Archive for Shuberts

The High Aspirations of The Princess Theatre

Posted in Broadway, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by travsd

I’ve had the damnedest time locating an image, but this seems to be it, from the vantage of the Sixth Avenue elevated

On March 14, 1913, New York’s Princess Theatre opened for business. Aside from a couple of exceptions (e.g., the Palace, Niblo’s Garden) we don’t typically write about specific theatrical venues here except in passing. The lapse isn’t inadvertent. It simply isn’t my line. As a general rule, I have very little to say about buildings. But today we make an exception, both because this one had an interesting history, and because it was partially owned by my wife’s family!

The Princess Theatre was an outlier, both in terms of geography and in mission. It was located at 104-106 West 39th Street, off Sixth Ave, which is farther west than most (but not all) Broadway theatres, as well as a bit on the southerly side as the years passed (there also used to be plenty of theatres in the 30s, but gradually, as you know, 42nd Street became the approximate southern boundary.)

But beyond its relative remoteness, it was unusual in other ways. It was an early harbinger, both in size and in mission, of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement. At 299 seats it was far smaller than most other Broadway houses. The intimate scale was intentional. The venue was designed to present one-act dramas by a repertory company, a very early reaction to the commercialization of mainstream theatre certain people were already identifying, coming from an almost identical conceptual place as the later Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Indie-Theatre Movements (the only difference being that the response was coming from the commercial theatre industry itself). The main players in the venture were producer F. Ray Comstock and the Shuberts, with actor-manager Holbrook Blinn and theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (to whom I happen to be distantly related;  Katherine Marbury is my 12th great grandmother; her sister was Rhode Island founder Anne Hutchinson).


The first few years of the Princess were bumpy; the serious plays were not filling the seats. But the venture found success in the middle teens with a series of “thinking man’s musicals”, which have since become known as the Princess Theatre Musicals, with integrated songs, and books less crude than the standard fare of the day. Most of them were authored by the team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The most successful of these was Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for 463 performances.

In the 1920s, the theatre returned to its original mission of dramas. The best known plays from this period were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921, transferred from the Provincetown Playhouse) and the American premiere of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-1923). But it was a tough slog. In 1928, after only 15 years, it ceased to be the Princess Theatre.

Next came a quarter century of name changes, transfers of ownership, and new missions: it became the Lucille Laverne in ’28, the Assemble Theatre in ’29, was shuttered from ’29 to ’33, then became the Reo Theatre, a cinema, in ’33.

In 1934, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the space to use as a recreation hall. Normally, I bemoan such repurposing of precious theatre space, but this new ownership ironically resulted in the greatest theatrical success ever mounted in that location, the Depression Era labor revue Pins and Needles, which ran for 1,108 performances starting in 1937. The Princess was now the Labor Stage, and remained under that name for a decade. In 1947, the legendary Actors Studio was hatched in one of the theatre’s rehearsal spaces.

In 1947, it became Cinema Dante, which showed foreign movies; in 1948, the Little Met; and in 1952, Cinema Verdi. In 1955 it was torn down to make way for an office building. For more on the cinema years, and this theatre in general, see its entry at Cinema Treasures, a wonderful resource.

For all of its history, the Princess Theatre and its later incarnations seem to have been governed by moonbeams, a series of Noble Experiments. It is not atypical that the venture was short lived. But as I sometimes like to joke, the art of theatre would do okay if it weren’t for these damn audiences.

To find out more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Passing Show

Posted in Broadway with tags , , on July 22, 2012 by travsd

Today is the centennial anniversary of the launch of the Shubert Organization’s Passing Show series of Broadway revues. The Passing Show was the first attempt to compete with Ziegfeld’s successful Follies which had sprung up five years earlier. Many other annual revues would follow in its wake, and many would last longer; the last edition of Passing Show was in 1924. But while it existed it fostered the talents of many well known entertainers, including Willie and Eugene Howard, Ed Wynn, Fred Allen, George Jessel, Fred and Adele Astaire, Marilyn Miller, Charlotte Greenwood, Bessie Clayton, and Francis Renault.

In honor of the anniversary, my current show Travesties of 2012 is featuring a tribute to the Passing Show, including two songs written for two editions of the show, “Ragtime Jockey Man” by Irving Berlin, and “Carolina in the Morning” by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson. The songs are being performed by the lovely Meghan Murphy. You simply must attend!

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


Lou Holtz: The Guy Behind Mr. Lapidus

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2009 by travsd


Cut of the same cloth as Benny Rubin, and traveling in the same pack (which also included George Burns, George Jessel, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, et al.) this singer/comedian’s most famous bit consisted of rhyming his jokes and setting them to the tune of “O Sole Mio”.

Born April 11, 1893 in San Francisco, he was performing at a theatre called the Crest in that city with the team of Boland, Holz and Harris when he was discovered by impressionist Elsie Janis’s mother. The year was 1913. Ma Janis convinced the trio to come East to New York to back up Elsie, who was one of the biggest acts in vaudeville at the time. The other two got cold feet and bolted, so Holtz went solo.

Holtz started out in blackface**, copping a lot of his moves from Jolson and Cantor. He was employed by the Shuberts for some time as an understudy for Jolson, reportedly an attempt to keep the latter artist in his place. By 1919 Holtz was at the Palace, where he was soon a regular master of ceremonies. He was well prized for his dialects, particularly, the stereotypical Hebrew one, a character he called Mr. Lapidus. He continued to work in revues, nightclubs, and vaudeville straight through the thirties and by the forties, he had saved up (and carefully invested) a big enough pile to retire for the rest of his life — which is what he did (aside from occasional television appearances through the end of the 70s). He passed away in 1980.

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

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

%d bloggers like this: