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.

Response to Mayor Fulop’s Huffington Post Op-Ed

The story of the Loew’s Jersey Theatre, including what’s happening now, is very much a study in progressive urbanism and the struggle for the arts in our cities . . . but not necessarily in the way Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop wants you to think. 

In his eagerness to be seen as a progressive reformer, the Mayor wrote an article that repeated many of the points that were first defined 27 years ago by Friends of the Loew’s when we launched our grass-roots effort to save the then-shuttered landmark Loew’s from official City policy that said tearing the Theatre down would be good for Jersey City’s redevelopment.  At the time, we explained that the arts are a pivotal force in transforming a mere locality into a community.  We spoke of the importance of giving residents, especially young people, the opportunity to discover the joy and vitality of the arts in their hometown and of the need to provide diverse and affordable programming for all.  And we pointed to cities such as Columbus, Atlanta and Cleveland, to name just a few, that had sparked urban renaissance by restoring their old theatres as non-profit arts centers. 

The power of our arguments proved persuasive with Jersey City’s people, and so we eventually were able to convince the City government to buy the Theatre it once condemned, purportedly with the goal of reopening it as an arts center.   In the long years since, FOL has determinedly pursued the vision of the Loew’s as a locally managed arts center serving our community and region, but often with little help and sometimes the outright opposition from past Jersey City Administrations.  Fortunately, we have been able to draw on community spirit, grass-roots-type initiative and an extraordinary display of volunteerism to forge a unique path to reopen and operate the Loew’s.

It’s certainly a good thing when politicians like Mayor Fulop adopt the initiatives of community-based groups like FOL.  But it is something else when a political leader uses long-stated goals to promote a decidedly different objective.   What the Mayor doesn’t say is that while he touts as his own the forward looking-ideas for the arts in Jersey City that we first laid out, since coming to office in a campaign in which he criticized the failings and shortsightedness of his predecessor, he has been downplaying or outright denigrating the work FOL did for years to overcome some of those very same failings and pursue the goal of the Loew’s as a nonprofit arts center. 

Fulop’s predecessor simply failed to keep commitments the City had made under his predecessor in 2004 – which are a matter of public record — to find a modest amount of funding to make some basic safety and fire code repairs to the Loew’s that the City itself acknowledged as absolutely necessary to allow for greater use of the Theatre.  Similarly, the administration that Fulop ousted never provided the help the City had promised to ensure FOL could avail independent, professional arts management expertise in planning its own professional development and the further growth of the Loew’s as a non-profit arts center. 

The idea wasn’t that the City would provide all the money needed to renovate the Loew’s or grow FOL.  Far from it.  Rather, the City’s help — both in terms of what it would buy and the commitment it would demonstrate – was to put FOL in the position to begin the long process that other non-profit arts centers have undergone of professional growth, master planning and seeking programming partners, as well as fundraising and grantsmanship to pay both for additional programming and even more building upgrades.  Conversely, the City’s failure to keep its modest commitments to FOL and the Theatre it owns has badly undercut FOL’s case for funding from major donors and grants makers.

In spite of the failures by the City, FOL has kept the Theatre open, albeit in a more limited way than if the City had kept its commitments.  Over the years, we’ve presented local arts, student programming, community service events, multi-cultural programs, classic and independent film, and a limited number of popular concerts, plus revenue generating private functions . As a matter of fact, just a few months ago, “TimeOut NY”, a major A&E publication in our region, called going to the Loew’s Jersey one of the best things to do in New Jersey.

Now that he’s Mayor, instead of seizing the opportunity to build on what FOL has already accomplished with so little help by trying to harness the power of government to work with us — as one might have expected from a progressive leader – or, at the least, merely agreeing to keep the City’s long-standing commitments to FOL that his predecessor broke, Steve Fulop is trying mightily to make people believe that the vision of a locally managed, non-profit arts center can’t work.  Instead, he wants people to think he is demonstrating leadership by abandoning that ideal and proposing to hand control of the Loew’s over to a for-profit consortium along with up to $40 million in public-sourced funding for renovations to support that consortium. 

This is not a LaGuardia-esque government approach to promoting the arts in the lives of Jersey City residents by ensuring access to diverse, affordable arts programming.  It can’t be:  The lead partner in the consortium is AEG, one of the nation’s biggest commercial, for-profit promoters.  Another partner is a privately owned for-profit art gallery that specializes in very high end, expensive fine art shows and private events.  Their main objective is to make money – it has to be, because they are organized on a for-profit basis. 

To try to attach a non-commercial element to this primarily for-profit structure, the Mayor’s plan purports to require 30 “community/local performances/events” a year, although no dates, times or lengths are prescribed.  To accomplish this, the for-profit consortium has involved a local university, which is a fine school but which, over the years, has had only limited involvement in the larger Jersey City arts scene (one exception being, ironically, the annual student film showcase FOL co-presents with the university at the Loew’s).  Let’s be clear:  Programming and internships from the university in a nonprofit-led arts center would be very welcome indeed, but the university’s focus must quite properly be on its distinct mission.  But the mission of supporting the local arts scene and providing diverse, affordable arts programming to our wider community is something quite different.  That is the mission of a nonprofit arts center .

I should note that the Mayor’s plan also suggests it will allow 20 performances a year by FOL.  But this just shows how little his approach understands arts management: FOL is a non-profit corporation whose mission is the management and growth of the Loew’s as arts center in a landmark theater.  Like other non-profit art center managements, we support ourselves though donations solicited for this larger purpose (including large amounts of volunteered time), and by presenting some events which do earn income (including sponsorships) to help support other programming that does not,  as well as providing some support for the overall operation. 

It doesn’t take an expert in arts management to anticipate that even under the best of circumstances, the for-profit imperative of the consortium Mayor Fulop wants will inexorably push all other kinds of events to the margins, especially if, as the Mayor has suggested, the consortium will be under pressure to give the City money to pay back the tens of millions he anticipates providing.

Artistic diversity, affordability, support for local arts, community interest are all goals that spring from something other than the profit motive.  Put simply, it’s the difference between public TV and commercial TV, between the Beacon Theatre and BAM.  And it’s why so many of America’s most vibrant arts centers are run as non-profits. 

Which is not to say that many of those non-profit arts centers do not partner with commercial promoters like AEG to provide a certain amount of their kind of programing.  Most – including FOL – do,  but in the larger context of our broader mission.

In his article, the Mayor talks about wanting to foster vibrant arts opportunities, create a hub focused on broad community programming for our diverse city, and give everyone, especially those less-well off, the joy of taking in concerts, shows, exhibits.  Interestingly, those are pretty much the objectives outlined in the plan to run the Loew’s as a non-profit arts center that are contained in the lease between FOL and the City.

Mayor Fulop’s excuse for abandoning the plan of operating the Loew’s as a non-profit arts center is his claim that FOL has not done what we were supposed to do.  But frankly, the record does not support this. At the least, in the light of the City’s failure to uphold its end of the plan, our work has shown the strong potential for the goal of a nonprofit arts center to succeed if the City works with us.   And there’s even a safety net in the plan for the City.  In the 63 months after the City finally provides the support it is supposed to, FOL is expected to meet a variety of benchmarks; if we do not, the City can look to another approach. 

FOL asked Mayor Fulop why he isn’t willing to at least try the ideal  of City government  helping a locally rooted non-profit develop our iconic landmark Loew’s as a nonprofit arts center with strong local management and programming that ranges from local arts to major concerts.  His answer to us was that he didn’t have the time.  Perhaps that’s because the Mayor is trying to attract developers to Journal Square, and thinks that being able to talk about such a marquee name as AEG will help his cause.  But the Mayor should look to cities such as Cleveland, Columbus, Providence and even Newark, where urban  revitalization has been sparked around successful nonprofit arts centers.  Because such centers offer the greatest diversity of programming, they attract the widest diversity of people to the areas around them, and this creates the most vitality. And as noted, a company such as AEG can certainly be a part of that larger mission.  A more progressive approach, therefore, would be for Jersey City to introduce FOL to interested developers, and encourage those developers to find ways to support our work to make the Loew’s the world-class nonprofit arts center, attracting even more people to Journal Square and therefore further assisting the area’s revitalization.  

Colin Egan, Director, Loew’s Jersey City / FOL
(Full disclosure:  I am a founder of FOL and one of  two paid employees FOL currently has; my salary is $45,000 a year; no benefits.  The other employee has the same compensation.)