Broadway's Getting A New Theater, Which Is Also Its Oldest

Feb 11, 2017
Originally published on February 11, 2017 9:58 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For decades, there have been exactly 40 Broadway theaters all between 41st and 65th Streets in Manhattan. Tonight, a new theater opens that also happens to be the oldest. Are you confused? No one better than Jeff Lunden to clear it up.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Back in 1929, you could've heard Louis Armstrong sing this on the stage of the Hudson Theatre.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) No one to talk with, all by myself...

LUNDEN: In 1957, you could've heard this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) You ain't nothin' but a hound dog...

LUNDEN: That's Elvis Presley on the "Tonight!" show with Steve Allen. There is no theater on Broadway older than the Hudson, which opened in October 1903. But there hasn't been a live stage play performed here for almost 49 years. For a long time, it was a radio and TV studio. And Eric Paris, the Hudson's general manager, says...

ERIC PARIS: It really went through a period of a couple of years as a rock 'n' roll house, and then it was a blue movie house for a short period. But it did become a movie house after that that showed other films other than a pornographic nature (laughter).

LUNDEN: Paris and his colleague, interior designer George Couyas, took me on a tour of the Hudson, which was bought by a British theatre company a couple of years ago and is being restored to its former glory. While workers hammered, sawed and drilled, they gave me an architecture and history lesson. The Hudson Theatre was built and owned by a couple, Henry and Renee Harris.

PARIS: They lived in an apartment that is at the top of this building. The fourth and the fifth floors were theirs, and they went in 1912 on a very infamous voyage called the Titanic.

LUNDEN: Renee got on what turned out to be the last lifeboat. She thought her husband was getting on one as well.

PARIS: As she was leaving the boat, she took all of her precious jewels and she put all of them in his pockets and said I'll see you soon.

LUNDEN: Newly widowed Renee Harris took over as the theater's manager, becoming the first female producer on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'")

LUNDEN: For decades, great stars performed on the stage - Ethel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Louis Armstrong - and their pictures are on the walls. After taking a look at the Greco-Roman marble lobby, interior designer George Couyas beckoned.

GEORGE COUYAS: Before we get to the house, you get to our second lobby, which is a bit of a treat for you. Come in.

LUNDEN: Oh, my God.

The ceiling was astonishing.

COUYAS: This is our Tiffany lobby. These three domes that you can see are original Tiffany glass. And we've painstakingly restored them to make them look how they were originally.

LUNDEN: Next, we walked into the auditorium, rich in shades of gold and cream. George Couyas and his team were also kind of detectives. A lot of the original architectural detail had been covered up or altered while the theater served other purposes, like for most of the 1950s and early '60s when it was a TV studio, says Eric Paris.

PARIS: The one that is most famous is "The Tonight Show." Barbra Streisand had her very first television appearance on this stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

BARBRA STREISAND: (Singing) When a bee lies sleepin' in the palm...

PARIS: "The Price Is Right," the famous game show, was filmed here on this stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PRICE IS RIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "The Price Is Right," the exciting...

LUNDEN: But now it's a beautiful 975-seat Broadway house. Eric Paris says the owners have been giving tours of the renovated space to producers.

PARIS: We are excited about how the Broadway community has, when they're walking through this building, how excited they are.

LUNDEN: A revival of "Sunday In The Park With George" starring Jake Gyllenhaal starts performances tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE")

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (Singing) Finishing the hat.

LUNDEN: After that, the Hudson Theatre will present an adaptation of George Orwell's "1984." For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.