On Sept. 26, 2002, Martin Beck got the worst news he had received since dying in 1940: his name is to be stripped off the Byzantine style theatre he built on 45th Street just west of Eighth Avenue, and replaced by that of illustrator Al Hirschfeld.
The name switch divests the man who once controlled half of vaudeville of one of his last contemporary vestiges of fame. Martin Beck was born in Austria in 1867 and moved to America in 1883. By 1905, he was running the famed Orpheum Circuit, which owned and booked 50 percent of the Vaudeville theatres in cities across America.
He remained with the Orpheum circuit until 1923, when it went public. One year after, he opened the theatre that will bear his name only until June 21, 2003, a musical house with 1,200 seats (at the time) and room for 200 actors backstage.
Beck began as an actor, performing with a troupe of German actors while waiting tables in a Chicago beergarden. (For reasons lost to time, but easy to deduce, Beck's nickname among theatre professionals was be "Two Beers Beck.") In the early 1890s, he went to San Francisco with the Schiller Vaudeville Company. There, he became friends with Morris Meyerfeld, the owner of the Orpheum Theatre, and teamed with him as the landlord began to buy other theatres and expanded his holdings.
In 1899, Beck exhibited his eye for talent when he spotted an unknown illusionist named Harry Houdini performing in St. Paul. He booked Houdini into an Omaha theatre and then guided the magician's career for two years, transforming him into an international sensation. The Martin Beck Theatre opened on Nov. 11, 1924, with a Viennese operetta called Mme. Pompadour. Shows during Beck's lifetime included the original productions of John Colton's The Shanghai Gesture, Eugene O'Neill's Dynamo, Philip Barry's Hotel Universe, Maxwell Anderson's Winterset and High Tor, and Laurence Housman Victoria Regina, as well as countless stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas.
Beck also built another, even more famous theatre: the one-time Vaudeville mecca, the Palace Theatre, which cost $1 million and still stands on Seventh Avenue and 47th Street. In Chicago, he erected the State-Lake Theatre in 1920, at a cost of $2.6 million.
The Beck family remained in control of the Martin Beck until 1966, when it sold to Jujamcyn Theatres.
Martin Beck might take some consolation in the fact the man who is supplanting him on his theatre's marquee is someone he knows: Hirschfeld began plying his craft in the pages of the New York Times in the late '20 and no doubt did illustrations of several shows that played at the musical palace that will soon put his name in lights .
—By Robert Simonson