Koster & Bial's Music Hall
135 West 34th Street,
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The Manhattan Opera House, operated by Oscar Hammerstein, opened on November 14, 1892. In less than a year, Hammerstein acknowledged the failure of his scheme to house high class opera at the site and ceded management of the facility to John Koster and Albert Bial. The long-time operators of a music hall/beer garden at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue, the experienced managers brought their tried-and-true formula of variety acts and alcoholic beverages to the rechristened Koster and Bial’s on August 28, 1893, two days after the closing of their previous location.
The theatre featured, for those willing to spend $1.50, 700 upholstered, reserved orchestra seats on the floor, with shelves on the back of every other chair for retention of alcoholic beverages. The balcony level, reached by marble stairs from the foyer, was home to 16 exclusive boxes. The third level was a promenade featuring tables and chairs, capable of accommodating 800, where refreshments were served. These accommodations were accompanied by electric lights, two exhaust fans, and curtains, upholstery, and draperies of blue satin and silk.
On April 23, 1896, the theatre was adorned with a 20x12 foot white screen and, in the center of the balcony, a small booth covered with blue velvet and containing twin machines with turrets. Within this booth sat Thomas Armat. According to the next day’s New York Times, “an unusually bright light fell upon the screen. Then came into view two precious blonde young persons of the variety stage, in pink and blue dresses, doing the umbrella dance with commendable celerity. Their motions were all clearly defined. When they vanished, a view of an angry surf breaking on a sandy beach near a stone pier amazed the spectators. The waves tumbled in furiously and the foam of the breakers flew high in the air. So enthusiastic was the appreciation of the crowd long before this extraordinary exhibition was finished that vociferous cheering was heard”. For the first time in the United States and owing to Edison’s Vitascope, projected motion pictures had been exhibited for commercial purposes.
Fifty-two years later, on September 30, 1948, the first “projectionist”, Thomas Armat, who also happened to be the actual inventor of the Wizard of Menlo Park’s machine, died in his Washington, D.C. home. The hall in which Mr. Armat’s creation was first used for financial gain was not quite as long lived as the inventor. On July 21, 1901, after numerous changes of management and nearly a decade of failed attempts to attract regular crowds, the facility was closed with the audience participating in a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”. Shortly thereafter, the theatre was torn down to make way for the new home of R.H. Macy & Co. That edifice proved to be a bit more resilient, as did the art form first introduced to America on the site in 1896.
A plaque in Herald Square commemorates the Music Hall and the introduction of Edison’s invention.
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