42nd St.Theatre Facade Collapses, Dec. 30

News   42nd St.Theatre Facade Collapses, Dec. 30
 
Though the Wooster Group's Hairy Ape was a controversial hit at Off-Broadway's Selwyn Theatre, it didn't quite bring down the house. It took a nor'easter -- or something -- to do that.
Selwyn auditorium, 1997

Selwyn auditorium, 1997

Photo by Photo by Nicholas van Hoogstraten

Though the Wooster Group's Hairy Ape was a controversial hit at Off-Broadway's Selwyn Theatre, it didn't quite bring down the house. It took a nor'easter -- or something -- to do that.

The Selwyn office building, next door to the 1918 Selwyn Theatre in midtown Manhattan, collapsed Dec. 30, apparently due to a punishing storm that began the previous afternoon. The theatre is in the process of being renovated as a new home for Broadway's Roundabout Theatre Company as part of the 42nd Street renaissance.

According to Lauren Daniluk, spokesperson for the New 42nd Street organization, "the theatre is fine. As far as I'm aware, the other buildings are stable. New 42nd Street was planning to turn the office building into studio space and a black box theatre. We were planning to perserve the historic facade." Daniluk was unsure whether the architects will have to rebuild the facade in the same style.

42nd St. between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was closed off Tuesday morning by police and fire trucks. The collapse occurred just as the Times Square area is gearing up for the annual New Year's Eve celebration. The building where the famous New Year ball drops is half a block away. That said, a spokesperson for The Lion King told Playbill On-Line the theatre would be running as usual for the Dec. 30 evening performances, though the entrance may be on a different street. No word yet on the Dec. 30 preview performance of Ragtime at the new Ford Center on the same street.

NYPD Officer Levine told Playbill On-Line of the collapsed edifice, "the wind and rain knocked it down. They had the [42nd Street Tourist] Information Bureau in there." A passerby added that the collapse occured at 5:20 AM, to which a woman replied, "I'm glad it wasn't 8:20 -- I was gonna be opening the place up!" The timing of the collapse is odd but possibly fortuitous for the Roundabout Theatre Company. They were planning to move into a refurbished Selwyn Theatre in 1999, while a brand new, 10-story edifice would be built above it as a home for commercial and not-for-profit theatre and ballet companies.

According to Nicholas Van Hoogstraten's book, "Lost Broadway Theatres," the Selwyn was constructed behind the six-story Selwyn office tower and was fronted by "a multi-windowed, light terra cotta facade." The theatre opened Oct. 2, 1918 with a flop, Information, Please. Other shows to play the Selwyn included The Royal Family, The Respectful Prostitute and The Singing Rabbi.

Playbill historian Louis Botto, author of "At This Theatre," adds: This lovely theatre, named for Broadway producer Arch Selwyn, opened on Oct. 2, 1918 with a play called Information Please by Jane Murfin and Jane Cowl, which starred Ms. Cowl. The opening night program boasted that it was the "most modern and complete theatre in the country and that it cost half a million to build."

It was designed by George Keister in the Italian Renaissance style and featured a novelty for that time: a lounge where both men and women could smoke. It had a single balcony and 1,100 seats. Some highlights of its productions: Leslie Carter and John Drew in The Circle (1921); Charlot's Revue of 1926 starring Gertrude Lawrence, Beatrice Lillie and Jack Buchanan; The Royal Family (1928); Noel Coward and Beatrice Lillie in This Year of Grace (1928); Cole Porter's Wake Up and Dream (1929) and the brilliant revue, Three's A Crowd starring Fred Allen, Clifton Webb, Libby Holman, Tamara Geva and in the chorus, Fred MacMurray.

During the 1920s, this theatre occasionally booked films and one caused a remarkable tragedy. In the spring of 1921, young Katharine Hepburn, visiting an aunt in New York, took her youngest brother Tom to the Selwyn Theatre to see the silent film version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in which an actor faked hanging himself. The next morning, Hepburn found her brother dead from hanging in his aunt's attic. He had obviously tried the stunt himself.

From 1934 on the Selwyn showed films but in 1950 tried an experiment. It combined a film with a 60-minute live version of the plays, The Respectful Prostitute and Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath. It didnt work. Films were shown until the Selwyn closed in the l990s.

* Here's the back-story on 42nd Street's rejuvenation:
The New Victory, the Ford Center, the New Amsterdam -- 42nd Street has certainly changed its appearance over the past couple of years from a dingy, if deeply New Yorkish, stretch of porn palaces and novelty shops to a new center of Manhattan Theatre. Two more pieces of this glamorous puzzle will be put into place by 1999. That's when the Roundabout Theatre will move to the old Selwyn Theatre (which mostly rests on 43rd Street, while the entrance is on 42nd), and a brand new, 10-story edifice above it that will serve as a home for both commercial and not-for-profit theatre and ballet companies.

As reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a spokesperson from the New 42nd Street, the latter agency is managing the construction and overseeing of the structure, due in mid-1999 at a cost of $18.5 million. President Cora Cahan told the Times, "One of our missions, when we were given the task of helping rejuvenate 42nd Street, was to make sure that we brought life back to the blook. Unlike commercial theatres, this building will never be dark...there will always be a flow of actors and dancers and young people coming in and out of the building and bringing life to the street." The building will include a new 199-seat theatre.

According to the Times, Platt Byard Dovell Architects will design the building, which will use the Selwyn site and an adjacent one-story building (the Roundabout will use a separate venue connected by a walkway). Lighting designer Ann Militello will coordinate the building's lighting elements, essentially turning the whole building into a lit sculpture.

Some $11 million has already been raised towards what is currently called the "New 42nd Studios." Cahan told the Times she'd be more than happy to rename the venue after a corporate or individual donor. The building will keep its rental costs low to support the artists, so how will the rent be paid? From retail tenants and other properties on the block.

As for the last piece in the 42nd Street puzzle -- the still-abandoned Times Square Theatre -- that's still up in the air. Billboard Live backed out of a restaurant deal, but Cahan still thinks the venue wouldn't work as a legit theatre.

Peter Carzasty, a spokesperson for the Kreisberg Group (which represents the building), told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 2), how the new building would incorporate the old: "Currently on 42nd Street is the entrance corridor to the Selwyn Theatre, though the bulk of that structure is on 43rd. Above that is an abandoned office structure. The facade is a landmark and must remain intact. Next door is another 'in fill property' also under the jurisdiction of the New 42nd Street. The new building will go up 170 feet, or ten stories, keeping the facade. It's similar to how the Lyric and Apollo were joined for the Ford Center."

Asked why, in a 10-story edifice devoted to the arts, only one actual theatre will be added, Carzasty said, "It's mostly a process building, specifically for rehearsal and workshop space and office space for theatre companies. Because it's subsidized, we can provide affordable rehearsal and office space to the non-profit community."

-- By David Lefkowitz

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