20 May 2013

Theatre Alley

by Kirk Woodward

[A little while back, Kirk e-mailed me to ask if I’d ever done a piece on Theatre Alley for ROT.  I told him I hadn’t and was embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of the place.  I wondered why he’d asked and he explained he knew about the little street downtown because it’s near his late wife’s office at Pace University and he was considering writing about it.  Of course, I told him to go ahead see what he came up with.  (I’m always open to anything Kirk dreams up—it’s always interesting and I have yet to turn down any contribution he makes to the blog.)  So, a week or so later, Kirk sent me the draft of this article and I didn’t hesitate to find a place for “Theatre Alley” in the ROT schedule.  Now, here it is. 

[“Theatre Alley” combines two recurring subjects on ROT: theater and theater history, of course, the rationale for starting the blog four years ago last March, and New York-iana.  The street itself has one other aspect that makes it a good topic for ROT: it’s about to disappear into the ether of New York City’s lost past.  Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” but in New York, he might have said there’s something that doesn’t like alleys: we have very few of them (despite the “evidence” of TV and movies).  Furthermore, like no other city in the world, New York remakes itself constantly, tearing down, rebuilding, repurposing, obliterating, converting.  The list of buildings and other sites that have disappeared, starting with the Trylon and Perisphere (from the 1939 World’s Fair), old Penn Station, and Ebbets Field, is too long even to contemplate.  Theater Alley’s about to join the list when a new high-rise goes up on its block.  Kirk even paid the alley a visit to write this article.  In half a decade, he wouldn’t be able to do that.  ~Rick]

For some reason the ideas of a theater and an alley seem to go well together. I’m not sure the association is all that complimentary to the theater, but personally I’ve always been a fan of alleys, and I also don’t mind the suggestion that there’s something backdoor about the performance arts. Maybe there really is something a little shady about theater people – after all, we’re always pretending to be someone else.

A number of theaters have “alley” in their name. The Alley Theatre in Houston is probably the best known, but there’s also the BackAlley Community Theatre in Grand Cane, Louisiana, and a Back Alley Theatre in Washington, D.C.; an Alley Theatre in Vancouver, Canada, and another in Louisville, Kentucky; an Alley Stage in Chicago; the Alley Repertory Theater in Garden City, Idaho; and so on.

In New York City, probably the best known theater/alley connection is Shubert Alley in the Times Square area of Manhattan, connecting 44th and 45th Streets between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Shubert Alley seems to have existed since the early 1900s, and it began to take its familiar shape when Lee and Jacob Shubert, the powerful theater owners, opened the Shubert and Booth Theatres in 1913, both with side entrances on the alley. Its location made it a natural gathering place, particularly for theater people. Today it’s a sophisticated pedestrian mall, barely recognizable as an alley at all, although the two theaters still form one of its two sides.

But few New Yorkers know about another theater alley in Manhattan, called, appropriately enough, Theatre Alley, located behind the huge J&R electronics store complex that fronts on Park Row in lower Manhattan across the street from City Hall Park, between Beekman and Ann Streets. Theatre Alley was once at the epicenter of drama in New York City, through the early years of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, not a century later that same area – but not the same buildings – would become the center of newspaper publishing in New York (The New York Times, The New York World, and The New York Tribune), until the papers, like the major theaters, moved uptown.

I first found myself becoming aware of Theater Alley when I would visit my wife, Pat, at the Pace University offices just north of the alley, where Pat worked on the staff of what was then known as the Speech and Drama Department, and also directed and taught for that department. Pat was well aware of the historic nature of the alley and made sure that the theater students in her University 101 class were, too. The site had to be pointed out, because if you didn’t pay attention, you could easily miss it.

A quick quiz: what is the oldest building still standing in Manhattan? There are houses in Staten Island and Brooklyn that date from the 1600s, but in Manhattan the oldest surviving structure is Fraunces Tavern, the famous site of George Washington’s farewell address to his officers, originally built as a house in 1719 and serving as a tavern, and later a restaurant, since 1762. The second oldest building in Manhattan is St. Paul’s Chapel, only a half a block from Theatre Alley. But although the much-more-recent New York Times building in the Park Row area – first constructed in 1858, remodeled in 1888 and 1905, converted to other purposes, and now occupied by Pace University – still stands, the theater buildings that formed one side of Theatre Alley have long since disappeared.

The first theater building in the United States was constructed in Williamsburg, Virginia, sometime between 1716 and 1718, and it functioned until 1745. The foundations of that theater have been uncovered, but the theater has not been rebuilt, apparently because it wasn’t much of a building in the first place, not much more than a shack, used by amateur companies from the area and in particular from the College of William and Mary. Newer theaters in Williamsburg were built in 1751 and 1760; they no longer exist either, although there are hopes of reconstructing the 1760 building.

For comparison, early theaters in Manhattan included the Nassau Street Theatre, built in 1750 very close to the later Theatre Alley, and the Chapel Street Theatre, also close, on what would now be Beekman Street near Nassau Street, in 1760. Then in 1767, the John Street Theatre, at what is now 15-21 John Street, was built, and it largely monopolized theatrical performances in New York until that theater became rundown and disreputable.

It is notable that the theaters of that time period were built within a few blocks of each other, as would happen in subsequent theater districts, including Broadway (few “Broadway” theaters are actually located on Broadway, but they are connected by, among other things, proximity). It is also notable that few theaters were allowed in Manhattan in the early years; some considered them breeding grounds for crime and immorality; some thought even one theater was more than enough.

In any case, a new theater was needed as the John Street Theatre went downhill; it was built in 1765 and was called, again appropriately, the New Theatre, although it came to be known as the Park Theatre. Fronting on Park Row, its rear entrances opened into Theatre Alley, hence the alley’s name. It burned in 1820 and again in 1848, when it was torn down. By that time the Park Theater too had become disreputable, and the theater district had started migrating to the Bowery, Union Square, Herald Square, and Longacre Square (later Times Square), increasingly further uptown.

But while it was the premiere theater in New York City, the Park Theatre was host to some famous names. Charles Dickens spoke there; Edmund Kean and Junius Brutus Booth, father of acting brothers Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., Edwin Booth, and John Wilkes Booth, performed there, as did Tyrone Power, grandfather of the well-known movie actor. It was for decades the “best theater in town,” showcasing opera and numerous imported actors from England. The website Forgotten-ny.com claims that carriages entering the alley from both directions created traffic jams, causing Theatre Alley to become the first one-way street in Manhattan.

The Park Theatre faced no significant competition until the 1820s, and even then it maintained supremacy as the home of “classy” theater until demographic shifts – the wealthy, in particular, moving further uptown – caused the Park slowly to lose its appeal. Eventually it began to feature blackface shows and fairly crude melodramas, and when it burned the second time, it was not rebuilt.

What of the far past of Theatre Alley remains today? Really nothing – in particular, no theaters, not for the past century and a half. Nearby Beekman Street is named for John Beekman, a doctor, state senator, and banker, who with John Jacob Astor purchased the Park Theater in 1805. When I first saw the area surrounding Theatre Alley, in the 1980s, the only place to get a decent lunch was the Beekman Pub, just down the street from the alley. Beekman’s name on the restaurant and on Beekman Street do maintain the area’s connection to theater history, even if subliminally.  

The Beekman, incidentally, is still a good Irish bar and restaurant. If Theatre Alley has become The Alley That Time Forgot, the area around it has revived in the past few decades, and there are now plenty of other restaurants and watering holes around, all the way down to and including the South Street Seaport.

In modern times Theatre Alley has never been scenic, if it ever was, and therefore, interestingly, it has occasionally been used as a setting for a movie or television shoot that needed an intensely urban atmosphere. At the Beekman Street end of the alley you can read painted on a wall: 

VICTORIA
THEATRE
VAUDEVILLE
[illegible]SS 
PHOTOPLAYS

Alas, there never was a “Victoria Theatre,” at least not in Theatre Alley; the words are from somebody’s film set decoration.

On the other hand, at least the drama department of Pace University is still in the neighborhood, maintaining a theater theme; it recently opened a beautifully refurbished seven floor facility a few blocks from Theatre Alley, down on William Street, and the department’s studio theater is still located in the Park Row block next to the alley.

Theatre Alley itself today is, well, just an alley. At least one source refers to it as a cobblestone street, but if so the stones are no longer visible. Another calls it the narrowest street in New York City, and it may be – I measured it as about twelve feet across, but what do you expect from an alley? On a visit in late April 2013, it was almost entirely covered with scaffolding while new construction was taking place on its east side, across from the rear of J&R, but it appeared that ultimately the alley would survive and perhaps even be more pleasant once the new construction was in place.

But part of the fun of New York City is imagining the town as it used to be. The theater is a continuing enterprise; even when history – that is, politics – interrupts it, it just goes underground, resurfacing at the first opportunity. And the art of performing on the stage is not all that different than it was on the stage of the old Park Theatre, given a few differences in technical equipment and performance style. A little imagination is all it takes to revisit the Theatre Alley of a long-ago day.

[In “Theatre Alley,” Kirk writes about the theater buildings and the streets in lower Manhattan where New York City’s first theater district developed in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  ROT readers curious about this period in U.S. and New York theater history might also be interested in the six letters by Washington Irving I republished on this blog in 2010.  The letters, posted here as “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle“ (13, 26, 19, 22, 25, and 28 August 2010), were originally published in New York’s Morning Chronicle from 1 December 1802 to 8 February 1803, and Irving, just beginning his writing career, wrote about the plays and performances that went on inside the theaters down near Theatre Alley.  (In a stunning coincidence, the theater which Irving attended for this series of commentaries was the Park itself!)]


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