James McMullan’s lovely poster for the upcoming Broadway adaptation of Moss Hart’s Act One contains a fascinating scrap of Broadway history—if you look for it.
The poster shows a young man standing at the uptown end of Shubert Alley, gazing across 45th Street at three Broadway theatres, whose marquees are visible. Two of the theatres still stand, the Music Box and the Imperial.
But what of the third, the long-gone Klaw Theatre?
The Klaw was named for Marcus Klaw (1858-1936), half of the feared managing team of Klaw and Erlanger who dominated theatrical bookings on Broadway and across America in the early 20th century, and could make or break showbiz careers in the years before TV, radio, the internet or even sound movies. Today’s Shubert Organization was formed partly as a rebellion against the power of their company, the Theatrical Syndicate, known by the forbidding name of “The Syndicate.”
The Klaw Theatre was erected in 1921 on prime land a few doors down from where Irving Berlin was building the Music Box Theatre the same year. The Imperial would snuggle its entrance arcade between them in 1925, though the main performing space is on 46th Street. The Klaw Theatre was designed by Eugene De Rosa, a major theatre architect of the time, though many of his theatres have been demolished. Among the few surviving De Rosa playhouses in New York are the Broadway Theatre and the Gallo Opera House, now known as Studio 54.
The Klaw opened March 2, 1921, with Nice People starring Tallulah Bankhead and Katharine Cornell. Among its many hits were Meet the Wife with Humphrey Bogart and Clifton Webb, the 1924 Pulitzer Prize winner Hell-Bent Fer Heaven, and Preston Sturges’ comedy Strictly Dishonorable, which was later filmed.
As an indication of the affection Broadway held for Klaw, the theatre was renamed the Avon in 1929 while Klaw was still living. After a series of flops and dark periods during the Great Depression, the theatre was leased to CBS in 1934 and used as a studio, first for radio, then for TV.
Despite attempts to rescue the building as a legitimate theatre, it was sold, and then demolished in 1954, to be replaced with a parking garage. Today the site is called the Champion Park parking garage, with its frequently used cut-through to 46th Street.
Klaw’s partner, A. L. "Abe" Erlanger, also had a theatre named after him. The Erlanger Theatre on 44th Street is today known as the St. James Theatre, which will soon be the home to Bullets Over Broadway.