New York Hippodrome


New York Hippodrome
The Hippodrome on a hand-colored postcard sent in 1907

The Hippodrome Theatre, also called the New York Hippodrome, was a theatre in New York City from 1905 to 1939, located on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets in the Theater District of Midtown Manhattan. It was called the world's largest theatre by its builders and had a seating capacity of 5,300,[1] with a 100x200ft (30x61m) stage.[2] The theatre had state of the art theatrical technology, including a rising glass water tank.

The Hippodrome was built by Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, creators of the Luna Park amusement park at Coney Island, with the backing of Harry S. Black's U.S. Realty, a dominant real estate and construction company of the time,[3] and was acquired by The Shubert Organization in 1909. In 1933, it was re-opened as the New York Hippodrome cinema, and became the stage for Billy Rose's Jumbo in 1935. Acts which appeared at the Hippodrome included numerous circuses, musical revues, Harry Houdini's disappearing elephant, vaudeville, silent movies such as Neptune's Daughter (1914) and Better Times (1922) and 1930s cinema.[2]

The theatre closed in August 1939 for demolition,[2] and in 1952 a large modern office building known as "The Hippodrome Center" (1120 Avenue of the Americas), opened on the site.

Contents

Construction

Construction of the Hippodrome began in June 1904, with Frederick Thompson and Jay H. Morgan as architects, and the Fuller Company as the general contractor.[3][4] Finishing touches were still being put in place days before the April 12, 1905 opening.[3] With a seating capacity of 5300, almost twice that of the Metropolitan Opera's 3000 seats,[3] the gargantuan building is still considered as one of the true wonders of theatre architecture. Its stage was 12 times larger than any Broadway "legit" house and was capable of holding as many as 1,000 performers at a time, or a full-sized circus with elephants and horses – who could be housed in built-in stalls under the state.[3] It also had an 14-foot high, 60-foot diameter, 8,000-gallon clear glass water tank that could be raised from below the stage by hydraulic pistons for swimming-and-diving shows.[3]

The exterior of the red-brick and terra-cotta building was Moorish in style, with two corner towers, each of which was topped by a globe covered in electric lights.[1][3]

The Hippodrome, depicted on a hand-tinted postcard

Opening

The gala opening on April 12, 1905 was completely sold out, with seats being priced at as little as 25 cents in the theatre's "Family Circle", while others had been auctioned off for as much as $575. The performance was a four hour extravaganza, the first act of which was called A Yankee Circus on Mars, which featured space ships, horses, elephants, acrobats, clowns – including the noted English clown Marcelline – a baboon named Coco, an orchestra of 60, hundreds of singers, and 150 dancers performing to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours. The second act was Andersonville, about the notorious Confederate military prison where many Union soldiers were maltreated. The spectacle depicted the Union raid on the camp, with gunfire, explosions and cavalry troops on horseback swimming across the huge water tank simulating a lake.[3]

The glory years

For a time the Hippodrome was the largest and most successful theater in New York. The Hippodrome featured lavish spectacles complete with circus animals, diving horses, opulent sets, and 500-member choruses. Until the end of World War I, the Hippodrome housed all sorts of spectacles then switched to musical extravaganzas produced by Charles Dillingham, including "Better Times," which ran for more than 400 performances.

When Dillingham left in 1923 to pursue other interests, the Hippodrome was leased to Keith-Albee, which hired architect Thomas W. Lamb[4] to turn it into a vaudeville theatre by building a much smaller stage and discarding all of its unique features. The most popular vaudeville artists of the day, including illusionist Harry Houdini, performed at the Hippodrome during its heyday. Others might vanish rabbits, but in 1918, on the brightly-lit stage of the Hippodrome, Houdini made a 10,000-pound elephant disappear, creating a sensation.

The Hippodrome's huge running costs made it a perennial financial failure, and a series of producers tried and failed to make money from the theatre. It became a location for vaudeville productions in 1923 before being leased for budget opera performances, then finally becoming a sports arena.

Decline and fall

In 1922, the elephants that graced the stage of the Hippodrome since its opening moved uptown to the Bronx's Royal Theater. On arrival, stage worker Miller Renard recalled, the elephants were greeted with extraordinary fanfare:

The next day the Borough President gives them a dinner on the lawn of the Chamber of Commerce up on Tremont Avenue, with special dinner menus for the elephants. It was some show to see all those elephants march up those steps to the table where each elephant had a bail of hay. The[n], the Borough President welcomes the elephants to the Bronx, and the place is just mobbed with people. And that was the worst week's business we ever done in that theatre.

In 1925, movies were added to the vaudeville, but within a few years, competition from the newer and more sumptuous movie palaces in the Broadway-Times Square area forced Keith-Albee-Orpheum, which was merged into RKO by May 1928, to sell the theatre. Several attempts to use the Hippodrome for plays and operas failed, and it remained dark until 1935, when producer Billy Rose leased it for his spectacular Rodgers & Hart circus musical, Jumbo, which received favorable reviews but lasted only five months due to the Great Depression.

After that, the Hippodrome sputtered through bookings of late-run movies, boxing, wrestling, and jai alai games before being demolished in 1939 as the value of real estate on Sixth Avenue began to escalate. The New York Hippodrome closed on August 16, 1939. The start of World War II delayed re-development, and the Hippodrome site remained vacant until 1952, when it was taken over for a combination office building and parking garage.

Legacy

The building was torn down in 1939, though an office building and parking garage that today stands on the same site claims the name "The Hippodrome Center."[5] Through the 1960s the modern building was the corporate headquarters of the old Charter Communications Inc. media publishing company.

In the 1970s, the famous old theater also gave its name to the nearby "Little Hippodrome", a drag and comedy club which was located at 227 East 56th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. The club is famous for hosting the final live New York performances of the legendary Glam rock group, The New York Dolls in March 1975, a month before the group disbanded.[6] The show recorded at that venue appeared later as the group's Red Patent Leather album.[7] Soon after in 1975 that location of the defunct Little Hippodrome club re-opened as The East Side Club, a gay men's social club.[8]

The largest theater in New York City is now Radio City Music Hall.

References

Notes
  1. ^ a b Shanor
  2. ^ a b c "World Theatres - alphabetical listing", World-Theatres, 2008, webpage: World-theatres.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Alexiou
  4. ^ a b Morrison, William (1999). Broadway Theatres: History and Architecture. Dover Books on Architecture. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications. pp. 48–50. ISBN 0-486-40244-4. 
  5. ^ The Hippodrome Center, Star Office Space
  6. ^ From the Hip, "It's All the streets you crossed not so long ago" blog, October 18, 2005, from Nina Antonia, "Too Much, Too Soon" London: Omnibus, 1998, and Village Voice ad, March 30, 1975
  7. ^ Live in NYC - 1975, mp3.com
  8. ^ East Side Club home
Bibliography
  • Alexiou, Alice Sparberg. The Flatiron: the New York landmark and the incomparable city that arose with it. New York: Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, 2010. ISBN 978-0-312-38468-5, pp. 188-193
  • Epstein, Milton. The New York Hippodrome: A Complete Chronology of Performances, From 1905 to 1939. Performing Art Resources, vol. 17-18. New York: Theatre Library Association, 1993. ISBN 0032610140
  • Shanor, Rebecca Read. "Hippodrome" in Jackson, Kenneth T. (ed.), The Encyclopedia of New York City (2nd edition). New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-300-11465-2, pp. 597-598

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