Four New York City theaters have borne the name Wallack's Theatre. Each has had other names before or after, or both. All are demolished.
The last was one of the ten theaters which in the early 20th century made one block of 42nd Street internationally famous for its concentration of playhouses.
The earlier three played an important part in the history of American theater, as the successive homes of the stock company managed by actors James W. Wallack and his son, Lester Wallack. During its 35-year lifetime, from 1852 to 1887, that company developed and held a reputation as the best theater company in the country.
James W. and Lester Wallack's Theatres
James W. Wallack and Lester Wallack, father and son, were 19th century actors and theater managers; that is, entrepreneurs whose business was a theatrical stock company, a troupe of actors and support personnel presenting a variety of plays in one theater. Actor-managers, such as the Wallacks, were members of their own company. Often, a manager leased a theater from its owner, and since the building was deemed an important part of the playgoer's experience, typically renovated it to his own taste. Sometimes a manager was able to have a theater built to his specifications, as did John Brougham.
On December 23, 1850, Irish actor-manager John Brougham opened his Lyceum at 485 Broadway near Broome Street. The next day, the New York Herald reported:
Builder and architect John M. Trimble, a theater specialist, had rebuilt the Bowery Theatre in 1845 after its destruction by fire, and had designed the Broadway Theatre, between Pearl and Anthony (now Worth) Streets in 1847. Earlier in 1850, he had built the new "Lecture Room" (theater) of Barnum's American Museum, and Tripler Hall (a concert venue).
The performances at the new theater were principally burlesques and farces. Brougham was a successful actor, but this enterprise failed. After two seasons, James W. Wallack leased the house and, following custom, renamed it for himself. Age 57, he was a well-known and well-respected British-American actor who had proved himself as a manager at the National Theater (Church and Leonard Streets) from 1837 until it burned down in 1839. After extensive renovation, he opened his new theater on September 8, 1852, with The Way to Get Married and The Boarding School. His sons, Lester, age 32, and Charles, were stage-manager and treasurer, respectively. Theodore Moss, who was to become a lifelong associate of the Wallacks, was assistant treasurer and later became treasurer, his position for many years. Admissions were fifty and twenty-five cents.
The elder Wallack had made his first appearance in America at age 24, on September 7, 1818, playing Macbeth at the Park Theatre to much acclaim. Lester's first appearance in the United States had been made, also to much acclaim, at age 27 on opening night of the aforementioned Broadway Theatre, September 27, 1847, playing Sir Charles Coldstream in the after piece, Dion Boucicault's and Charles Mathews' farce Used Up. (His stage name was John Lester; he didn't work as Lester Wallack until October 1858.)
In 1854, Putnam's Monthly commented:
For the two seasons 1856–58 Wallack leased the house to William Stuart, who managed it with Lester Wallack as stage manager, Dion Boucicault as general director, and Theodore Moss as treasurer. Stuart, an Irishman whose real name was Edmund O'Flaherty, had been a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. An alleged embezzler, he fled to New York in 1854, and wrote for the New York Tribune. He later managed the Winter Garden, and then the Park Theatre, on Broadway between 21st and 22nd Streets, and was widely popular socially.
The elder Wallack performed October 20 through November 22, 1856, and May 11 through June 6, 1857. Brown asserts that Wallack's engagement was unsuccessful, that he played to the poorest houses of the season, and that he insisted on appearing in parts for which at this time he was too old, though he had gained a reputation in them twenty years before. Wallack did not perform during the 1857–58 season, and he resumed management of the theater in fall 1858. He appeared for the first time that season on December 9, as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice; on January 17 created the part of Colonel Delmar in The Veteran, Lester's new play, which ran 102 nights; and ended his acting career on May 14, as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. He managed the house for two more seasons.
Ireland's assessment (published in 1867):
In 1861, Wallack moved his company. After he left number 485, the theater was continued under various managers and names and underwent various vicissitudes — German opera, melodrama, legitimate theatre, concerts, Lent's Circus — until 1864, when it came under the management of George Wood, who restored its pre-circus condition and opened it May 2 as the Broadway Theatre. On April 1, 1867, Wood transferred the lease to Barney Williams, who managed the house for its last two years. The final performance was a benefit for Williams' business manager on Wednesday, April 28, 1869, comprising Ireland as It Was, the farces The Returned Volunteer and Game of Tag, two dance numbers, and performers with velocipedes. The Broadway Theatre was soon torn down and replaced by the extant (in 2013) building comprising a store and lofts.
As the city grew northward, James Wallack sought to follow. So did William Gibson, a glass stainer and supplier of architectural ornament, who by 1860 had acquired land on the northeast corner of Broadway and 13th Street for a new home for his business (and himself). Gibson was persuaded to include in his development a new home for Wallack's company as well.
Sketches for the interior of the theater were begun by Trimble, the last he ever made: the work and his career were ended by blindness. The design was carried out by his student Thomas R. Jackson.
The first season closed June 9, 1862, with a benefit to Theodore Moss. The New York Times wrote:
It was his last appearance on any stage; he died Christmas Day, 1864.
In 1869, Junius Henri Browne wrote:
Among the actors were, at various times, Charles Fisher, John Gilbert, James Williamson, J. W. Wallack, Jr., E. L. Davenport, J. H. Stoddart, Charles Mathews, E. M. Holland, Steele Mackaye, Charles Coghlan, Harry Edwards, Madame Ponisi, Mary Gannon, Mrs. John Hoey, Rose Eytinge, Effie Germon, Jeffreys Lewis, Ada Dyas, Stella Boniface, and Madeline Henriques.
According to Brown, some of the notable performances, not only on account of their artistic quality, but on account of the large receipts, were The Poor Gentleman, The Provoked Husband, She Stoops to Conquer, Still Waters Run Deep, The School for Scandal, Captain of the Watch, Central Park, The Belle's Stratagem, and The Rivals.
By 1881, shrinking audiences prompted Wallack to seek, once again, a new location farther north, where most of the theaters were located by that time. In February, he leased the corner of 30th Street and Broadway and agreed to sell his lease on number 844 to Adolph Neuendorff, the conductor-composer whose German language Germania Theatre company had been playing in Tammany Hall since 1873. On July 2, Wallack's company closed its last season at the old house with The World. On September 15 Neuendorff opened at 844, renamed Germania Theatre, with a festive program, but the move proved disastrous. By early 1883, he was bankrupt, and sold the theater back to Lester Wallack, who renamed it the Star Theatre and reöpened it on March 26 with an engagement by a company headed by Boucicault presenting several of his plays.
That summer Wallack announced the house would be devoted to touring companies exclusively; it was extensively redecorated and the stage rebuilt with traps and built-in platforms. The new season opened August 27 with Lawrence Barrett's production of Francesca da Rimini, by George H. Boker. Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre stock company of London (whose leading lady was Ellen Terry) opened its first American tour at the Star on October 29. The New York Times published an investigation of ticket speculation, a subject of public complaint, and its connection to theater managements, beginning December 13, with an article spotlighting the Star Theatre and Theodore Moss. Edwin Booth appeared for a month in December and January.
Over the next several years, there appeared such stars as Joseph Jefferson, E. H. Sothern, Fanny Janauschek, John Edward McCullough, Johnston Forbes–Robertson, William E. Sheridan, Helena Modjeska, Maurice Barrymore, Anna Judic, Fanny Davenport, Henry Miller, Frederick Mitterwurzer (a German star, supported by a German-language company), Mr.and Mrs. William J. Florence, Stuart Robson, William H. Crane, Mary Anderson, Sarah Bernhardt, and Wilson Barrett, many of whom had multiple engagements, as did Boucicault, Lawrence Barrett, Irving, and Booth. The McCaull Comic Opera Company had a multi-week run in 1885–86 and another in 1886–87.
On August 22, 1887, the house opened under the management of Henry E. Abbey, John B. Schoeffel, and Maurice Grau as Abbey, Schoeffel and Grau, who were primarily importers of European companies and stars to tour North America; they also managed the Metropolitan Opera House in its first season (1883–84) and again subsequently. Johnson and Slavin's minstrels, Hedwig Raabe (a German actress with a German-language company), magician Alexander Herrmann, and Brockmann's Monkey Theatre Company appeared, plus Irving, Jefferson, Julia Marlowe, and the Florences.
During the summer of 1888, the interior was largely redesigned and reconstructed to improve sightlines and add seats. On August 27, 1888, the theater opened with Theodore Moss as proprietor and Charles Burnham as manager. Johnson & Slavin's minstrels, Lydia Thompson, John W. Albaugh, Henry E. Dixey, Annie Pixley, Marie Wainwright, Fanny Davenport, John Wild, Benoît–Constant Coquelin, Rose Coghlan, and Robson and Crane appeared, and attractions included Boston's Howard Athenaeum Specialty Company and The Crystal Slipper from the Chicago Opera House.
During the summer of 1889, the stage was removed and a "section stage" was constructed. The roof was raised 25 feet, so that the heaviest scenery could be drawn up out of sight without folding it. Electric lights were introduced in the auditorium and on the stage, though the gas was retained for use in emergencies, or in producing stage effects in which it might be superior to the electric light. New ventilation equipment was installed. The entire orchestra floor was reconstructed; the circle which had been added to this part of the auditorium the previous summer was removed. The boxes were reärranged, and the original iron fronts of the balcony and gallery were replaced by papier-mâché and woodwork. The capacity was 1,573.
For the next six seasons (1889–95) Theodore Moss managed the theater himself. His biggest star was comedian William H. Crane, whose hits included For Money, On Probation, The Pacific Mail, The Player, and, especially, The Senator.
During the summer of 1890, a new cooling system was installed, with an electric-powered Sturtevant blower forcing 20,000 cubic feet of air a minute over two tons of ice in a basement tank, and then through ducts to registers under the main-floor aisles. Wall fans circulated the air. A huge sponge, saturated with perfume, was placed at the mouth of the principal air duct.
By 1895, the city's first-class theaters had reached the West 40's; in May, Moss announced that he was repositioning his 13th Street theater as a "popular-priced" house, but he immediately changed course, selling his interest, which comprised leases he held on the ground and building.
The purchaser was Neil Burgess, a comedian who was best known for his perennial hit, The County Fair, with its famous racing scene which featured real horses on treadmills. Burgess spent six months rebuilding the stage, electrical lighting system, and dressing rooms. On November 2, 1895, he opened in a new vehicle: The Year One, by Charles Barnard, which—despite a similar racing scene—was an irredeemable failure. Early the next year he went on tour, leasing the theater as of January 27 to Walter Sanford, who soon subleased it to Jacob Litt, producer of melodramas.
The next season opened Saturday night, August 29, 1896, with low admission prices, under the management of R. M. Gulick & Co. (Gulick, Henry M. Bennett, William T. Keogh, and Thomas Davis), who also operated theaters in Brooklyn, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, and Boston, and who would manage the Star for its remaining five seasons (1896–1901). There was a new bill every Monday, except for occasional multi-week runs.
Burgess went bankrupt and Moss reäcquired the primary leases, which expired May 1, 1899, finally ending his association with the Star Theatre. In that year the ground owner, William Waldorf Astor, announced the projected redevelopment of the site, but the Gulick firm made a good enough offer that the plan was postponed and a provisional lease was granted to them, which in the event ran two years.
On Saturday, April 20, 1901, with Thomas E. Shea starring in The Man-o'-War's Man, the Star Theatre closed forever. There was no ceremony. A time-lapse film of the demolition, which began the same month, was made by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company from the window of its office diagonally across Broadway; it was added to the National Film Registry in 2002. The theater was replaced by an eight-story commercial structure, designed by Clinton & Russell, whose principal tenant was the clothier Rogers, Peet & Co.
Today the entire block is occupied by a 1999 mixed-use building, with an entrance to a multiplex cinema on the Wallack's site.
Ground was broken for Lester Wallack's new theater at 30th Street and Broadway May 21, 1881, and on December 4, The New York Times reported:
George Albree Freeman (1859–1934), born and raised in New York City, graduated in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He practiced in Stamford, Connecticut, mostly in the late 19th century, before removing to Sarasota, Florida, where he continued to practice. He was a designer of the Seacroft House, with Bruce Price, in Sea Bright, New Jersey (1882) and the Federal Building, with Harold N. Hall and Louis A. Simon, in Sarasota (1932); expanded Stanford White's 1905 Lambs Club building, 130 West 44th Street in New York City (1915); and designed the Soldiers and Sailors' Monument in Stamford (1920).
The new theater was dedicated January 4, 1882, "with a magnificent revival of The School for Scandal, which had an exceptionally fine cast" led by John Gilbert and Rose Coghlan. As in the past, the treasurer was Theodore Moss.
And losing his health. The Wallack stock company played six seasons at 30th Street and 35 altogether. The company ended its last home season on May 7, 1887, played a week in Brooklyn, and on May 16 went to Daly's Theatre, across the street, for a two-week run of The Romance of a Poor Young Man. On May 30 its engagement, and its existence, ended. Wallack retired as a manager.
The next season began October 11, 1887, with Lester Wallack as proprietor; the firm of Abbey, Schoeffel and Grau as lessees; Abbey as manager; and a stock company that included many of Wallack's former players. It was unsuccessful and lasted only one season but went out in style, with eleven weeks of old Wallack hits directed by Wallack himself. Wallack's health did not permit him to act, or even attend the last performance on May 5, 1888: The School for Scandal, again starring Gilbert and Coghlan. In July Abbey stepped down as manager and A. M. Palmer, well-respected as the manager of the stock companies at the Madison Square and (formerly) Union Square Theatres, took a ten-year lease, announcing that he would rename the house after himself.
Lester Wallack died at his country home near Stamford, Connecticut, September 6, 1888, age 68.
Palmer's Theatre opened October 8, 1888, as a "combination house" (i. e., a theater for the presentation of combination companies), having been previously booked with the Abbey firm's attractions for most of the first season. Palmer's announced goal was to establish a stock company there, either by using players from his company at the smaller Madison Square Theatre, or by transferring the entire troupe. But although his actors performed occasional engagements at Palmer's, it remained a combination house.
Among the performers appearing at Palmer's Theatre were Benoît–Constant Coquelin and Jane Hading, Richard Mansfield, Rose Coghlan, Mary Anderson, Mrs. James Brown–Potter, Charles Wyndham, Tommaso Salvini, E. S. Willard, Marie Wainwright, John Drew (Jr.), Maude Adams, Annie Russell, Lillie Langtry, Julia Marlowe, and Georgia Cayvan.
The McCaull company played 30 weeks in 1889 and 17 in 1891. Comic operas were also given by the companies of Henry E. Dixey, Digby Bell, and Della Fox, among others.The biggest hit at Palmer's Theatre was the burlesque 1492 Up To Date, which played 29 weeks (not counting a summer hiatus, during which the show played the Garden Theatre) in 1893 and 1894.
By November 1896, Palmer was $31,000 in arrears to Moss, who threatened to sue. Instead, Palmer relinquished his lease two years early, on November 16. Moss restored the theater's original name on December 7.
For the next five years (1896–1901) Moss, with his son, Royal E. Moss, managed the theater as a combination house. Maurice Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Julia Arthur, Frank Daniels, William H. Crane, and Otis Skinner appeared, among many other stars. On May 16, 1898, the Royal Italian Grand Opera Company gave the New York premiere of Puccini's opera, La bohème. In March 1900, police closed the theater and arrested Olga Nethersole, the star of Sapho; her manager, Marcus Mayer; the leading man, Hamilton Revelle; and Theodore Moss; for violating public decency by performing the play. They were tried and acquitted, and the show's run continued in April.
Moss died July 13, 1901, at his country home in Sea Bright, New Jersey, just a few weeks after the Star Theatre's demolition. Moss' eldest daughter had married Lester Wallack's eldest son; another daughter was married to architect C. P. H. Gilbert. Unlike Lester Wallack, Moss died a wealthy man. His will left the entire estate to his wife Octavia, and requested that the name of Wallack's Theatre be retained.
Octavia Moss became the manager of Wallack's Theatre, with active control in the hands of her son, Royal, and Charles Burnham continuing as business manager.
In May 1902, Mrs. Moss renewed the ground lease. Over the following years, the theater's hits included The Sultan of Sulu (1902–03), a musical satire by George Ade with music by Alfred George Whathall; The County Chairman (1903–04) by George Ade, starring Maclyn Arbuckle; The Squaw Man (1905–06) by Edwin Milton Royle, starring William Faversham and George Fawcett; The Rich Mr. Hoggenheimer (1906–07), a musical farce with book and lyrics by Harry B. Smith and music by Ludwig Engländer, and starring Sam Bernard; A Knight for a Day (1907–08), a musical comedy with book and lyrics by Robert B. Smith and music by Raymond Hubbell; Alias Jimmy Valentine (1910) by Paul Armstrong, starring H. B. Warner and Laurette Taylor; Pomander Walk (1910–11) by Louis N. Parker, starring George Giddens and Lennox Pawle; Disraeli (1911–12) by Louis N. Parker, starring George Arliss; and Grumpy (1913–14), a thriller by Horace Hodges and T. Wigney Percyval, starring Cyril Maude and Margery Maude.
Mrs. Moss died January 15, 1910. Royal Moss, administrator of her estate, leased Wallack's Theatre to Charles Burnham.
In January 1915, the Treblig Realty Company, comprising Mrs. Moss' heirs, sold the theater. On January 27, English actor-manager Granville Barker and his troupe began a repertory season at Wallack's. In March, plans were announced for a 12-story factory building to replace 29-33 West 30th Street – i. e., the stage and dressing rooms – curtailing Barker's run.
The last performance at Wallack's 30th Street theater occurred on Saturday night, May 1, 1915, when Barker's company presented Androcles and the Lion and The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife. Following the plays, an epilogue written for the occasion by Oliver Herford was read by Rose Coghlan, the leading lady on opening night in 1882.
The new building opened in 1916. The rest of the theatre was turned into retail stores, until it was replaced in 1931 by an eight-story factory building, 1220 Broadway. Both are office buildings today.
254 West 42nd Street
In 1903, producer Fred R. Hamlin and producer/director Julian P. Mitchell had a big Broadway hit with The Wizard of Oz, a musical staging of the L. Frank Baum story, and they had another with Babes in Toyland, a Victor Herbert operetta, later in the year. In 1904, Oscar Hammerstein I announced plans to build his eighth Manhattan theater (after the Harlem and Manhattan opera houses, the Olympia and Victoria music halls, and the Columbus, Olympia and Republic theaters), on vacant land he had recently bought at 254-58 West 42nd Street, calling it the National. It would be designed by Albert E. Westover (Albert Edward Westover [Sr.], 1860–1933), a Philadelphia architect who designed several theaters in that city for vaudeville operator B. F. Keith and is credited with Hammerstein's Republic. The same year, comedians Joe Weber and Lew Fields ended their decades-long partnership, giving their final show May 28, at the New Amsterdam Theatre. On May 31, the new partnership of Hamlin, Mitchell & Fields contracted to lease Hammerstein's (not-yet-built) new house. They announced they would name it for Fields and produce musicals and burlesques.
Their first offering was a new Victor Herbert operetta, It Happened in Nordland, with libretto and lyrics by Glen MacDonough, starring Fields and Marie Cahill, together with a burlesque of The Music Master, a current hit play. The Lew Fields Theatre opened on December 5, 1904, eight days after Hamlin's unexpected death. The show was a hit; the production ran through April 29, 1905, went on a road tour, resumed on August 31 with Blanche Ring instead of Marie Cahill, and closed on November 18, for another tour.
On May 23, 1906, Fields formed a corporation with Lee Shubert of the Shubert Brothers, taking joint possession of the Herald Square Theatre. Fields and Mitchell moved there in August, and the former Lew Fields Theatre was leased by the well-known actor-manager James K. Hackett, who renamed it for himself. The Hackett Theater opened August 27 with a farce imported from London, The Little Stranger, starring Edward Garratt. Its first big success was the seven-month run of The Chorus Lady, starring Rose Stahl, from October 15, 1906, through June 1, 1907. (The play had opened at the Savoy Theatre on September 1.) In the first week of February 1907, Hammerstein sold the theater to Henry B. Harris, the theatrical producer who bought the Hudson Theatre the next year and built the Folies-Bergere in 1911. Hackett retained his lease and the playhouse its name.
Another big success at the Hackett was the Shubert production,The Witching Hour, a dramatic play by Augustus Thomas, which played from November 20, 1907, to June 27, 1908, and from August 17, 1908, to September 19, 1908 (when it moved to the West End Theatre on 125th Street). From September 21 through October 10, 1908, Hackett reprised his starring role in The Prisoner of Zenda, which he had first played on February 10, 1896. (In 1913, he starred in the novel's first film adaption, which was produced by Adolph Zukor and was the first production of the Famous Players Film Company.)
In 1911, Hackett's lease expired and Henry B. Harris took over, making major interior and exterior alterations. (The adjacent 1909 picture shows, in addition to the canopy, that the lobby projects beyond the building line. The city ordered such encroachments removed in 1910 for the narrowing of the sidewalks on 42nd Street and Times Square.) He named the playhouse The Harris Theatre in honor of his father, William Harris, Sr, also a theater owner and producer, and an associate of the Theatrical Syndicate, and opened on August 31 with a new play, Maggie Pepper, again starring Rose Stahl.
Henry B. Harris died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912. His estate operated the theater for the next two and a half years, and September 21, 1914, leased it to Selwyn and Company; i.e., Crosby Gaige and the Selwyn brothers. (Four years later the three opened their own theater across the street, now called the American Airlines Theatre.) They mounted several productions at the Harris, the first on October 23: The Salamander, by Owen Johnson (adapted from his book), starring Carroll McComas. When the Selwyn & Co. lease expired on July 1, 1920, Harris's widow sold the theater to H. H. Frazee, a producer and theater owner and owner of the Red Sox baseball team, who again made renovations and opened the Frazee Theatre with a new play September 7: The Woman of Bronze, starring Margaret Anglin, which ran for 252 performances. Dulcy, a comedy by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, opened on August 13, 1921, made Lynn Fontanne a star, and ran through March 11, 1922.
In late 1924, John Cort leased the theater, naming it Wallack's Theatre (his Cort Theatre on 48th Street preëmpted his own name); in two years he had no hits. Frazee sold it in October 1926, and it was leased out again, housing nothing but flops. The last was called Find the Fox, and its third performance, on Saturday evening, June 21, 1930, brought the legitimate career of this theater to an end.
Later that year the theater was leased to Max A. Cohen's company, Excello Estates, which showed movies in it. According to Henderson, "Cohen bought the land underneath Wallack's in 1940 ... tore out the second balcony, put stadium seating in the orchestra" and replaced the facade "with a windowless sheet of bland stucco." He named it Anco Cinema, after his wife, Anne. In 1988, the Anco was gutted and turned into retail space. In 1997, the building was demolished, as part of the 42nd Street Development Project. Its site is now occupied by the facade and other remaining parts of the Empire Theatre (originally called the Eltinge, opened in 1912), which was moved in 1998 170 feet to the west, and whose remnants serve as the entryway of a multi-screen cinema.