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Question: One particularly grand thing about the older Broadway theatres is the elaborate downstairs lounge with bar, period seating, and even a piano at some venues. One can picture the days of gowns and tuxes milling about that area. However, today it seems that the short 30 minutes given from when doors open to the curtain-up is not enough time for really using the lounge. Was the 30-minute door opening always in effect? Were the lounges really used as a gathering place for drinks, food, conversation and such? — Michael S. Burnett
We've long noticed that many Broadway theatres have lovely, plush, well-appointed lounges, some of them downstairs, some up. We've also noticed that they're terribly underused. Most theatregoers only catch a glimpse of them when on their way to the restroom. At most theatres, little loitering goes on either before the show or during the intermission. So why are they there?
Ask Playbill hasn't tackled such a vexing query since the time we had to crack the mystery of when Broadway started offering Sunday performances. Our usual theatre-history go-to people drew a blank, and usually reliable volumes of Broadway history offered no help. So we called the office of Dana Amendola, VP of Operations at Disney Theatrical. The New Amsterdam Theatre, which Disney rescued and renovated in the 1990s, has some of Broadway's most striking examples of gracious, old-school theatre lounges. "It was a conscious decision that architects designing these theatres made," said Amendola. "This was when theatre was an event. You donned your finest. The show was special, of course, but the time before the presentation was extremely special. The reason why you'd have so many foyers and lounges is you'd slowly build your experience before you were steered into the theatre. That was a design the theatre owners wanted. There are certain expectations that are built."
Amendola said the long, narrow spaces behind the orchestra seats at many theatres were actually once used as promenades, where well-dressed gentlemen and ladies would stroll back and forth, showing themselves off and meeting and chatting with friends. "Today we've jammed these spaces with merchandise and sound boards, and there are extra rows of seats. Theses things weren't there in the past."
We also consulted with Harvey Young, a theatre professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.
"Concerning the lounges, it's important to note that multiple types of theatres were transformed into Broadway houses — each elaborate in their own way: vaudeville houses, movie palaces, and, of course, legitimate theatre houses," said Young. "This information is useful because almost all of these theatres had lounges and the types of performances that they offered determined the extent to which audiences could access the lounges. For vaudeville shows, it was common for spectators to miss entire portions of the show and to spend time socializing in the lounges and lobbies of the theatres.
"The best example of this was in 1951 when Judy Garland performed in a two-act vaudeville show [Judy Garland Palace Two-a-Day] but only appeared in the second act, and scores of audience members elected to skip the first act — preferring to spend time in the lounge — before watching Garland sing her hits in the second half of the production. For movie palaces, like nicer movie houses today, the lounges offered opportunities to socialize before and after a screening. For legitimate theatre, the lounges were the place to go for intermissions — recalling that multiple intermissions were more common in the first half of the 20th century."
Young also pointed out that the lounges served another purpose other than theatregoer comfort. "The display of furniture gave the place — even when not used by patrons — a feeling of sophistication and luxury," he said. Certainly, the architects of the early Broadway theatres vied with one another in terms of luxury and opulence.
Amendola said that theatres often made free picture-postcards of the lounges available to theatregoers. "Postage was only a penny," he explained. "People would write about how wonderful a time they were having and drop the card in the mail on the way out. This was wonderful publicity for the theatres."
Kim Marra, an Obermann Fellow-in-Residence in the Theatre Arts Department at the University of Iowa, had more to add. "Working from old playbills, ticket stubs, and newspaper ads for Broadway theatres 1890-1910," she said, "I can report that houses such as Belasco's Theatre and Frohman's Empire Theatre instituted curtain times ranging from 8:00 to 8:15, 8:20, or 8:30, with theatre doors opening an hour or more before the performance. The plays were usually 3-4 acts, requiring changes of heavy built scenery in between, which meant multiple intervals of a few minutes to a half an hour in length.
"Lavish lobbies and lounges accommodated audiences before the performance, during intervals, and after the final curtain. When Belasco opened the renovated Republic Theatre — renamed the Belasco, now the New Victory — in 1902, the building featured a luxurious ladies' lounge a la Marie Antoinette and a men's smoking room equipped with magazines and stationery. Yes, these lounges were used for refreshment and conversation — and apparently reading, smoking, and letter writing."
"People get antsy today," said Amendola. "Back then, this was something that people looked forward to. The theatres were a tribute to their city. People wanted to spend time in them. They wanted to socialize. There was no 'social network' back then. People still talked to each other. That's why you wanted to arrive early. Very rarely did people arrive late."
As for the time when the theatre doors opened — 30 minutes before or longer — professor Young had no definite answer. "In looking into this, I haven't seen any sources suggesting that doors ever opened really early, for what we might call theatrical tailgating," he said.