The Great Theater Massacre of 1982
Updated: Aug 21
The very first podcast episode of Closing Night dives into the tumultuous history of the Marquis Theatre and the rubble it is built upon. Here is the transcript of that episode and sources used...
Throughout March of 1982, in often cold and wet conditions, thousands of actors and demonstrators gathered at a portable stage in the heart of New York's theater district.
“ Let me hear you say, shame as loud as you can! Let them hear all over the goddamn world. Shame! Shame! Let 'em hear it in city hall!” - Joseph Papp
For weeks they shouted and sang and pleaded in front of an empty Morosco Theatre to protest its impending demolition along with other historic venues, which were to be replaced by a huge hotel and theater complex. One of the biggest voices in this protest was The Public Theater’s founder and producer Joseph Papp:
“First, let me say, we didn't come in here today to preside over the demolition of this theater and the Helen Hays Theatre. We're here to stop the demolition. New York is not just made up of buildings and hotels. It's made up of people and theaters are made up of people who occupy those theaters, which means the audience and actors. By striking this blow, they're striking a blow against the spirit of this city. We cannot replace these theaters evermore.”
But for years theater buildings had be replaced. In fact, during the 20th Century a total of 72 Broadway theaters were demolished to make way for office buildings, apartments, parking garages, and hotels. But people like Joe Rosenberg wanted to stop this vicious cycle and actually preserve these beautiful and historical venues: “Theaters were torn down all the time. I mean, all the theaters in Soho—that was the theater district at one time, 14th Street—they all disappeared. There was no, theaters were just expendable, until you just have a few more.”
Rosenberg co-founded the NYC Historic Districts Council and sits on the Board of Directors for the League of Historic American Theatres. He also took part in the original efforts to save Radio City Music Hall from being torn down, and now he and others were trying to do the same with five theater buildings in Times Square.
“But there's a symbolic act here that everybody, not just people standing here, we have a few stars, a few actors, and some people passing by. This is the spirit of the city that's under attack, and we must keep this city alive and keep these theaters alive.”
- Joseph Papp
Along the way, some of the biggest names of the stage and screen offered their support like Tony Randall, Liza Minnelli, Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon, and Christopher Reeve. “Well, finally just one time I wish I were Superman. I would just, I would stand there and just catch the wrecking ball and tear it apart.”
But what was so special about these particular theaters in 1982? Why the outrage and the groundswell of public and artistic support at this time? “Well, because several beloved Broadway theaters had to be razed in order for this hotel and theater to go up,” says Mark Robinson, a theater historian and writer. "It brought down five theaters including the original Helen Hayes Theater, the Morosco, the Bijou, the Astor, and the Gaiety.” And in this introductory episode, we’ll learn about the significance of these five theaters that were demolished as well as the controversial new hotel/theater complex that took their place in what critics have dubbed “The Great Theater Massacre of 1982.”
Welcome to Closing Night, a new theater podcast about famous and forgotten Broadway shows that closed too soon. Patrick Oliver Jones is an actor and producer, and will be your guide in this first season as we focus on the tumultuous and contentious beginning of one of Broadway’s youngest venues, and how it has continued to struggle as show after show has come and gone from there — leading many to call this “The Curse of the Marquis Theatre.”
NEW YORK CITY THEATER
The Broadway Theater District as we know it today really started back in the early 1900s as more and more theaters migrated uptown, mostly due to cheaper real estate. They went from Union Square to Madison Square, and then finally settling into their new home in Times Square.
The oldest Broadway theaters still in use today are the Hudson, Lyceum, and New Amsterdam Theatres, which all opened in 1903. While the most recently constructed is the Lyric Theatre, built in 1998. But as the theater district was moving and growing, there were also plenty of theater buildings coming down as well. In any given year, there might be anywhere from one to four theaters torn down, but only twice has there been a total of five theater buildings demolished in one year.
The first was 1954, but all five of these former Broadway venues had already been converted into television or radio studios. One of them, however—the Vanderbilt—did try to make a go at being a legitimate Broadway theater again, but that effort only lasted a year before being torn down to build a parking facility designed by renowned theater architect Herbert J. Krapp, a name you’ll be hearing again.
The second and only other time five theaters were demolished in a single year was in 1982, and this was to make way for the Portman Hotel, which was proposed by John Portman. As Joe Rosenberg explains, Portman was an Atlanta architect and developer who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, having built or designed a number of hotels, office buildings, and retail complexes around the country:
“John Portman, at the time, was a star architect. And he wanted to do something in New York, and all of his hotels were these big atriums with elevators going up and down. And also his hotels were not only big atriums, but they were everything on the inside of the hotel, nothing on the outside. In most cities it didn't matter. But in New York, you life is on the street, not inside the buildings. So to draw all these people and restaurants and that stuff inside the building, and then leave the outside of the building with not even any stores, it was just completely anti New York.”
Portman’s initial development plan in 1973 included a hotel, retail stores, convention space, and a 1600-seat theater, but that plan didn’t really go anywhere until it was revived again in 1978 by New York City’s mayor Ed Koch. After a lot of back and forth it was finally decided that the Portman Hotel complex would be located in the heart of the theater district between 45th and 46th Streets. This ambitious plan meant that the Piccadilly Hotel, several restaurants, a small assortment of retail shops and offices as well as five theater buildings would all have to disappear to make way for this grand hotel. And these five theaters are at the heart of this story, so it’s important to recognize their place in theater history.
THE FIVE THEATERS
The oldest of them was the Astor Theatre, which opened in 1906. It was designed by George Keister—whose work can still be seen at the Belasco on 42nd Street as well as the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. The Astor was architecturally ahead of its time, housing both the theater and 12 stories of offices in a time when such mixed use was rare. In 1917, the Astor was home to Why Marry? by Jesse Lynch Williams, the first drama to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. A few years later, Loew's Theatres bought the Astor and converted it into a movie house, which it remained until 1972, when it became a storefront.
The Gaiety Theatre opened next door to the Astor in 1909 and was designed by renowned architects Henry Beaumont Herts and Hugh Tallant and owned by George M. Cohan. The Gaiety actually introduced two revolutionary concepts in theater design that are still used today. One was cantilevered balconies—now if you’re like me and have never heard that word before, basically it means that the balcony was self-supported and no longer needed columns underneath it, which also meant audience views weren’t blocked by these columns anymore. The second innovation was that of a sunken orchestra pit—the previous configuration had the orchestra on the same level as the seats in front of the stage, but now the orchestra was out of sight, save for the conductor or music director.
Above the Gaiety Theatre rose several floors of offices, which housed many talented black composers who were not allowed in other places like the Brill building. This became historically known as the Black Tin Pan Alley with artists like Harry Pace, W.C. Handy, and Perry Bradford having music writing and publishing businesses there.
Another interesting story about the Gaiety is that in 1918 it hosted what would be Broadway’s longest-running show of the time, Lightnin’ with 1,291 performances. Its lead actor, Frank Bacon, became such a huge star that the city threw him and the play’s cast a parade when it closed in 1921. It was led by the mayor, and revelers marched down Broadway from the theater to Penn Station to send the cast off on their national tour. Having been on two national tours myself, we certainly never got that type of sendoff. Anyway, as the years went by the Gaiety would also showcase vaudeville teams like Abbott and Costello as well as burlesque performers like Gypsy Rose Lee, until finally becoming a movie house in 1943, changing its name to Victoria Theatre.
The next of our five classic-era theaters was also designed by the Herts and Tallant architect team, and it was originally called the Folies-Bergere when it opened in 1911 just west of the Gaiety. Though it wasn’t the first, Folies advertised itself as “the only theatre in America where one may dine and from the same chair witness an elaborate musical entertainment.” In an effort to bring the risqué entertainment of Paris to New York, Folies introduced a concept of interactive dinner theater to many audiences that had never seen this before — where actors and performers would venture off the stage and into the crowd. One such performer, 18-year-old Brooklynite Mary Jane West, was lauded by the New York Times for her performance. She would later go on to Hollywood and become much better known as Mae West.
The Folies, however, didn’t find much success, lasting only six months before transforming into the Fulton Theatre, where for the next 40 years it housed such original productions as The Jazz Singer (a 1925 play that would eventually be turned into the first talkie film), Arsenic and Old Lace starring Boris Karloff in 1941, and the play Gigi, which marked Audrey Hepburn’s stage debut in 1951. Four years later the Fulton was renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in honor of the renowned actress, and opened with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night, which went on to win the Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
The last two of our five theaters opened just a few weeks apart in 1917 —the Bijou and the Morosco. Both were designed by an architect you might remember: Herbert J. Krapp. He had actually once been on staff at Herts & Tallant, but eventually became the in-house architect for the Shubert Organization. Today, he has more Broadway houses to his name than any other architect—15 in total—including the Ambassador, Barrymore, and Imperial theaters. (So I guess it could be said that more than a third of all Broadway houses...are Krapp.)
The Bijou Theatre was smaller than the Morosco with only 600 seats and a narrow stage. It had trouble finding audiences and never really achieved much success, although it did have the premiere of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill. In 1951, though, the theater became a studio for CBS and then later an art film house before going back to stage productions again in 1970. It did have one long run with the experimental mime troupe Mummenschanz, which lasted 3 years. However, most of its Broadway productions closed within a month of their opening.
By contrast, the Morosco was the larger of the two at around 955 seats and was far more successful as well, being the birthplace of many iconic pieces of American theater including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Death of Salesman, Blithe Spirit, Our Town, The Norman Conquests, and Side by Side by Sondheim. Also, in keeping with the trend of plays by Eugene O’Neill, the Morosco featured the original production of his first Pulitzer Prize drama, Beyond the Horizon. In fact, the Morosco has housed more Pulitzer Prize winning dramas than any other theater on Broadway, including the play No Place to Be Somebody written by Charles Gordone, the first African American to win the Prize in 1970.
“The importance of these houses has to do with plays. They're going to reconstruct in their plans another musical house. Well, musicals are fine. We love them. We have a couple on Broadway ourselves, but there has to be room for serious writing on Broadway, which means houses of the size that are being offered to be torn down. We need more of these houses, not less." - Joseph Papp
The Astor, Gaiety, Helen Hayes, Bijou, and Morosco Theatres each made their mark on Broadway, and Joe Papp knew that. He also knew that losing them, especially the Morosco and the Helen Hayes, would mean losing important venues for smaller Broadway productions. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission had internally described the Helen Hayes as “one of the finest theaters in the Times Square area” and “unquestionably” deserving of a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The Morosco was also deemed eligible for the listing in 1981. But unfortunately, all efforts to register either of these two theaters were ultimately denied.
REBUILDING TIMES SQUARE
And so plans for Portman’s hotel continued to move forward. A Daily News editorial identified his project as "the greatest hope" and laid out quite a grandiose argument in support of it: “This soaring glass-and-chrome dazzler could become one of the city's great tourist attractions, drawing an army of visitors, inspiring other investors and developers, driving up property values, and driving out the sin merchants.”
This attitude was echoed by the Urban Development Action Grant program, which was established in 1977 to provide public funds in an effort to revitalize distressed cities across the country. “Their philosophy was to bulldoze the slums and build new buildings in the empty space,” said Joe Rosenberg. “And they had their eye on Times Square, to them Times Square was a slum. They always wanted to tear down that block. It, it was just ingrained in their mind."
Rosenberg is correct that in the 1970s Times Square wasn’t the safest place for tourists or residents. You see, it was a dark time for New York City as it reached record levels of crime in 1976 only to be surpassed 4 years later. And the subways were especially susceptible to muggings, vandalism, and assault. In fact, New York subways had higher crime rates than any other mass transit system in the world at that time. So government officials were happy to support any effort to breath new life into midtown Manhattan. According to Joe Rosenberg, “The city supported it. The state supported it. The Empire State Development supported it, because the US government was gonna pay for it.”
Portman’s project also found support from theater owners and producers like Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, along with the musicians union and the stage employees union. They believed this hotel/theater complex would help the theater district, promote further development, and infuse much needed money into the industry. James M. Nederlander, chairman of the Nederlander Organization, was another theater producer who supported a new larger theater:
“The name of the game is seats. If you can’t play a lot of these small theaters because they don’t have the capacity to gross enough to pay them. So I decided a long time ago that we needed larger theaters—the first one was the Marquis. You know how I got that? I called John Portman, he says ‘What do you wanna do?’ And I said, ‘I’d like to take the theater.’ And that’s what happened.”
SAVE THE THEATERS
With city officials, theater producers, and others firmly behind Portman’s Hotel, it become quite clear that none of them were interested in saving these historic theater buildings. But having been a part of the successful campaign to save the Radio City Music Hall from destruction in 1978, Rosenberg had an idea:
“I went to Actors Equity. I said, “Look, we're gonna lose five theaters.” (Three of them are theaters. One is a movie theater, and one is a store that still has the theater architecture.) ‘We're gonna lose them. So can we start a group to try to save them?’ And Equity started Save the Theatres, Incorporated. And then, Equity funded it.” He continued, “And so we started contacting as many people as possible, who were household names, and Joe Papp was one of them. And he really, he got involved a million percent.”
There are ways to build around these. There's no need to build an ugly jutting mall that goes out onto Broadway. This thought was, this whole proposition was ill-conceived from the very beginning, irresponsible, and I'm accusing not only the city of New York, but the people on Broadway, certain producers, certain real estate holders who felt is to their advantage to have this ugly demolition take place and to eliminate two major dramatic houses. - Joseph Papp
Joe Papp was one of the few theater producers who opposed the Portman Project. He was on the side of the Actors' Equity Association along with the Screen Actors Guild, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and the Wardrobe Union. Big name stars also joined the efforts, like Christopher Reeve, Colleen Dewhurst, Estelle Parsons, and Jason Robards.
However, there was one actress who remained in support of the new hotel. She was one of the most unlikely supporters of demolishing these theaters, and she happened to be a personal friend of Rosenberg: “When they were going to demolish the Helen Hayes Theater, I went to her and I was so sure she would join us and help us, and she wouldn't do it. She was very nice about it. She wouldn't do it. Later on, I found out that they had already promised her that they would change The Little Theater into the Helen Hayes Theater. So as far as her having a theater named after her, she was going to still have it. And she didn't really care which theater was named after her.”
But Rosenberg wasn’t the only one Hayes spoke with. In a letter to John Portman, who had also been courting her approval, she wrote: “I must confess I’m not on the side of saving old buildings in New York.” She went on to write, “I don’t like to confess this because I hate to hurt people who have a different idea about me, but I hope [the preservationists] give up soon and let you get on with the building.”
But they didn’t give up. For two years the “Save the Theatres” campaign held meetings, sent letters, proposed alternatives, and made phone calls to various members of city, state, and federal agencies. They exhausted every legal maneuver and lobbying tactic, even going as high as The Supreme Court.
“For months now, it has been only the court injunctions that have stopped the demolition. We may be near the end of what help we can get from the courts. Without the courts on our side, the only one who can ensure the rescue of these theaters is the mayor, and we're not gonna leave here until he agrees to save the theaters.”
- Joseph Papp
To say tensions were high in the theater community would be an understatement. In January 1982, the New York Times reported that one night before a performance of Nicholas Nickleby the playwright David Mamet approached Gerald Schoenfeld. “You call yourself a producer,” Mamet said, “but you don't know how to create anything; all you know how to do is destroy.” Schoenfeld quickly snapped back that Mamet did not know how to write plays, and the two men stormed off in opposite directions. This had become a fight to the finish.
By the time the street protests were in full swing in March of 1982, three of the five theater buildings had already been torn down—only the Morosco and the Helen Hayes still remained. Demonstrators filled 45th street, hoping the few remaining court injunctions and public pressure would stop further demolitions—with specific hopes that they could convince Portman to build around and on top of these two classic-era theaters.
“We, who are not a bunch of disorganized left-wing radical, hippie, faggoty actors. We want a theater to survive. We are mainstream and we. You can have both. You can have the theater, you can have tradition, you can have jobs for actors, and you can also have a hotel. Why the hell can't we do both?”
- Christopher Reeve, speaking to the press with a crowd of protestors
Papp had assembled a 50-man honor guard to be on duty around the clock to prevent the wreckers from doing their work in the dead of night. On March 4th, protestors celebrated the 65th birthday of the Morosco Theatre by setting up a makeshift stage in front of the theatre as the focal point of the demonstrations where various theater artists and actors like Colleen Dewhurst and Christopher Reeve would get up to speak.
Dewhurst: “ I guess I can only speak to you personally about what the theater means. I can tell you that I know that the heart of New York City is the theater. I can tell you that the tear out these two theaters is the tear a part of the heart out of this city.”
Reeve: “In 1920, there were nearly 100 plays running on Broadway—some good, some not so good. But there was an incredible wealth and a lot to choose from. And the theater was in its heyday and right here at the Morosco on February 3rd, Eugene O'Neal's first full length play Beyond the Horizon was performed at a matinee by actors who were appearing in other shows in those days, giving 12 performances a week. And I just want to read a very short selection from his play Beyond the Horizon…”
In fact, many actors read scenes from the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays that had been produced at the Morosco and Helen Hayes theaters. Yet it was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney H. Schanberg from the NY Times, who took issue with all these famous actors and their efforts to stop progress: “Just when our only hope is pushing New York City out of the crime-and-street-anarchy 20th century into what has to be a brighter spinach-salad 21st, up pop some soft-headed celebrities who oppose boondoggles and would rather lay down in front of bulldozers than get on with this sweetheart deal.”
Theater owner Gerald Schoenfeld also didn’t think much of these actors who were speaking out and resorted to the strongest threat at his disposal to stop these demonstrations. “He was so much against what we were doing, so much against it,” says Joe Rosenberg. “He did everything to stop us. He even went as far as telling people that actors, that if you demonstrate with these guys, you're not going to appear in any Shubert-owned theater. So a lot of the people who are demonstrating, whether they knew it or not, they were taking their career in their hands, whether they knew it or not.” But through it all and till the bitter end, the actors and preservationists remained undeterred and vigilant, speaking out against those who wanted to demolish theater history with passion and reason.
“Now, ordinarily we would have no objection whatsoever to having hotels built in this city. We want construction in this city, but look at the price they expect us to pay for the construction of this monolithic monster by Mr. Portman. They're going to eliminate two of the most important legitimate houses, two dramatic houses in the city of New York. Theaters that have held some of the finest plays New York has seen.
- Joseph Papp
But on March 22, 1982 after 26 months of legal and public efforts to stop the demolition of these historic theaters, their fight had come to an end. Joe Rosenberg recalls, “The mood of it was true anger, but it was more anger from the inside, not anger that you thought it would change anything. It was hatred towards the officials who were allowing it to happen. And keep in mind, people were arrested during the demonstrations, because they were stopping the bulldozers. But it was resignation. Cause by that point, you were seeing that it wasn't doing any good cause the theaters were being demolished.”
Among those arrested were Joe Papp, Colleen Dewhurst, Treat Williams, Celeste Holm, Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moriarty, Tammy Grimes, and many more. (While Christopher Reeve was active in the rally, he was unable to participate in the trespass that led to these arrests because of his Superman contract with Warner Bros.).
Shortly after 10am the demolition of the Morosco and Helen Hayes Theatres began. Performers continued to sing and speak on the portable stage through the afternoon, while demolition crews did their work behind police barriers across the street. Though the demolition did happen fairly quickly, some historically and architecturally significant items from the Helen Hayes and Morosco were preserved. And from the rubble of these two historic theaters and anger over their demise, Rosenberg says one silver lining did emerge: “When this was happening, I never thought I would ever dare say anything like this. Looking back, there were aspects of the Marriott Marquis that helped us help Times Square and helped save the remaining theaters.”
“First of all, the resentment that you're talking about and the anger that you're talking about, there were a lot of people with the city, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, that wanted to get back into the good side of the people who were angry at them.” - Joe Rosenberg
And they remained angry for years. Save the Theatres was now an incorporated organization, and on the three year anniversary of the Morosco’s demise, they held a commemorative event in the heart of Times Square. This included the likes of Celeste Holm, Rosemary, Harris, Mark Hamill, and others all continuing to voice their support of preserving the remaining Broadway theaters. Theater owners like Gerald Schoenfeld were still against what he called “willy-nilly landmarking,” but Joe Papp, Save the Theatres, and Joe Rosenberg continued their fight, and eventually “it was the landmarks commission who came to us and said, ‘Okay, we didn't save these theaters. We regret it. In some ways, we were forced into doing this. What can we do to redeem ourselves?’ And we said, ‘You can let us designate the remaining theaters as landmarks so that this can't happen again.’ And they said, ‘Fine.’”
Throughout the 1980s, Rosenberg and Save the Theatres would help other Broadway theaters receive landmark designations, so that they would never have to face the wrecking ball, much to the disappointment of the theater owners who sued the Landmarks Preservation Commission to stop these efforts. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, but the landmark designations were upheld.
THE NEW HOTEL & THEATER
Meanwhile, construction continued on the Portman Hotel, which eventually changed its name to the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, and James M. Nederlander got his wish as the Nederlander Organization beat out 9 other bidders to take over operation of the Marquis Theatre.
As they say hindsight is 20/20, and theater historian Mark Robinson shares his own take of this demolition battle and its aftermath: "I think at that time in New York, they couldn't fill the theaters that were there. I mean, we're also talking about a time where not long after this, the Mark Hellinger [Theatre] became a church. Some of the theaters that were torn down were not in the best shape to begin with, and it was gonna cost a lot of money to fix them. And there just wasn't the economy for that in the eighties or the ticket-buying public to support having every one of these theaters occupied.
“So I think it made sense that they did it. Do I like that they had to do it? No. I mean, I think it's sad when we have to lose these great old spaces. But I can't argue the fact that it made more sense to get rid of some of those theaters to be able to create a space that was a little bigger that could accommodate musical theater, which is where the money was, especially in the 80s.”
The Marriott Marquis Hotel began taking guests in September 1985. However, controversies and setbacks continued to follow this building. Not to mention the anger of a theater community still holding a grudge for those theaters that were torn down. Meanwhile, the Marquis Theatre held its first official performance in July of 1986. Sure, the heating didn’t work, the toilets backed up, and there weren’t any dressing rooms. But the Marquis forged ahead and a month later opened with a hit musical transfer from London called Me and My Girl.
Join me for the next episode, as we talk more about this gem of a show that gave the Marquis its longest running and most successful musical to date. But then there’s also the boycotts and construction blunders, the union strikes and maintenance mishaps that plagued this show and the Marquis Theatre itself. Throughout this first season of Closing Night, we will be taking a look at some of the famous and forgotten Broadway shows that have come and gone from this troubled theater. Examining what went wrong and why they closed.
Mark Robinson: “Is there a curse on the Marquis? I mean, I can't say that I necessarily believe in curses, but I do think that it sure has had its string of bad luck and it makes me, you know, maybe second guess the idea of curses.”
Closing Night is a production of WINMI Media with Patrick Oliver Jones as host and executive producer. Dan Delgado is the editor and co-producer, not only for this podcast but also for his own movie podcast as well called The Industry. Much appreciation goes to Joe Rosenberg and Mark Robinson for their insights, Tim Dolan for support, Robert Armin who filmed those street protests back in 1982, as well as the voice talents of our own Dan Delgado and Kate McClanaghan from Actors’ SOUND ADVICE. Join us next time as another production makes its way to closing night.
See below for all references and sources used in creating this episode and transcript:
Footprints in New York by James Nevius, Michelle Nevius · 2014
Metropolis Magazine - "Remembering the Fight to Save the Theater District"
Ephemeral New York - "Save the Theaters"
New York Times:
Washington Post - "The Passionate Pace Of Joseph Papp"
Curbed - "The Fallen Five"
Demolition begins at Morosco Theater
Death of a Theater (Timeline)