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Theater History

Few theaters in New York can boast as many incarnations as New Victory, the oldest operating theater in New York. Now the first and only theater completely dedicated to year-round programming for kids and families, New Victory Theater has lived many fascinating and colorful lives.

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 of Sag Harbor (starring Lionel Barrymore in his Broadway debut) still look down on New Victory audiences today.

The Belasco

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, 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. From 1922–1927, the theater enjoyed its biggest hit ever with Abie’s Irish Rose, then the longest running show on Broadway.

Belasco also made extensive renovations in the theater’s decor. He installed an iron and glass canopy at the lobby’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.”

Minsky’s Republic

In the early 1900s, the New York kings of burlesque were the four Minsky brothers. Billy Minsky, hoping to make burlesque classier, proposed bringing their shows to Broadway and leased The Republic in the 1930s, transforming it into Broadway’s first burlesque club and the Minsky flagship stage.

Renamed Minsky’s Republic, Billy gave the entire structure a radical facelift. He replaced Belasco’s canopy with a large marquee and flashy signage, and on the building’s façade he painted the faces of the club’s most popular female performers on a bold checkerboard pattern. Inside, he installed an illuminated double runway to bring the acts closer to the clientele.

Though comedians like Abbott and Costello, Red Buttons and Rag Ragland took to the stage, Minsky’s most popular attractions were the famous striptease acts by Ann Corio, Georgia Southern, Margie Hart, Rose La Rose and the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee. Though scandalous at the time, their performances would be considered quite tame today.

42nd Street’s Decline

When Mayor LaGuardia banned burlesque, Minsky’s as people knew it was no more. In a burst of WWII patriotism, the theater was renamed, yet again, as The Victory when it became a movie theater. 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 first and only XXX-rated movie house.

By the early 1980s, 42nd Street and Times Square was in a full-blown state of urban neglect. New York City residents and tourists avoided the area, and a growing public concern compelled the City and State to join forces and 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.

New Victory Theater

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

The New 42nd Street, now called New 42, determined that under its aegis, it could give New York something the city did not yet have: New York’s first theater for kids. The New Victory Theater opened on December 11, 1995. From the sidewalk, 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, lead architect Hugh Hardy modernized New Victory by creating lobbies and public areas that would accommodate families’ needs.

In 2017, New Victory celebrated the opening of its reinvented lobbies, designed by architecture firm H3, to showcase the theater’s Family Engagement activities and unparalleled commitment to performing arts engagement for young New Yorkers.