John Cort: From Box Houses to Broadway

People name places after particular human beings so that they will be remembered. And then what happens? We forget them anyway. Broadway theatre lovers have no doubt been in the Cort Theatre on West 48th Street many a time. This morning I thought I’d give you a line to who this long forgotten “Cort” was, as he was a pretty important guy in the theatre.

Most sources say that John Cort was born in 1859 in my mother’s hometown of Woodstock, Connecticut — one factor that piqued my interest about him, as it’s a pretty rural community, and was much more so back then. Other sources give NYC in 1861 for his birth, which I find far less interesting! He started out in a minor vaudeville/variety comedy team called Cort and Murphy, but quickly gravitated to management. He first took charge of a venue in Cairo, Illinois, and that gained him a foothold. He made his name and first fortune managing box houses in Seattle in competition with Alexander Pantages and Sullivan and Considine. (Box houses were rough and tumble combination variety theatres, saloons and cathouses). One of Cort’s venues, the Standard, was Seattle’s first theatre with electric lighting. He became one of the first to build a theatre chain with these type of houses starting in the 1880s. Around the turn of the century, he traded up to legit theatres and founded the Northwest Theatrical Association, and formed an alliance with Klaw and Erlanger. At his height he had over 100 theatres under his control. In 1910 he joined with the Shuberts in co-founding the National Theatre Owner’s Association in opposition to K & E.

Meantime, he had become a Broadway producer. His first effort was The Strength of the Weak (1906) with Tyrone Power Sr and Florence Roberts. In 1912, he opened the 1000+ seat Cort Theatre, designed by Thomas Lamb. The inaugural show, Peg O’ My Heart starring Laurette Taylor, ran for two years (this was followed by several other plays by its author J. Hartley Manners). Several dozen Broadway productions would bear the Cort imprimatur in the coming years, among them Anna Held’s All Star Variete Jubilee (1913), The Princess Pat (1915) with Sam Hardy, Al Shean, Doris Kenyon, and Katherine Witchie; the American premiere of The Better ‘Ole (1918) with Mr, and Mrs. Charles Coburn; Roly Boly Eyes (1919) with Eddie Leonard; Abraham Lincoln (1919) with Frank McGlynn and David Landau; Jim Jam Jems (1920) with Joe E. Brown, Frank Fay, Ned Sparks, and Harry and Rose Langdon; the original production of Merton of the Movies (1922) by Kaufman and Connelly; The Swan (1923) with Basil Rathbone; The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1924) with Henry Daniell; and the original production of The Jazz Singer (1925) with George Jessel. He also dabbled in films as one of the backers of the Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company, which was later absorbed by Famous Players-Lasky. After 1927, the Cort Theatre was owned and operated by the Shuberts.

Cort’s son, John Cort, Jr, also sometimes billed as John E. Cort, was married to stage and screen star Maude Fealy from 1920 to 1923. He was also a producer, and briefly operated Broadway theatres under the Cort name on 58th Street and 63rd Street in the 1930s.

For more on vaudeville and variety theatre,  please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.