Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Empire Theatre

I was visiting my friend Dorothy today, who lives down the hill from me in the Bronx. Dorothy turned 93 this summer, and though she doesn't get out to see much theatre these days, she's seen a lot over the years, having worked a good part of her life as an usher on Broadway.

Today, Dorothy was telling me about the Empire Theatre on Broadway between 40th and 41st Streets, where she worked for many years. The theatre was originally built in 1893 for Charles Frohman, the theatre manager and producer who discovered Ethel Barrymore. According to Dorothy, there used to be a portrait of  Barrymore in the theatre, but with no name on a plaque to identify her. Apparently, she was such a big star, she didn't need one.

Barrymore made her Broadway debut at the Empire in 1895 in a play by Henry Guy Carleton called The Imprudent Young Couple. She rose to fame in a later Frohman production at the Empire, though, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines by Clyde Fitch. That play made her a star in 1907, and later that year she appeared again at the Empire in John Galsworthy's play The Silver Box. In 1911, Barrymore played Miss Rose Trelawny in Arthur Wing Pinero's play Trelawny of the "Wells" (also at the Empire).

All of this was before Dorothy's time, of course, but she does remember the play Life With Father, which ran more than 3,000 performances, lasting from 1939 to 1945 at the Empire, and then transferring to the Bijou Theatre and then the Alvin Theatre, where it continued to run until 1947. Dorothy got her job as an usher through her own father, who was also her boss. She wasn't allowed to call him by his name, as others did, so when she spoke to him over the phone at the theatre she always addressed him as "Father" instead. This led many of her co-workers to think she was talking to her priest!

Unfortunately, the Empire is gone now. Its last play was The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents, which closed in 1953. The theatre was torn down later that year to make room for an office building. While there is a movie theatre in the neighborhood now called the Empire, it's on 42nd Street, nestled in the shell of the old Eltinge Theatre. The facade and the proscenium arch of the Eltinge got preserved and can still be seen by moviegoers today. Unfortunately, nothing of the Empire remains in New York except memories.