatre, sometimes actually being seen sitting in an empty box seat, or sometimes just heard in the clanking of the door of his old, and long dormant, private elevator. But the ghost hadn’t been seen for years after Oh Calcutta!, and it seemed as if that play’s full frontal realism was even too much for the “Bishop” who had preached realism. But sighting of Mr. Balesco apparently resumed after 2000. Presumably, his is very pleased with the latest restoration.