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Benjamin, I felt exactly the same way when I turned to Gray’s article on Sunday. I was like “Hmmmmm…interesting.” He might have realized that he hadn’t done anything on theaters in awhile. Or it’s just a weird coincidence.
I’ve been reading his articles for about five years and I think (I could be wrong) that this is the first one I’ve read about a theater.
I’ve seen a lot of pictures now of this theater when it was the Mayfair and can see a lot of it in it’s present condition but I’ve never seen a picture of it when it was the DeMille. Does anyone have any recollection of what the marquee looked like then?
You know Warren, I have to agree with you. I scanned this site quickly and by reading your entry, I got more from that than his article. My guess is (I’m playing devil’s advocate here…) is that he has space constrictions and wanted to also discuss what is going on with the building that replaced it. His articles are very informative when he discusses buildings that have managed to remain through the years. If he does something on The Mayfair, it’s liable to be something on the building The Mayfair resides in as a whole rather than just the theater itself. Disappointing to us but in terms of architecture, that might be way he’d look at it.
I agree 100% with Warren that this theater should be listed on this site as the Loews Mayfair. Not sure how to go about requesting a change.
And Yes…Benjamin, thanks for pointing out the method to search for some other great photos! That one of The Roxy under construction is worth the patience searching through it. Awesome photo!
Christopher Gray from the New York Times has written an article for this last Sunday’s Times about the Hippodrome. It’s part of his continuing series on New York architecture, “Streetscapes”.
May 22, 2005
From a Palace of Spectacles to an Edifice of Offices
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
HE new skin going up over the old Hippodrome Building on the west side of the Avenue of the Americas from 43rd to 44th Street is the latest chapter in the building’s complicated construction saga. What is now a 20-story structure was built in 1953 five stories high; it grew the next year to eight, and it attained its present height in 1961.
What was put up on the site 100 years ago, though, was much more complex – a grand palace of theatrical and other spectacles whose name the current building memorializes. Even though the theater was demolished in 1939, the original Hippodrome – a 5,200-seat home for stage spectaculars involving airships, Martians, elephants, Civil War battles and raging rivers – remains to this day one of the most unusual theatrical venues ever built.
The Hippodrome was the creation of Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, who had attained fantastic success with their Luna Park entertainment center in Coney Island. Thompson was only in his 30’s when he conceived Luna Park, a 22-acre assembly of thrilling rides, canals, towers, dance halls and sideshows that opened in 1903 (and that stayed around until the mid-40’s).
In 1904, Thompson began work on an even more ambitious project, the Hippodrome, named for the open-air arenas in ancient Greece and Rome where chariot races were held. The theater was credited to the architect Jay H. Morgan, but he is otherwise known largely for stables and tenements, so it’s reasonable to assume that the physical appearance was mostly Thompson’s work.
To compete with the roaring Sixth Avenue elevated line, the exterior of the theater had to be something special, and it was – a rich Roman Renaissance screen of red brick and delectably lacy terra cotta, topped by a string of flagpoles and with miniature temples at each end capped by globe-shaped frames illuminated by strings of lights.
Giant banded columns flanked the main doorway, which had a keystone formed by a relief sculpture of a huge elephant’s head. The auditorium, 160 by 160 feet, included a promenade consisting of glass cases holding live wild animals. It also had a great water tank, 14 feet deep, within the 200-foot-wide stage. The 1904 permit for the building said its construction cost would be $400,000.
The Hippodrome opened in April 1905 with “A Yankee Circus on Mars,” an improbable drama-ballet-circus-opera in which the King of Mars buys a bankrupt New England circus. Another first-night offering (the evening lasted about four hours) was a Civil War drama, “Andersonville,” in which opposing cavalry members fought a battle across a mountain torrent running under a 30-foot bridge. The evening’s cast was reported to have included 280 chorus girls and 480 “soldiers.” Those attending included Frederick Vanderbilt, Harry Payne Whitney and the architect Stanford White.
Thompson and Dundy envisioned a nationwide network of Hippodromes to send the shows on tour. But their investors were dissatisfied with the high costs of the visionary productions, and according to Woody Register’s biography of Thompson, “The Kid of Coney Island” (Oxford University Press, 2001), the boy wonder was ousted after only 14 months.
Other theater operators continued Thompson’s spectaculars, but Milton Epstein’s exhaustive “The New York Hippodrome: A Complete Chronology of Performances, From 1905 to 1939” (Theater Library Association, 1993) shows a gradual increase in the number of concerts, sports events, benefits and other more traditional offerings, less expensive to produce.
In 1912, Al Jolson and others performed in a benefit after the sinking of the Titanic; in 1917, the religious revivalist Billy Sunday spoke at a benefit for newsboys; in 1920, John D. Rockefeller spoke at a religious meeting.
The New York Times said in 1925 that the Hippodrome had been sold and would become a department store, but that didn’t happen, and in 1929 the developer Fred F. French proposed a $30 million skyscraper of 83 stories, to be called Hippodrome Towers. That didn’t come to pass either.
By that time, large movie palaces were dominating the market, and the Hippodrome was for a time a vaudeville house and also showed movies. The mid- and late-1930’s saw a dizzying mix of events: the weigh-in for the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis fight in 1936; a meeting of the “People’s Committee Against William Randolph Hearst”; a gathering of the German-American Bund opposing a boycott against the Nazi regime; groups gathering in support of the Spanish Republic; a “Keep America Out of the War Rally” in 1938; and jai-alai, fencing, table tennis and wrestling.
But theater was not ignored. In 1935, the producer Billy Rose leased the Hippodrome for Rodgers and Hart’s circus musical, “Jumbo,” which featured Jimmy Durante and a live elephant and ran for 233 performances.
In January 1939, a “Mass Rally Protesting Six Years of Hitler Rule” was held, followed later that year by a swing concert with Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and many others.
The last recorded use of the Hippodrome was in June 1939, for the Emergency Committee to Save Our Children’s Schools, a meeting at which 5,000 parents and teachers protested budget cuts. The theater was torn down later that year and used as a parking lot.
In 1944, five years after the Sixth Avenue elevated line was demolished, the architects Eggers & Higgins designed a 42-story office building for the site that was not built. Then, in 1947, Voorhees, Walker, Foley & Smith designed a three-story office building. Two years later McKim, Mead & White designed a 30-story building, a slim brick office tower with ribbon windows and a rooftop terrace, set on top of a wide base with space for 1,200 cars.
Neither of these plans came to fruition, but in 1951 the architects Kahn & Jacobs designed a three-story garage and office building, with a metallic front, called the Hippodrome Building. Difficulties in excavation – during which the original Hippodrome water tank was uncovered – soon caused revisions and resulted in a five-story structure, completed in 1953.
This concept seems to have worked, because in 1954 the same architects added three stories to the existing five, leaving the eight-story base as it appeared until recently. Then Kahn & Jacobs designed a major expansion for the building, adding a 12-story setback tower, atop and in the same style as the lower section. It was completed in 1961.
These days the Hippodrome Building looks a bit strange. The installation of a new skin designed by Moed de Armas & Shannon Architects is partly finished and is to be completed in August. Andrew Gottesman, a principal in the ownership group, says that it is rebuilding the lobby – doubling its height by eliminating some of the garage space on the second floor – and installing the new metal and glass skin to give the building “modern, clean lines” to match the neighborhood’s upscale look.
Raul de Armas, a partner in the architecture firm, says that the lobby will feature a 20-foot-wide mural showing the original 1905 Hippodrome. “The site is kind of dynastic,” he says, “and we wanted to honor that.”
One relic will survive – the top-floor mechanical tower of 1961 has an abstract pattern of white metal that looks a bit like an ice floe of piano keys. The new skin will stop just short of that crowning feature, which is a perfect model of jet-age modernism.
My thinking about 70’s films is that they culminated with both “Jaws” and “Star Wars”. There are a LOT of people who say that both of those films were the beginning of the end of the great films of the 70s but I beg to differ. Why? Because those two films were/are great: they were exciting, well made and done with heart. They GAVE something to the audience and audiences responded back with $$$. They were and are as much part of the 70s film landscape as any other. Without the great, landmark films made during the 70s (remember, Lucas made “American Graffiti”) those two films might never have been made.
Where the “break” occurs in terms of the creativeness vs. the monetary gain which has taken over all the BIG studio releases happened exactly as you state: in the mid 80’s. It’s hard to exactly pinpoint it but around 1982, films began to rot. 1982 was (to me…) one of the last truly great years. You had “Tootsie” and “ET”, two all time classics. After that, the studios began to pump out more and more crap. Yeah, of course there were still good films being made. But 1982 was the end of the line for the creative stuff that came about because of the 70s.
I still think films mattered even in the 90s. When things really started to suck for me was after 1999. That year was the last year where I actually got excited over some of the studio releases. The two that spring to mind are “The Sixth Sense” and “The Blair Witch Project”. Yes, some will deride these films now but they were exciting and involving films. They intrigued people. Even 2000 wasn’t too bad with “Gladiator” and such.
It was the summer of 2001 that really started the trend. What happened was the studios were terrified that there was going to be an actors strike and they rushed as many studio films out into theaters without checking to see whether they were any good or not. This was the summer of the awful remake of “Planet of the Apes”. I read that the studios realized that summer that even if a film blew, they could still make a lot of money during the opening weekend only. That’s where they make their main $$$. Ever since then, that’s been the philosophy. Open BIG and then who cares if it dies off. A profit awaits on DVD. I remember the summer of 2001 because it was the first summer where virtually every movie I wanted to see, frankly, sucked. Either I stopped going or was sorely disappointed when I went.
Sorry for the rant but you got me started….
I hope this link works. Someone on another theater’s site posted some pictures from the NY Public Library. The link above (if it works…) is the Mayfair from 1935. The stone work above the marquee is still intact at the theater though part of it is now obscured by the large billboard.
If you can’t get to it, go to the NY Public Library’s digital photo website View link and search away. They’ve got some awesome pictures of the Capitol and The Roxy, ones I’ve never seen before!
Re: “Master and Commander” one of the finest movies I’ve seen in the past 10 years. Yes, partial thanks to Crowe who might be a bit of an a-hole in real life but is intelligent enough to at least ATTEMPT to star in projects that have some teeth. But the real congrats go to the director, PETER WEIR. He is one of the BEST directors around today and of all time. Right up there with the best of them. The guy can take hack material (like “The Truman Show”) and turn it into something unique and exciting.
As much as I did not like “The Passion of the Christ” (too divisive…not my idea of Christian at all…) I’m glad at least Gibson was cinematic and got people into theaters. It was Gibson’s passion and on that alone, I’ll applaud him.
There ARE worthwhile films out there. “Eternal Sunshine” is not everyone’s cup of tea but it was mine and I loved it. There are thoughtful, intelligent people out there TRYING to make movies that matter. Maybe, just maybe if the numbers keep going south, the studios might try something radical. Who knows? Maybe we’re in for another decade like the 70’s.
And I hate Tom Cruise…
And now the Cinema 35 is completely gone….
Theaterat: you’re way too kind!
Virtually all the new theaters (if you can call them that) are factories with not one iota of anything resembling personal service. Think this dump is bad? Try the Loews Palisades Center in West Nyack, NY. The same thing there.
And you’re right on target about the lousy, lousy, LOUSY movies “Hollywood” is making these days. It’s as if they simply don’t care. It’s all marketing now. The studio gets the lions share of the boxoffice in the first weeks of a films theatrical run leaving the theater owners to get their $$$ later and through the concession stand. The studios now make their big bucks on DVD sales. But don’t tell anyone else involved in the film about that. There’s no open profit sharing for DVD sales….yet. Only the big name stars like Cruise and Speilberg hold enough power to demand a piece of the DVD profit pie.
My wife and I used to go to a movie, on average, once a month 10 or 15 or so years ago. It wasn’t just a thing to do. There were actually good movies then mixed in with the usual popcorn junk. (And to old timers out there: admit it…even “back in the day” the studios produced mass market crapola like “When Worlds Collide” and such).
The movies and the theaters are killing the experience for me. It’s so sad to comtemplate. BUT if the movie going continues it’s trend, the studios are going to have to do something.
I apologize if I ruffled any feathers with my comment about the Kings and it’s proximity (or lack of) to a subway. I was just trying to point out one of the obstacles that might limit it’s appeal as a varied entertainment venue. There is nothing I would love more (well, yes there are…) than to see The Kings return.
But the comparison (I think) to the Jersey is valid. What were the variables that managed to make that venue come back as opposed to the Kings?
Warren, I actually asked Mr. Gray about his comment regarding theaters and that they don’t work well as subjects. Here is what his reply was (received this afternoon):
“built by corporations, without the "human” touch.
buildings are formula based.
hard to associate specific people to them, except in terms of who played there, which is, for me, always a weak link.
an Eberson atmospheric, the unusual Beacon and Lane (in Staten Island), the complex Sutton Theater (really a bank) – these are the theatre stories which have worked for me.
I like his articles in the Times because he highlights structures that may have otherwise gone unnoticed (sp?). In those terms, The Mayfair fits the bill because it’s virtually invisible now.
“I never let that stop me from going!The destination was its own reward. ”
That’s you and I and most people on this site. But the general population? It’s iffy. And it’s those people that are needed if a venue like The Kings is going to suceed.
I received a very nice note back from the writer of the New York Times Streetscapes column, Christopher Gray regarding my inquiry as to whether he thinks this theater warrants an article. He writes:
“Thank you for your note. I think I know this building, but will check it. For me, theatres don’t work so well as subjects, but I will examine it more closely.”
Can I ask that maybe others on this site E-Mail him to see if he can be persuaded to write something on this theater or, for that matter, any other theaters that might benefit from such an article?
The E-Mail address is
Regarding Bruce1’s comment, yes, in the past, the lack of nearby subway service did not effect attendence. BUT I think this has to do with the fact that the majority of the patrons came from the immediate area (Flatbush) which was and is very densely populated.
If the Kings' venue is to be a performing arts center, a movie revival house (ala Loews Jersey) or a combo, this lack of easy transport will have an effect because it’s sucess will rely on people coming from out of the area.
The Loew’s Jersey are ideally situated because the Path is literally right next door.
I’ve seen a photo (from the NYTimes) of the Mayfair/DeMille when “The Day the Earth Stood Still” playing there and it’s got that great, huge marquee that curved around 47th Street. But the big lit marquee that was lower is gone by that time. Does anyone know when the last movie played there that used the big, wraparound marquee?
Again, that’s what amazes me about this place. How could such a prominent theater seem so utterly forgotten now? Obviously it’s just me…or rather, all of us who are interested in this theater.
The New York Times runs a weekly article about NY architecture and buildings every Sunday called Streetscapes. I’ve E-Mail the writer of the articles, Christopher Gray, to see if perhaps they would do an article about The Mayfair (sorry, but it’s such nicer name than the LAME-O Embassy 2,3,4…can we change it on this site?).
Anyway, I think it would be great to see an article about it. It might help drum up some support for it’s preservation.
I think what’s very strange (and mysterious) about The Mayfair (today) is that unless you can see if from where I can (meaning above), you really don’t know it’s there. The marquee is very small and unobtrusive. I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that a major theater venue is literally hiding behind that small marquee and very nondescript entrance. I know I am.
I also think that it’s location is thankfully preventing it from being creamed by the wrecking ball…for now. It’s kind of “up-north” in terms of Times Square and semi off the beaten path. The Criterion’s location doomed it. That sucker’s right in the heart of Times Square. The Mayfair isn’t.
I keep hoping to read about some kind of preservation or something but nothing happens. Only time will tell…
So, in not even 10 years, the DeMille (The Mayfair) goes from an A list Roadshow house in lovely condition to a slovenly $1.00 bargain house. Ugh. I guess I (we) shouldn’t be surprised as that is how things were in Times Square back then but it still seems so sad.
Gold light, eh? Sounds really wonderful. So, since “Shoes of the Fisherman” premiered in 1968, the DeMille was still in good shape. When did the triplexing take place? Does anyone know if the theater slowly deteriorated or were efforts made to maintain it?
rhett, very saracastically but realistically put. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Yes, some will say that the porn is “saving” The Montauk. Others will argue that the place is drawing a seedy crowd and will either want the place closed or demolished. Frankly, if such as place like The Montauk existed near to where I live, I’d want it closed and/or demolished regardless of it’s former aesthetic value.
Passaic is a classic immigrant community. The last thing on these people’s minds is a classic movie palace in their midst so it’s doubtful for now that there will be any community support.
REndres writes: The theatre was really beautiful in those days.
REndres, could you PLEASE elaborate? I see this theater (or what’s left of it…) every single day from the street level and from above. It is so hard to imagine that this theater was once so beautiful and so important. It’s heartbreaking.
Re:CinemaScope 55 and it’s use for “The King & I”, I wonder if this is why when I watched it a few weeks ago on Fox Movie Channel, the letterboxing seemed a tad ridiculous. As much as I love the letter boxing format, for that movie, the movie image was more like a strip in the middle of the screen. The black portions on the top and the bottom were unusually prominent. Anyone agree?
Porter Faulkner: I will take some pictures. I just never thought people would be interested in what it looks like from above. I think it’s fascinating and it’s what got me interested in this theater. I’ll take some of the front now. It’s a sad site.
Wednesday White Man: when you talk about the numbers, I assume you mean that the owner wants lot of $$$$. I can imagine. Whether you like what they are doing in and around Times Square, real estate is HOT HOT HOT. And this is prime. But from what I can see above, I cannot determine if the Mayfair is it’s own building or whether it’s tied into the ones around it. I think that might be what’s complicating it’s sale.
I don’t think many people are aware of this place’s history and such. Perhaps if people did, more would/could be done to save it.
To Wednesday White Man: I doubt that you will hear any arguements against what you propose. I think the theater’s site is amazing. The only thing I THINK people on this site would like to see (aside from the Mayfair’s deserved refurbishment…) is that it be named appropriately.
Can I ask what is preventing finalizing of your plans?