One traffic jam in Times Square is about to get a little less dire. Broadway is getting a new theater! Or rather—and better—Broadway is getting a beautiful old theater back. Built in 1903, the Hudson Theatre has not housed a full stage production since 1968. But yesterday, Ambassador Theatre Group, which took over the lease of the enormous Lyric Theatre in 2013, announced that it will be renovating the Hudson and reopening it in the 2016-17 season.
This is thrilling news. Broadway has been terribly congested of late. Every one of its current 40 theaters is currently occupied or booked, many of them with long-running shows. The scarcity of available theaters makes it hard for new productions to find homes, and the addition of the Hudson—which will have an estimated 950 seats when renovations are complete, an excellent size for plays or smaller musicals—will help ease that problem.
But the return of the Hudson is exciting for more than practical reasons. Here are some of the things that make it special.
1. It’s old and it’s lovely. Built in 1903, the Hudson is one of the Great White Way’s oldest surviving venues, and it retains many of the architectural and decorative features that greeted patrons when it opened: ornate Greco-Roman motifs on the walls and ceilings; oases of colorful Tiffany glass; a black-marble box office, with bronze heads of Hermes (or Mercury, if you do as the Romans do). Though not as fancifully imagined as Broadway’s other two oldest houses, the Lyceum and the New Amsterdam—which opened just weeks after the Hudson—it is a piece of New York history.
2. Its original owner died on the Titanic. Producer Henry B. Harris built the Hudson and ran it for nine years, but died in 1912 on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. But his wife, Rene, was among the last passengers saved from the sinking ship, and she took over the theater after his death, making her one of the first female producers in New York City. The unsinkable Mrs. Harris’s fortunes changed in the Depression, alas, and she was forced to sell the venue in 1932.
3. The Tonight Show was born there. After a brief stint as a CBS radio studio in the 1930s, the Hudson returned to theatrical use until 1950, when it was bought by NBC to house its newfangled television programming. In September 1954, the network launched what would become the most successful national late-night show in TV history: Tonight, with Steve Allen as host, and future Match Game emcee Gene Rayburn as announcer. After Jack Paar took over as host in 1957, NBC sold the Hudson, which served as a legit theater again for most of the 1960s.
4. Many great stars have trod its boards. The first production at the Hudson was Cousin Kate, starring stage legend Ethel Barrymore. Louis Armstrong had a breakout success there with his performance of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in the all-black 1929 revue Hot Chocolate, and a young Lena Horne was in the short-lived Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939. Elvis Presley sang “Hound Dog” as a guest on Tonight in 1956. Jason Robards and Maureen Stapleton costarred in the 1960 premiere of Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic; Laurence Olivier was in Jean Anouilh’s Becket in 1961. (As for playwrights: George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman made its Broadway debut there in 1905, as did plays by Henrik Ibsen, W. Somerset Maugham, Henry James, Sean O’Casey, Clyde Fitch and Terrence Rattigan.)
5. It used to be a porno joint. After a series of flops in the late 1960s (including How to Be a Jewish Mother, starring Yiddish Theater icon Molly Picon), the Hudson succumbed to the encroaching decrepitude of Times Square, and became a blue movie house. The same venue that had hosted Toys in the Attic now reportedly showed a film called—I'm not making this up—Boys in the Attic, which suggests that someone in the programming department of the Avon film chain had a sense of humor, at least. In 1975, the Hudson scrubbed off the porn to become a second-run movie house, and then, in 1980, a rock nightclub called the Savoy, which didn’t last long.
6. It has narrowly escaped destruction. For much of the 20th century, the Hudson was in imminent danger of being demolished. (A 1961 plan to raze it for a parking lot was snuffed after negative reaction in the press.) But public outcry over the infamous theater massacre of 1982—in which the Morosco, Helen Hayes, Astor, Bijou and Victoria theaters were all torn down to make way for the Marriott Hotel in Times Square—led the Landmarks Preservation Commission to increase its protection of Broadway’s theatrical treasures. The Hudson’s exterior and interior were designated historical landmarks in 1987, forcing real-estate developers to build around it. (For more information about this and other classic venues, find a copy of Nicholas van Hoogstraten's indispensable Lost Broadway Theatres.)
In recent years, the Hudson has served as a rental space for parties and special events. No shame in that. But we can’t wait to see it back where it belongs.