Love letter to a theater

The new HVAC system all lit up

The new HVAC system all lit up

The Shubert Theater in New Haven is 100 years old and is being celebrated in a bunch of ways–pivotally, with a facelift of the facility.  New HVAC, a new black box theater, extension of the front to the curb, and restoring the historic marquee.  Can hardly wait to see that!

Now you know me.  I’m in there partying with the historians and actors.  A few weeks ago, I went to Colin Caplan‘s talk on the history of theater in New Haven.  And it’s rich indeed.  So many stories.  Almost every street had a theater, and they all had a story.
In the 1800s, theatrical events were associated with churches.  Believe it or not, Minstrel shows were pseudo-religious.  Soon, say by the 1840s, public assembly halls became the site for public entertainment like theatricals and dances. My favorite was the Livonia Temple of Music which sold pianos and had a music hall upstairs.  In New Haven, all these assembly halls have been torn down or otherwise lost.
The one where Lincoln spoke in 1860 before becoming President has become a bowling alley.  I don’t know what to say about that.  And Dickens, who visited New Haven in 1868, spoke at the opera house which burned to the ground in the 1920s.  Fire was a major theater killer.  Fire proof construction methods, like using steel, started to make a difference.
With job growth came immigrants and the new development of suburbs.  Theaters were everywhere,  I love the idea of the gas station that became an entertainment space at night.  Halls sprung up that catered to particular groups.  The Germania seated 600 and was an early version, built in 1868, that catered to their particular community.
The Northern Italian immigrant Sylvester Poli, a sculptor by trade, became a theater impresario.  In 1893, he opened his first theater, devoted to vaudeville.  Soon he head theaters all through the northeast.  Talk about immigrant success!  And that was based on making the theater affordable for everyone of any income  level.  He built huge palaces seating 2500, such as Poli’s Palace and Carl’s Opera House, which became the Hyperion Theater that showed movies.  This theater-to-movie-palace conversion became a trend in the early 20th century.
Yale was not to be left out.  Woolsey Hall was built in 1901 for the 200th anniversary of the university and was also home for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.  It houses the largest organ in the world and in the rotunda, a war memorial.  And apparently, it has a ghost.  Why not?  What ghost wouldn’t want to live there?
When the halls converted to movie palaces, people would go to their community, and later suburban, theater during the week, then on Saturday night, go downtown to Woolsey or the Hyperion or one of the other theaters, like the Shubert.
The Shubert Theater was famous for launching plays and musicals to Broadway.  New Haven was already known for a try-out town before a New York run, but now the stakes escalated.  At the Shubert, the notable flop Away We Go! was rewritten by Rodgers and Hammerstein as Oklahoma!  They went on to launch their big shows out of New Haven.  Marlon Brando was barely a mention on the poster of A Streetcar Named Desire in New Haven.  All the big stars played the Shubert, hoping for success in their show to propel on to Broadway.
The Shubert was started by Eastern European Jewish brothers who went on to operate a thousand theaters.  When it was built in 1914, the Shubert was considered ultra modern.  What made it so was the new concept of vertical seating design.  Everyone could have a good seat, when your row rises slightly over the row in front.  We take this for granted, but at the time, the Shubert became a model for new theater construction.
To further celebrate the Shubert, I went to A Broken Umbrella production.  This group writes original, site-specific shows centered on New Haven history.  I’ve seen fun shows on bicycles, corsets, and the Erector Set.  Of course, I was all over the original musical “Seen Change” about the Shubert.
Seen Change!
The original score is a jazzy upbeat thing, punctuated by some pretty great tap dancing.  The plot, like any good musical, is thin.  A stagehand knocks over the ghost light–that light that is always lit in the theater.  Oh no!  Now strange things start happening, as people from the Shubert’s distant past come to life and together, all try to help a composer-lyricist finish a musical started in 1922.
Taft Hotel with its Tiffany glass dome

Taft Hotel with its Tiffany glass dome

The show moves around, starting in the lobby, then moving to the Taft Hotel next door, with its speakeasy past.  The actors stayed here, using the back passage to get to the Shubert, avoiding adoring crowds.  The show’s final act takes place in the theater.  I was seated for the final act right behind two of the actors.  It was intermission.  We chatted.  I asked, “Are you going to sing?”  The couple, portraying the show’s backers, were equivocal.

Well, of course they sang.  They jumped up and ran up the aisle and continued to be part of the madcap denouement.  It was all silly, good fun.
To think that New Haven was important on the theater landscape for so long.  And even as Broadway tryouts have moved to the Berkshires and the Shubert plays retreads on tour, New Haven still can parlay a show or two to the Great White Way.  A glimmer of the theater’s past glory–its legacy of architectural innovation–lives on, sadly, only in suburban cinemas, in which success is measured by the amount of parking.

One thought on “Love letter to a theater

  1. This sounds like the beginning of the making of a book Rena. Old theaters are fascinating. I have never been to New Haven but you certainly are sharing ll the important information.
    enough for me to walk the vicarious walk. Thanks again

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