Cows and monkeys once lived in a rooftop garden atop the Theatre Republic. That’s the claim that sent Tim Dolan on a five-year quest to find proof this was true.
“I was like, ‘‘What?! I have to do a deep dive into that,’” Dolan recalls.
Dolan’s “deep dive” led to his founding of what is now a thriving business: a walking tour company that specializes in the history of Broadway and its theatres, known as Broadway Up Close.
When visiting New York City, a Broadway Up Close walking tour is as obligatory as a tour of the Louvre on a trip to Paris. (And, quite frankly, it’s the only worthwhile way I’ve discovered to “see” Times Square—even if you’ve lived here your whole life.) BUC is not just a theatre-lover’s dream; the tour is made for history and architecture buffs, as well. Of course, for tourists it’s also the perfect answer to the quandary of daytime theatre-related activities prior to actually seeing a show.
For nearly 10 years (April marks the official anniversary), BUC has offered custom tours of the Theatre District. In 2017, Dolan added Hamiltour, where BUC “connects the dots between history and the musical”; in 2018, he added the Ghostlight Tour of haunted Broadway, its superstitions, ghosts, and lore; and his most recent addition is an interior tour at ATG’s Hudson Theatre, which launched October 22, 2019. The company now hosts an estimated 500 tours per year, with at least two different tours offered each day.
How It All Began
Rewind to 2009—when Dolan read about the cows and the monkeys. He had just wrapped a three-year run performing in Off-Broadway’s Altar Boyz and found himself fixated on the idea of the rooftop menagerie. “Rooftop garden theatres are a whole part of New York City history that still fascinates me—that you go and see a show and then you go upstairs and there would be another show on the roof and it would look like a garden—and the one that [Oscar Hammerstein I] built had a farm on it,” he continues.
The bizarre nature of the story got Dolan wondering: Could he find one of those stories for every theatre?
“The answer is no. But I was like, ‘God, if I can find enough of those, I think there could be an entire tour of that,’” he says, “but then also pair that with: what’s an understudy, what’s a swing, what’s a standby, [and] let me tell you about the numbers on the stage and the ghostlight.” So he began what would become months of research.
Writing a Tour
Step one: Dolan created a massive spreadsheet of every Broadway theatre, “how many seats are in every theatre, who owns the theatre—whatever big bullet points come to mind—who’s played each theatre, famous shows.” He expanded from facts and figures with stories about the theatreowners and their lives, the evolving exterior architecture, mishaps during rehearsals of the Ziegfeld Follies—digging for any fact that made his curiosity spike.
“The thing about New York City is that everything’s at our fingertips,” says Dolan. He plumbed through archives at Columbia University, the official Shubert Archives in the Lyceum Theatre, the New York Public Library, the online photographic archives of the Museum of the City of New York, even the Library of Congress.
“Sometimes it’s just reading one book that’s 700 pages long and discarding 699-and-a-half pages, pulling that one paragraph out and dissecting that one paragraph into one sentence,” he says. (It’s how he discovered a crazy connection between Louis Armstrong and Broadway’s Hudson Theatre.)
In 2010, Dolan delivered his first-ever tour of all 40 Broadway theatres (the Hudson had not yet re-opened). It was seven-and-a-half hours long. Not exactly digestible fare.
Rather than cut down, Dolan embraced the details he unearthed and divided that one tour into three. By 2012 he had a full roster of scripted tours, now called Broadway’s Beginnings (41st to 44th Streets); Shubert Brothers & Beyond (44th to 46th Streets); and Hippies, Discos, & Dogs, Oh My! (47th to 54th Streets), and can be taken in any sequence.
Each new tour takes six months to write. “I always think of it as a treasure hunt without a map,” he says. Once Dolan launches a tour, he spends the first six weeks asking his customers what their questions are—like a preview period—so he can hone and finalize. At the end of the day, Dolan wants stories that make your jaw drop, whether you’re a group of students, an office retreat, or a family with a seven-year-old and 97-year-old.
What to Expect From a Tour
Standing on 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, Dolan launches into a story about AMC Empire 25—formerly the Eltinge Theatre, a legitimate Broadway house. With wide-eyed showmanship, Dolan begins his tale about 42nd Street in the 1930s and ’40s, the shows of the time, the producers of the moment, the atmosphere of Times Square 80 years ago.
Fast forward to 1997 when, as Dolan explains, AMC acquired half of the land on the southwest side of 42nd Street to build a big movie theatre—the AMC cinema that’s been hovering in the background of his monologue. But, in the middle of their land was the landmarked Empire Theatre. Turns out, AMC paid for the Empire to be rolled down the street—lifted an eighth of an inch and rolled down the street!—to accommodate. And then… Dolan plays the decades-old video of it happening.
Guides never go anywhere without an iPad, loaded with digitized vintage photographs of the very street corner you stand or black-and-whites of the main figures in the narrative.
“We make it feel human,” says Dolan of himself and his staff of 12 other guides known as the Green Team. “Like any good tour, whether it’s in New York or not, I’m trying to bring the human pursuit, the human narrative to the forefront and trying to understand how things came to be. Whether that’s a theatre—how it was built, who built it, why they built it, and what that story is—or a show and how that show was built, is why I create these tours.”
For the Hudson Theatre tour, Dolan managed to discover a connection even historians hadn’t determined. The Hudson’s owner Renée Harris—also the first female Broadway theatre owner in history—survived the Titanic. This is well known. What is not well known is her connection to a pair of survivors that, let’s just say, has had more than one attendee crying and exclaiming they have goosebumps.
What to Know About HamilTour
The one tour on the BUC roster that differs from the rest is HamilTour. Set downtown instead of in the Theatre District, focused on a single musical instead of multiple productions, Dolan’s goal is to walk through the history of Alexander Hamilton’s New York and understand that transformation into a musical
“You start from the moment [Hamilton] first got here, so we show a picture of what Stone Street looked like 80 years before Hamilton walked in to give you context of the vision we have of this man going, ‘Just you wait,’” Dolan explains. “But then we also translate to: David Korins, who designed the set, how is he looking at what we’re looking at and how does he take this score by Lin-Manual Miranda plus this actual history and put it together?”
A personal friend of Korins and prop designer Jay Duckworth, Dolan dug up “bonus material” for HamilTour to illustrate his narrative. On this tour, the iPad flips through original sketches of set designs that didn’t make it, drafting plans, and more. Though neither commissioned nor sponsored by Hamilton, the tour does offer a perspective on the biggest hit in Broadway history. “By the time you’re done, you’ll have seen the world of building the musical and this history through my eyes of having seen [parts of the process] firsthand.”
What to Know About Going Inside the Theatre
The Hudson Theatre is the oldest operating Broadway house, and Dolan has the keys to the castle.
Through this indoor visit, tour-goers not only learn the history of the Hudson, its architectural milestones (the first Tiffany glass in a theatre), and its production history (the first Tonight Show), but general theatre know-how. Most visits allow guests to step onto the stage, offering a rarely seen view into the audience. “People just want to know, in that moment, what [the actors] can see,” Dolan says. “We get a lot of people who see lots of shows, but don’t know what they’re really seeing and they’ll say to me after, ‘I’m seeing these shows with entirely new eyes.’
“These are people who are invested theatreogers, who see a lot of theatre, but they don’t really have access to ask someone, ‘What else should I know?’ until they come on my tour and then they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I thought I knew a lot. I knew nothing,’” he continues with a laugh.
A Must-Experience Tour
But what makes BUC tours captivating is the style in which the Green Team conjures history. “We think of it less as a tour and more of a show,” says Dolan. “You can find the right type of actor who can really bring their own narrative alive” and share stories from their onstage and backstage experiences.
Through intense training—script memorization, souvenir book studying, audio recording retention, and tour attendance—no matter who your guide, the goal of every tour is the same: excavating the bones of theatrical ancestry and legacy.
“To me, everything has a reason, everything has a story, everything has a secret,” Dolan says. “It’s just unlocking them one at a time.”
For more information or to book a BUC tour, visit BroadwayUpClose.com or visit the kiosk at 45th Street and Broadway. And watch a snippet of BUC’s Ghostlight Tour below: