Koster and Bial: Last of the “Variety” Impresarios

‘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 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. That year, Hammerstein started building his Manhattan Opera House at 34th and Broadway, the present location of Macy’s Department Store.

Sign across from Macy’s honors the old site of Koster and Bial’s

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. Hammerstein helped underwrite their 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.

Koster was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I paid him a visit in 2015:

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including Koster and Bial, consult 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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