At This Theatre: Belasco Theatre
The history of the Belasco Theatre on Forty-fourth Street, between Broadway and Avenue of the Americas, can be very confusing. David Belasco, the flamboyant playwright/actor/producer/director and set designer, who was called “the bishop of Broadway” because he always dressed in priestly garments, had two Belasco Theatres at different times. The first, located on Forty-second Street, was Oscar Hammerstein’s Republic Theatre until Belasco leased it and named it for himself. (It still stands today as an Off-Broadway playhouse under the name “New Victory Theatre.”) On October 16, 1907, the impresario opened his own theatre on Forty-fourth Street, but he called it the Stuyvesant. In 1910, when the Forty-second Street theatre reclaimed its Republic name, Belasco renamed his Forty-fourth Street theatre the Belasco, and that name has remained ever since.
Because Belasco was more interested in spectacular, realistic stage sets than in great plays, he made certain that his theatre, designed by architect George Keister, was a marvel of technical wizardry. It cost $750,000 and had a permanent dimmer board with sixty-five dimmers, an elevator stage that could be lowered for set changes, space for set and lighting studios, and a private backstage elevator that ascended to his sumptuous apartments for himself and his leading ladies. Belasco may have worn clerical garments, but there is no evidence that he practiced celibacy.
Our Theatres Today and Yesterday, published by Ruth Crosby Dimmick in 1913, had this description of the Belasco Theatre: “This was the first theatre to be built in an enclosed rectangular court. It is broad and shallow, seats about 1,100 persons and allows each a clear view of the stage at such close range that opera glasses are superfluous. The decorations are artistic to the Belasco degree. No chandeliers or brackets are visible, the lights being enclosed between the roof and almost flat ground glass globes. A feature of the house is the absence of an orchestra and the unique manner in which the rising of the curtain is announced by the sounding of a muffled gong.”
The Stuyvesant Theatre’s opening bill was a new play by Belasco and two collaborators, Pauline Phelps and Marion Short, titled A Grand Army Man (1907). The interesting cast included David Warfield, Jane Cowl, and Antoinette Perry (the actress for whom the Tony Awards are named).
In September 1908 Belasco had a big hit in The Fighting Hope, starring Blanche Bates, but in 1909 he topped this with a shocker called The Easiest Way, by Eugene Walter. As critic Brooks Atkinson said years later, “The Easiest Way was a scandal, a sensation and a success — the three bright ‘S’s’ of show business.” Frances Starr played a mediocre actress of loose morals who tries to reform but finds virtue dull and vice exciting. Her famous curtain line to her maid, “Dress up my body and paint my face. I’m going back to Rector’s to make a hit and to hell with the rest,” caused women in the audience to faint and priests to denounce the play from their pulpits.
On September 17, 1910, Belasco rechristened the Stuyvesant Theatre in his own name. A hit soon followed: On October 4 he had another success with a German play, The Concert. Leo Ditrichstein, who translated the play, also starred as a violinist whose wife cures him of his amorous adventures. The play ran for 264 performances.
Belasco wrote his own next hit, The Return of Peter Grimm, starring David Warfield as a man who returns from the dead. The fantasy ran for 231 performances, but Warfield almost drove the cast insane with his onstage practical jokes. One night he secreted Limburger cheese in a bowl of tulips, and when actress Janet Dunbar buried her face in the flowers during the play’s climax, she almost passed out.
During these early years of the Belasco Theatre, its owner was celebrated for his development of such stars as Blanche Bates, Frances Starr, Lenore Ulric, Ina Claire, Katharine Cornell, and Jeanne Eagles. He was also famed for his insistence that if a play called for a scene in a laundry, the set designer had better provide a real laundry where people could actually take clothes to be washed and ironed. For one play he duplicated a Child’s Restaurant.
In 1917 Ina Claire scored a tremendous success in a Cinderella play, Polly with a Past, that ran for 315 performances. Jeanne Eagles, who would later achieve immortality as Sadie Thompson in Rain, proved an instant hit in Daddies (1918) with George Abbott, and it played for 340 performances. The sexy Lenore Ulric was good for 223 performances in The Son-Daughter (1919), a play about China by Belasco and George Scarborough.
Ulric became a big Belasco star in the 1920s, featured in such seamy dramas as Kiki (1921), The Harem (1924), Lulu Belle (1926), and Mima (1928). Other celebrated stars who played the Belasco at this time were Lionel Barrymore in Laugh, Clown, Laugh! (1923) and Katharine Cornell in Tiger Cats (1924).
Surprisingly, the Belasco Theatre booked a musical in 1927 and it was one of the theatrical highlights of the 1920s. Hit the Deck had a captivating score by Vincent Youmans, and the production brightened the Belasco for 352 performances. Louise Groody, Charles King, and Brian Donlevy were in the cast.
Two more hits played the house before the end of the decade: The Bachelor Father, with C. Aubrey Smith and June Walker, and It’s a Wise Child, starring Humphrey Bogart. The latter was a snappy comedy that amused for 378 performances.
David Belasco’s last production at his theatre was a success. In November 1930 he presented Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagan in a continental romance called Tonight or Never. The stars fell in love not only onstage, but offstage. They married and remained husband and wife for the rest of their lives. Mrs. Douglas later tried to trade the stage for a career in politics but found herself up against rising star Richard Nixon, who tried to paint her as a communist.
David Belasco died in New York on May 14, 1931, at age 71. His theatre was then leased to Katharine Cornell Productions, Inc. and Cornell’s husband, Guthrie McClintic, produced and directed the first play under the new management. It was S. N. Behrman’s witty comedy Brief Moment, but it must have caused the ghost of David Belasco (often seen in the theatre) unrest, because it numbered among its cast the vitriolic critic Alexander Woollcott, who had panned many of Belasco’s plays. Woollcott played himself in Brief Moment — a fat, lazy, snippy dilettante — and one of the biggest laughs in the show occurred when an actress had this line to say to him: “If you were a woman what a bitch you would have made.”
Cornell appeared in two plays under her own management at this theatre: Lucrece, translated from the French by Thornton Wilder (1932), and Sidney Howard’s Alien Corn (1933). The Belasco was next leased to Hazel L. Rice, wife of playwright Elmer Rice, who provided the theatre with two plays, Judgment Day (1934) and Between Two Worlds (1934), neither of which succeeded.
The famous Group Theatre’s association with the Belasco began in December 1934, when it moved its production of Gold Eagle Guy there from the Morosco. Some of the Group’s illustrious members who appeared in this play included Clifford Odets, Morris Carnovsky, Luther and Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and J. Edward Bromberg. On February 19, 1935, the Group Theatre made theatrical history with its production of Odets’s Awake and Sing!, featuring its acting company (including Jules Garfield, who later changed his name to John Garfield). The Odets sting was at its sharpest in this chronicle of the volcanic life of a Jewish family living in the Bronx.
On the evening of October 28, 1935, a play opened at the Belasco that would have delighted David Belasco. It was Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, and it ran for 684 performances, the longest-running play in the Belasco’s history to this day. Produced and designed by the famed Norman Bel Geddes, it featured a realistic set of a dead-end street on Manhattan’s East River that Belasco himself would have cheered. The Dead End Kids, unknown young actors who became famous overnight and later made endless films in Hollywood, actually dove into the orchestra pit, where the East River supposedly flowed. The play, which was a social tract on how dead-end boys grow up to be gangsters, featured a short, haunting performance by Marjorie Main as a notorious gangster’s mother. She repeated her role in the superb movie version of the play.
Another memorable play came to this theatre in 1937 when the Group Theatre presented Odets’s Golden Boy, starring Luther Adler as the boxer/violinist and Frances Farmer as his unlucky girlfriend. Expertly directed by Harold Clurman, the play ran for 248 performances. Two more Group Theatre productions followed: Odets’s Rocket to the Moon (1938) and Irwin Shaw’s The Gentle People, starring Sylvia Sidney, Franchot Tone, Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Karl Malden, and Elia Kazan.
A sorry spectacle in 1940 was a comedy called My Dear Children, starring a weary and shamelessly ad-libbing John Barrymore in his last Broadway appearance. A more rewarding play was Johnny Belinda (1940), with Helen Craig giving a moving performance as a deaf-mute. Amusement was provided by Mr. and Mrs. North (1941), about a husband/wife detective team, and by Dark Eyes (1943), a comedy about Russian expatriates by Eugenie Leontovich and Elena Miramova, who also starred in the hit play.
A cause célèbre occurred at the Belasco in 1944. A play called Trio, with Richard Widmark, Lois Wheeler, and Lydia St. Clair, dealt with lesbianism. For some bizarre reason, no theatre wanted this drama, although it was written with taste. It finally opened at the Belasco on December 29, 1944, but its troubles were not over. The critics did not think it was a very good play, but they agreed that it was not lurid in its approach and that it deserved to have a hearing. Unfortunately, public officials disagreed, and Trio was forced to close after two months when the owners of the Belasco refused to renew the producer’s lease.
Kiss Them for Me in 1945 was notable as the first play in which the great talents of Judy Holliday were noticed. Her performance as a tramp with an honest approach to her profession helped to land her the lead in Born Yesterday (1946) that would make her a star. Other 1940's highlights included Arthur Laurents’s Home of the Brave (1945); a rollicking revival of Burlesque (1946), starring Bert Lahr and Jean Parker; Gertrude Berg in Me and Molly (1948); and Alfred de Liagre Jr.’s mesmerizing production of The Madwoman of Chaillot (1948), with gloriously loony performances by Martita Hunt and Estelle Winwood.
From mid-1949 until November 1953, the Belasco Theatre was leased to NBC as a radio playhouse. On November 5, 1953, it returned to the legitimate fold with a glittering hit, George S. Kaufman and Howard Teichmann’s comedy The Solid Gold Cadillac, starring the incomparable Josephine Hull as a small stockholder who causes a big ruckus at a shareholders meeting. The satire ran for 526 performances.
Shows worthy of mention in the 1950s include Odets’s The Flowering Peach (1954), with Menasha Skulnik as Noah; Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955), starring Jayne Mansfield, Orson Bean, Martin Gabel, and Walter Matthau; and Noël Coward’s return to Broadway in a thin play of his own, Nude with Violin, alternating (1957-58) with some performances of Present Laughter to relieve the tedium.
In November 1960 a beautiful play came to the Belasco. Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, adapted from James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family, starred Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish, Colleen Dewhurst, and Aline MacMahon. It etched with feeling the impact of a young father’s death on his family. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the season.
Write Me a Murder (1961), by Frederick Knott, was an offbeat thriller with Denholm Elliott, Ethel Griffies, and Kim Hunter; Sam Levene was his Seventh Avenue best in a popular comedy, Seidman and Son (1962); Nicol Williamson gave a lacerating performance in John Osborne’s Inadmissable Evidence (1965).
The Killing of Sister George (1966) — which was much more explicit about lesbians than the exiled Trio — ran for 205 performances unmolested. Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? (1969) offered the Broadway debut of Al Pacino as a drug addict, and his electrifying performance won him a Tony Award.
Oh! Calcutta!, which moved to the Belasco in 1971 from the downtown Eden Theatre, had the entire cast in the nude and also featured some of the most explicitly sexual revue sketches and dances ever performed in the legitimate theatre.
For the next two decades, the Belasco’s most successful tenants were long-run musicals that moved there from other theatres. In 1980 Your Arms Too Short to Box with God moved in from the Ambassador; and in 1981 Ain’t Misbehavin’ transferred from the Plymouth to run for an additional year at the Belasco.
For years, actors who appeared at this theatre as well as backstage personnel claimed that they saw the ghost of David Belasco in his priestly garb, usually sitting in an unoccupied box on opening nights. A caretaker at the theatre also told newspapers that he sometimes heard the creaky elevator chains rattling backstage, although Belasco’s private elevator hasn’t worked for years. According to an article that appeared in The New York Times, the Belasco ghost had never been seen in the theatre since Oh! Calcutta! played there. The theory was that the nude show may have been too much realism, even for Belasco. However, the ghost seems to have recovered and has been spotted numerous times throughout the 2000s.
The Belasco housed the original 1975 production of British import The Rocky Horror Show (later made into a cult film with much of the Broadway cast); Colleen Dewhurst in An Almost Perfect Person; Uta Hagen and Charles Nelson Reilly in Charlotte; Elizabeth Ashley in Hide and Seek; Jonathan Pryce in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist; the New York Shakespeare Festival repertory of Macbeth/As You Like It/Romeo and Juliet; the musical The Prince of Central Park; and Len Cariou starring as a troubled Vietnam veteran in Steven Tesich’s The Speed of Darkness.
During the 199l-92 season, Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre inaugurated its first season here with three revivals: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Feydeau’s The Little Hotel on the Side, and Ibsen’s The Master Builder. The puppet show A Little More Magic, produced by the Famous People Players of Canada, played a limited engagement there in 1994.
The following year, British actor Ralph Fiennes played Hamlet and won a Tony Award for his performance. Later in 1995 Alexander H. Cohen and Max Cooper presented Ellen Burstyn in a religious drama called Sacrilege. Nicol Williamson starred in Jack, a one-man show about John Barrymore, in 1996. In 1997 Margaret Colin played Jacqueline Kennedy in a cartoon-like satire on the Kennedy family, called Jackie. That same year, a stunning production of A Doll’s House won a Best Actress Tony Award for British actress Janet McTeer as Nora and a Best Supporting Actor Tony for Owen Teale. In 1998 Jane Alexander returned to the stage in the play Honour. In 1999 Lincoln Center Theater presented a new production of Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon with Toby Stevens, Marian Seldes, Fritz Weaver, Simon Jones, and Joyce Van Patten.
A famous James Joyce short story served as the basis for an unusual musical that transferred from Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons to the Belasco on January 11, 2000. James Joyce’s The Dead painted a portrait of a group of Dubliners who gather on a snowy Christmas Eve to sing together. Like the story, the musical revealed the powerful emotions moving just below the surface of the merry proceedings. Among the stellar cast were Blair Brown, Christopher Walken, Sally Ann Howes, Daisy Eagan, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Stephen Spinella, and Marni Nixon. The musical received five Tony Award nominations.
The Belasco greeted the new century in April 2001 with a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Goldman’s memory musical Follies, starring Blythe Danner, Treat Williams, Judith Ivey, and Gregory Harrison. Though paying tribute to David Belasco’s contemporary Florenz Ziegfeld, that musical brought the playhouse full circle: Ziegfeld’s Follies was inaugurated the same year that the Belasco opened its doors, in 1907.
British actor Simon Callow imported his hit London solo show The Mystery of Charles Dickens to the Belasco in April 2002 but quickly found that most Americans lacked the detailed familiarity with Dickens’s characters (other than those in A Christmas Carol) required to enjoy Peter Ackroyd’s play. It was off to the hulks after 20 recitations.
Better luck was had on August 8, 2002, with the Broadway debut of Terrence McNally’s Off-Broadway hit Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, about two also-rans who come in first with each other one late night. Edie Falco played the waitress and Stanley Tucci played the cook in the widely praised production, which was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Revival of a Play. Tucci, who was nominated for a Tony as Best Actor for the performance, also earned headlines for going out of character on more than one occasion to tongue-lash audience members who allowed their cell phones to ring. From this and numerous other complaints that accrued, New York City voted in February 2003 to ban cell phone use at plays, movies, and concerts (though enforcement would prove spotty to nonexistent).
The Belasco hosted two short runs in 2003. First up was Matthew Barber’s romantic comedy Enchanted April, based on a novel about a group of middle-aged women whose vitality and vigor are reborn when they stay at a beachside house in Italy. The play provided a tour de force for Jayne Atkinson, who was nominated for a Tony Award.
In fall of that year, Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame played a gay dance teacher who develops a warm relationship with one of his students, an older woman, in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. There had been intense competition among older actresses to play the student role, but in the end it went to Polly Bergen, who had appeared here in the 2000 revival of Follies, as Carlotta. But the production got indifferent reviews and waltzed through only 28 performances.
Frank Wildhorn, composer of Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Civil War, brought his next show to Broadway on August 19, 2004. It was Dracula: The Musical, the second of three big-budget vampire musicals to come and go quickly in the 2000s. Tom Hewitt starred as the iron-poor Transylvanian count. Melissa Errico costarred as Mina, the woman he hopes to lure into the world of the undead. Christopher Hampton and Don Black shared credit for the book and lyrics, which hewed a little closer than usual to the original Bram Stoker novel. But despite some dandy special effects, audiences just didn’t turn out to see vampires sing. It lasted 157 performances, the longest run of the three bloodsucking musicals.
Fans of Denzel Washington lined up along Forty-fourth Street in April 2005 to see their favorite movie star play Brutus in William Shakespeare’s political-assassination drama Julius Caesar (the play’s twentieth documented Broadway production). Director Daniel Sullivan populated the stage with Jessica Hecht as Portia, Tamara Tunie as Calpurnia, Patrick Page as Decius Brutus, and William Sadler as Caesar. Reviews were mixed, but after it played out its scheduled run of 81 performances, producers were able to bank a $1 million profit. Problems with the lights during the run were variously ascribed to ghosts and to the grand old theatre starting to feel its age — the Belasco celebrated its centenary in 2007.
Meanwhile, Lincoln Center Theater leased the Belasco for an April 17, 2006, revival of Clifford Odets’s groundbreaking drama Awake and Sing!, starring Zoë Wanamaker, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Gazzara, Jonathan Hadary, and Pablo Schreiber. Bartlett Sher’s meticulous production won the 2006 Tony Award as Best Revival of a Play.
With the United States still in the teeth of twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the English ushered over their hit revival of R. C. Sherriff’s 1927 drama Journey’s End on February 22, 2007. Staged with its heart in its throat by director David Grindley, Journey’s End shows the last days of an English regiment on the front lines of World War I, as they all gradually realize they are about to be sacrificed in a frontal attack against the Germans. Audiences may have found the subject to be too painful while American soldiers were still engaged in battle. Despite reverent reviews and a Tony Award as Best Revival of a Play, audiences could no longer be coaxed to come after 125 performances. The production so impressed the few people who actually got to see it that it became, for a time, a cause célèbre for theatre lovers. The comparatively short run helped illustrate the erosion of traditional critics’ power in the Internet age.
A unique theatrical creation opened at the Belasco on February 28, 2008. Passing Strange, which transferred here from the Public Theater, was the brainchild of a musician who went by the single name “Stew” (born Mark Stewart), who developed the show as a sort of rock cantata with co-composer Heidi Rodewald. Stew’s book and lyrics told the semi-autobiographical story of a black California teenager who decides to tear free of his middle-class upbringing and embrace bohemian Europe on a quest to find his true self. The show was performed by Stew’s onstage band with actors moving in and out of various characters. Daniel Breaker played Stew’s younger alter ego, Youth, while Stew himself served as narrator of the story and lead singer. The show won a Tony Award for Best Book and played 165 performances. The final two performances were filmed by director Spike Lee and later released as a film.
A revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo flashed through the Belasco in eight performances during November 2008, with critics unwilling to give a nickel for the production that starred John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer, and Haley Joel Osment.
Lincoln Center Theater again leased the Belasco in April 2009 and again engaged Bartlett Sher, this time to direct a revival of August Wilson’s drama Joe Turner’s Come and Gone with Ernie Hudson, Aunjanue Ellis, and Chad L. Lewis. Roger Robinson won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as Bynum Walker, the mystical “rootworker” in this drama about a stranger who arrives at a Pittsburgh boardinghouse on a singular quest.
Newly elected President Barack Obama took some political heat in spring 2009 for snatching time off from dealing with a deep recession to see Joe Turner. But the president said the trip fulfilled a promise to his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama. It was observed at the time that the Belasco was one of the few remaining theatres with a separate entrance for the balcony—originally designed in part to create a segregated audience. The first black president of the United States entered through the front door. After Joe Turner wrapped up its limited run in early summer 2009, the Belasco was closed by the Shubert Organization for an extensive 102nd-anniversary renovation. Aside from amenities like new seats and enlarged restrooms, the Shuberts had the building’s extensive interior stained glass cleaned and restored, and elegant light fixtures dating to the Tiffany era were taken from storage in the Shubert Archive and returned to service. Restorers also meticulously removed gray paint that had been daubed over original mezzanine murals by Everett Shinn. According to Shubert archivist Regan Fletcher, the freshly revealed murals show allegorical human fixtures that embody the various emotions Belasco hoped to evoke in his eponymous playhouse.
The Belasco reopened in fall 2010 with Lincoln Center Theater’s musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, by David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane, inspired by the 1988 Pedro Almodóvar film. Despite a veteran cast that included Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, and Danny Burstein, with direction from Bartlett Sher, Lincoln Center Theater's recently appointed resident director, the show lasted only 69 performances.
Two months later, a solo show by comedienne Kathy Griffin, Kathy Griffin Wants a Tony, played a limited engagement of ten performances. Unfortunately for the star of "My Life on the D-List," her show was not eligible for a Tony Award.