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The Great White Way  E-mail
Written by VR Macbeth   
Monday, 25 September 2006 09:37
ImageCoined in 1901 by O.J. Gude, the designer of many prominent advertising displays, to describe the new light show that beckoned along Broadway,The Great White Way is a phrase known worldwide to describe Broadway's profusion of theatres in Times Square. Always glamorous but rocky, theatre and Broadway have a deep relationship stretching back over 100 years.

Developer and producer Oscar Hammerstein and his creation, in 1895, of the Olympia theatre is popularly heralded as the start of Times Square as we know it, but there were already a half dozen heavily frequented theatres in the then Longacre Square. The new use of electricity helped the drive for safe and attractive theatres. An early argument between a group of theatre producers and owners and the theatre-managing Shubert brothers resulted in independent producers not being able to stage shows in theatres owned or controlled by the self-named Syndicate. With nowhere to host their shows, the Shuberts built a spate of new theatres for their own and other independent productions.

In 1904 Times Square hosted the nation's first official vaudeville theatre. The Victoria, constructed by Hammerstein in 1899, switched to vaudeville from legitimate theatre in an attempt to avert bankruptcy. The swell of theatregoers shaped new plays and acts that, due to financial needs, tried to keep to the middle road in their productions. Staying away from controversial subjects, the writers and producers laded their shows with moralistic tones, often revolving around the downfall of greedy tycoons and the hard fate of fallen women.

ImageBuilt in 1904, the 5,200 seat Hippodrome opened as the world's largest theatre. It occupied the entire block between 43rd and 44th streets along 6th Avenue. The builders, Dundy and Thompson, aimed to bring the masses to theatre. With the average orchestra seat at a Broadway production going for $2 the Hippodrome, where ticket prices started at 25 cents, was an attempt at creating a larger theatre audience. The Hippodrome had matinee and evening shows 6 days a week, showing an eclectic mixture of circus, ballet and avant-garde acts.

Florenz Ziegfeld started his famous Follies in 1907, known primarily for beautiful chorus girls in shimmering color and exotic costumes with "tasteful" nudity that aimed to test the bounds of public taste.

The 1914-1915 season, although considered financially disastrous, produced a then astonishing and record breaking 133 productions at 42 theatres staged in and around Times Square. This was the same time that film began to take over as a legitimate entertainment form. Later, when times where tough and there wasn't the money to stage productions constantly at theatres, owners would show silent films instead. Eventually many theatres were converted to cinemas. Symbolic of this change was the 1915 demise of the Victoria. The theatre was re-named the Rialto and adapted for films. Further down Broadway, the Palace became the premier vaudeville house in the city and nation.

Irving Berlin became a leading force in the new musicals that populated Broadway, creating songs for musicals and revues. Berlin operated just blocks south of Time Square in Tin Pan Alley, the catchphrase for the popular music industry area of the day. His 1927 musical Showboat opened at the Ziegfeld theatre, a show that integrated book and score with character development and that was the precursor to today's modern musical.

Another Broadway tradition is the Gypsy Robe, integral to the success of any show. Started in 1950 by a chorus member for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the Gypsy Robe is given to the cast member with the most Broadway credits before a short ceremony to bless the new show. The robe is passed on to other shows with memorabilia from each show sewn onto it.

The 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Depression resulted in cut productions and the closing of many theatres. In an attempt to turn things around, the Minsky Brothers took over a declining theatre and staged daring burlesque shows. Often raided, it was the subject of protests from the Society for the Suppression of Vice, who declared the show obscene. The strategy didn't work but the Brothers eventually were shut down for license violations. Later on, in an effort to regain lost revenue, many theatre owners changed their theatres to X-rated movie houses that became the staple of Times Square for many years to come.

From the 1960's through the 1980's, Times Square's face was defined by movie houses and adult stores. With declining attendance and converted or derelict theatres being all that stood for a lost theatre era, city and business owners slowly joined together to renovate several landmark theatres as part of the attempt to clean up Times Square. Clean up projects started in the early 90's and several historic theatres, including the Apollo, Selwyn and the New Amsterdam were among the first to undergo drastic renovations. The opening in 1995 of the New Victory theatre was billed as New York's first theatre for kids and families.

1992 saw the inauguration of the now annual Broadway on Broadway in September. Heralding the new season, the free show features musical numbers from both current and upcoming Broadway shows.

Today the popular TKTS booth in Times Square sells 1.5 million tickets per year. The 2000-2001 season resulted in a record high of 11.9 million tickets sold for the 40 theatres, including all 22 landmark Broadway theatres in Times Square. The transformation of Times Square theatres began a return to glory for the world's most famous theatre district.

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