Is a British Landlord Seeking to Expand His Broadway Holdings?

News   Is a British Landlord Seeking to Expand His Broadway Holdings?
 
A British entrepreneur is planning to elbow his way into one of the most exclusive clubs in New York—ownership of Broadway theaters. The New York Post reports that Howard Panter of the London-based Ambassador Theatre Group is looking to expand his holdings in the Times Square area, having purchased the Lyric Theatre last year.

His next target is reported to be the 1903 vintage Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street, which was folded into the Millennium Hotel when it was erected in the mid 1990s. Playbill.com was not able immediately to confirm the Post report.

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’s conceivable that Panter could persuade the hotel to part with the theatre—or share ownership of it, or allow it to function as a semi-independent booking space as the Marquis Theatre does at the Marriott Marquis Hotel a block away.

But after that, it wouldn’t be easy for Panter to continue to expand, if that is indeed what he plans to do. 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 is owned by a private partnership that was trying to sell it to the Off-Broadway Second Stage theatre company, but may be in play again at some point. 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 home to On the Town. 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 entrace. 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 is being staged there next month.

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 now a gutted shell of its former self, waiting for someone with deep pockets and a vision to bring it back. Perhaps that will turn out to be its new next-door neighbor.

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