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The first quarter of the 20th century saw a dramatic change in the sizes and types of popular entertainment venues. Blue-collar audiences, previously relegated to the upper balconies of the large theaters, flocked to cheaper new movie houses. Inspired by these intimate new spaces, impresarios like David Belasco created smaller theaters showcasing new types of drama.
The Belasco Theater, opened in 1907, features a colonial revival exterior and a neo-Georgian auditorium complete with 18 murals by renowned artist Everett Shin. Belasco made certain that the latest theatrical innovations, including sophisticated lighting, an elevator stage, and a nascent special effects studio, were all in place in time for opening night. The Belasco has since seen almost constant use as a legitimate Broadway house, save for a brief period in the 1950s when it served as an NBC radio studio.
The theater has showcased classics from William Shakespeare to Clifford Odets to Noel Coward to George S. Kaufman, hosted iconic talents from John Barrymore to Humphrey Bogart to Walter Matthau, and witnessed Tony-winning performances from the likes of Martita Hunt ("The Madwoman of Chaillot," 1948), Colleen Dewhurst ("All the Way Home," 1960), Beryl Reid ("The Killing of Sister George," 1966), Ralph Fiennes ("Hamlet," 1995), and Janet McTeer and Owen Reed ("The Doll House", 1997). Die-hard fans of "The Rocky Horror Show" may also remember the Belasco as the home of the show's legendary 1975 production featuring Tim Curry.
David Belasco was born in 1853 and began his career as an actor in San Francisco. He moved to New York in 1880 where he would make history. Early on he served as manager of Madison Square Garden and the Lyceum. In 1890 he began producing and opened his first theater (The Belasco in New York) in 1907. Since then there have been several Belasco theaters, including one in Los Angeles and another in Washington, DC.
He wrote and adapted hundreds of plays, famously creating the adaptation of "Madame Butterfly" which was originally a short story written in the late 1800's. People flocked to his productions to enjoy the realism that resulted from his innovative staging and lighting design. He was ahead of his time when it came to his technical work for the stage, pioneering techniques still used today. His achievements won him a powerful position in the theater community, giving him the ability to elevate actors to stardom. He was one of the most important pioneers of the Broadway we know today, and his theater is a landmark.
Cover photo credit: Sarah Browning via Flickr