History of the Hudson Theatre

Situated just off Times Square in New York on 44th Street, the Hudson Theatre is one of New York City’s oldest Broadway showplaces, having opened just weeks before the New Amsterdam and Lyceum theatres. It is located between Millennium Broadway Hotel and The Premier Hotel. When it opened in 1903, the Hudson Theatre became a leading theatrical venue before serving as a network radio and TV studio, a nightclub, a movie theater, a corporate event space until it became a Broadway theatre again.

Learn more about the Hudson Theatre’s history as you read on:

Construction and Architectural Features

On October 19, 1903, producer Henry B. Harris opened the Hudson Theatre on 44th Street, becoming the first producer to build a playhouse on that street, as its side entrance on 45th Street was originally used by actors only. Built-in a then-mostly residential neighborhood, the four-story theatre came with a fairly simple Italian Renaissance-style facade, but it was anything but simple on the inside.

When it opened with a production of “Cousin Kate” starring Ethel Barrymore, the Hudson was noted for its size and distinctive architectural features. Its lobby was unusually huge and the largest ever seen on Broadway at the time, measuring at over 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. The entire building spanned an entire city block, with patrons entering on 44th Street and artists entering the stage door on 45th Street.

A mix of several styles popular around the era was employed in the Hudson Theatre, including Beaux-Arts, Neo-Classical and Neo-Renaissance. It was also liberally decorated with Roman-themed works, including the Baths of Titus over the proscenium and lining of the lobby’s walls and the friezes copied from Nero’s Golden House.

The auditorium can seat about 1,000 people, including a pair of balconies and two sets of boxes on either side of the proscenium arch. Tiffany glass was used to cover the dome of the lobby ceiling and the upper boxes and lower balcony.

The ticket lobby was finished in Greco-Roman style, featuring a black marble box office decorated with bronze heads of the god Mercury and bronze trim around the window with a floral theme. It had a square coffered ceiling that featured a bare electric lamp centered in each of the 264 coffers. This type of electric lighting was a novelty to behold at that time.

The hidden cove lighting around the proscenium and above the sounding board was highly pleasant to the eyes. It has diffuse lighting contrasted with bare electric lamps arranged in geometric “constellations” in the auditorium’s ceiling.

Besides the fine architectural features, the Hudson was also noted for its fire safety from the outset. It boasted a water sprinkler system and 28 fire exits that can allow rapid evacuation of the audience if necessary.

The architectural firm initially employed to build the theatre was J.B. McElfatrick & Son, but Israels and Harder ultimately completed the construction. No records remain as to why Harris changed firms.

Harris died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, so his wife Renee, who was among the last rescued, assumed management of the theatre. Battling against financial odds, Renee kept the business afloat and became the first female theatrical producer and manager in the US.

The Aftermath of the Depression and Purchase by CBS and NBC

After the Great Depression, Renee lost the Hudson Theatre to foreclosure. However, in 1934, the CBS Network leased the theatre for occasional use as a radio studio. By 1937, it returned to theatrical use again, and in 1939, the Shuberts took over management of the theatre. A few years later, in 1944, it was sold to playwrights Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, a notable writing team who penned “The Sound of Music,” “Anything Goes,” and “Call Me Madam.”

In 1950, NBC bought the theatre as a television studio and made it their home for “Broadway Open House,” followed by “The Steve Allen Show” in 1954. NBC’s classic “The Tonight Show” was also broadcast from the theatre, setting the initial standard for late-night television.

Return to Theatre Use

Developer Abraham Hirschfeld purchased the theatre in 1956 and returned it to use as a legitimate theater from 1960 to 1968. NBC spent over $100,000 in 1959 to restore the Hudson to its original appearance for theatre use, though the network still owned the Hudson until 1962.

During the ’60s, the Hudson Theatre was frequently dark and even more regularly threatened with demolition. Live performances continued on and off until 1968.

Service as Adult Movie Theatre and Savoy Rock Club

The Hudson Theatre became a movie house for adult films in 1974. The Avon chain of pornographic movie theatres bought it and continued to run it until 1976, as the Avon-at-the-Hudson. After the adult fare, it became just another second-run movie house – but only for a short time since it was closed by the end of the 70s.

Narrowly avoiding the conversion to a lot, the Hudson was bought by rock promoter Ron Delsener in 1980 and remodeled as the Savoy, a nightclub and venue for rock concerts. The Savoy never became popular, so it closed after a few years. During the mid-80s, the stage was used by developers to hold a full-sized model of a luxury condominium.

Landmark Status

Fortunately for the Hudson Theatre, the Landmarks Commission granted landmark status for both its interior and exterior features in 1987. When owner Harry Macklowe built a large luxury hotel next door to the theatre, it could not be razed, so the former theatre was incorporated into the hotel for use as a conference center, auditorium, and venue for special events. It was also used occasionally for Comedy Central cable network television tapings.

New Management

In 2015, UK-based Ambassador Theatre Group signed a long-term lease on the Hudson and invested in the theater’s refurbishment to convert it back to a legitimate Broadway theatre. Upon reopening in 2017, it became the 41st theater operating on Broadway and also the oldest. It was now owned by Millenium & Copthorne Hotels. In 2016, the Hudson Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After the completion of restorations and renovations, the Hudson Theatre reopened on February 11, 2017, with a production of the musical Sunday in the Park with George starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Since then, it has proved its place in the Great White Way with the productions of “Head Over Heels,” “The Parisian Woman,” “Sea Wall / A Life,” in addition to various concerts and one-off events.

Along with all Broadway theatres, the Hudson was closed on March 12, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.