King of New York: The Story of the New Amsterdam Theatre

Even before Beauty and the Beast, their first Broadway production, opened in New York City, The Disney Company was already planning to make a more profound imprint on the theater industry and ultimately, the Big Apple.

It was actually back in 1987 that Michael Eisner first got a phone call about helping to revitalize 42nd Street in New York City. The caller was Robert Stern, the same architect who would later design the Yacht & Beach Club Resorts and the BoardWalk Resort, and create a plan for Celebration, Florida. But before all of that, Stern was commissioned to come up with an idea for what to do with the theaters on 42nd Street. After years of being known for its seedy stores and haggard appearance, this was yet another plan to tidy the place up. However, even the building of office space did not help; the street was not doing well.

New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street in the 80s.

Stern believed Eisner’s strong ties to New York City – he had grown up there and began his career as an intern for NBC – would push Eisner to take part. But just as Eisner had done with the idea of diving into Broadway, he adamantly refused to help with the rebuilding of 42nd Street. (“Come back in 10 years,” he said to Stern.) Even when a woman he had known since childhood, civil activist Marian Heiskell, became chair of the 42nd Street Development Project, she couldn’t convince Eisner to step in either.

Fast forward to 1993. Disney was heading to Broadway. Beauty and the Beast was slated to open in the spring of 1994. Michael Eisner began to see that the only way they could make money on Broadway was to buy their own theater. So during a visit to New York to see Stern, Eisner asked to go see the New Amsterdam Theatre. Armed with hardhats and flashlights, Eisner, his wife and son, and Stern were met with a decaying site. Mushrooms were growing out of the floors, rain was dripping from the ceiling, birds were flying all over the place, and the staircases were worn down to rubble. It was a mess.

Inside the decay at New Amsterdam.

But there was potential. Original murals, friezes, and mosaics could still be seen. “I could see what a spectacular place it had been and could be,” Eisner later said. That same day, Eisner was already brainstorming, wondering not only if a restoration was possible but whether the seat number could be increased from 1,600 to 1,800.

Immediately, Tishman Realty & Construction was hired to deduce just how much a project of this capacity would cost. This company already had Disney ties. Not only did they oversee the construction of the Swan and Dolphin on Disney property, they also worked on EPCOT Center in the 80s. In New York, Tishman had worked on the World Trade Center and the renovation of Carnegie Hall.

There was good news though, despite doubts (“Have you ever rehabbed your kitchen? Just think about this as a very, very big kitchen rehab,” said Peter Rummell) – Tishman believed Disney could rehab the New Amsterdam for a reasonable cost.

The grand total? Just about $40 million. The project found assistance, as well, with a 20% tax incentives program for historic buildings.

In February of 1994, it was officially announced that Disney would be taking on the restoration and renovation of the New Amsterdam Theater. They called it “a match made in heaven.”

So what had happened to the New Amsterdam in the first place?

The theater was originally designed by Henry Herts and Hugh Tallant, two young architects who had just returned from a trip to Paris and were inspired by the Art Noveau style they had seen flourishing everywhere. (Art Noveau is a style that melds naturalistic vine, floral, and swirly designs. The primary colors are lilac, pink, gold, yellow and soft greens.) When New Amsterdam opened in 1903, it was immediately nicknamed “The House Beautiful”. Its first production, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, didn’t do so hot at the box office but soon a string of successful productions were staged here including George M. Cohan’s Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway and an operetta called The Merry Widow which ran for 400 performances.

New Amsterdam Theater in the 1900s. (Source)

The theater is probably best known as the home to Ziegfeld Follies from 1913-1927. In the rooftop theater, the racy Midnight Frolics was also performed.

Then the Great Depression hit, and 31 theaters were closed including the New Amsterdam. In 1936, it was foreclosed on with steep deficit of $1.6 million in unpaid taxes and interest. It opened for a short while in 1937 until Max Cohen bought it for $500,000 and turned it into a classic movie house. Incidentally, the first movie they presented was A Mid-Summer’s Night Dream. (Sadly, in order to install the movie screen, 12 original boxes were gutted.) The rooftop theater was used by NBC Times Square for a few years starting in 1951. In the 1970s, New Amsterdam was not being cared for as it should; the theater continued to show slasher films and porn to fit in with the rest of the fall of 42nd Street.

While it doesn’t seem like much of a bright spot at the time, the New Amsterdam’s interior and exterior were deemed landmarks in 1976, which meant no other changes could be made to the building without approval from the Landmarks Commission.

The theater was boarded up in 1980, and two years later, it was purchased by the Nederlander Organization for $5 million.

 

Check out the marquee. Advertising for another show. 1985. (Source)
More 80s. (Source)

Still, nothing changed. After a court battle, the state and city assumed ownership of the theater. It was sold in 1992 to the 42nd Street Redemption Project for a reasonable $247,000. Before Disney leased the theater, it was the filming location of Vanya on 42nd Street, a movie starring Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn. In the trailer, you can see how badly in disrepair the theater was. The stage rigging had been eaten through by rats so the stage was unusable. Some rows were removed and a small platform was built for the actors.

It has been speculated that Disney’s involvement in the 42nd Street Redemption Project started a “chain reaction” for other companies to join in as well. However, Disney demanded that two other entertainment companies take part in the project or they would walk away from the deal. At the time, MTV, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and AMC Theaters were interested but still unsure. Clearly, Disney really wanted this deal to work out despite their threats, as they helped convince Madame Tussaud’s and AMC to take part. MTV backed out but Garth Drabinsky, a theatrical producer, decided to do a $22.5 million renovation on two theaters across the way from the New Amsterdam; the Lyric and the Apollo would be made into one theater (now known as the Foxwoods Theater).

For the $40 million revamping, Hugh Hardy was chosen as the head honcho. New Amsterdam was redesigned as a “shallow bowl” with columns eliminated and more seats included. While it was impossible to create an exact replica of what the theater used to be, they were hoping to bring the same “spirit” in the final design. Still, they went to great lengths to achieve authenticity. The same marquee from the 40s was kept in the front of the building, and the boxes were recreated from original drawings and old photographs. Paint chips were analyzed. Murals in the smoking lounge were designed from vintage postcards once given out as souvenirs. Even bronze women’s heads found amongst the rubble and once used as light fixtures were found. As far as modern amenities, Tishman installed new elevators, HVAC & electrical systems, plumbing, and fire-protection equipment into walls and ceilings. Unfortunately, the rooftop theater would remain closed; it was difficult to bring up to modern building codes. Even a photograph of New Amsterdam’s ghost, Olive Thomas, an original Ziegfeld girl, was added to the lobby.

Olive Thomas haunts the NA. (Source)

Finally, on April 2, 1997, the New Amsterdam was ready. Michael Eisner, Governor Pataki, and Mayor Giuliani flipped the switch for the crowd. Spotlights hit all the details that had been painstakingly restored. The cast of the upcoming The Lion King musical took centerstage, singing “The Circle of Life.”


The new interiors of the New Amsterdam. (Source)


(Source)

Before The Lion King would premiere at the New Amsterdam in November of 1997, Disney planned a handful of events to christen the new and improved theater. In May, the Alan Menken/Tim Rice collaboration, an oration called King David, was presented for five days. Based on the Old Testament story, King David starred another Disney connection, Judy Kuhn, the singing voice of Pocahontas.

(Source)


First official show after the grand opening of the New Amsterdam. (Source)

In June, Disney took over New York (to some people’s chagrin) and hosted some Hercules events to celebrate their newest animated feature. The premiere of the movie was held at the New Amsterdam. Beforehand, movie goers were entertained with jugglers, dancers, and other festivities. They also held a “Heroes Around the World” ceremony featuring top athletes from around the world. Hercules had a two-week run at the New Amsterdam; before each showing, a half-hour live show was performed by Disney characters (which is why some of the tickets were $55).


(Source)

In the fall came the masterpiece. The Lion King was Disney’s opportunity to present theater audiences with a more creative rendition of one of their animated hits. Director Julie Taymor was brought in right from the beginning. She had never seen the movie or heard the music but brainstormed the elaborate puppets that actors would be wearing and wanted to concentrate on the African beats. Those two details would propel The Lion King into one of the biggest hits on Broadway (currently, it is the 7th longest show ever to run on Broadway, third place out of the shows still running).

Fun fact: The original cast of The Lion King included Samuel E. Wright as Mufasa (voice of Sebastian the crab), Heather Headley as Nala (who would later originate the title role of another Disney musical, Aida) and Max Casella as Timon (Racetrack Higgins from Newsies).

Funnily enough, no one involved in The Lion King thought it would win anything during Tony season. Eisner didn’t even show up for the event. Producers Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher even had a getaway car scheduled to pick them up right after the awards show car. The original production of Ragtime was a massive hit and the theater world was still lukewarm when it came to Disney shows. Much to their surprise, The Lion King went away with the biggest honor – Best Musical.

Even sixteen years since it first opened, The Lion King continues to play to sold-out audiences. In fact, this may have been the reason why Mary Poppins moved to the New Amsterdam and The Lion King moved to the Minskoff Theater in June of 2006. While Mary Poppins does well, it has never prospered and held momentum like The Lion King. As of September 2011, The Lion King is the seventh longest running musical to play on Broadway. (In fact, the London production just hit its 5000th performance in September of this year.)

New Amsterdam presently. (Source)

Today native New Yorkers, commuters, and tourists mingle down 42nd Street. More than likely they don’t think about how beautiful and intricately designed the New Amsterdam Theater is. Or just how far it has come in the past 100 years. Thanks to the amazing efforts of the 42nd Street Redemption Project, countless thousands of people have been given the opportunity to enjoy this small yet significant piece of New York City.

It’s nice to know that Disney had something to do with that magic.

For more info on how Disney got into Broadway in the first place, check out Disney + Broadway = How to Succeed in Business.

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Posted by

A book publicist who loves writing about Disney and books, and sometimes Disney books.

6 thoughts on “King of New York: The Story of the New Amsterdam Theatre

  1. Wow. I work at the New Am and I had no idea of this incredible history! It wasn’t until I peeked through a gaping hole in the wall one day and poked the back of the billboard outside that I thought “this place must be very old”!

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