Broadway's Shubert Theatre Turns 100 Sept. 29

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29 Sep 2013

Entrance to the Shubert Theatre in 1913, with posters for its maiden production, a repertory of Shakespeare plays starring actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson.
Entrance to the Shubert Theatre in 1913, with posters for its maiden production, a repertory of Shakespeare plays starring actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson.
The Shubert Archive

A look back at the great stars and shows that graced the venerable playhouse on West 44th Street.

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Turn west onto 44th Street from Times Square and there it is, its marquee at the corner of the building, not on the side, canted so it can be seen from Broadway: the Shubert Theatre.

On Sept. 29 one of the most iconic Broadway playhouses and flagship of the mighty Shubert Organization quietly marks its 100th anniversary.

On that stage, currently home to Matilda, Fred Astaire and Clair Luce whirled to Cole Porter's music in Gay Divorce; Gwen Verdon stole the show with her high kicks and saucy hips in Can-Can; Glynis Johns purred her way bittersweetly through "Send in the Clowns" in A Little Night Music; Jerry Orbach and Jill O'Hara didn't fool each other for a second when they promised "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" in Promises, Promises; audiences first heard standards "Night and Day," "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" and "As Time Goes By"; the kids of Babes in Arms got a barn, put on a show and sang "My Funny Valentine" and "Johnny One-Note"; Cyril Ritchard and Anthony Newley clowned through The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd; Judy Holliday's heart seemed to break as she sang "The Party's Over" in Bells Are Ringing; Christopher Sieber and Sara Ramirez modulated into ever higher keys in Monty Python's Spamalot; and the dancers of A Chorus Line stood on a simple white line running the breadth of that stage and showed us every night for 15 years how much they absolutely needed to dance.



Properly the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, this playhouse has been home to a century of Broadway greats, also including original productions of Crazy for You, Memphis, Paint Your Wagon, The Philadelphia Story, Idiot's Delight, Maytime, Dodsworth, Stop the World—I Want To Get Off, High Button Shoes, and dozens more — not to mention four editions of The Greenwich Village Follies and seven Tony Awards ceremonies. Talents who trod its boards include Al Jolson, Mae West, Lionel Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, Ed Wynn, Theda Bara, Joe E. Brown, Leon Errol, Katharine Cornell, Bobby Clark, Texas Guinan, Shirley Booth, Laurette Taylor, Bob Hope, The Three Stooges, Leo G. Carrol, Sydney Greenstreet, Ray Bolger, Uta Hagen, Rex Harrison, and the Lunts — and that partial list barely takes us up to World War II.

Check out the complete production list at PlaybillVault.com.

It’s one of the few Broadway theatres that has never changed its name, and one of the few that served as the setting for a scene in a musical; the opening number of The Producers was played at its doorstep. A Chorus Line’s original setting was listed as “Time: Now. Place: Here,” which technically set that show at the Shubert.

The Shubert was built by Lee and J.J. Shubert in memory of their brother, founder of the Shubert empire, who was killed in a 1905 railway accident. The train in which he was riding struck another that was carrying explosives, and the 29-year-old Shubert was among 22 people who perished in the resulting fireball. A photo of Sam S. supervises his namesake theatre lobby to this day.

The floors above the theatre were originally designed as an apartment for surviving brother Lee Shubert, who took the reins of the company and, with brother J.J. who lived across the street, built the family business into the largest theatre-owning company on Broadway. The space included a room-sized safe that once held the proceeds of dozens of shows running in New York and across North America in the days when theatre was a strictly cash business. The apartment has long since been converted into offices for the Shubert Organization, and that safe now holds boxes of soft drinks for the employees.

The marquee for Take Me Along in 1959.
photo by The Shubert Archives

Today’s successors to Lee and J.J. are Chairman Philip J. Smith and President Robert E. Wankel, who occupy offices across the hall from one another in what once was Lee’s dining room.

Smith, who worked his way up from substitute box office manager for the old RKO chain to the same post at the Shuberts’ Majestic Theatre in 1957 and then at the Shubert itself, said he’s proud to have moved into the post previously held by Gerald Schoenfeld, and to have spent most of his adult life working on this one golden block of West 44th Street. When asked what he considered the quintessential Shubert theatre show, he named A Chorus Line, which occupied the Shubert stage from 1975 to 1990, as "a good candidate for that."

The Shubert may be old, but it is still sound, Smith said. He reports that he gained new respect for the designer and builders of the Shubert when he attended a performance at which the audience was dancing in the aisles, and he noticed the entire mezzanine was “literally swaying." It was explained to him by the engineering staff that the theatre had been designed to tolerate exactly that kind of movement, like the expansion joints on a bridge or shock absorbers on cars and buildings in earthquake-prone cities. The Shubert was designed to roll with the audience’s punches.

Nevertheless, the Shubert Organization has embarked on a program of facelifts to its theatres, some of which have already celebrated their centenaries, notably the Belasco and the Longacre. Despite its soundness, Smith said he’s like to renovate the Shubert, but “business has been so good we can’t take it out of circulation.”

The Shubert Theatre is built on land formerly owned by the Astor Estate, first leased by the Shuberts, then bought outright in 1952. In pre-Columbian times it was the west shore of a marsh that occupied much of today’s Times Square. After the familiar numbered grid of streets overlaid settlers’ farmland in the mid-19th century, brownstones arose on the site. These were demolished in the first and second decade of the 20th century to make way for the theatres that stand there today.

The anniversary of the Shubert Theatre also marks the centenary of Shubert Alley, the passageway between 44th and 45th Streets, formerly a bus station, now lined with posters for Broadway productions and affording rushing theatregoers a way to circumvent the crowds in Times Square. The emotional heart of the Broadway theatre district is marked with a plaque above the Shubert’s entrance. It reads:

“Dedicated to all those
who glorify the theatre
and use this short thoroughfare.”

The Shubert's milestone will be followed Oct. 16 by the centenary of its smaller sister, the neighboring Booth Theatre (currently housing The Glass Menagerie), with which the Shubert shares a brick facade (though they are two separate buildings).

(Robert Viagas is executive editor of PlaybillEDU.com and editor of "At This Theatre" and “The Playbill Broadway Yearbook.”)