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Opened in 1905 as the Colonial Music Hall by Fred Thompson and Elmer Dundy, the same duo behind the Hippodrome Theatre and Luna Park at Coney Island, as a venue for musicals and vaudeville acts.
Designed by architect George Keister, the Colonial Theatre was designed in the style of a Victorian London music hall. Its exterior had a fairly simple yet austere four-story Federalist facade along 62nd Street. The interior had a wide yet not very deep auditorium, which brought the balcony much closer to the stage than many other theaters. Its original color scheme consisted mainly of red and gray, and at the rear of the balcony, was the Japanese Tea Room. The Colonial Theatre could seat nearly 1,300.
Within two months of its opening, Thompson and Dundy sold the theater to Percy Williams, who dropped legitimate fare in favor of vaudeville only. Williams also had the “Music Hall” portion of the theater’s name changed to “Theatre” to emphasize the switch in format.
In 1912, B.F. Keith took over the Colonial Theatre, altering its name to Keith’s Colonial Theatre, and when E.F. Albee took over from Keith five years later, it became the New Colonial Theatre.
In the early-1920’s, black-themed musical comedies came to the New Colonial Theatre, with such now-racist sounding names as “Little Sambo” and “Chocolate Dandies”. It was during this time that a 1923 show, “Runnin' Wild” introduced the dance craze called the Charleston to America.
In 1925, actor Walter Hampden leased the Colonial Theatre to stage Shakespearean plays, and the theater was again renamed, as Hampden’s Theatre during his six years there.
In 1932, RKO took over, and, as the RKO Colonial Theatre, began showing movies. After years of second-run and double features, RKO sold the theater to NBC in 1956, and converted it into one of its numerous New York television studios. A decade later, ABC took over, and used the Colonial Theatre mainly for taping game shows until 1971.
Multi-millionaire Rebekah Harkness bought the Colonial Theatre in the early-1970’s, and poured more than $5 million into renovating the theater for use by her ballet company. It opened in 1974, as the Harkness Theatre, but within weeks, ballet was out, and legitimate theater back, though only very rarely, as the Harkness Theatre remained dark more than it was lit. Its last act, in 1977, was the native South African revue “Ipi Tombi”, whose partially nude dancers were protested during the entire time of its brief run. In London, UK, without protests, the show had been a smash hit first at the Cambridge Theatre, then other West End theatres.
After closing later the same year, most of the fixtures, including seats, chandeliers, carpeting and artwork, were auctioned off, before the former Colonial Theatre was torn down, to be replaced by condominiums and a public plaza.
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