By Robert Viagas
16 Oct 2013
Broadway’s Booth Theatre opened 100 years ago, Oct. 16, 1913, just a few weeks after its larger sister, the Shubert Theatre.
Dominating the uptown (45th Street) entrance to Shubert Alley, the 780-seat theatre, one of Broadway’s most intimate, has long been prized as an ideal size and location to house dramas and comedies like That Championship Season, I’m Not Rappaport and The Elephant Man—all Tony-winning Best Plays. Yet, it has also been home to a few notable musicals, including two Pulitzer Prize winners, Sunday in the Park with George and Next to Normal.
Members of a winning high school basketball team reunited years later to talk over the good times—and to hash out what really happened in that last game, in That Championship Season (1972). Robert Morse impersonated Truman Capote with eerie accuracy in the 1989 solo play, Tru. The air filled with menace instead of merriment in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which had its U.S. premiere in 1967.
An elderly Jewish man found an unexpected friend while trying to protect his favorite bench in Central Park—and his daughter’s life in Herb Gardner's I’m Not Rappaport (1985). A hideously disfigured man who appears as a sideshow attraction tried to assert his humanity in The Elephant Man (1979).
Seven black women identified by seven brightly colored costumes reveal the pain of their lives in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976). Blythe Danner played a young woman who has a romance with a blind man (Keir Dullea) in Butterflies Are Free (1969).
A married Midwestern businessman had an affair with a quirky New York girl in William Gibson’s play Two for the Seesaw (1958). Cyril Ritchard played a mischievous space alien who becomes fascinated with humanity in Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet (1957). Ruth Gordon gave Broadway its first taste of Dolly Gallagher Levi when the original production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker moved here from the Morosco in 1956.
In Dial 'M' for Murder (1952) a man carried out a complicated revenge plot when he discovered his wife is having an affair. Come Back Little Sheba (1950) allowed Shirley Booth to paint a picture of a woman trying to maintain what's left of her dreams while living with a chronic alcoholic of a husband. The Time of Your Life (1939) was William Saroyan’s Pulitzer-winning drama about the colorful characters who meet to drink in a San Francisco saloon.
Finishing the Hat
Among musicals, the songwriting team of Ahrens and Flaherty retold a bittersweet Caribbean folk tale in the 1990 musical Once On This Island. James Lapine an Stephen Sondheim brought a Pointillist masterpiece to life in Sunday in the Park With George (1984). Alice Ripley gave the performance of her career as a housewife and mother gradually succumbing to mental illness in Tom Kitt and Michael Yorkey's Next to Normal (2009). The Booth also hosted two editions of the musical revue, The Grand Street Follies in the late 1920s.
In between those classics, the Booth has been home to more than its share of short-run plays with oddball titles, including The Foxhole in the Parlor; Tenting Tonight; Hail Scrawdyke!; The Cream in the Well; How Beautiful With Shoes; A Play Without a Name; Roar Like a Dove; The Better ’Ole; Be Calm, Camilla and the ineffable The Rats of Norway, plus Kind Lady; Lady Clara; Don't Listen, Ladies; and No More Ladies.
Audiences stayed on the edge of their Booth seats at a series of thrillers in the 1930s, including Jewel Robbery, The Fatal Alibi, Possession, Escape and Paging Danger.
The inaugural production was The Great Adventure, Arnold Bennett's drama based on his book, "Buried Alive," about an artist who pretends he is dead to help his career. The production lasted only 52 performances despite the presence of actors Janet Beecher, Lyn Harding and Guthrie McClintic.
The Other Booth
In 1915, when there were still folks around who remembered President Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, the Booth skirted good taste by booking a revival of Our American Cousin, the comedy Lincoln was watching the night he was shot by the brother of the theatre's namesake.
Owing to its cozy size, the Booth has been favored throughout its history by actors performing solo shows, including Lily Tomlin, Vanessa Redgrave, Beatrice Lillie, Ruth Draper, Dame Edna, Jackie Mason, Bea Arthur, Laurence Fishburne, Eve Ensler, Rob Becker, Robert Morse, Michael Feinstein, Sandra Bernhard, Roy Dotrice, and, just this past spring, Bette Midler in I’ll Eat You Last.
"Broadway for Bupkis"
During the high tide of success for Joe Papp’s Public Theater, when he was programming Lincoln Center and Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, as well as the Public’s multiple stages in Greenwich Village, while A Chorus Line was selling-out at the Shubert Theatre, Papp also leased the Booth for a series he called “Broadway for Bupkis” (Yiddish expression for “next to nothing”). The series was to have included five new Broadway plays at the unheard-of price of $10 for all five. But after the failure of the first play, The Leaf People in the fall of 1975, the rest of the series was canceled.
The Booth’s unusual corner location on Shubert Alley has afforded it three other distinctions. One of its dressing rooms was taken out of service and converted to the popular One Shubert Alley Broadway merchandise store, accessed through the Alley. Part of the east wall of the Booth is used to display posters of current and upcoming new Broadway shows. The exit doors on the north side of the building are often used for blowup images of the actors appearing inside. Cherry Jones and her Glass Menagerie co-stars are currently getting that treatment.
Every Booth Show
For a complete list of Booth tenants through the years, visit the Playbill Vault. A detailed account of the theatre’s history can be found in the book “At This Theatre” by Robert Viagas and Louis Botto.
Robert Viagas is executive editor of PlaybillEDU.com, and editor of both “The Playbill Broadway Yearbook” series and “At This Theatre.”