234 W. 42nd Street,
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Firms: Herts and Tallant
The Liberty Theatre, built in 1904 on W. 41st Street, was designed by the firm of Herts & Tallant in Beaux-Arts style for Klaw and Erlanger. Its lobby opened onto W. 42nd Street, as it was at the time (and still is) the more desired address.
The 100-foot long lobby stretched from W. 42nd Street to the auditorium, which actually sat on W. 41st Street.
The Neo-Classical inspired façade, with a set of caryatides flanking the main entry four stories tall. A huge arched window was surmounted by a carving of the Liberty Bell, and at the summit of the façade was a large stone American eagle, its wings spread and staring downwards to the sidewalk below.
A stunning ticket counter was located in a vestibule in the lobby, which was topped with a large dome, covered in gilding and aluminum. A promenade led to the staircase leading to the balconies and the orchestra seating, with an ivory, amber and gold color theme.
Its auditorium, which could seat well over 1,000, continued the patriotic theme of the exterior, with Liberty Bells and eagles covered with gilt circling the huge ceiling dome and the towering proscenium arch. Again, the ivory and amber color scheme continued into the auditorium. Each side wall featured four sets of opera boxes.
In the basement, luxurious lounges catered to each sex, with the ladies lounge carrying a garden theme, complete with pastel shades and floral patterns, and the men’s being designed in a Spanish countryside theme, with leather and oak highlights.
The Liberty Theatre screened exclusive runs of “Birth of a Nation” in March 1915, “Intolerance” from September 5, 1916 and “The Thief of Bagdad” from March 18, 1924. I remained primarily a legitimate theatre until 1933.
Like most of its neighboring theaters, the Liberty Theatre, rather than go dark, converted from stage shows to movies, and remained a movie house for well over half a century until the revival of 42nd Street began in the early-1990’s.
By 1996, the Liberty Theatre of old was gone, its magnificent Beaux-Arts elements mostly removed, and the rest hidden behind a very ugly boxy marquee. Its front entrance was remodeled in a late Streamline style façade. The interior of the Liberty Theatre had suffered just as badly over the 50 years since its golden days ended, and was decrepit and dirty. Its balconies and side boxes long since closed off, and its original color scheme painted many times over.
However, it was just the appearance that a theater company was looking for, for a short run of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which was the Liberty Theatre’s first legitimate use in over six decades. However, it was shuttered as soon as the play closed.
In 1997, plans were announced to convert the Liberty Theatre into a virtual reality arcade. However, this plan fell through. After over a decade laying empty and unused, it was restored and converted into a Famous Dave’s BBQ Restaurant which opened at Christmas 2011, but was closed in 2013. A bar operated from the foyer area and by 2015 the auditorium was used for special events. The bar closed and the foyer space has since been used as a Ripley’s Odditorium, which closed in 2021. On September 29, 2022 the space is in use as a haunted house attraction named “Terror” which closes on November 6, 2022.
Excerpted from “Lost Broadway Theatres” by Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, 1997
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