arts 03.28.11

The Hudson Theater

All theaters have their secrets, but we especially like the story of the Hudson Theater.

Located on West 44th Street between Broadway and Sixth, the Hudson was built by Henry B. Harris who later died on the Titanic. It opened on October 19, 1903 with a play called "Cousin Kate" starring Ethel Barrymore. The Hudson, the Lyceum, and the New Amsterdam are the oldest surviving Broadway theaters.

While the playhouse itself was well received, highly ornamented as it was with Greco-Roman motifs and Tiffany glass, (the architects were J. B. McElfatrick & Son and Israels and Harder), the critic for Architectural Record sniffed, "One wishes for a few notes of virility."

Harris' wife, Irene, was the last known Titanic survivor to be rescued in a lifeboat. After her husband's death, she herself turned to producing, making her one of the first, if not the very first, female producer on Broadway. She was successful for a time but turned down an offer to buy the theater for a million dollars in 1929. After the market crashed, the Emigrant bank foreclosed on the theater. Harris remarried three times and lived until 1969.

Louis Armstrong made his debut at the Hudson in 1929 in a revue called "Hot Chocolates." The Times' review doesn't mention him, but does say that "…a bundle of vivacity who goes by the name of Baby Cox had her share and more of adherents last night." If the name rings a bell at all, it's because of her vocals on Duke Ellington's The Mooch.

In the 1930s, the theater was a CBS radio studio. Playwrights Lindsay and Crouse bought the Hudson in the 1940s and produced a number of plays there, including their own "State of the Union." In the 1950s, it was the studio for The Tonight Show when Steve Allen was host. Elvis, Streisand, Bob Hope, and Sammy Davis, Jr. all performed on its stage during this period.

Then there was Robert Breen and family. Beginning in 1942, as it is detailed in Lost Broadway Theaters, Breen rented nine rooms on the Hudson's third and fourth floors. The only time the family had heat and hot water was when the theater had a show in it. When the playhouse was dark, they used the fireplaces and electric heaters to stay warm. When NBC wanted to use the space above the theater for offices, the Breens said no and, though the network sued to evict them, the Breens won. Subsequently, NBC had to lease the theater complete with the Breen clan as part of the deal. Family members lived there until the 1990s.

The Hudson later housed an Ann Corio burlesque show, then screened porno, followed by a turn as the Savoy nightclub run by Ron Delsener in 1980. It narrowly escaped the wrecker's ball on a number of occasions, but in 1987 was landmarked. When the Millennium Broadway was built next door, developer Harry Macklowe annexed it as an events space for the hotel.

In 2004, when the hotel began a spruce-up of the Hudson, they unearthed the beautiful orange, turquoise, and mauve Tiffany mosaic tiles buried beneath paint and plaster around the proscenium arch and on the mezzanine and balcony walls, originally intended to complement the existing Tiffany triple-domed ceiling in the lobby.









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