The Times Square Alliance is proud to continue to work to improve and promote Times Square, so that it retains the creativity, energy and edge that have made it an icon for entertainment, culture and urban life for over a century.
Built in 1900 by Oscar Hammerstein and originally named the "Theatre Republic," the venue helped establish 42nd Street as the City's new theater district. Hammerstein described it as the "perfect parlor theater...a drawing room of the drama dedicated to all that is best in dramatic and lyric art."In 1902, the impresario David Belasco took over the theater's stewardship. A string of hits followed, showcasing such talents as George Arliss, Tyrone Power, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. After 1914, when Belasco moved on to other venues, a series of producers continued to mount plays and vaudeville shows.
Legitimate theater at the Republic finally ceased in 1932, when Billy Minsky opened Broadway's first striptease house there. Minsky painted a brash checkerboard pattern on the facade, juxtaposed with the faces of his leading ladies, and installed a double runway down the middle of the auditorium. Burlesque shows continued to grind until 1937 when they were banned by Mayor LaGuardia. In a burst of wartime patriotism, the theater was renamed the Victory and showed second-run motion pictures over the next several decades. When 42nd Street's decline reached new depths in the 1970s, the Victory became the block's first XXX-rated movie house.
The December 11, 1995, opening and dedication of The New Victory -- New York's oldest active theater -- has marked a new era for 42nd Street. For more than 100 years, the theater has symbolized and survived the mercurial fortunes of this fabled street. Now as before, its reemergence -- this time as a theater for young audiences -- signals the next and newest wave of popular entertainment on the block.
The New 42nd Street, a nonprofit organization founded in 1990, sparked the revitalization of the block when it renovated the Victory and reopened it in1995 as The New Victory Theater. Newsday raved that "sitting in The New Victory Theater is like being inside a treasure chest," and with just 499 seats in the house, audiences are guaranteed an intimate connection to world-class artists and their thoughtful, inspiring, sometimes gritty, sometimes hilarious productions. For a century, Oscar Hammerstein's theater has been a catalyst for change. Under the direction of The New 42nd Street, the New Victory Theater launched 42nd Street as a premier destination, once again, for all of New York's citizens and visitors.
One of the most important theater moments in Broadway history, the building of the Olympia Theater by Oscar Hammerstein I, that eventually lead to the building of the New Victory. Before Hammerstein, in the late 1800's, Longacre Square (now Times Square) was a muddy area just above 42nd Street where 7th Avenue and Broadway meet.
Although the twinkling lights of theaters and restaurants shined a few blocks south, Longacre Square was home to brothels, seedy hotels, and crime. In 1895 Oscar Hammerstein I (not to be confused with his grandson the famous Broadway lyricist) built the Olympia Theater, which changed the area forever.
Hammerstein was born in Poland of Jewish-German descent, and although the theater was his first love, he made his living off the tobacco industry when he first arrived in the United States. He made cigars and held patents on approximately 50 cigar machines. His success in the tobacco industry allowed him to return to his original passion: theater. He used his fortune to fund the design and construction of Olympia Theater.
The theater had three grand halls and its dazzling newness completely transformed Longacre Square. Because the parcel of land was so close to the existing theater district, it wasn't a stretch for theatergoers to travel a little further north to visit the new attraction. In fact, the opening on November 25, 1895, caused quite a stir.
The opening event was featured on the front page of the New York Times the following day, which reported that Hammerstein had to call the police to help with the overflowing crowds (although one might wonder why a theater that only had space for 6,000 patrons sold 10,000 tickets that night). The show was a comic opera called "Edward E. Rice's Exelsior Jr." The crowd enjoyed the entertainment which included circus acts and a big band, but outside a war waged on into the evening between the police and the ticket holders unable to come inside the oversold theater.
Oscar Hammerstein III related to the New York Times that he thought the combination of the theater having too many seats for the time and the influx of immigrants who didn't understand English and preferred Vaudeville contributed to the failure of the theater. The struggling theater underwent an evolution that included a movie house called the Criterion before it was demolished in 1935.
Of course, that wasn't the end of Hammerstein. He was a tenacious man whose visionary ideas, some might say, were before his time. Over the years he continued to change the face of what is now known as Times Square and the surrounding area. In addition to the New Victory (then the Theater Republic), he opened The Victoria (which had a popular roof garden), and the Lew Fields, all on 42nd Street between 1898 and 1904.
Cover photo credit: Charmaine Zoe's Marvelous Melange via Flickr