Comedy Theatre (New York City)
|Address||110 West 41st Street|
New York City
|Owner||The Shubert Organization|
|Opened||September 6, 1909|
|Architect||D. G. Malcolm|
The Comedy Theatre was a Broadway theatre located at 110 West 41st Street in Manhattan that opened in 1909. It presented the first Broadway appearances of Katharine Cornell and Ruth Draper, as well as Eugene O'Neill's first Broadway play. Shuttered in the wake of the Depression, it reopened in 1937 as the Mercury Theatre — the venue for Orson Welles's groundbreaking adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and other productions for the Mercury Theatre repertory company. In 1939 it began presenting classic Yiddish theatre. The building was demolished in 1942.
Architect D. G. Malcolm designed the Comedy Theatre, a Broadway theatre located at 110 West 41st Street in Manhattan, for The Shubert Organization. Its first production, The Melting Pot, opened September 6, 1909. The 687-seat theatre:286 was a venue for more intimate productions, and was often leased to producers including William Collier, Cecil B. DeMille, and the Washington Square Players. Katharine Cornell made her first Broadway appearance at the Comedy Theatre, and Ruth Draper also made her debut there. Eugene O'Neill's first Broadway play, In the Zone, opened at the Comedy Theatre in 1917. With its narrow orchestra pit and a booth for follow spots at the rear of the second balcony, the theatre was also used for small musical shows.:286
The Comedy Theatre was shuttered in 1931, in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It reopened in 1937 as the Mercury Theatre, leased by John Houseman and Orson Welles for their new repertory theatre company, the Mercury Theatre. Houseman later described the venue as "an intimate, rococo, two-balcony theatre [that] was for many years one of Manhattan's most elegant smaller playhouses.":286
The Mercury company was able to lease the Comedy Theatre for three years at $187.50 a week. The intermediary for the owner, reputedly a Chicago gangster, said that the owner would not pay a cent for any repairs or maintenance, but he did not care what was done to the building as long as the first three months' rent was paid in advance.:286–287 When the Mercury took over the theatre, production manager Jean Rosenthal presented Houseman with "a formidable list of absolute and immediate necessities, which included major repairs to the grid, new rigging and power lines and a new stage floor to replace the rotting planks through which huge, fearless rodents could be seen emerging on their hunting excursions." The repairs, which also included cleaning the rusty, grimy exterior, had to be made within a month.:292 At the end of October 1937, press agent Henry Senber oversaw a ceremony unveiling the new electric sign identifying the theatre as the Mercury. Ticket prices ranged from 55 cents, for seats in the top balcony, to $2.20 for front row orchestra seats.:34–35
It was the venue for most of the Mercury's productions from November 1937 to November 1938.:339 The first was Caesar, Welles's modern-dress adaptation of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, streamlined into a critically acclaimed anti-fascist tour de force.:339 Its last production there was Danton's Death (1938). The Mercury Theatre productions are regarded as the greatest successes of the venue's history.
In June 1939 the theatre began its final transition when Welles and Houseman leased the Mercury Theatre to the newly formed Dramatic Art Theatrical Association and the Artef Players, a well-known Yiddish theatre company. The facility operated as the Artef Theatre from 1940 until its demolition in 1942.
The site is now occupied by an office building. In 2009 a plaque was dedicated there to mark the location of the historic Mercury Theatre.
Geraldine Fitzgerald and Orson Welles in Heartbreak House
- Penelope (1909)
- The Affinity (1910)
- A Man's World (1910)
- The Three Daughters of Monsieur Dupont (1910)
- The Family (1910)
- Her Own Money (1913)
- In the Zone (1917–18)
Collier's Comedy Theatre
- I'll Be Hanged If I Do (1910)
- Bunty Pulls the Strings (1911)
- Fanny's First Play (1912–13)
- Caesar (1937)
- The Cradle Will Rock (1937, Worklight Theatre presentation):340:325
- The Shoemaker's Holiday (1938):340
- Dear Abigail by David Howard (1938, Worklight Theatre presentation):40
- I've Got the Tune and Ben Bengal's Plant in the Sun (1938, Worklight Theatre presentation):310
- Heartbreak House (1938):342
- Danton's Death (1938):347
Artef Players at the Mercury Theatre
- Clinton Street (opening October 12, 1939; Artef Players leasing the venue still named the Mercury Theatre)
- Uriel Acosta (December 29, 1939–February 18, 1940; Artef Players leasing the venue still named the Mercury Theatre)
Richard Linklater's 2008 film, Me and Orson Welles, is a romantic comedy set during the days before the opening of Caesar at the Mercury Theatre. "Like most Welles stage shows, alas, this one left few traces," wrote Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout. "No part of the production was filmed, and nothing else survives but the design sketches and some still photographs taken in 1937. … What makes Me and Orson Welles uniquely interesting to scholars of American drama is that Mr. Linklater's design team found the Gaiety Theatre on the Isle of Man. This house closely resembles the old Comedy Theatre on 41st Street, which was torn down five years after Julius Caesar opened there. Using Samuel Leve's original designs, they reconstructed the set for Julius Caesar on the Gaiety's stage. Then Mr. Linklater filmed some 15 minutes' worth of scenes from the play, lit according to Jean Rosenthal's plot, accompanied by Marc Blitzstein's original incidental music and staged in a style as close to that of the 1937 production as is now possible." Teachout wrote that he "was floored by the verisimilitude of the results".
- "Artef Theatre". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2015-08-07.
- Bloom, Ken (2013). The Routledge Guide to Broadway. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis. p. 52. ISBN 9781135871178. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
- Houseman, John (1972). Run-Through: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-21034-3.
- "Comedy Theatre". Playbill. Retrieved 2015-08-07.
- Anderson, Arthur (2010). An Actor's Odyssey. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media. ISBN 9781593935221.
- Welles, Orson; Bogdanovich, Peter; Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1992). This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-016616-9.
- "Houseman, Welles Quit at Mercury". The New York Times. June 16, 1939. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
- "Return of the Artef". The New York Times. October 8, 1939. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
- Feder, Chris Welles (November 26, 2009). "Chris Welles Feder and Christian McKay unveil a plaque celebrating Orson Welles's Mercury Theater on Broadway". Wellesnet. Retrieved 2015-08-07.
- "'Plant in Sun' Repeated … Also 'I've Got the Tune'". The New York Times. February 21, 1938. Retrieved 2015-09-08.
- Lehrman, Leonard (2005). Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. ISBN 9780313300271.
- "Artef Group Back". The New York Times. October 12, 1939. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
'Clinton Street,' Louis Miller's Yiddish dramatization of Chaver Paver's book on East Side life, opens tonight under the banner of the Artef Players at the Mercury Theatre. … Orson Welles and John Houseman have asked the Artef, inactive since the Spring, to remove the name Mercury from the theatre.
- "'Mercury' Row Settled; Artef Players, Houseman and Orson Welles Reach Agreement". The New York Times. December 1, 1939. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
The Artef Players may identify the theatre where they are now playing until Jan. 1; then they must choose a new name … By mid-February the Mercury will be dropped altogether from the title of the Forty-first Street house.
- "'Uriel Acosta' at Mercury". The New York Times. December 31, 1939. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
- "Warners Acquire 'Jupiter Laughs'". The New York Times. January 18, 1940. Retrieved 2015-09-03.
The dispute between the Mercury Theatre and the Artef Players has apparently lapsed, the latter group being able to use the name Mercury for its house until the close of its second production, Uriel Acosta, which has theatre parties through Feb. 18. Jan. 1 had been the supposed deadline for a change in name of the theatre. For its third production the Artef may call the house the Forty-first Street Theatre.
- Teachout, Terry (October 29, 2010). "Relishing a Lost Production". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2015-09-04.
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