December 21 was the birthday of theatre impresario Arthur Hammerstein (1872-1955). What with our vaudeville goggles on, we have given Arthur short shrift, having written mostly about the father Oscar Hammerstein I, one of the most important New York vaudeville entrepreneurs, and younger brother Willie, legendary booker at the Victoria Theatre, and father of the beloved Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.
But I realized there is a vaudeville angle to Arthur as well, and even if there weren’t, he was an important man in the theatre besides, so some tribute today. The vaudeville angle? Well, first off, in 1927 he built Hammerstein’s Theater, which later became Billy Rose’s Music Hall, and still later The Ed Sullivan Theatre, home of The Ed Sullivan Show vaudeville’s last haven in the television era. Still later, it was where Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell was presented, and then The Late Show with David Letterman, and now with Stephen Colbert. And for many years it was also a radio studio. So, it was an important post-vaudeville center for variety. Hammerstein also produced a couple of vaudeville style revues during his two-dozen-or-so years as a Broadway impresario, including Hammerstein’s Nine O’Clock Revue (1923), and Ballyhoo of 1930, WC Fields’ last Broadway show.
Arthur had initially followed in his father’s footsteps as a building contractor, literally doing manual labor on the construction of some of his father’s buildings, such as the Victoria itself. He didn’t plunge into show business until after his younger brother Willie had made a success at it. He worked on Oscar’s 1910 production of Naughty Marietta; his first production on his own was Rudolf Frimi’s The Firefly (1912). Close to three dozen shows followed, including High Jinks (1913) featuring his daughter Elaine; Sometime (1918-1919) with Mae West and Ed Wynn (for real!); Tickle Me (1920-21) with Frank Tinney; the original production of Rose Marie (1924-26); and Sweet Adeline (1929-30) with Charles Butterworth, Irene Franklin, and Helen Morgan. Some of nephew Oscar Hammerstein (the songwriter’s) first shows were produced by Arthur Hammerstein.
In 1924 Arthur married movie star Dorothy Dalton, whom we wrote about here. In 1930 he produced his only film The Lottery Bride, starring Jeanette MacDonald, John Garrick, Joe E. Brown, Zasu Pitts, and Harry Gribbon. Arthur also dabbled in songwriting. His most successful effort was the standard “Because of You” (1940), best known from Tony Bennett’s 1951 cover, which went to #1 on the charts. Hammerstein’s Queens mansion, located in Beechurst-Whitestone, has been landmarked. He and his family lived there from 1924 through 1930.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.