Broadway's Biltmore is Alive Again, as Mayor and MTC Relight the 1925 House as a New Home

News   Broadway's Biltmore is Alive Again, as Mayor and MTC Relight the 1925 House as a New Home
 
Broadway has a new theatre as of Oct. 15, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and members of Manhattan Theatre Club waxed political and poetic, flicked a giant novelty switch and ceremonially relighted the 1925 Biltmore Theatre, dormant since 1987.
The new Biltmore Theatre marquee
The new Biltmore Theatre marquee Photo by Andrew Ku

The not-for-profit MTC, known as an Off-Broadway force for some 30 years, is now a Broadway resident, operating and presenting a subscription season at the once-decaying theatre on West 47th Street.

The price tag for the renovation of the dilapidated Biltmore Theatre is about $35 million, and the refreshed and cleaned facade, new marquee, warmly appointed interior and new auditorium and technical features indicate every penny of the amount has gone toward realizing the dream.

Among those present at the unveiling of the theatre on the windy morning of Oct. 15 (red and white confetti blew blizzard-like, east toward Times Square) were MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow and executive producer Barry Grove, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, MTC chairman Peter J. Solomon, New York City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, Council Speaker Gifford Miller, members of Polshek Partnership Architects and many others responsible for the massive job of making an 80-year-old hovel modern and alive.

The first preview of the MTC premiere of The Violet Hour, by Richard Greenberg, begins Oct. 16. MTC will stage limited runs of works at its new Broadway digs, similar to the way it operates its two City Center spaces Off-Broadway.

Should a play explode with success beyond its announced run — Proof and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife were past smashes for MTC — brief extensions at the Biltmore may be possible, but other Broadway houses would be sought for transfers, allowing the scheduled MTC Broadway season to continue. Also slated for the Biltmore this season are Regina Taylor's Drowning Crow and Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen.

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"It was important to rescue it," said Barry Grove, in remarks on an outdoor platform before the first official public occupation of the space Oct. 15, "not just because Manhattan Theatre Club needed to find a Broadway home but because we need these theatres. They are the largest concentration of theatrical real estate in the world, they anchor the tourism economy of New York City, and their plays and musicals entertain us and teach us about our lives. We need them. Needless to say, we were thrilled to begin planning for this historic endeavor."

Said Lynne Meadow, once the crowd had gathered inside the 650-seat theatre (downsized from 988): "Our being here will allow us to increase our audience by 100 percent. It will also allow us to extend our educational outreach program by 50 percent, reaching over 4,000 students in over 50 schools in every borough of New York City. That's going to make a difference: Bringing kids into the theatre and starting them on this path early on, we know will make them better human beings."

At a ceremonial ground-breaking in December 2001, a MTC board chairman Peter J. Solomon formally announced the beginning of the fundraising drive of $35 million. Of that amount, $27 million will go to renovating the scarred, scorched and water-damaged theatre, which hasn't housed a show since 1987.

In November 2000, the cost of renovation was estimated at $18 million, but damage to the theatre was more extensive than previously thought, Solomon previously told Playbill On Line. Another $8 million will go to create an MTC endowment.

Among those who have given money to the project are MTC board members, the City of New York, Biltmore 47 Associates, Michael Coles, Dave and Laurie Hodgson, The Jack Parker Corporation, Susan and Peter J. Solomon Family an many other individuals and corporations.

"I am so thrilled," Debra A. Waxman, MTC director of marketing told Playbill On-Line. "At the groundbreaking it was big old dirty hole in the ground. I think they've done a fabulous job. [They] preserved the feeling that you're in a historically landmarked space when you're in the auditorium, but you also get the sense that there's nothing old about it. There's a newness to everything, but it kind of has the flavor and history of the past."

Waxman added, "I have been a marketing director for more years than I want to say, like over 20, and you always say, 'There's no bad seat in the house.' I've sat in every seat in this house — there's no bad seat in this house. It's amazing to me. You can see from everywhere, and the seats are wide."

The orchestra and balcony floors have been raked (or slanted) to offer better sightlines; the seats are wider than usual theatre seats, too, about one foot of space to fit a seated body.

The seats in the balcony have the feeling of stadium seating enjoyed by modern movie audiences, and may become the most coveted seats in the Biltmore. The first two rows of the middle section of the balcony (or mezzanine, as it's being called) represent the "premier circle," considered the choicest seats in the house. Those seats include easy passage to a patrons' lounge and there is more leg and hip room there. While patrons and subscribers get first crack at them, they are also open to the public (top price is $81).

The top price in the orchestra and main mezzanine is $76, while rear mezzanine goes for $51.

What new at the Biltmore? Plenty, according to MTC notes:

1. Stage. The stage was lowered 20 inches and the slope of both the orchestra and mezzanine was increased to improve sight lines throughout the theatre. These adjustments ensure that audiences will feel the same connection with the action on stage that they have come to value in our City Center theatres.

2. Seats. While the original Biltmore had 988 seats, the newly configured theatre has just 650, making it one of the most intimate theatres on Broadway. This extra space allows all seats to be generously proportioned, with ample legroom.

3. Plaster Detailing. The Biltmore's detailed plasterwork has all been carefully restored or reproduced. The auditorium offers plaster medallions with the image of Julius Caesar. High above, the dome has been reconstructed to conceal a catwalk holding theatrical lighting.

4. Air-conditioning. To eliminate drafts, the architects have employed a modern-day version of a plenum ventilation system (first used in ancient Rome) that delivers air conditioning from below; the vents are under the seats.

5. Orchestra Pit. Located below Orchestra rows AA and BB, which can be removed completely when the pit is needed. This reduces seating by 50.

6. Donor Walls and Seats. Those who gave money to the theatre are honored on lobby walls and on seat-back plaques.

7. Lounges. Located 19 feet below the old theatre floor, the spacious Susan and Peter J. Solomon Family Lounge is an entirely new space, created by excavating 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock. There are also two additional lounges upstairs, including one reserved for MTC patrons.

8. Biltmore and MTC "History Walls." The history of the Biltmore and MTC is chronicled on the illustrated displays in the Solomon Family Lounge and in the Mezzanine Lounge.

9. MTC Bookstore. Located in the Solomon Family Lounge, the store will feature books, MTC production scripts, other works by this season's playwrights, as well as MTC and Broadway memorabilia.

10. Restrooms. The original Biltmore had only one restroom each for men and women. The restored Biltmore has more restrooms per theatregoer than almost any other Broadway theatre.

Solomon and Grove previously told Playbill On-Line MTC is seeking individuals and/or corporations for donations in exchange for what's come to be known as "naming opportunities" — the theatre, or areas within the theatre, can be named for a donor.

There even appears to be room on the vertical outdoor marquee for a name to be added.

"You give me $10 million, you have the name, the lobby and the first five rows," Solomon said with a grin at the 2001 groundbreaking.

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Manhattan Theatre Club is one of New York City's leading nonprofit, Off Broadway theatres, operating out of two spaces in City Center. The company premiered Proof and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, in 1999-2000, and both went on to Broadway runs that continue today. Proof snagged the Best Play Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Catching up with its nonprofit rival, the Roundabout Theatre Company, which renovated the Selwyn Theatre as the American Airlines Theatre, MTC will, with the Biltmore renovation, have a Broadway presence and be eligible for Tony Awards. Since being founded in 1970, MTC works have earned 11 Tony Awards, three Pulitzer Prizes and many Obies, Drama Critics Circle Awards and more.

MTC and involved parties announced the Biltmore plan Nov. 22, 2000. The Biltmore is the 75-year-old Broadway house where Hair played. Polshek Partnership Architects — with Carnegie Hall, The Public Theater and The Rose Center for Earth and Science to its credit — designed the rehabilitation.

Following a fire in 1987, the theatre was closed, and the building suffered damage from rain coming through holes in the ceiling and abuse from vandals.

The Biltmore was home to such productions as Hair, Butterflies Are Free, Take Her, She's Mine, Barefoot in the Park and Deathtrap. It opened Dec. 7, 1925, with a play called Easy Come, Easy Go, a farce by Owen Davis that moved from the Cohan Theatre. The house was built by the Chanin brothers and designed by Herbert J. Krapp. The Federal Theatre Project presented works there in the 1930 and the theatre was later run by Warner Bros. as a home for theatre director George Abbott's productions. My Sister Eileen had a healthy run there, as did The Heiress. From 1952 61, the theatre was leased to CBS. there. Other works over the years included Lily Tomlin in Appearing Nitely, To Grandmother's House We Go, The Robber Bridegroom, Knock, Knock, Nuts, The American Clock and Stardust.

The Biltmore Theatre box office was relighted and open for business 10 AM Sept. 15, after 16 years of dormancy.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the Biltmore Theatre dedication.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the Biltmore Theatre dedication. Photo by Andrew Ku
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