The Theater District in the heart of Manhattan is home to some of the world’s oldest and most iconic Broadway theaters. Costumed characters beckon to energetic crowds under the pulsing lights of digital billboards. Tourists and locals gather on a giant red staircase to buy tickets to Broadway shows running at the historic theaters.
New York’s strong theatrical tradition, which is very much alive today in the Theater District and Lincoln center, started to over a century ago. When the Metropolitan Opera House moved to West 39th Street and Broadway in 1883, the neighborhood began attracting restaurants and theaters to the area. Its popularity was further spurred by the installation of the first subway line in the city in 1904, and theater became more accessible than ever.
Today, Broadway is now full of towering electronic billboards, tourist attractions, and flashing lights. But even with the flashy modern additions, you can still find some historic, age-old Broadway theaters in operation. Here are some of the oldest theaters on Broadway:
1. New Victory Theater, 1900
An off-Broadway theater located at 209 West 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan, the New Victory Theater was built during 1900 as the Theatre Republic. It was built by Oscar Hammerstein I, the grandfather of the famous lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The theater opened with Lionel Barrymore in James Herne’s Sag Harbor.
Designed by architect Albert Westover, the New Victory Theater has an elaborately decorated interior crowned with a large, gilded dome that featured lyre-playing cherubs perched on its rim. It also has grand marble stairways, ornate lampposts, and carved balusters. An orchestra pit, a modern stage, and a lighting system have been added in the 1920s.
This theater has undergone many name changes. When it was leased by David Belasco two years later, it was renamed the Belasco Theatre. It became the Republic Theatre when Belasco named another theater for himself. In 1931, the theater was converted into a burlesque house and was named Minsky’s Burlesque, which operated until 1941 when Mayor LaGuardia banned burlesque. The Republic became a movie theater in the 1940s and adopted a new name, The Victory, in the spirit of World War II. The theater scandalously showed pornographic films during the ‘70s, making it the first theater to do so in the area.
In 1995, the theater was renovated as part of the revitalization of the area and was renamed the New Victory Theater. The theater received a special Drama Desk Award in 2012 for “providing enchanting, sophisticated theater that appeals to the child in all of us, and for nurturing a love of theater in young people.”
2. The Lyceum Theatre, 1903
Opened in 1903, the Lyceum Theatre is one of the oldest surviving Broadway venues, along with the New Amsterdam and the Hudson Theatres. It’s the oldest continuously operating legitimate theatre in New York and the first Broadway theatre ever to be granted landmark status.
Built by theatrical producer Daniel Frohman, the Lyceum was designed by architect Herts and Tallant in the Beaux-Arts style. The theater building comes with a gray limestone façade, large French windows, fluted columns, a mansard roof, and a wide frieze engraved with theatrical masks.
Frohman himself lived in an apartment above the auditorium, which offers a small view of the stage. Legend has it that he would wave a white handkerchief to signal to his wife, actress Margaret Illington, that she was overacting.
Since 1952, the Shubert Organization owns and manages the theatre. Notable productions to premiere at the Lyceum include The Admirable Crichton (1903), Liza with a Z (1972), Steel Magnolias (2005), and Oh, Hello (2017).
3. The Hudson Theatre, 1903
The Hudson Theatre, also opening in 1903, is among the oldest Broadway theaters in the city. It was built by Henry Harris, who later died tragically in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. This Broadway theater is located at West 44th Street, between Times Square and 6th Avenue in New York.
During the time of its construction, the theater had a 100-foot long lobby and a Tiffany stained glass ceiling. The interiors of the theater also feature concealed lighting and classical plaster ornamentation. The building received landmark status in 1987. By 2016, the Hudson Theatre was already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Though it originally served as a theater, the building has also been used for different purposes. In the 1930s to 1940s, the Hudson Theatre was a CBS radio studio in between productions. In 1950, it served as a television studio for NBC, where “The Tonight Show” was broadcast. The Hudson reopened as a movie cinema for adult films in 1974, then ran as the Savoy rock club during the rest of the decade. Finally, the building was converted back into a Broadway theater in 2015 and opened in 2017 with a revival production of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”
4. The New Amsterdam Theatre, 1903
Along with the Lyceum and Hudson Theatres, the New Amsterdam Theatre is among the oldest surviving Broadway theaters in New York, opening in 1903. At the time of its construction, the theater was the largest on Broadway, with 1,702 seats. It is located at West 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in the Theater District of Manhattan.
Designed by the architecture firm of Henry Hertz and Hugh Tallant, the New Amsterdam is a rare example of Art Nouveau architecture in New York. Both the Beaux-Arts exterior and the Art Nouveau interior of the building became New York City landmarks. Also, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The building was constructed by the partnership of impresarios Marcus Klaw and A.L. Erlanger. It opened with the production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Roof Garden was also installed, and it was where more risqué productions were presented. The remainder of the building was used for offices.
It remained a movie theater until 1985 when Disney Theatrical Production bought the building as the flagship theater for Broadway’s Walt Disney productions.
5. The Liberty Theatre, 1904
Though the venue is no longer used as a Broadway theater, The Liberty Theater was among the first professional theaters to operate on Broadway. It was a Broadway theater from 1904 to 1933, and it is located at West 42nd Street in New York.
Built by the partnership of Klaw and Erlanger, the theater was built in a Beaux-Arts style. The design featured a Neo-Classical inspired façade that includes a 100-foot long entry in the lobby, a set of caryatides by the main entry, and a large arched window below the carving of the Liberty Bell. The auditorium held over 1,000 seats, and it also featured Liberty Bells and eagles circling the dome ceiling and the proscenium arch.
After it served as a Broadway theater until 1933, it was converted to a movie theater and remained as a theater until 1996. By then, much of the original architecture has been remodeled and removed. After years of vacancy, the foyer of the theater was remodeled as a restaurant where a bar currently operates, and the auditorium is used for special events.
6. The Belasco Theatre, 1907
Opening in 1907, the Belasco Theatre was originally known as the Stuyvesant Theatre, designed by architect Geroge Keister for impresario David Belasco. The theater was intended to house living room plays, so the audience seats are intended to be as close to the actors as possible. The interior featured ceiling panels, Tiffany lighting, rich woodwork, and expansive murals. The design displays a fusion of Spanish Renaissance, Churrigueresque, Moorish, and Gothic architecture. Most original details survived, including its striking dome ceiling.
The theatre today seats more than 1,000. In its early days, the theater was lauded for having a complex lighting board, even during the early days of electricity.
The Belasco Theatre is subject to an urban legend that David Belasco’s ghost haunts the theater every night. Some performers in the shows held in the theater have even claimed to have spotted him during performances. Rumor has it that the spirit was only driven away with the theater’s 1971 production of “Oh! Calcutta!” Supposedly, the promiscuity of the show caused the ghost of the theater’s namesake to stop appearing.
7. The Winter Garden Theatre, 1911
The Winter Garden Theatre is a Broadway theatre that has been reconfigured multiple times in history. Initially, the structure was built in 1886 as the American Horse Exchange, a building built by William K. Vanderbilt. It was a time when Time Square, formerly known as the Longacre Square, was the center of the horse and carriage industry.
In 1911, the Shuberts hired architect William Albert Swasey to convert the building into a theatre. Opening in 1911, it became the fourth New York City venue to be christened as the Winter Garden. It was later remodeled in 1922 by Herbert Krapp. After the remodel, the Winter Garden had a stage wider than most Broadway stages and a relatively low proscenium arch.
The theater’s longest-running production was “Cats,” which ran for 18 years starting from 1982 to 2000. The auditorium was essentially gutted and remodeled specifically for the production to accommodate its junkyard setting. When “Cats” closed in 2000, the theater was restored to its original 1920s modeling.