At This Theatre: New Amsterdam Theatre
The opening production on October 26, 1903, was an appropriately lavish staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring music by Mendelssohn and star turns by popular performers of that day, Nat C. Goodwin and William Farnum. The production was only a moderate success, with the best reviews going to the theatre itself, for its classic splendor.
The 11-story building contained two theatres, including one on the roof, and the most elaborate lobby, staircases, murals, lounges, and even elevator doors seen in any Broadway theatre. The media devoted unprecedented space to its glories. The predominant color scheme of the theatre was green, mother of pearl, and mauve. The seating capacity was 1,750 in the orchestra, two balconies, and 12 boxes.
Among the great stars of that era who appeared on the New Amsterdam stage were James O’Neill (Eugene O’Neill’s father), Lillian Russell, comics Weber and Fields, Grace George, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and Richard Mansfield.
Musicals and classic repertory were the staples of this theatre in its early years. George M. Cohan wrote book, music, and lyrics for his 1906 musical Forty-five Minutes From Broadway, which starred Fay Templeton, Victor Moore, and Donald Brian. Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra had its world premiere in 1906 and starred Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Gertrude Elliott. Winchell Smith and Byron Ongley’s comedy Brewster’s Millions arrived on New Year’s Eve 1906 and ran for just 64 performances but was constantly revived.
The New Amsterdam’s first real megahit arrived on October 21, 1907, when Franz Lehar’s beloved operetta The Merry Widow opened, starring Ethel Jackson and Donald Brian. With its enchanting waltz, The Merry Widow played here for 416 performances in an age when any show that played more than 100 performances was considered a hit.
In 1910 a melodrama called Madame X opened here and became a favorite for revivals and movie versions.
Another popular operetta, Madame Sherry, was booked here in 1910, starring Lina Abarbanell, and ran for 231 performances. It was followed by an even bigger hit, The Pink Lady, starring Hazel Dawn and William Elliott, which delighted audiences for 312 performances.
A spectacular adaptation by William Young of Lew Wallace’s epic novel Ben Hur opened in 1911, starring Richard Buhler and Edward H. Robbins. There were many productions of this classic at different theatres at this time. Treadmills were used for the exciting chariot-race scene.
Two operettas were popular here in 1912: Reginald De Koven’s Robin Hood and the American premiere of Lehar’s The Count of Luxembourg.
On June 16, 1913, an event occurred that came to define the New Amsterdam, and, indeed, an entire era. Florenz Ziegfeld began producing his annual Ziegfeld Follies revues at this theatre. He had produced six of them before at other theatres, but the jewel-like New Amsterdam seemed to have been custom-made for these superlative revues, which showcased the funniest comedians, the sweetest singers, the most sparkling of melodies by the era’s top songwriters, and the most stunning American beauties in the most gorgeous and scanty gowns on the most opulent sets. The annual editions were the last word in class and talent, and their magic resonated years after the lights went out on the series, in shows like Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and Cy Coleman’s The Will Rogers Follies. The New Amsterdam was the natural home of the Ziegfeld Follies. The 1913 Follies had Leon Errol, dancer Ann Pennington, and Frank Tinney in the cast and played for 96 performances.
The Roof Theatre of the New Amsterdam was first called Aerial Gardens, but when Ziegfeld started presenting his Midnight Frolic there in 1915, it was changed to Dance de Follies. The space was successively rechristened the Dresden Theatre and the Frolic Theatre in later years. This theatre featured a glass promenade on its second level, overhanging the first, and Peeping Toms got their thrills looking up for an intimate view of the girls sashaying above. The Roof Theatre was renovated in 2008 as offices for Disney Theatricals, but Disney restored and retained both the proscenium and the glass promenade, though the latter now uses demurely clouded glass.
Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts was a hit in 1913, and so was Hazel Dawn in a musical adapted from the French, called The Little Cafe. The Ziegfeld Follies of 1914 starred Ed Wynn, Bert Williams, Leon Errol, and the dynamic dancer Ann Pennington and played for 112 performances.
On December 8, 1914, a dance sensation opened at the New Amsterdam. It was Irving Berlin’s first complete score for Broadway, in a ragtime musical called Watch Your Step, subtitled A Syncopated Musical Show. The program stated: “plot — if any — by Harry B. Smith.” The show, which was really a revue, starred that great dance team of this era, Vernon and Irene Castle. One of the songs from the score, the counterpoint number “Play a Simple Melody,” eventually became a standard. Frank Tinney and a Follies beauty, Justine Johnson, were also in the cast. The jazzy musical played for 175 performances.
The Ziegfeld Follies of 1915 boasted a number of outstanding attributes. It was the first Follies with sets by the famed European designer Joseph Urban (who would later design the glorious Ziegfeld Theatre, the Central Park Casino, and the St. Regis Hotel Roof). The revue starred W. C. Fields, Ina Claire, Ed Wynn, Bert Williams, Leon Errol, and Billie Burke (Ziegfeld’s second wife).
In 1916 Sir Herbert Tree and Company played Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, The Merchant of Venice, and The Merry Wives of Windsor at this theatre. The company included Constance Collier, Henrietta Crosman, and Elsie Ferguson. This was followed by the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916, which had Fanny Brice (in her third Follies appearance), surrounded by the revue’s usual beauties. Among the Ziegfeld glorified girls: the actress Marion Davies, who also gained fame as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst.
Miss Springtime, a 1916 musical by Guy Bolton and Emmerich Kálmán, starring Ada Mae Weeks and Charles Meakins, delighted audiences for 224 performances. The Ziegfeld Follies of 1917 was distinguished by the first appearance of Will Rogers in the series, surrounded by Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, W. C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins, Lilyan Tashman, and Ann Pennington.
The Cohan Revue of 1918 had book, music, and lyrics by George M. Cohan, with additional songs by Irving Berlin. Starring Nora Bayes, Charles Winninger, and Frederic Santley, it ran for 96 performances. Sydney Greenstreet and Laura Hamilton appeared next in a musical called The Rainbow Girl, by Rennold Wolf and Louis A. Hirsch, which played for 87 performances.
Will Rogers’s monologues, which he delivered while displaying his agility with a lasso, were so topical and popular that he appeared again in the Follies of 1918 and in many succeeding editions. Another bright star to grace this revue was the lovely dancer/singer Marilyn Miller. Two musical hits followed the Follies. The Girl Behind the Gun, with book and lyrics by the popular team of Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, and music by Ivan Caryll, played for 160 performances. The Velvet Lady, with music by Victor Herbert, book by Frederick Jackson, and lyrics by Henry Blossom, lasted for 136 performances.
The Follies of 1919 was considered by critics to be the finest of the series. It introduced an Irving Berlin song that was to become the signature number not only for the Follies, but also for countless beauty pageants: “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.” The show’s other hits included “Mandy,” “You’d Be Surprised,” and “You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea.” It was the last Follies in which the popular comic Bert Williams and Marilyn Miller (soon to become Broadway’s greatest musical comedy star) appeared. It ran for 171 performances.
In 1919 a musical version of Booth Tarkington’s short story "Monsieur Beaucaire" played for 143 performances, followed by Ed Wynn’s Carnival, a revue that starred Wynn and Marion Davies. Wynn not only starred in it, but also wrote the dialogue and songs. It ran for 64 performances. The 1920 Follies starred Fannie Brice and comedienne Ray Dooley, who really originated the baby-talk character later immortalized by Brice both in the Follies and on the radio as Baby Snooks. Joseph Urban’s elaborate settings were becoming works of art, and Ben Ali Haggin’s tableaux (featuring near-nude showgirls in historic settings) were the talk of Broadway.
On December 21, 1920, one of the New Amsterdam’s most illustrious hits arrived. It was Sally, with music by Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert, book by Clifford Grey, and the luminous Marilyn Miller starring in her greatest success. It made her the queen of Broadway musicals in the 1920s. She played a poor girl who worked as a waitress, and while she washed dishes she sang one of Kern’s most enduring songs: “Look for the Silver Lining.” Since Ziegfeld was the producer, the waitress ended up as a glamorous Follies girl. This gem ran for 570 performances — just two fewer than Ziegfeld’s masterpiece, Show Boat.
The 1922 Follies introduced the comedy team of Gallagher and Shean, who stopped the revue with their comic routine of smart-aleck questions and answers in thick accents. Dancer Gilda Gray and Will Rogers also starred in this edition. The 1923 Follies was considered one of the weakest by the critics, but, surprisingly, it ran for 333 performances. (Tallies of the performance totals for Follies editions vary.) Perhaps the fact that Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra were in the pit hyped its popularity.
In 1924 the popular singer Vivienne Segal joined the Follies. Strangely, although it was neither a critical nor artistic success, it enjoyed the longest run (401 performances) of any Follies produced by Ziegfeld himself. (In 1943 the Follies produced by the Shuberts at the Winter Garden broke all records for this revue series, running 553 performances. It starred Milton Berle, Ilona Massey, Jack Cole, and Arthur Treacher.)
In 1925 singer Ethel Shutta joined the revue. (She would stop Sondheim’s 1971 Follies with her rendition of the song “Broadway Baby.”) Also in this production was the exotic Louise Brooks, who was to become a ravishing cult movie star. On September 22, 1925, Marilyn Miller returned to this theatre in another Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach/Oscar Hammerstein II triumph. Produced by Charles Dillingham, the musical was titled Sunny — obviously trading on the success of Sally. This time Miss Miller played a British circus rider who stows away on a United States-bound boat to be with her lover. Others in the cast: Jack Donahue, Paul Frawley, and the dance team of Clifton Webb and Mary Hay. The show’s hit song was Kern’s “Who?” sung by Miller. The musical was the season’s hot ticket and ran for 517 performances.
A curious musical opened in 1926. Called Betsy, it had a book by Irving Caesar and David Freedman and a score by Rodgers and Hart (with an interpolated number by Irving Berlin, “Blue Skies,” that turned out to be the show’s only hit.) In fact, one critic was so tone-deaf that he recommended Hart get a new composer, since Rodgers’s music wasn’t as fine as Hart’s lyrics. The show starred Belle Baker and Al Shean and closed after only 39 performances.
Another curiosity was a 1927 musical called Lucky, by Otto Harbach, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby, with a score by Jerome Kern. Ruby Keeler and Walter Catlett starred in it, and the program lists a song sung by Miss Keeler with the eyebrow-raising title “The Man in the Moon Is a Coon.” In later years Keeler denied singing this politically incorrect number. The show ran for just 71 performances.
The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 was the last of this revue series to play at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Eddie Cantor not only starred in it, but also wrote most of the script, while Irving Berlin composed the score. It cost a then-staggering $289,000 to mount. Chiefly remembered about the spectacle was the sight of dancer Claire Luce making her startling entrance riding a live ostrich with a bejeweled collar across a jungle setting. Ruth Etting sang the catchy “Shaking the Blues Away,” and Cantor did his customary numbers in blackface. Since he was doing so many numbers in the revue and had written much of it, he felt he should be paid more. He quit the show, was hauled before Actors’ Equity, and lost his case. The show closed after 167 performances. He and Ziegfeld later made up.
Marilyn Miller returned to the New Amsterdam in the new musical Rosalie, with a score by George and Ira Gershwin, Sigmund Romberg, and P. G. Wodehouse. The book was by Guy Bolton and William Anthony McGuire. Miss Miller played a princess studying at an American college, who falls in love with a West Point lieutenant. Since it was a Ziegfeld production, the musical was opulently produced. Frank Morgan played her father, a comic king, a role he repeated in the movie version with a score by Cole Porter. Two Gershwin songs are remembered from the score: “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Oh, Gee! Oh, Joy!” It ran for 327 performances.
One of the most cherished 1920's musicals came to this theatre on December 4, 1928: Whoopee!, which proved to be Eddie Cantor’s greatest success. The show was based on a hit play, The Nervous Wreck, by Owen Davis. The hero (Cantor’s role) was an extreme hypochondriac who got into all sorts of comic situations because of his imaginary affliction. The book was by one of Ziegfeld’s favorite writers, William Anthony McGuire, and the great score was by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn. Supporting Cantor were Ruth Etting, Ethel Shutta, and, in a small role, Buddy Ebsen. The title song, “Makin’ Whoopee!” became Cantor’s signature tune. Other hits from the show: “Love Me or Leave Me” and “I’m Bringing a Red Red Rose.” The show’s Wild West locale inspired Ziegfeld to have his glorified girls ride real horses and to have Joseph Urban to design memorable sets, including one of the Grand Canyon. John Harkrider’s costumes also stunned the audience. This musical-comedy gem ran for 379 performances. Ziegfeld teamed with Sam Goldwyn to make a Technicolor movie (one of the first) of the show — also a big hit.
The next tenant at the New Amsterdam was a revival of Sherlock Holmes written by and starring William Gillette. Gillette made this play a perennial of his, just as James O’Neill (Eugene’s father) made The Count of Monte Cristo his annuity.
The popular Stone family — Fred, his wife, and his daughter Dorothy — starred next in a musical called Ripples. Fred played the great-great-grandson of Rip Van Winkle, who is an alcoholic. The book was written by William Anthony McGuire, and the score was by Oscar Levant and Albert Sirmay, with lyrics by Irving Caesar and Graham John. There were interpolated songs by Jerome Kern, Fred Coots, Howard Dietz, and Arthur Schwartz. Despite all these noteworthy contributors, the musical died after 55 performances.
In July 1930 one of Ziegfeld’s archrivals, Earl Carroll, opened one of his celebrated Vanities revues at the New Amsterdam. (Ziegfeld had meanwhile erected his magnificent Ziegfeld Theatre on Sixth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street in 1927 and was producing his shows there, including his last Follies in 1931.)
Stars in the Vanities included Jack Benny, Jimmy Savo, and Patsy Kelly. The songs were written by Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg, Jay Gorney, and Ted Koehler, and the sketches were by Eddie Welch and Eugene Conrad. The costumes were by Vincente Minnelli and Charles Le Maire and the scenery by Hugh Willoughby. The revue was extremely vulgar and ran into censorship problems. The first-act finale featured a huge glass swimming tank in which a male swimmer pursued two showgirls who appeared to be nude. Carroll was forced to launder this scene and some of the blue sketches, but the revue benefitted from all the publicity and ran for 215 performances.
Next at this theatre was a revival of J. M. Barrie’s popular play The Admirable Crichton with a sterling cast: Walter Hampden, Fay Bainter, Estelle Winwood, and Effie Shannon. It played for 56 performances.
On June 3, 1931, a great event occurred at the New Amsterdam: the opening of The Band Wagon. To this day it is considered one of the two greatest revues produced on Broadway. (The other was the Moss Hart/Irving Berlin production As Thousands Cheer in 1933.) The brilliant score by Dietz and Schwartz and hilarious sketches by George S. Kaufman — and the stellar cast headed by Fred and Adele Astaire (her last Broadway appearance), Frank Morgan, Helen Broderick, and the enchanting Austrian dancer Tilly Losch — thrilled critics and audiences with their artistry and intelligence. Albert Johnson’s magnificent sets (two revolving stages and a carousel) garnered raves, as did Hassard Short’s staging and Albertina Rasch’s choreography. The memorable score included “Dancing in the Dark,” “I Love Louisa” (sung by the principals on a revolving carousel), “New Sun in the Sky,” and “High and Low.” The Astaires performed a witty song called “Hoops” while rolling hoops on the revolving stage, and Fred and Tilly Losch dazzled in a ballet called “The Beggar’s Waltz.” Kaufman’s sketches were models of hilarity, and the entire production was a theatrical highlight of the 1930s. It ran for 260 performances.
Next came Irving Berlin and Moss Hart’s musical Face the Music, their first collaboration. It was a political satire with Mary Boland as the filthy-rich Mrs. Meshbesher, married to a policeman whose wealth was achieved by graft. In one scene, Boland arrived onstage riding a gigantic papier-mâché elephant. A clever scene showed social figures burned by the Wall Street crash, eating at an automat and singing one of the show’s hit songs, “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee.” Another hit was “Soft Lights and Sweet Music.” Staged by Hassard Short and George S. Kaufman, the musical ran for 165 performances.
Walter Hampden, who had played the tile role in Cyrano de Bergerac for years in New York and on tour, revived it once again at this theatre in 1932. Another revival, Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre production of Alice in Wonderland, moved here from downtown and played for 64 performances. In addition to Le Gallienne, the outstanding cast included Alla Nazimova, Burgess Meredith, Joseph Schildkraut, and Josephine Hutchinson. This same company appeared in a revival of The Cherry Orchard, which followed Alice in Wonderland. Both these productions had sets by the famed designer Aline Bernstein.
Earl Carroll returned to the New Amsterdam in 1933 with a novelty. Called Murder at the Vanities, it depicted a series of murders backstage at the opening night of a Vanities revue. The book was by Carroll and Rufus King, and the score by no fewer than nine writers. In the cast were future movie star Robert Cummings, James Rennie, Jean Adair, and horror-film idol Bela Lugosi. One of the songs — “Weep No More My Baby,” by John W. Green and Edward Heyman — became popular. The show ran for 298 performances.
The next musical at this theatre proved that a hit song can turn a lukewarm show into a hit. This was the case for Roberta, with Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s immortal “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” radiantly sung by Tamara. Kern supplied other gems: “The Touch of Your Hand,” “Yesterdays,” and “You’re Devastating.” The superlative cast in addition to Tamara included Bob Hope, George Murphy, Fred MacMurray, Fay Templeton, Ray Middleton, Alan Jones, and Sydney Greenstreet. The plot by Otto Harbach was considered weak. It was based on Alice Duer Miller’s novel Gowns by Roberta and told of an American halfback (Ray Middleton) who inherits his Aunt Minnie’s haute couture shop in Paris and goes there with his friends (including comic Bob Hope) to run it. He falls in love with his aunt’s assistant, a Russian princess (Tamara), and starts to run the shop with her until complications set in. On the musical’s opening night, Noël Coward walked up the aisle and spotted Max Gordon, its producer. Coward, with his usual bitchiness, shouted, “It stinks, Max.” The show cost a staggering $115,000 in Depression dollars to mount and featured an elaborate fashion show that helped the box office. It ran for 295 performances.
The next musical at the New Amsterdam arrived with a touch of scandal. It was called Revenge with Music by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. It starred torch singer Libby Holman, who had been accused of fatally shooting her wealthy husband, a Reynolds tobacco heir, but was acquitted. This was to be her Broadway comeback after having scored in such lauded revues as The Little Show and Three’s a Crowd. Although the score included such hits as “You and the Night and the Music” and “If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You,” the book’s libretto was criticized. Holman was supported by Charles Winninger, George Metaxa, and Ilka Chase.
The spicy tale told of Winninger trying to woo Holman away from her new husband on their wedding night, and the groom (Metaxa) seeking revenge by having a romance with Winninger’s wife (Chase). The musical played for 158 performances and, despite its cost, recouped its investment.
Another Ziegfeld rival — George White — came to the New Amsterdam with one of his Scandals series in 1935. This one starred Rudy Vallee, Bert Lahr, and Willie and Eugene Howard. The revue format was beginning to wane, and the critics were not enchanted with this latest example. There were no hit songs, and much of the comic material had been seen before in other revues. It nevertheless had a run of 110 performances.
Walter Hampden once again brought his production of Cyrano de Bergerac to the New Amsterdam in 1936. This time it ran for 40 performances.
Unfortunately, the last two legitimate shows to play the New Amsterdam before it became a movie theatre were not successful. On November 2, 1936, Forbidden Melody, an operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Otto Harbach, limped into the theatre and was judged old-fashioned and maudlin by the critics. Operettas, like revues, were becoming passé.
The last production at this theatre for many years should have been outstanding. It was Othello, with Walter Huston as the Moor of Venice, his wife Nan Sunderland as Desdemona, and Brian Aherne as Iago. Despite the fact that the eminent scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones designed and directed the production, it was not well received. Huston’s Othello was considered weak. Aherne’s Iago received better notices — but not good enough to save the show. The revival opened January 6, 1937, and closed after just 21 performances.
The Depression took a heavy toll on the once-glittering acropolis of theatres on West Forty-second Street. Most had switched to burlesque or movies. By 1937 the New Amsterdam was the last legitimate house on the block—and then it, too, succumbed, and its bright history as a Broadway theatre seemed to come to an end. The Abe Erlanger estate, probably for financial reasons, turned the theatre over to the Dry Dock Savings Bank, which sold it to Max A. Cohen, with the proviso that the theatre was never to house burlesque. It never did. After extensive renovations and a new marquee, the theatre’s first film booking was ironic. In 1903 the New Amsterdam had opened with a live production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its first film was Max Reinhardt’s movie of the Shakespeare comedy. It had an all-star Warner Brothers cast: Mickey Rooney, James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Olivia De Havilland, and countless others, along with Mendelssohn’s familiar score.
The deterioration of the New Amsterdam over the ensuing half-century was one of Forty-second Street’s greatest tragedies. In 1979, after decades of showing action films (but no pornography), the interior and exterior of the theatre were declared New York City landmarks, but the decline continued. In 1982 the Nederlander Organization bought the theatre, hoping to restore it and stage lavish musicals there. Meanwhile, the rooftop theatre was being used to rehearse Broadway plays. There were plans to restore the theatre, and producer Alexander H. Cohen stated that his production of La Tragédie de Carmen would open there. However, it was discovered that the rooftop theatre had structural flaws, and Cohen had to move his production to Lincoln Center. It looked like only a miracle would ever save the New Amsterdam and its neighbors.
With the redevelopment of the Times Square area, the miracle happened. The New Amsterdam had decayed miserably and was closed for ten years. But in 1992 the 42nd Street Development Project bought the theatre, and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates was hired to restore the house to soundness. The Walt Disney Company began to eye the theatre as a possible venue for its planned spectacular Broadway musicals. Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner took a now-legendary tour of the New Amsterdam and was so impressed (and saddened) by what he saw that he resolved that the former “House Beautiful” must be restored. Combining with the 42nd Street Development Project (which contributed a loan of $26 million), Disney kicked in with $36 million. Disney also received a 49-year lease on the theatre. Famed architect Hugh Hardy was engaged to achieve the restoration, and a large crew of workers was assembled. For a complete report on this epic restoration, read Mary C. Henderson’s magnificent book The New Amsterdam: The Biography of a Broadway Theatre (Hyperion), the most beautiful book on a Broadway theatre ever published.
On May 18, 1997, with much media hoopla, the House Beautiful, restored to its original splendor, reopened for nine performances of King David (a concert) by Alan Menken and Tim Rice. The high praise in the press was for the stupendous restoration of the theatre, but not for King David. This was followed by a short debut engagement of the animated Disney film Hercules.
On November 13, 1997, Disney’s magnificent production of The Lion King opened to jubilant reviews. Ziegfeld would have been proud. Brilliantly directed by Julie Taymor, with costumes, masks, and puppet designs by her, the production was a magical adaptation of the popular Disney animated film of the same name about trouble in a realm of talking African animals. The book was by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, and the score was by Elton John and Tim Rice. The highest praise went to Taymor for the enchanting parade of faux animals down the aisles at the show’s opening, a sight never before seen in a Broadway theatre.
For her artistic triumph, Taymor won two Tony Awards: one for her direction and another for her costumes. The Lion King also won the Best Musical Tony Award; Best Scenic Designer (Richard Hudson); Best Lighting (Donald Holder); and Best Choreographer (Garth Fagan). The musical also received these Tony Award nominations: Featured Musical Actor (Samuel E. Wright), Featured Musical Actress (Tsidii Le Loka), Musical Book (Allers and Mecchi), and Best Score (Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer).
The Lion King immediately became the hottest ticket in town and was still selling out nightly in 2006 when Disney transferred it to the Minskoff Theatre to make way for a British adaptation of the P. L. Travers books and Disney musical film of Mary Poppins. It’s the tale of a magical English nanny who helps the family of a stuffy banker rediscover what’s really important in life. Ashley Brown played the “practically perfect” governess who thrilled audiences young and old when she opened her umbrella and made one of Broadway’s great exits, flying over the heads of the orchestra and even the balcony as the east wind swept her away. Songs from the original film score by brothers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (such as Oscar winner “Chim Chim Cheree”) were joined by several new songs by composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe.
Mary Poppins opened November 16, 2006, and was still running as this edition of "At This Theatre" was updated.
And the House Beautiful, having risen from its ashes like the proverbial phoenix, will continue to dazzle playgoers for decades to come.
Two postscripts to the history of this theatre must be added. First is the legend that it is a haunted house. In his book Ziegfeld, Charles Higham reported that in 1952 a handyman at the theatre was alarmed by the appearance of a beautiful, ghostly showgirl in a white dress with a gold sash on which appeared the name “Olive.” When he followed her, she vanished. Two weeks later, the apparition returned. Another worker identified her as Olive Thomas, a statuesque Follies girl whom he knew and adored. She had committed suicide in Paris, reportedly after discovering that her husband, Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother), had given her syphilis. During the restoration of the New Amsterdam in the 1990s, a crewman on the project called PLAYBILL and stated that there had been spooky incidents in the theatre while he worked. Things moved mysteriously backstage, and a woman’s voice behind him asked, “Hey — how’re you doin’?” He turned around and no one was there.
Olive remained active at the theatre, appearing regularly to performers and backstage workers (generally males) and making her occasional displeasure known to staff with acts of mischief. As a result, house manager Dana Amendola posted framed photographs of Olive Thomas inside each of the theatre’s entrances so employees can greet her with a daily “Good evening” to stay in her good graces.
Reports of ghosts in theatres are not unusual. The ghost of David Belasco is still often spotted in the Belasco Theatre, and the ghost of Enrico Caruso has been seen in the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Fortunately, they generally do not disrupt performances.
A much happier reappearance of Follies alumnae will bring the history of the New Amsterdam full circle. On April 13 and 14, 1998, five original Follies showgirls, Nona Otero Friedman, Yvonne Arden Hyde, Lucile Layton Zinman, Eleanor Dana O’Connell, and Doris Eaton Travis, some in their nineties, returned to the New Amsterdam stage as special guests of that year’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Easter Bonnet competition. Travis led a company of young gypsies in performing the original choreography from “Mandy” and became a fixture of the event in succeeding annual editions. She died at 106 in 2010, just weeks after appearing in her last Easter Bonnet show.