New York's Hudson Theatre, whch is currently in the process of being restored as Broadway's 41st playhouse, has been proposed for the National Register of Historic Places, according to NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), the British-based live-theatre company that established a Broadway beachhead in 2014 with the purchase of Broadway's biggest theatre, the Lyric, is making good on its plans to expand its Broadway holdings. The company announced last December that it will reopen and operate the 1903 vintage Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street, east of Times Square, as a Broadway house. The theatre is currently part of the Millennium Broadway Hotel complex.
Gov. Cuomo’s release revealed that the NY State’s Board for Historic Preservation has recommended adding the Hudson Theatre to both the state and national registers. The designation not only protects the building from being demolished, but offers compensatory tax breaks to its owners. The theatre is already protected by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, which landmarked both its exterior and interior.
The theatre still has several bureaucratic hoops to jump through before it is added to the list, but the process got a boost from the announcement. Among Broadway theatres already on the National Register are the Biltmore (a.k.a. the Samuel J. Friedman) and the New Amsterdam.
Cuomo's statement said, “New York’s history is this country’s history, and with the nomination of these landmarks and sites, we will help ensure these parts of the state’s rich heritage are maintained and preserved for generations to come.”
The theatre's new owner had previously announced, "ATG, through its subsidiary, Hudson Theatre LLC, has entered a long-term lease for The Hudson Theatre, its second theater on Broadway, from a subsidiary of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels plc (M&C). M&C and ATG will be, in a multi-million dollar project, restoring the landmark venue to its former glory as a Broadway playhouse."
It will be Broadway's 41st theatre, the fourth house east of Times Square, and the first new one since the nearby Henry Miller's Theatre was demolished (except for the facade), rebuilt and reopened in 2010 as the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
ATG said the Hudson will “receive significant front-of-house improvements to better serve its patrons including all new state-of-the-art seating, Ambassador Lounge premium lounge service, and increased and improved ladies’ washrooms. In addition, significant backstage and technical upgrades, including new and expanded dressing rooms and new fly systems will transform The Hudson into a leading legitimate Broadway theater and destination for producers, directors, actors and creative teams.”
Though it once held as many as 1050 seats, after the upcoming renovation it is expected to have approximately 950 seats, the same size as the existing Lyceum Theatre, making it one of the smaller Broadway theatres.
The company, which has been expanding in the U.K. and the Far East, also announced in September that it has signed a deal to purchase five large-scale playhouses across the U.S., including one in Brooklyn, NY.
The Hudson functioned as a Broadway theatre from 1903 until 1963, and then intermittently as a pornographic theatre and a legitimate theatre until the late 1970s. The last full Broadway production to open there was Mike Downstairs which ran 4 performances April 18-20, 1968. It was briefly a disco called the Savoy but, after that failed, the theatre seemed slated for demolition until safeguarded by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, which landmarked both its exterior and interior.
When developer Harry Macklowe bought the property and an adjacent lot for a hotel that opened in the 1990s, he incorporated the Hudson Theatre into the architectural design. The hotel, now known as the Millennium Broadway Hotel, has used the space for corporate conferences—including some for the Broadway industry.
The Hudson, which housed hits like Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic, Detective Story, the Pulitzer Prize winner State of the Union and the comedy classic Arsenic and Old Lace late in its run, fell on hard times, and did service as a nightclub and a TV studio. Its built-in seats have been removed and the space is now used as a conference facility and sometime comedy club by the hotel.
It fell into disuse at the time when Broadway production was in sharp decline. But today, in the midst of a multi-year booking jam, Broadway theatre space is in keen demand.
In a joint statement, Ambassador's co-chief executive officers Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire said, "As one of the oldest and most beautiful theatres on Broadway, we are thrilled to restore and operate the iconic Hudson Theatre. It presents us with enormous opportunities to present and produce even more productions in New York and in North America and will be the perfect companion to our larger Broadway musical house, The Lyric. It is a source of constant delight to see ATG continue to go from strength to strength, and make its mark on the global stage. A second Broadway theater is another landmark achievement for the company we co-founded 23 years ago and we couldn’t be happier."
Panter has said that he wants to expand his Broadway holdings. But after the Hudson, it won’t be easy for Panter to continue to expand. Most of the prime theatrical real estate is locked down by one of the big three theatre owners, the Shuberts, the Nederlanders and Jujamcyn, or by one of the large not-for-profits like Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center Theater.
A handful of independents remain. The New Amsterdam is firmly in the hands of Disney. The Circle in the Square is owned by a foundation. And the Helen Hayes was purchased earlier this year by the Off-Broadway Second Stage theatre company, which is planning a renovation.
Rarely do any of these theatres come on the market, but when one did recently, the Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street, Panter’s Ambassador Theatre Group snapped it up and announced a name change to The Lyric, currently the home of Cirque du Soleil's Paramour. So Panter got his foot in the door.
But after that, short of building a brand-new theatre, the pickings are pretty slim, at least for existing Broadway-size houses of 499 seats or more. But a resourceful entrepreneur could carve out a small empire if he or she put his or her mind to it. Roundabout built its clutch of four theatres by leasing or buying distressed properties and rehabilitating them. The Selwyn (now the American Airlines Theatre), Studio 54 and Henry Miller’s Theatre (now the Stephen Sondheim Theatre) were all serious fixer-uppers that took millions to restore to their current status as gems of Broadway.
So what’s left? There is the magnificent old Mark Hellinger Theatre on 51st Street, but that is owned by the Times Square Church. There is also the 1904 Liberty Theatre, walled up behind the Hilton Hotel on 42nd Street, but now made accessible via a 41st Street entrance. It’s been extensively renovated as a conference hall, and the former auditorium space is no longer Broadway size. Significantly, the space is being used for a show currently. An event called Cynthia von Buhler's Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic was recently staged there.
And then there is the 1920 Times Square Theatre, hidden behind mylar posters between the Lyric Theatre and the American Airlines on the north side of 42nd Street. Several plans for the old space have been proposed and abandoned, including a merchandise mart that would have obliterated its last connection with the stage. Once home to Noel Coward’s Private Lives, the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band and the comedy classic The Front Page, the Times Square Theatre is in a good place for rehabilitation, but it would be expensive.
One-time New York Post columnist Ward Morehouse III published a book about the Hudson Theatre, "Discovering the Hudson," in 2007.
ATG is majority-owned by Providence Equity Partners, a global private equity firm focused on equity investments in media, communications, education and information companies. The firm manages funds with over $40 billion in commitments and has invested in more than 140 companies globally since its inception in 1989. ATG is based in London, but Providence Equity Partners is headquartered in Providence, RI, and also has offices in New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Delhi. Visit www.provequity.com for more information.
(Updated September 30, 2016)