When the Gay White Way Was Dark

by S. Rosenbaum
  Article Tools

Print This Page

E-mail This Page To A Friend

The small beginnings of the "Gay White Way" occurred in the early eighties of the last century. In 1881 the energetic and astute London manager, D'Oyley Carte, introduced the electric light in his newly built Savoy Theatre, the birthplace of most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas of delectable memory.

This was said to be the first building entirely illuminated by electricity. Rudolph Aronson, projector and manager of the New York Casino, recognizing its pronounced advantages in theatre lighting, installed it in his pretty home of light opera on Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street, which opened the following year.

It is difficult in this age, when it has become a commonplace, to conceive the charm of the new illuminant. From indoor lighting the incandescent lamp made its way to outdoor uses, and the old wind-blown gas jet gradually found its place usurped by the trim and saucy electric bulb, and flickered to its end. Street signs and entrances to public places became gay with this Promethean gleam, which not wind nor rain might quench, until finally it reached the roofs of the houses bearing the legends of trade. So much for the genesis of our modern pyrotechnic highway.

The heart of the region now known as the "Gay White Way," in the early days spoken of, was tot he average playgoer terra incognita. Long Acre Square, as it was then designated, was a monotonous open space, bordered by rows of drab apartment houses and dingy dwellings, of which latter there are still one or two tenacious survivors. Its most conspicuous buildings were the hotel, still standing, on the northeast corner of Forty-third Street, and the 12th Regiment armory, on the site of which Oscar Hammerstein erected his trail-blazing palace of amusements, "Olympia," now the New York and Criterion Theatres. Northward of the square the huge factory of the famous Brewster carriages introduced the wayfarer to a region chiefly devoted to equine matters. The sound of the blacksmiths' hammer mingled with the tinkle of the horse-car bell. Stables abounded and here and there a red flag indicated a horse auction. Florid men, wearing white stocks and horseshoe pins, stood about discussing the merits of equine bargains, for in those days my lady drove tot he play behind a pair of spanking high-steppers, and horse-sense ruled. By night this district, now ablaze, was as dark as Egypt, save for the dim lights of an occasional livery-stable, a corner saloon, or a city street lamp.

The northern outposts of the drama were marked by the Casino and Metropolitan Opera. True, there existed on the site of the present Broadway Theatre a hybrid institution known as Cosmopolitan Hall, which occasionally sheltered ephemeral companies, besides fulfilling its original functions of skating rink and exhibition hall, but its career was short and inauspicious. Playhouses were sporadic and the dozen first-class theatres of New York were scattered over a larger area than are their five-fold increased numbers of today. From Union Square northward they straggled at irregular intervals, chiefly along Broadway, although there were one or two notable houses, such as the Madison Square and the Lyceum, in the gloom of contiguous neighborhoods. Broadway frontage was not then the precious possession it is today.

Thirty-fourth Street, with its junction of traffic lines, was the focus of the play going world. Here were grouped a number of famous bars and restaurants, notably Trainor's and Parker's in the shadow of the L Station. Here the bedizened way of Sixth Avenue mingled with her less garish sisters of Broadway. Here began the upper reaches of the "Tenderloin", that goal of the ambitious precinct commander, which acquired its sobriquet when Captain Williams, of Japanese building-lot fame, declared on his transference to its command that he had eaten "chuck" steak long enough and would now enjoy some tenderloin.

Broadway from this point north divided two neighborhoods of marked difference. To the east were Fifth and Sixth Avenues, between which were the serried ranks of brownstone fronts in what was known as the "silk stocking" district. Sixth Avenue did service to this section in the way of caterers' shops, confectioners, grocers, druggists, dressmakers and sundry other genteel purveyors to the well bestowed. Fifth Avenue was then innocent of shops. Broadway from Thirty-fourth to Forty-second Streets was a succession of small retail establishments interrupted by chop-houses, restaurants and hotels of a sporting character. The Rossmore and St. Cloud Hotels on opposite sides of Broadway at Forty-second Street marked the end of the world to the sport, the tipster and the chorus-lady of fin de siecle Manhattan.

West of Broadway was Seventh Avenue, with its congeries of "old clo's," Cobblers' shops and the squalid barracks of "Cullud help"; while farther westward spread a miscellaneous array of theatrical boarding-houses, non-descript dwellings and "French" flats of dubious tenants. Seventh Avenue was musical, summer times, with the cry of the hot-corn man, and the Pullman whisk-broom artist or the race-horse rubber might often have been seen discussing the succulent kernels on the street corners.

Broadway, of summer nights, was a very pleasant promenade for those whom business or pleasure kept or brought in town. The beaches were not then so easily accessible as to-day, and so its broad pavements were thronged with light-garbed strollers in quest of mild excitement. Most of the theatres closed during the heated term, only performances of a light musical character usually holding the boards. The Casino with its picturesque roof-garden, bordered with varicolored lights, its Hungarian-gipsy band, its little round tables at which were dispensed archaic beverages, frappe, to its gay patrons, was the most prominent of these summer evening resorts. Its roof-garden was the first of its kind to open in New York, and for years it had no competitor until the Madison Square Garden and later the American Theatre at Eighth Avenue and Forty-second Street arose in the air.

Some of the minor playhouses along Broadway suffered appalling vicissitudes. A tiny theatre now obliterated in the building still standing on the southwest corner of Broadway and Twenty-ninth Street had as many changes of name as a modern divorcee. Its gamut included "The San Francisco Minstrels," "Comedy Theatre," "Dockstader's," "Herrman's," "The New Gaiety," "Savoy," "Theatre Comique," and "Sam Jack's." One lessee, with a grim sense of humor, styled it the "Jonah" Theatre, and found his choice of names justified in a few disastrous weeks, and when its doors finally closed it was with the aristocratic appellation. "The Princess," blazoned on them.

The Herald Square Theatre at Thirty-fifth Street in its earlier evolution was another of these polyonymous playhouses. It was built as an aquarium and began its career with astonishing success, later became a combination of playhouse and menagerie, and sheltered numberless attractions which ceased attracting in from one night to one week. Some of these productions were not without merit, but were so precariously financed as to be unable to weather untoward circumstances. The financial support that the playhouse enjoys today was then unknown. The vagabond taint still clung to the mummer; the educational aspect of the stage was still below the horizon; the "uplift" had not yet begun. The Herald Square, then known as the "Park Theatre," for a few seasons sheltered Edward Harrigan (than whom no play-maker has ever delineated local life with greater realism, until his removal to his own theatre on Thirty-fifth Street, now the Garrick.

The primrose path of Broadway occasionally led down byways into less frequented quarters, in which a number of houses of good cheer were situated. "Burns" and "Jack's," the latter still flourishing in diminuendo, both on Sixth Avenue above Forty-second Street, will be remembered as the scenes of the revels of the college roisterers on the nights of the great football matches, and there, also, our modern New Year orgies were fostered in their incipiency. Among other resorts of similar character might be mentioned "Sam Martins" on Broadway near Forty-first Street, which on the decease of its genial proprietor discovered what was regarded as the largest collection of autographs for unpaid supper bills in the records of the "Rialto."

Extremes met on this same "Rialto," or if not, they faced each other, for on the east side of Broadway, opposite the Metropolitan Opera, there throve, for a number of years, in a one-story tumble-down shanty a German bar which served, in addition to its liberal potations of lager, sundry substantial viands at what would be, today, regarded as mythical prices. Here many impecunious player-folk found succor from famine and drought tot he eventual enrichment of "Meinherr" and his "Frau," who presided over the mysteries of pig's-knuckles and sauerkraut.

Few of the old landmarks remain. Broadway below Forty-second Street retains not a vestige of its old sporting and theatrical character. Great commercial structures have replaced the haunts of the actor, the pugilist and the turfman. Gone is the Thespian who "knocked 'em cold" in Council Bluffs. Gone the wire-tapper and the tout with the "good thing" in the third race. Gone the card sharp, the billiard sharp, and divers others whose exceeding sharpness was no match for the scythe of time. Swarms of industrial workers now tread the stones they trod, and the roar of "Big Business" has drowned the last faint echoes of an earlier and more festive day.

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: When the Gay White Way Was Dark
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From My Collection of Books: Valentine's Manual of Old New York; Edited by Henry Collins Brown 1923
Time & Date Stamp: