ASK PLAYBILL.COM: What About Shubert Alley?

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: What About Shubert Alley?
 
Playbill.com answers a question about the history of Shubert Alley, in the heart of Broadway's theatre district.

Shubert Alley
Shubert Alley

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Question: The Playbill.com staff wondered how Shubert Alley got its name, since it doesn't look much like an alley.

Shubert Alley may very well be the most famous alley in New York City. Certainly in New York theatre circles, it's a geographical landmark as legendary as 42nd Street and Times Square itself. It was already famous enough in 1963 that its 50th anniversary was celebrated with a ceremony well covered by the media. Today, stage professionals cut through the small thoroughfare — running between 44th Street and 45 Street midblock between Broadway and Eighth Avenue — at least once or twice a week. "I think it's considered an important an landmark in the theatre community," said Robert Wankel, president of the Shubert Organization, who says he runs into colleagues in the alley all the time. "Everyone's on their way to Sardi's."

But a close inspection of the street quickly reveals that it has very little in common with other Manhattan alleys, like Shinbone Alley, Jersey Street and Cortlandt Alley, all south of 14th Street. Those streets are fairly gritty and dust-strewn. They're in keeping with our mental picture of what an alley should look like. Shubert Alley is spic and span and neatly paved. There's a row of handsome posters advertising Broadway shows on the west wall, bisected by the boutique gift shop One Shubert Alley. On the east side, is the family restaurant Junior's. Were things always like this?

Shubert Alley (at right of Shubert Theatre) in 1919.

No. Once upon a time Shubert Alley was an alley, with all that that implies. It was built in 1912 to accommodate local fire laws, and provide a fire exit between the Shubert and Booth Theatres, on 44th Street and 45th Street, respectively, and the Astor Hotel, which faced Broadway between 44th and 45th. Both the Shubert and Booth Theatres opened in 1913. Two brownstones were torn down to create the alley, which opened to pedestrian traffic on Oct. 2, 1913. "Way back, the Astor Hotel used to extend further than [1515 Broadway] does now," said Wankel. "It was much more of an alley back then."

According to a 1930s essay by New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, writing about the Shubert Brothers, the alley then sported a sidewalk. In 1947, plans were announced for the Benrus Watch Company to install two large clocks on either side of the alley, with the twelve letters of "Shubert Alley" put in place of the numerals. (It is not known if the plan was ever executed, but there have certainly been no clocks in the area for decades.) In the 1950s, the alley began to lose is gritty character, with actress Irene Dunne lamenting that it had become "a smart lane of elegant small shops." In 1967, when the Astor Hotel was torn down, the alley proved a popular place for gawkers to watch the demolition.

The strip has not always been as commodious as it now is. In 1949, the alley was widened by 15 feet and the old fence removed. But that was nothing compared to the size it would have become had the City Planning Commission had their way in 1970. The commission proposed to have Shubert Alley extended by eight blocks, leading up to 53rd Street. One thing that has always been true about Shubert Alley is that it is the most correctly named piece of pavement in the City. Make no mistake — this is Shubert property and always has been. "The Alley…is a private street," wrote A. J. Liebling, "part of the property rented to the Shuberts by the Astor Estate in 1912 on a lease which still has sixty-nine years to run." At some point before that lease ran out, the Shubert Organization bought the alley outright. Tourists and professionals only tread on it at the Shuberts' pleasure. Wankel said that today, ownership of the alley is shared by the Shuberts and 1515 Broadway.

Another thing that had remained constant is the Shubert executives' habit of parking their cars in the alley, making their commute to offices atop the Shubert Theatre a very short one indeed. Mayor Bloomberg once joke that the late Shubert Chairman Gerald Schoenfeld had the "best parking spot in New York City." In the old days, Lee and J.J. Shubert exercised the same privilege. Lee, a car collector, would station his Rolls-Royce or Isotta-Fraschini in the alley. Frank Baker, a Shubert chauffeur for a half a century beginning in 1920, parked cars first for Lee and later for Lawrence Shubert Lawrence, who owned a Cadillac.

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