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The Astor Theatre, opened on September 21, 1906 with Annie Russell starring in a production of “A Midsummer Nights Dream”. It was built and operated by producers Wagenhais and Kemper, at the corner of Broadway and W. 45th Street, seated 1,600 patrons and was considered one of Broadway’s premier venues for decades among the top actors of the era who aspired to play its stage.
Located just next to the Hotel Astor, and later surrounded by theatres like the adjoining Victoria Theatre on Broadway, and on W. 45th Street, the Morosco Theatre, Bijou Theatre and the first Helen Hayes Theatre (which opened as the Folies-Bergere, but quickly became the Fulton Theatre). The Astor Theatre was designed by George W. Keister, who decorated its interior in simple-yet-elegant Greek Revival style.
Red, gold and ivory were the original predominant colors. Outside, the five-floor building, which also contained shops and offices, was a blend of Neo-Classical and Second Empire styles, including a bronze-domed tower at the entrance at Broadway and W. 45th Street.
In 1912, Sam Harris and George M. Cohan took over the Astor Theatre, continuing legitimate fare (except for a 1913 presentation of the hit motion picture “Quo Vadis”) until 1916, when the theatre was acquired by the Shuberts, who would run the Astor Theatre until the Depression.
During the times when there were no legitimate bookings, motion pictures were also screened. Starting in 1925, movies replaced live entertainment on a permanent basis at the Astor Theatre, and remained so for the remainder of its existence.
By the 1940’s, the Astor Theatre was the theatre that MGM premiered its big-screen Technicolor musicals on Broadway, and remained so for over a decade. The New York premiere of Warner Bros. “East of Eden” starring James Dean was held here on March 9, 1955.
In 1959, a radical modernization of the Astor Theatre to the plans of architect John J. McNamara resulted in a dramatically stark-looking interior, with all of its original decor torn out in favor of expanded orchestra seating. Modernistic murals on its side walls and the removal of the boxes and its set of balconies, replaced by a smaller, single balcony.
The gilded proscenium arch was removed to make way for a huge curving wall-to-wall screen. The exterior was also greatly simplified and its original facade covered by a wall of marble, and given a rather plain, boxy marquee.
In 1972, the Astor Theatre was closed due to maintenance problems, and not long afterwards, both it and its neighbors, the Victoria Theatre, the Helen Hayes Theatre, the Bijou Theatre and Morosco Theatre, were all earmarked for demolition to be replaced with an office tower. Plans were delayed, however, and as preservationists fought for nearly a decade to keep the theatre’s standing, the Astor Theatre’s old lobby was used for retail space.
In 1982, however, despite the valiant efforts of preservation organizations, the Astor Theatre and its four neighbors were razed to construct the Marriott Marquis New York Hotel, which contains its own legitimate theatre venue.
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