Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Broadway Up Close: Time Capsule to Old Time New York

Confession: I love walking tours.  Even in cities I know well, sometimes I just like to learn something new, get a new perspective on an old place, or meet other like-minded individuals.  I've done everything from a Third Man walking tour of Vienna, to a tour of secret ceremonies of London where the Duke of Edinburgh was participating, to the kooky interpretations of New York history by famed New York tour guide Speed Levich.  But I've never done a tour of Broadway theater history until this week.

Broadway Up Close offers tours of the theater district that cover history, architecture, ghosts, and lore.  For the first time in my life,  I spent some time looking up on 42nd Street and not just elbowing my way through the crowd.  With guides who work onstage and backstage at Broadway theaters, not only did we get a historic perspective but the inside scoop on what they've seen and experienced in their own careers. Punctuating the tour with personal anecdotes on top of historic context we got a glimpse into the working life of performers and crew members who manage to make theater magic happen in the tiny wings of theaters built largely in the early 20th century. 

Taking the "Act One" tour, we covered the history of the New Amsterdam from Ziegfeld to Disney, lost theaters like the Victoria and the Hippodrome, the famous stars and shows that made Broadway world renown and heard all about the ghosts that haunt the Belasco Theatre.  With an iPad of photo images to help us visualize, we got a peek into the world of the rooftop theater spaces along 42nd Street that existed at the beginning of the 20th century, the history of animal performers that tread the Broadway boards along side the likes of Harry Houdini and Jimmy Durante, and the unusual vaudeville acts and stars that have been long forgotten.

And I loved every minute of it.  It's so easy to forget that before television, cinema, and the theat-uh of today, people would pay to see a woman dressed like a milkmaid on a rooftop with a cow and that was theater. I was reminded of the great quote in All About Eve when Bill Sampson, big time Broadway director heads out to Hollywood to make a movie:

"The Theatuh, the Theatuh - what book of rules says the Theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris or Vienna? Listen, junior. And learn. Want to know what the Theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band - all Theater. Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience - there's Theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex and Wild, and Eleanora Duse. You don't understand them all, you don't like them all, why should you? The Theater's for everybody - you included, but not exclusively - so don't approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theater, but it's Theater of somebody, somewhere."
And talking about the ghosts of vaudeville, I thought about the world of theater from that time--when the local dingy one-screen movie theater in my hometown used to be an "opera" house and touring vaudeville acts would perform there before it became a movie theater where I saw Return of the Jedi from the balcony, before they tore it down and it became a bank. The history of Broadway is not far from the history of my hometown cinema in that way--from large theaters meant for spectacle to rundown movie theaters to revival by investors such as Bank of America and Disney--build, tear down, rebuild, rinse, repeat.  But the best thing about this tour is that you're encouraged to look beyond the the McDonald's marquee and the Roxy ads to envision the past and find continuity with the present.     

Broadway Up Close does not have a set schedule of tours so you should email to find out when tours are taking place and set up a time that might best accommodate your itinerary.  The tours last about an hour and forty-five minutes.  They are $30 per person.  They take place largely outdoors (we did have a stop into the Empire movie theater for air conditioning and a peek at that interior) but throughout the tour, Theresa, our guide showed us pictures of some of the theater interiors so we could see more than just the street view. Plus it is kind of incredible to look at a photo of a building from 1899 and then look up and see not much has changed (although I assume they did not have furry Elmos crowding their front stoops back then).

With this tour visitors and locals alike can learn about the history of American theater as experienced by the many buildings still standing in our midst and imagine the grandeur of those we have lost.  If you love theater history and especially the changing face of New York history, this is a great tour to check out.

I received a complementary invitation to attend the tour.

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