ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Dimming of Broadway's Lights

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12 Sep 2010

Broadway dimmed its lights for Lynn Redgrave May 4
Broadway dimmed its lights for Lynn Redgrave May 4

A question concerning the long-standing tradition of dimming Broadway's marquees in honor of a recently passed theatre great.

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Question: "What is the criteria and who makes the decision about dimming the lights for someone who has passed away that appeared on Broadway?"—Bob Stempin of Durham, NC.

The simultaneous dimming of all the Broadway marquees in honor of the passing of a prominent theatre professional is one of the more touching and elegant of New York theatre traditions, and perhaps the ultimate recognition that a person has achieved a place in theatre history. No one knows how the tradition got started. According Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League—a trade organization of Broadway theatre owners and producers—it's been going on for 100 years. However, the theatre history book "Show Time" noted that, when the lights were dimmed for actor Alfred Lunt in 1977, it was only the third time such a thing had happened. The other two times were in honor of the passing of actress Gertrude Lawrence in 1952 and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II in 1960.

The ceremony is brief and precise. On a show night just after the deceased has passed (usually little more than 24 hours passes between the death and the dimming), exactly at curtain time—usually 8 PM—the lights of all the Broadway theatres are shut off for a full minute. No announcement is made, aside for a press release issued by the League prior to the event. The lights then go up, and the show goes on.

This season so far, Broadway's lights dimmed in honor of actresses Patricia Neal, Lynn Redgrave and Lena Horne; AP theatre critic Michael Kuchwara; John Willis, the longtime editor of Theatre World; and former Ziegfeld girl Doris Eaton Travis. Honorees can include the expected actors, directors, playwrights, composers and producers, but also journalists, designers (Tharon Musser), talent agents (i.e. Sam Cohn), executives (Rodger McFarlane, the founding executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS) and restauranteurs (Vincent Sardi Jr.; and Harry Edelstein, who ran the Edison Cafe).

Who gets honored is decided by a committee within the Broadway League. Understandably, St. Martin said the committee wishes to keep the nature of its deliberations private and confidential. "What we don't want is any lobbying," she said. "None of us want that." It is common, however, that names are quietly submitted for consideration. "Virtually every level and area of Broadway has recommended people in the past. That's different than lobbying," said St. Martin. "Overall, you can see the standards are pretty high and pretty clear."

Once a decision has been made to dim the lights, St. Martin places a call to the heads of the major theatre-owning organizations—the Shuberts, Nederlanders, Jujamcyn and a handful of others. The theatre owners take it from there, alerting the individual houses. Sometimes, the dimming occurs at 7 PM, if that happens to be the curtain time on the day in question. However, during the summer this can be a problem, since Daylight Savings Time causes night to fall later than it does the rest of the year. Dimmed lighting is hard to see in broad daylight. Because of this, St. Martin said, "We're talking about making it always at 8 PM."