100 Years Ago Today: The Opening of Loew’s State, New York’s “Last Vaudeville Theatre”

On August 29, 1921, Marcus Loew opened Loew’s State, the flagship of his vaudeville-and-flicker circuit, thought of as the top of the line small time, at 1540 Broadway in the heart of Times Square. The address had formerly been the site of the Bartholdi Inn (a theatrical boarding house), the offices of Variety, and other businesses. By the time Loew built the 3,500 seat behemoth, he had been growing his nationwide chain for 15 years. The location was just a couple of blocks South of the Palace Theatre, making the big time managers nervous, but the venues weren’t precisely in competition. Loew presented a movie-and-vaudeville combo, showed fewer live acts (5 to a bill), and paid his acts less. Shortly after opening Loew’s State, Loew assembled the various pieces that became the movie studio MGM, so it presented that studio’s product, often premiering its films. It was a precursor to the big presentation houses all the major studios had, a kind of succesor form to vaudeville in the 1930s and ’40s. Loew himself died in 1927, so he did not live long enough to see many of its triumphs.

Some of the major vaudeville acts that played Loew’s State included Arthur Tracy, Peg Leg Bates, boxer Gene Tunney, the Gumm Sisters (featuring a young Judy Garland), the Ritz Brothers, Cab Calloway, a post-scandal Fatty Arbuckle, The O’Connors (with young Donald O’Connor), Bee Palmer, Gertrude Niesen, Lillian Shaw, Russ Brown (teamed with Bert Lahr), and in later years, youngsters like Larry Storch and Jack Carter. Columnist Mark Hellinger performed there with his wife Gladys Glad, and Ed Sullivan presented shows there, helping to establish the reputation that led to his TV variety show. Nils T. Granlund was the State’s well regarded publicity man.

December 23, 1947 was the last show at Loew’s State to feature live vaudeville acts, which is why some mark this date, rather than the Palace’s ending of the two-a-day 15 years earlier, as the end of vaudeville. (Joe Laurie attributed the date to the advent of TV, though that seems a little early. Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle didn’t start revolutionizing tv variety until the following year.) Even after Loew’s State closed there may have been some minor theatres presenting live variety at the local level at some places around the country. But Loew’s State was the last major one. The final show was a tearful, sentimental, all-star event.

The venue chugged on as a prestige cinema for another four decades. Movies that premiered there included MGM’s The Three Musketeers (1948), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Ben Hur (1959), Some Like It Hot (1959), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964), and The Godfather (1972). It closed as a theatre in 1987. The Bertelsmann Building went up there a couple of years later. Since 2013 it has been in other hands. A variety of retail stores occupy the ground floor at present. Passers-by walk past never knowing that the spot was once the location of one of Times Squares most popular venues.

For more on Marcus Loew and the Loew’s Circuit go here.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.