New Amsterdam Theater is a piece of history – it’s one of the oldest surviving Broadway theaters in the Theater District of Manhattan, New York. Built-in 1903, the building was designed by the architecture firm of Henry Hertz and Hugh Tallant, who subsequently became great theater architects of the early 20th century. To know more about the history of this theater, read on.
Construction and Architecture
Designers Henry Hertz and Hugh Tallant have set out to build the most spectacular theater in New York City. When the New Amsterdam Theater opened, it was immediately hailed as one of New York City’s most beautiful buildings. The theater opened on October 26, 1903, for the production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The following morning, the review in New York Times spoke little of the play but hailed the New Amsterdam Theater as “The House Beautiful” – a nickname that still holds true today.
Hertz and Tallant met in Paris while studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, and New Amsterdam is a rare example of the art nouveau style in New York. The theater was built for producers A.L. Erlanger and Marc Klaw. At the request of the producers, the site had two performing spaces with a ten-story office tower to house various theatrical interests. It originally featured a rooftop theater too, where more risqué productions were presented. Very popular in its time, the theater offered a spectacular view of New York.
Decorations for the theater were carried out by an extensive team of painters and sculptors, including Robert Blum, George Gray Barnard, and the brothers Neumark, George Daniel M. Peixotto, Albert Beck Wenzell and Roland Hinton Perry. When the theater was finished, it became the largest theater in New York, with a seating capacity of 1,702.
The New Amsterdam Theater’s interior was filled with oversized curvilinear designs of flowers, fruits, and vines, making the large theater feel more intimate. The architects also added many innovative features, including a vacuum cleaning system and a sophisticated ventilation system for cooling and heating.
The lobby of the theater features marble wall sculptures depicting moments from great Shakespearean plays and scenes from Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle operas. The design theme continues into the theater house, where Shakespearean characters blend with iconic literary figures from Aesop’s Fables, Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, and classic myths.
The Ziegfeld Follies and other Triumphs
From 1913 to 1927, the theater became the home of The Ziegfeld Follies, whose producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, kept an office in the building and operated a nightclub on the roof. The Ziegfeld Follies became the height of theatrical entertainment, running over for 14 years at the theater. It showcased talents such as Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Bert Williams, Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller, W.C. Fields, Van and Schenck, Sophie Tucker, Helen Morgan, Eaton siblings, and silent film star Olive Thomas.
Like all famous theaters, New Amsterdam is also haunted by an elusive spirit. Olive Thomas was one of the most beautiful Ziegfeld girls to grace the line, but she suddenly died due to mercury poisoning. It remains unclear if her death was an accident, an act of suicide, or even murder. Olive’s friendly soul made a permanent home in the theater, as she has been spotted gliding across the stage as she did when she was alive.
The Midnight Frolics, a racier sister show of the Follies, was performed at the New Amsterdam’s Roof Garden Theatre.
The New Amsterdam became the scene of Marilyn Miller’s greatest successes in her career, such as the musicals Sally (1920) and Sunny (1925), co-starring Clifton Webb. The theater also hosted serious productions, like Julius Caesar (1927) starring Basil Rathbone. In 1933, Roberta opened at the New Amsterdam Theater and starred Bob Hope, Fay Templeton, George Murphy, and Lyda Roberti.
In 1936, the theater staged its last play Sigmund Romberg’s Forbidden Melody, until Disney took over.
The Great Depression triggered the gradual decline of the New Amsterdam Theater. It did much harm to the theater business, and in 1936, the theater closed. By 1937, the New Amsterdam Theater was the last legitimate theater on 42nd Street. That year, it reopened on a limited basis and was soon converted to a movie theatre.
The New York City Industrial Development Corporation raised a $4 million bond issue to acquire the property in 1982 and retained its title, while the responsibility for bond and development payment rested with the Nederlander Organization. By 1984, the Empire State Development Corporation and the New York City Economic Development Corporation owned the property.
After spending $15 million on the property, the Nederlander Organization announced in 1990 that they didn’t consider the restoration of the property to be economically feasible. As a result, they reached a settlement in 1992, where the New York State Urban Development Corporation took ownership of the theater and began structural stabilization immediately through the 42nd Street Development Project.
During its years as a movie theater, the Roof Garden functioned as a rehearsal space for numerous shows, including the original Broadway productions of Gypsy, Camelot, and My Fair Lady.
In 1992, under the backing of the New 42nd Street, the New Amsterdam attracted the attention of Michael Eisner, the then-CEO of Disney. Eisner purchased the theater and hired Hugh Hardy to restore it to its original state.
In 1995, Disney Theatrical Productions signed a 49-year revenue-based lease for the property in May 1995, with Disney Development restoring the theater. The building, which was then recently used as a filming location for Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), was dilapidated. It would take years and millions of dollars to restore it to its original grandeur, and the roof garden didn’t meet modern building codes.
The theater officially reopened in November 1997 with Disney’s stage version of The Lion King. What was once the rooftop theater became the offices for Disney Theatrical. On June 4, 2006, the Lion King closed in the New Amsterdam Theater and moved to the Minskoff Theatre. Mary Poppins began previews at the theater, and it opened on November 16, 2006, and continued to run until March 3, 2013.
The theater was then renovated to accommodate Disney’s Aladdin, which was mounted in the theater in 2014. Aladdin broke the house record at the New Amsterdam Theatre for the week that ended on August 10, 2014, with a gross of $1,602,785.