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Theater History

 

Few theaters in New York can boast as many incarnations as The New Victory, the oldest operating theater in New York. Now the first and only theater for kids, The New Victory Theater has lived many fascinating and colorful lives.   For a printable PDF about this history and more, download the press kit.

 
Old Gotham Glamour
Built in 1900 by Oscar Hammerstein, grandfather of the famous lyricist, the theater was called the Theatre Republic. On the exterior was a Venetian façade with a grand staircase on the front sidewalk, leading to the first of two balconies and illuminated by ornamental lamps. On the rooftop, theatergoers would gather at The Paradise Roof Gardens, which was shared with the neighboring Victoria Theatre, also owned by Hammerstein. This unique oasis featured a miniature Dutch village complete with real ducks, chickens, cows—and a milkmaid who offered fresh milk to visiting children. 
 
Inside the theater, the elaborately decorated interior was crowned with a large dome that featured lyre-playing cherubs (or putti in Italian) perched on its rim. Amazingly, all of the putti and one lyre from the Republic’s opening production, Sag Harbor (starring Lionel Barrymore in his Broadway debut), still exist today.
 
The Belasco Period
In 1902, the larger-than-life impresario David Belasco took over the theater and gave it his name. Competing with the popular Ziegfield Follies across the street at The New Amsterdam, Belasco made his theater technologically advanced to allow for more elaborate productions. He installed an orchestra pit, a new lighting system and a modern stage with trap doors through which scenery could be hoisted into place. His shrewdness proved worthwhile as Belasco went on to showcase major talents of the day, such as George Arliss, Tyrone Power, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. In 1923, the theater enjoyed its biggest hit ever with Abie’s Irish Rose, which ran for 2,327 performances and remains as the third longest-running play in Broadway history.
 
As for the theater’s decor, Belasco made extensive renovations. He installed an iron and glass canopy at the theater’s entrance, and with the exception of rich rose silk draping that covered the boxes on either sides of the stage, the auditorium within became more subdued. And to really leave his mark, he added wrought-iron stanchions with carved bees to the end of each row—a playful homage to his initial “B."
 
The Burlesque Years
Legitimate theater ended at The Belasco in the '30s when Billy Minsky turned it into Broadway’s first burlesque club. Renamed Minsky’s Republic, he gave the entire structure a radical facelift. On the exterior, he replaced Belasco’s canopy with a large marquee and he concealed the upper level doors with flashy signage. He painted the faces of the club’s most popular performers, including Gypsy Rose Lee, upon a checkerboard pattern on the building’s façade. Inside the auditorium, he removed the center aisle and installed a double runway, which put the show girls front and center. Though Minsky’s featured bawdy comedy acts, black-tie attire was strictly required. Doormen were dressed as French cavalrymen, and the female ushers wore French maid costumes and squirted perfume on patrons as they entered. Just like Belasco’s technological advancements to the theater had elevated his business, Minsky’s double-runway design and theatrical flair turned his club into the hottest burlesque house in the country.
 
42nd Street’s Decline
In 1942, Mayor LaGuardia banned burlesque, and Minsky’s as people knew it was no more. In a burst of WWII patriotism, the theater was renamed, yet again, as The Victory, and it became a movie theater for first-run films. Over the next 30 years, the Times Square neighborhood gradually declined into abject decay, and in 1972, the theater, once an architectural marvel and elegant Broadway destination, became the block’s only XXX-rated movie house.
 
By the early 1980s, 42nd Street and Times Square was in a full-blown state of urban neglect and ruin. New York City residents and tourists avoided the area, and a growing public concern compelled the City and State to join forces to eradicate the blight. In 1990, guided by a plan to redevelop the area through the revitalization of 42nd Street’s historic theaters, the City and State established the nonprofit organization, The New 42nd Street.
 
A Return to Excellence: Combining the Past and Present

"The New Victory is an exquisite jewel on a street of gems" –The New York Times

The New 42nd Street determined that under its aegis, it could give New York something the city did not yet have: The New Victory Theater, New York’s first and only full-time performing arts center for kids and families. The first theater under the stewardship of The New 42nd Street to be restored, the once dilapidated adult movie house completed its $11.4 million renovation (headed by architect Hugh Hardy) on December 11, 1995.
 
From the sidewalk, The New Victory bears a striking resemblance to the design Hammerstein unveiled in 1900, with its Venetian-styled façade, grand double staircase and wrought-iron lamps. Just as Belasco modernized the space decades earlier, Hugh Hardy modernized The New Victory. He reduced the number of seats from 700 to 500 in order to create lobbies and public areas that would accommodate families’ needs. The wide stairwells, large bathrooms, free storage lockers and a patron elevator not only facilitate mobility for families, but increase accessibility for disabled audience members.
 

If the exterior pays tribute to Hammerstein, the interior pays tribute to Belasco. Each row is bookended by wrought-iron stanchions with ornately carved bees, and in a spirited tribute to the theater’s previous owner, the seats are upholstered with fabric featuring a bee motif.
 
Paul Goldberger, in his 1995 New York Times article, describes a visit to the newly opened New Victory as “a striking rhythm of walking through layers of time: the past in the street façade, then a pause in the present in the lobby, then a return to the past in the auditorium.” He lauds the renovation as “sensitive but not slavish ... supporting its original architecture while allowing plenty of room for the late 20th century to show through.”