Koster and Bial

I thought I would flout the Blue Laws this fine Sunday by telling you a bit about Koster and Bial.

John Koster and Adam Bial were a pair of German American brewers who opened their first concert hall/ saloon at the corner of 23rd Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan (the present site of Billy’s Stopless) starting in 1870. Koster was in charge of the booze, and Bial in charge of the performers. They did their jobs well—the place was both boozey and burlesquey. For this reason, they were often in trouble with the law, eventually getting closed down for “encouraging prostitution”. A February 1887 editorial in the Spirit of the Times illustrates the turning tide:  “We have repeatedly pointed out that this establishment was violating the excise and the theatrical license laws by giving entertainments in a saloon where liquors were sold, and we are glad that the authorities have at last interfered.”

In 1893, they found themselves a beard (a van dyck, to be precise) in the form of Oscar Hammerstein.

In 1893, he started building his Manhattan Opera House at 34th and Broadway, the present location of Macy’s Department Store. For various financial reasons, however, Hammerstein found himself needing a partner to bring the project to fruition, and that is how he found himself in the vaudeville business with Koster and Bial. In 1893, Hammerstein helped underwrite Koster and Bial’s New Music Hall, which opened sans alcohol. The theatre boxes, which had traditionally been used as places for assignations with prostitutes in theatres and music halls, had glass doors, so one could see what was going on inside. And unaccompanied ladies were not admitted to the theatre. Koster and Bial’s became one of the prime showplaces of variety entertainment in the late 19th century. It is now today best known to historians (of cinema and otherwise) as the site of the first public exhibition of projected movies. Edison’s Vitascope was demonstrated there in April, 1896. (This was the famous showing, I believe, where audience members were terrified of crashing ocean waves).

This partnership was one of convenience. Koster and Bial benefited from Hammerstein’s legitimacy; he benefited from their audiences. But it lasted only a year. Hammerstein was a bit of an eccentric and he could be difficult, almost childish on occasion. The break up occurred when Hammerstein very publicly booed an act Koster and Bial had booked against his wishes. This was considered beyond the pale and the partners bought him out. Koster and Bial’s remained a major venue for big-time variety through 1901. By then, Koster and Bial had both already passed away, as has had the great age of saloon variety. It was now the age of the vaudeville theatre.

To find out more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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7 Responses to “Koster and Bial”

  1. Hi Travis:
    In your current post you mention the Koster & Bial’s Beer Hall to be where Billy’s Topless was/is.
    Actually it was West of 6th Ave on 23rd St.
    I did quite a bit of research on these theatres and beer halls for my book on Quick Change.

    http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9D07E0D61030E132A25751C2A9619C946097D6CF

    Take care and Thanks for a delightful and intelligent blog…Awesome!
    JIM

  2. Thought you might like to see a pic of Barnum’s American Musuem. Not too many shots of this wonderful emporium around.

    Take care.
    JIM

  3. Incredible! Thanks, Jim! I’m talking at the Barnum Museum on Aug 26. can I use this photo?

  4. […] show The Gold Bug which lasted one week. A succession of prestige vaudeville gigs followed, though: Koster & Bial’s, Proctor’s, Hammerstein’s Olympia, Tony Pastor’s Music Hall, the Keith Circuit. They were […]

  5. […] Josie was a smash, and was instantly booked for a solo engagement at Koster and Bial’s. Jerry and Nellie had also been offered bookings for their two act, but, characteristically turned […]

  6. […] San Francisco, Ethel Levey (b. this day in 1880) came to New York in 1897, singing and dancing at Koster and Bial’s (where she was held over for 20 weeks) and toured with vaudeville companies managed by Weber & […]

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