Broadway Theatre - a History

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Broadway Theater

Broadway is the longest street in New York, starting in downtown Manhattan, and running through town, crossing the Broadway Bridge, and continues to Bronx (Greiner, visit- new-york-city.com) Then why when people hear this street name, do they think of theater? That’s because this street, commonly referred to as the “Great White Way”, has 36 theaters. These 36 theaters, along with 4 other, make up what is called the Theatre District.   

              Broadway history dates back to the late 1600's, when a coffee house called 'The King's Arms' opened in 1696 on Broadway. Some scholars think this may have held Manhattan's earliest theatrical performances (Kenrick, J, musicals101.com). However, it isn't until December 6, 1732, when the first professional performance of a specific play is recorded in New York City. The play was “The Recruiting Officer”, and was performed by a group of actors from London, in an empty building near Maiden Lane and Pearl Street. Performances continued in this unnamed place through the end of the decade. For it wasn't until 1750, when New York had around ten thousand citizens, that it received its first formal theater (Kenrick, J, musicals101.com). However, the theater was still not on Broadway, but slightly east on Nassau Street, which gave it the name "Theatre on Nassau Street." This theater was a wooden, two story structure that could only hold about 280 people. Walter Murray and Thomas Kean presented Shakespeare’s "Richard III" on March 5, 1750. They also presented the first documented musical in New York, which was John Gay's "The Beggars Opera", on December 3, 1750.  Historians don't know much about the Theater on Nassau Street, which results in mostly guesswork. In her book “Theater In American”, Mary C. Henderson said, "May have been either a warehouse or a brewery (or both). . . probably fitted up with a stage at one end, benches in front of it, and a raised gallery at the rear for common folk. Murray and Kean made a significant addition to their New York playhouse – they added boxes along the side walls, not only to increase the seating (a sign that they attained a moderate success) but also to provide a special place for the elite of the city." (Henderson, 237). Unfortunately, the theater was later sold and turned into storage space, and then was eventually torn down in 1754 to make way for a church (Kenrick, musicals101.com).                   

  In 1798 the city's first world-class theater was built (Kenrick, musicals101.com). The "Park Theatre" could hold 2,000 people, had a spacious bench-filled pit, four tiers of private boxes, and a top gallery. Lewis A Erenber talks about the Park theatre in his book "Steppin' Out" saying, "All kinds of performances were housed under one roof, so that audiences in the 1830s might see drama, circus, opera and dance on the same bill. New York's Park Theater, despite a reputation as an elite house, had a relatively large room that permitted the masses to govern the stage. Each class had its own part of the theatre, but all attended - mechanics in the pit, upper classes and women in the boxes, and prostitutes, lower class men, and blacks in the balcony. The rowdy audiences often yelled, stamped, drank and smoked during the performance." (Erenberg, 15). Admission for the theater was 50 cents for the pit, 25 cents for the gallery, and a full dollar for the boxes (Kenrick, musicals101.com). The behavior of the rowdy audience was often drowned out by the action on stage, though showers of nuts and fruits from the balcony were common. Prostitutes often conducted business in the balcony, which led to much belief by the church that theatres were "foyers of hell".  

       One of the next theaters to open, was the 'Bowery Theatre' in 1826 (Kenrick, musicals101.com). It aimed at the upper class at first, but when new management took over, decided to cater to the...
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