Booth Theatre (NYC)

When 23rd Street Was the Heart of New York's Theatre District

of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, William Shakespeare stares impassively at the multitudes below.
The Bard is unnoticed by all but a few, but once upon a time, this corner was his turf.
His bust is mounted on the Sixth Avenue facade of the Caroline, an apartment building
that now occupies the site of Booth's Theatre, once the most important venue in
New York City for the production of Shakespeare's plays and, for a time, the
best-known playhouse in the Flatiron district.

That time was the late 1800s, when West 23rd Street was the heart of Manhattan's thriving theatre and entertainment
district, and Booth's, which opened on February 3, 1869, with a production of Romeo and Juliet, was hailed by
The New York Times as "the pride of the City, the resort of the educated, a school of art, a refined recreation and
a benign contrast to the perverted amusements which have too long degraded the public taste."

Exterior of Booth's Theatre. Half of stereoview ca. 1880,
taken from the northwest corner of Twenty-Third Street and Sixth Avenue.

Booth's was just one of many choices in the Flatiron's culture cluster. There was the Madison Square Theatre,
at 24th Street and Fifth Avenue with its drop curtain from Tiffany's and a ventilation system that blew air over
cakes of ice, making it the world's first air-conditioned theatre. The New Fifth Avenue Theatre at 28th and
Broadway was noted for its productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Vaudeville and a beer garden
characterized Koster & Bial's mini-empire on Sixth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets. One of the
Koster & Bial buildings, an 1886 red-brick structure, remains at the corner of Sixth and 24th, the names
of the theatrical producers still prominent on its pediment beneath the words "The Corner."

In the late 1870s, on the east side of Madison Square Park, Gilmore's Garden, the precursor to Madison Square Garden,
was presenting summer concerts. A couple of blocks away, where the Met Life Building now stands, the Lyceum Theatre
-- under the personal supervision of Thomas Edison -- became the first playhouse to be lighted entirely by electricity. And
on 23rd, just steps away from Booth's, where thespians waxed poetic over Shakespeare, was the Eden Museum, whose
proprietors, influenced by London's Madame Toussaud, were presenting the poetry of wax. Largely because of the man
who built it, it was Booth's that seemed to attract the most public attention. Edwin Booth was matinee idol material,
described by The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre as "the finest American tragedian of his time." He was also
the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1863, two years before that tragic event, Edwin had become the manager and lessee of the Winter Garden Theatre on
lower Broadway, shifting it from burlesque and musicals to classical drama. For the next few years, he staged Shakespeare
there, but on a Saturday morning in March 1867, fire destroyed the Winter Garden. Booth, who lived at 16 Gramercy Park
South -- now the Players Club -- set his sights on 23rd Street.

Booth's Theatre at its opening in February, 1869. Painting shows the elegant granite facade,
mansard roof with three towers, all in the style of Second Empire. Four-story structure immediately
on the corner to the right housed costume and scene shops, and offices

He built a theatre at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue at an unprecedented cost of $1.5 million. It was designed by
architect James Renwick Jr., whose works include St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Smithsonian Institution, and it was
considered the finest theatre in the land. Built of granite in an ornate Second Empire style, it incorporated hydraulic
ramps that raised vertically moving platforms to enhance scenery changes and a device that allowed the house gas-
lights to be extinguished or lighted simultaneously during performances. It seated almost 1,800, with standing room
for another 300, and boasted seven entrances on 23rd Street and another on Sixth Avenue. North to south, the
theatre was one hundred feet, and stood at a height of one hundred and twenty feet, topped with a mansard roof,
including three towers. Under the side walk along Twenty Third Street was the carpenter's shop, as well as a
boiler-room with a steam engine used to heat the theatre through extensive hot-air pipes.
The entire theatre was heated and cooled with forced air.

Interior of Booth's Theatre on Opening Night, February 3, 1869,
showing the main auditorium, frescoed ceiling, modern electic-spark
and gas chandelier, elaborate box seats and statuary, and plush accommodations.
On the stage is the setting for the Streets of Verona, Romeo and Juliet
Act I., Scene i, painted by Charles W. Witham.

Several arched doors lead to a grand vestibule, where a large statue of Edwin Booth's father, the great Shakespearean
actor, Junius Brutus Booth, by the sculptor Gould, greeted the audience. The floor was Italian marble, the ceiling was
covered with frescoes. In the theatre, a large chandelier, lit by gas-jets ignited by electricity, hung above the auditorium.
Marble pillars, adorned with statues, surrounded the box seats. In the center, above the proscenium arch stood a statue
of Shakespeare by the Italian sculptor Signor G. Turini. Portrait busts of David Garrick, Edmund Kean and other great
actors adorned the proscenium arch.

Demand for the Booth's opening-night was so intense, an auction was held and tickets were limited to four per customer.
"Prices obtained for some of the boxes and orchestra chairs were remarkable and have seldom been equaled in this city,"
reported The Times. The best box went for $125, while orchestra seats ranged from $3 to $25.50, and balcony chairs from
$1 to $8. Despite the hoopla and the quality of the productions, Booth was able to keep his theatre going for only five years.

On December 33, 1881, a headline in the New York Times read:
Booth's Theatre was sold yesterday for $550,000, less than half its original cost.
The building will be devoted by its new owners to business purposes, and it is probable that as early as next May
the work of altering it will be begun, although it may be continued as a theatre for another year. It is rather a singular
coincidence that one of the gentlemen interested in the present purchase of the property should be a gentlemen who
sold the original site to Mr. Booth when he conceived of the idea of erecting a theatre that should be a fitting temple
for the presentation of Shakespearean drama.

Poor management forced Booth into bankruptcy during the nationwide financial panic of 1874. Others took over until 1883,
when the building was razed to make way for a McCreery's department store. McCreery's went out of business unexpectedly in 1954 and the store was purchased by Orbach's. The 23rd Street building survived until 1975 as a loft building. Today, that is the site where the Caroline Apartments are now located. Ironically, the Booth's last production, like its first, was
Romeo and Juliet. The star was the patriarch of another distinguished family of the American theatre. He was
born Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blyth, but became better known as Maurice Barrymore.

Design for Shakespeare's Henry V at Booth's Theatre, 1883,
showing the lavish setting with historical detail.

This first Edwin Booth Theatre was located on the SE corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, which later became the
site of McCreery's Department Store. McCreery's went out of business unexpectedly in 1954 and the store was purchased
by Orbach's. The 23rd Street building survived until 1975 as a loft building. Today, that is the site where the Caroline
Apartments are now located. Some of the stone architectural details from Edwin Booth's theatre have amazingly survived
and have been incorporated into the lower level entrance of St. Paul the Apostle Church on Ninth Avenue at 59th Street.

Here's the good news!
When James W. McCreery, the "Dean of the Retail Trade," opened his store in 1895, he installed a marble bust of
William Shakespeare into the facade as a memento of the Booth, together with a bronze commemorative plaque
honoring the theatre. Knowing the importance of these objects and the meaning of their potential loss, former Professor
at New York University and noted New York Tour Leader Gerard Wolfe started a personal campaign to rescue both the
bust of Shakespeare and the large accompanying plaque. Surprisingly, though his efforts were largely single-handed and
against local indifference, Professor Wolfe convinced the then-president of NYU and the Drama and History departments
to join in the fray, which was ultimately successful. Subsequently, Dr. Wolfe worked diligently to persuade NYU to display
the artifacts which had previously been collecting dust in a building on Washington Square East for a considerable length
of time.

Now the bust of Shakespeare is back on 23rd Street, for all to see, on its original site.
(A special Thank You to Gerard Wolfe!)

A second Booth Theatre designed by architect Henry B. Herts was built at 222 West 45th Street and opened with a production of Our American Cousin in 1915. It continues in operation along with its companion, the Shubert Theatre -- each building sharing a back-to-back Venetian Renaissance-style facade.

(Also see: the seatplan.

Programs available from this theatre:

  • An Evening With Beatrice Lillie / 1953

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