Archive for theatres

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.

Lina Abarbanell

Posted in Broadway, Classical, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Lina Abarbanell (1879-1963). Abarbanell was a Berlinese soprano who appeared in both opera and musical theatre. She trained and began her career in her native Germany, then moved to the U.S. in 1905. She appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, on Broadway, and regionally in such productions as Hansel und Gretel, The Student King, The Merry Widow, Madam Sherry, The Grand Duke, The Geisha, etc. But she also worked in prestigious big time vaudeville in venues like the Palace. Abarbanell retired from singing in the mid 1930s but continued to work in the theatre as a casting consultant and a member of production teams well into the 1950s.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Gus Elen

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, British Music Hall, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on July 22, 2014 by travsd


Originally posted in 2013. 

Today is the birthday of Gus Elen (Ernest Augustus Elen, 1862-1940), one of the first of the so-called “coster comedians” of the English music hall. Elen began achieve success in the English music hall around 1891 with songs like “It’s a Great Big Shame”, “Arf a Pint of Ale”, and “If It Wasn’t for the Houses in Between”. He was often compared with Albert Chevalier.

In 1907 William Morris booked him for the fledgling U.S. opposition “Advanced Vaudeville” circuit and enjoyed considerable success (although it can’t have endeared him to the Keith-Albee people). By 1914, Elen was effectively retired although he did briefly re-emerge in the 1930s.

To learn more about Gus Elen, check out a new biography and CD here:

And now, “If It Wasn’t for the Houses in Between”:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.safe_imageAnd check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Tampa: England’s Court Magician

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2013 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Raymond S. Sugden, known professionally as Tampa (1887-1939). He often billed himself as “England’s Court Magician”, despite having been from the Pittsburgh area. His first magic act was even more deceptive about his origins. Starting around 1917 he began performing with partner Ray Hartman in a Chinese-themed act called the Chau Tung Mysteries. This act was short-lived, as Hartman was drafted into the service in WWI. Sugden then went solo under his own name, with his wife and two sons as assistants. This is when he first began claiming to have been a court magician under George V.

In 1925, he began a professional relationship with Howard Thurston, designing and building many illusions for him, and signing a ten year contract to anchor Thurston’s third touring unit. This is when he began to use the name Tampa.

Unfortunately, the depression hit his the act (and the entire industry) hard in the early 30s. The relationship with Thurston unraveled over money issues before the contract ran out. After some time spent working as “Goodwill Ambassador” for a Pittsburgh newspaper he attempted to book himself as Sugden again in the mid to late 30s, but without much success (vaudeville had died by then; the number of theatres had greatly dwindled). Sugden retired before passing away at age 51.

To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc



Balaban & Katz

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2010 by travsd

I bet you didn’t know Hollywood star Bob Balaban has a connection to vaudeville. His father Elmer was one of the 7 Balaban brothers, most of whom were Chicago-based theatre owners. The pioneer was Bob’s uncle Abe, a vaudeville singer who leased a Nickelodeon in 1908 in partnership with his older brother Barney. They pioneered the movies-plus-vaudeville combination that was to find its full flowering in the 20s-30s-40s. Their initial enterprise was so successful, the following year they built the 600-seat Circle Theatre. In 1914 they partnered with Sam Katz, another Chicago theatre owner. In 1916 the combined organization built the 2000 seat Central Park Theatre. Throughout the 1920s, Balaban and Katz grew into a huge chain. Abe Katz retired in 1929 at the age of 40, a rich man. In 1936, barney became President of Paramount Pictures, where he remained for nearly three decades. Sam Katz was to become VP at MGM, and Bob Balaban’s grandmother’s second husband. The Balaban-Katz chain folded in 1970. For more info, go here.


To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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