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The Fourteenth Street Theater
We got a call the other day from an art consultant, who had a client interested in photos around Eighth Avenue and West 14th Street. We searched our archive and came up with quite a few, which we then scanned, cleaned, cropped, and emailed to the art consultant in time for her meeting with her client. Most of those will eventually make it onto nycvintageimages.com. Among them were two that particularly struck me.
The first was a photo taken on April 30, 1916 of a movie theater on 14th Street a little west of Sixth Avenue. What caught my eye was the grand scale of the building, with its columns, portico, and pediment. This seemed to me what was meant by a "movie palace." But the marquis and other signs somehow seemed out of place, as if they were grafted on at a later date.
Zooming in for a closer look, I found what to me was the heart of the photo, a group of boys just coming out of the theater. All the boys are in knee-pants and caps, and they look like they are having the time of the lives. I was caught up in their exuberance, and it got me thinking about what a great day they must have had. It was a beautiful spring day, they had just seen a moving picture, and now they had their best pals and all of New York City to explore.
I marked the photo for inclusion on the website.
Then we found another photo of the same theater, twenty-one years later. It had really come down in the world. It was dark and in a horrible state of disrepair, and I wondered if those boys -- by then middle-aged men -- ever walked past the site and felt nostalgic.
At this point, the theater had become a history project for me. I had to know it's story.
It was built in 1866 as the Theater Francais, a venue for French musicals and comic operas, but by 1870 it had broadened its bookings and was performing a wider variety of "Broadway" fare. At this time, Broadway Theater was centered closer to Union Square than to Times Square.
Around this time Laura Keene became the theater manager. I thought it unusual for a woman to manage a theater in 1870, so I had to research her as well.
Laura Keene was born Mary Frances Moss in Winchester, England. She married Henry Wellington Taylor and had two children by him, but the marriage eventually ended in divorce. Needing to make a living, Mary Frances turned to one of the few professions in which a respectable woman of the era could engage, acting. She trained in England and got several good notices before coming to America, where she changed her name to Laura Keene and introduced her daughters as her nieces to avoid the stigma of divorce. She toured both America and Australia, becoming one of the most respected actresses of her day. In addition, she directed shows as well as managed her own theatre. In the 1850s, she had her own theater in New York City, called Laura Keene's Variety House, later known as the Winter Garden Theater. Her fairness and skill as a manager enticed many actors away from other troupes, earning her the enmity of rival theater managers.
In 1858, she produced the first production of Our American Cousin at her theater. She went on tour with the production and was performing it in Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. on the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. She is reported to have identified John Wilkes Booth, the brother of her long-time associate, Edwin Booth, founder of Booth's Theater. Laura Keene is also supposed to have cradled Lincoln's head in her lap while doctors examined his wound.
By 1870, she had returned to New York City and was managing the Fourteenth Street Theater. The theater, then only a few years old, had already fallen on hard times, but in an article, dated April 12, 1871, the New York Times said, "Miss Keene is so well esteemed, both as artist and manager, that it has been felt if any one could bring up the prestige of a declining property she might do so." Unfortunately, the remarkable Miss Keene died of tuberculosis in 1873 at only 47 years of age.
From 1880 through the early Twentieth Century, the theater operated primarily as a booking house, most famously as the home of J.H. Haverly's minstrels. Haverly was the P.T. Barnum of minstrel shows, buying up other troupes and merging them with his own, making his shows bigger and more extravagant. Haverly, however, did not have Keene's gift for management. In June of 1883, the theater was seized by the Sherriff because of Haverly's $24,000 debt.
For a period in the early Twentieth Century, as evidenced by the photos above, the Fourteenth Street operated as a movie palace. But even that was short-lived. In 1926, the theater was taken over by another powerful woman, Eve Le Gallienne. She founded the Civic Repertory Theater, largely funded by one of her lovers, Alice DeLamar, and operated out of the Fourteenth Street Theater until 1932 or 1933.
The theater remained dark until it was demolished in 1938, but it had a good run. And I had a heck of lot of fun learning it's history and about the lives of its remarkable managers.