Martin Beck (vaudeville)

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Martin Beck
Martin Beck.jpg
Born(1868-07-31)July 31, 1868
DiedNovember 16, 1940(1940-11-16) (aged 72)
OccupationTheater owner,
Theatrical manager and
booking agent
The Martin Beck Theater,
now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre,
at 302 West 45th Street in Manhattan.
View of the stage in
the Martin Beck Theater.

Martin Beck (July 31, 1868 – November 16, 1940) was a vaudeville theatre owner and manager, and theatrical booking agent, who founded the Orpheum Circuit, and built the Palace and Martin Beck Theatres in New York City's Broadway Theatre District.[1] He was a booking agent for, and became a close personal friend of the prominent magician, Harry Houdini.[2]

Early life[edit]

Martin Beck was born to a Jewish family[3] on July 31, 1868, in Liptovský Mikuláš, a town in northern Slovakia that at the time of his birth was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He went with a group of actors on the SS Elbe from Bremen, Germany, to the United States in May 1884, where he worked as a waiter in a beer garden in Chicago, Illinois.[4]

He went to San Francisco with the Schiller Vaudeville Company, then gained citizenship in the United States in October 1889.[5] When the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco was bought by Morris Meyerfeld Jr. in 1899, he worked with Morris to acquire more theaters. By 1905, Beck was running the organization.[6]

In 1910 he formed the United Booking Offices with Alfred Butt.

Influence on career of Harry Houdini[edit]

In the spring of 1899, Beck met Harry Houdini, who was then performing at a beer hall in St. Paul, Minnesota. Beck saw Houdini struggling with magic, so he made an offer, Beck telegraphed Houdini when he got to his next stop in Chicago: "You can open Omaha, March twenty sixth, sixty dollars, will see act probably make you proposition for all next season."

According to Houdini's wife when speaking to a biographer years later, this represented Houdini's big break in his professional career as a performing magician.[2] As Houdini wrote at the bottom of the telegram, which she had carefully preserved: "This wire changed my whole Life's journey."[6]

Beck and Houdini became close personal friends. Beck advised Houdini to concentrate on his escape acts, and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, Houdini was performing at the top vaudeville houses all over the United States, and in 1900, Beck arranged for him to tour Europe.[2]

Theatre management and ownership[edit]

He built the Palace Theatre in New York City in 1913.[1]

He was voted out of the presidency of Orpheum Circuit in a boardroom coup after it went public in 1923. Later that same year, he opened the Martin Beck Theater in New York City (renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in 2003).[4]

On January 28, 1928, Orpheum Circuit was merged with the theater chain started by Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee II to form Keith-Albee-Orpheum. A few months later, Joseph P. Kennedy and David Sarnoff of Radio Corporation of America merged Keith-Albee-Orpheum with Film Booking Office of America to form the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) movie studio.[7]

In 1932 he managed the booking office at RKO. In 1934 he brought the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company from London to America.[6]


Beck died at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan on November 16, 1940.[1][4] Arthur Hopkins gave the eulogy at the funeral; honorary pall bearers included William A. Brady, John Golden, Sam H. Harris, Lawrence Langner, Guthrie McClintic, Lee Shubert and Herman Shumlin.[8]


  1. ^ a b c "Martin Beck Dies. Theatre Veteran. Manager, Producer and Actor, Builder of the Palace, Stricken Here at 71. Began Orpheum Circuit. Headed Variety Group in West for 27 Years. Came to U.S. as Immigrant at 18". New York Times. November 17, 1940. Retrieved 2011-12-15. Martin Beck, who built the Palace Theatre, once the goal of all variety actors, and the theatre on West Forty-fifth Street that bears his name, died at 6:30 A.M. yesterday in Mount Sinai Hospital.
  2. ^ a b c Kellock, Harold (1928). Houdini: His Life-Story; from the recollections and documents of Beatrice Houdini, Harcourt, Brace Co.
  3. ^ Klawans, Stuart, "Finding an Audience: Years of Invisibility", Jewish Daily Forward, April 9, 2004
  4. ^ a b c "Martin Beck, Producer, Dies In New York". United Press in The Miami News. November 16, 1940. Retrieved 2011-12-15.
  5. ^ US Passport Applications 1908, 1915, 1921 & 1922
  6. ^ a b c "Martin Beck (1867-1940)". American Experience. Retrieved 2011-12-15. Soon after, Beck telegraphed Houdini from Chicago: "You can open Omaha March twenty sixth sixty dollars, will see act probably make you proposition for all next season." As Houdini later wrote at the bottom of the carefully preserved telegram, "This wire changed my whole Life's journey."
  7. ^ Arthur Frank Wertheim. Vaudeville Wars. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved 2011-12-15. In December 1927, an agreement was reached to merge the two circuits and its booking agencies into a new holding company, the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Corporation (KAO). ...
  8. ^ "Theatre Leaders at Beck Funeral. 400 Attend Rites for Founder of Orpheum Circuit and Builder of Palace. Arthur Hopkins Speaks, Eulogizes Producer. William A. Brady and Lee Shubert Among the Bearers". New York Times. November 19, 1940. Retrieved 2011-12-15. More than four hundred persons, including some of the leading figures of the American theatre, attended a brief service yesterday in the Campbell Funeral Church, Madison Avenue at Eighty-first Street, for Martin Beck, founder of the Orpheum. ...