Whenever Tony Award-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell (Kiss Me, Kate; Ragtime) opens in a new show, he follows a long-held ritual. The first day at the venue, he turns to Louis Botto's book "At This Theatre" to help tell his fellow cast members stories of all of the famous actors and actresses who’ve strutted and fretted upon that very stage.
Soon, he’ll have new copy to consult. Botto has revised and updated the inaugural 1984 edition of his "At This Theatre" -- available in September 2002. Chapters on the original 34 theatres have been brought up to date to cover shows and personalities of the past 18 years, and Botto has added new chapters to showcase Broadway’s four new or restored theatres (Disney’s New Amsterdam, the American Airlines Theatre, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts and the Marquis Theatre), plus the Vivian Beaumont Theater and the famed City Center.
"At This Theatre" expands on the information Botto showcases in his popular Playbill column of the same name. The book tells the story of 40 Broadway houses, theatre by theatre, from their beginnings to the present time, peppered with anecdotes that only Botto — the senior editor and archivist of Playbill — could tell. He recounts, for instance, that just weeks before the Music Box opened in 1921, Sam H. Harris and Irving Berlin — who built the theatre — discovered they forgot to install a box office. It was then hurriedly added to the lobby.
"Another story I like to tell is about actor David Warfield, a terrible practical joker," said Botto. "When he was in The Return of Peter Grimm (Belasco Theatre) in 1910, he put Limburger cheese in a bowl of tulips. When his leading lady buried her face in the flowers at the play’s climax, she almost passed out!"
Besides offering stories of well-known theatre legends like Ethel Merman, David Merrick, Katharine Hepburn and hundreds of others, the book also looks at more contemporary players and includes in-depth information about the 42nd Street renaissance. "I had always heard that the New Amsterdam Theatre was haunted by a famous Ziegfeld girl, Olive Thomas, a mistress of Ziegfeld's," said Botto. "When they were restoring the building, one of the workmen called me and said strange things had happened. One day he was alone in the lobby when he heard a voice saying, 'Hello, how are you?’ When he turned around, no one was there." The updated edition contains 116 additional pages and over 100 photos and program covers more than the original. It also features a new index, with 6,600 entries that editor Robert Viagas, program director of Playbill Broadcast and editor of Playbill Books, compiled by hand. Since he enjoys the book so, Brian Stokes Mitchell even wrote the new preface. "The great thing about this book," said Viagas, "is to see that sweep of history."
"When you’re 78 and you have your third book coming out, it’s marvelous," added Botto. "Besides, my [magazine] column doesn’t mention all the shows that each theatre has because of space limitations — and I’m always getting letters asking why did you leave this out." Even his first book found those craving more content. Soon after its publication in 1984, Celeste Holm called Botto to complain that her show, Affairs of State, merited more space.
Viagas and Botto began working together in 1994 when Botto began writing quizzes for Playbill On-Line, which Viagas then edited. "We had a good rapport, and I thought that if we could achieve that same relationship for a book, we’d have some fun," said Viagas. The book project began in Dec. 2000 with Botto revamping six chapters a month. Because of tight deadlines for the first edition, Botto often has found himself writing two or three chapters a day! Some chapters, such as the one on the Winter Garden Theatre, where only two shows (Cats and now Mamma Mia!) have played since the original book, proved easier than others. "The repertory theatres, where shows continually come and go, were more challenging," said Botto.
The look of the book underwent revisions as well. Julie Meridy updated its design, making the layout more contemporary. The size of the book expanded to 8 1/2 inches by 11 1/8 inches to give it a coffee-table book appeal, but still makes the volume easy to handle. "Ultimately, we wanted something that could fit in your hand," said Viagas. "I wanted something anybody could use with ease."
The book, which costs $35, is the inauguration of the Playbill Books imprint and is being published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, with distribution by Hal Leonard Corporation. The book will be released Sept. 10 and will be available for purchase in the Playbill Store and at bookstores across the country. Botto is scheduled to appear at New York book signings at the Drama Book Shop (Oct. 7), the Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center (Oct. 21) and at Broadway Cares (Sept. 22).
Now and Then:
|1984 Edition||2002 Edition|
|260 pages||376 pages|
|8 inches by 9 inches||8 1/2 inches by 11 1/8 inches|
|more than 300 illustrations in color||more than 500 illustrations in color and black and white|
|no index||a comprehensive index featuring 6,600 entries|
—By Sandra Mardenfeld
(A former Playbill Magazine program editor, Mardenfeld is a professor of Communications and a freelance writer for numerous publications.)