Mary C. Henderson, Prominent Theatre Historian, Dies at 83

By Robert Simonson
January 7, 2012

Mary C. Henderson, a leading historian of the American theatre and author of the seminal texts "Theatre in America" and "The City and the Theatre," died Jan. 3 at her home in Congers, NY, after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, her son Doug Henderson said. She was 83.



Is is a rare theatre major or stage professional who hasn't encountered or consulted a work by Ms. Henderson. Her first text, "The City and the Theatre," published in 1973 and revised and updated in 2004, made her reputation, and proved to be one of her most lasting works. In its well-illustrated 300 pages, she tracked the history of every important playhouse in New York history, from the early colonial days of the John Street Theatre and the Park Theatre, to the rowdy 19th-century playhouses of the Bowery to the northward march of the theatrical district from Union Square to Madison Square to Herald Square and, finally, Times Square. The A to Z listing of every Broadway theatre featured a photograph or illustration of the theatre, its address, the architect, opening production, and, if applicable, when the theatre was demolished.

Soon after the book's publication, in 1975, she was named curator of the Theater Collection at the Museum of the City of New York, a position she held until 1985. Under her guidance, wrote the New York Times, "significant steps were taken to catalog the theater collection for the first time, hire new staff and promote the activities of the Friends of the Theater Collection, a group of well-to-do patrons whose splashy fund-raising parties and other efforts then channeled substantial money to the collection each year." After obtaining some small grants, Ms. Henderson began transferring much of the paper collection to acid-free envelopes, boxes and sleeves.

Another Henderson volume, the glossy, picture-laden "Theater in America," written in 1986, and revised and updated in 1996, is a common text in theatre courses and won Ms. Henderson the George Freedley Award as the outstanding theatre book of the year from the Theater Library Association in 1987. Other books included "The Story of 42nd Street" (2008, written with Alexis Greene), "Stars on Stage" (2005), "Meilziner: Master of Modern Stage Design" (2001), "The New Amsterdam" (1997), a history of the 42nd Street musical palace that coincided with Disney's purchase and renovation of the theatre, and "Broadway Ballyhoo" (1989), a pictorial study of American theatre posters and publicity materials.

Dr. Henderson taught theatre history and literature at a number of institutions, including New York University, Hunter College, Columbia University, Pace University, and William Paterson College, and lectured widely.

She was also was the founder and director of the Theater Museum, which operated from 1982 to 1986 in Shubert Alley.

Among the awards bestowed upon Dr. Henderson were a Guggenheim Fellowship; a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship; a Graham Foundation grant; Broadway Theatre Institute Award for Excellence in Theater Education; Douglass Society of Distinguished Alumnae; and two USITT Golden Pen Awards.

As a child, Mary C. Henderson attended many Broadway shows, and aspired to be an actress. Instead, after gathering degrees at Douglass College of Rutgers University in 1949 and University of Pittsburgh in 1951, she settled down to a life as wife and mother to three sons. Later, she returned to school, taking a doctorate in drama and theatre at New York University.

In addition to her son Doug, she is survived by her sisters Christine Wilson and Evelyn Zamula; sons James and Stuart; and four grandchildren.

Few bits of theatre history escaped Dr. Henderson's attention. In 1999, she wrote a letter to the New York Times correcting a reporter's assertion about a long-standing statue of early Broadway star Marilyn Miller that graces the I. Miller shoe store on W. 46th Street, just off Times Square.

"I, like millions of others," she wrote, "have always assumed, as did your writer, that the figure of Marilyn Miller depicted by the sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder on the I. Miller building was of the actress in Sunny, one of her greatest successes. It only proves that even when engraved in stone, mistakes can be made and perpetuated. Some months ago, a friend of mine sent me a picture of Marilyn Miller in her costume as Peter Pan, one of her less successful roles, but obviously more appealing to Calder than her Sunny costume. So it is as Peter Pan that he immortalized her, not as Sunny as inscribed on the building below the statue."