"Hey, Up There!": Broadway Babies Recall Theatrical Home, The Rehearsal Club

By Mervyn Rothstein
14 Apr 2013

Phyllis Jeanne Creore

Generally the young women lived two or three to a room, but there was also Burnett's five-person accommodation. The number of residents varied. It ranged from about 25 to 40, though occasionally reached 50 or so.

"It was such a safe place to be," Mayron says. "New York then wasn't as nice and clean as it is now. It could get pretty funky around Times Square and the theatre district, and Broadway and 72nd Street was called Needle Park. Our headmistress watched over everybody."

The story of the Rehearsal Club, Kelley says, begins with a woman named Jane Harriss Hall, a deaconess of the Episcopal Church. Hall ran an arts club for students, heard about an ailing young aspiring actress and went to visit her. "She wanted to help the actress," Kelley says, "and she goes into the room and finds the young actress with a loaded pistol beside her bed. Hall said, 'You aren't going to commit suicide, are you?' And the actress said, 'No. The neighborhood is so rough, and the gun is here to protect me.' Hall said, 'That's it.' And she decided to found an organization to protect young actresses."

The club began in a brownstone on West 46th Street near Times Square. "In 1926, John D. Rockefeller Jr. offered two adjacent brownstones on West 53rd Street, quite near where he lived – it was still a residential area at the time – to the club for $1 a year. It stayed there until it closed." The location was especially convenient for the many Radio City Rockettes who resided there.

"They were the ghosts of the club," Kelley recalls, "because they were never there. They had such a busy schedule. Sometimes they would sleep at Rockefeller Center. Every once in a while you'd see a Rockette. She'd come in and say, 'This is my week off. Hello, everybody.'"

For a long time, Kelley says, "the club was not very well known." Then, in the mid-1930s, novelist and playwright Edna Ferber (Show Boat, "Giant") visited.

"She decided to write a play, and she disguised herself as a Boston socialite with a stage-struck niece. She got herself into the Rehearsal Club, talked to all the girls, got the atmosphere, said, 'Thank you very much' and left." She wrote Stage Door (1936, with George S. Kaufman). "Everybody in town knew it was the Rehearsal Club. And from then on, the club took off, especially when the film came out the next year. Young aspiring actresses wanted to live there. The place developed a cachet. If you got in there, the producers wanted to hire you."

The club received no royalties from Ferber, Kelley notes.