The Winter Garden Theatre was adapted from the old building of the American Horse Exchange, completed in 1896. Its original facade consisted of several arches on Broadway, which were subsequently converted to a brick wall with a large sign. The interior is covered with detailing in the Adam style. Though the auditorium contains a single balcony above the orchestra level, the boxes are arranged in two levels above the orchestra. The auditorium contains a ribbed ceiling, which originally had exposed trusses prior to Krapp's renovation. The proscenium and stage also date to Krapp's renovation, when they were scaled down from their original size.
The Winter Garden was originally operated by brothers Lee and Jacob J. Shubert. In its early days, the theater frequently hosted series of revues presented under the umbrella titles The Passing Show, Artists and Models, and the Greenwich Village Follies. The Winter Garden served as a Warner Bros. movie house from 1928 to 1933 and a United Artists cinema from 1945 to 1948. Aside from these interruptions, it has largely operated as a legitimate theater. From 1982 to 2013, the Winter Garden hosted only two productions: the musicals Cats and Mamma Mia!. The theater was renovated in 2000 and was known as the Cadillac Winter Garden Theatre from 2002 to 2007.
In the late 19th century, what is now Times Square was known as Longacre Square and was heavily frequented by the horse and carriage industry. The site of the Winter Garden Theatre was originally occupied by the American Horse Exchange, which was built by William K. Vanderbilt. The Horse Exchange, on the east side of Broadway between 50th and 51st Streets, was designed by D. & J. Jardine. The exchange sold thoroughbreds at a time when bad horses were commonly being offered. Though the first sale took place in 1880, the Horse Exchange was not completed until the next year.
The original exchange building was a two- and three-story structure covered three-quarters on the block, surrounding a covered horse ring measuring 100 feet (30 m) square. The Broadway wing had dealers' offices on the first floor and the exchange's offices on the second floor, as well as space for carriages and valuable horses. The 50th Street and Seventh Avenue wings had horses on each floor, with 187 box stalls total. The exchange burned down in June 1896, killing close to a hundred horses. After the exchange was destroyed, Vanderbilt hired A. V. Porter to construct a new structure of two to four stories. The new building surrounded a covered ring measuring 160 by 80 feet (49 by 24 m). The new structure reused some of the old exchange's walls and had a brick facade with arched windows, as well as trusses over the ring.
The Winter Garden Theatre's original facade as seen in 1913
As designed, the main entrance was on Broadway and there were ten exits on Seventh Avenue. The Broadway facade was designed in a colonial style with plain gray stone. The original exterior used much of the existing facade of the Horse Exchange, though a cupola was added in the modification, as well as a heavy cornice. The facade had five Palladian-style arches and columns. The columns rose two stories, supporting a cornice and a pediment. Five mahogany doors led to the ticket lobby. The modern facade has large billboards, which have historically been used to advertise the shows at the Winter Garden. The billboards date to at least the 1930s.
The Seventh Avenue facade, originally unornamented, was decorated in the 1922 renovation because of the growing prominence of that avenue. Because of the number of exits to the surrounding streets, Architecture and Building magazine wrote in 1911 that the theater "is said to have more exits than any other auditorium of its size in the United States". A portion of the old American Horse Exchange facade was visible on Seventh Avenue until the late 1990s, when it was refaced in brick.
The theater's relatively small entrance on Broadway allowed the Shubert family to place storefronts along the rest of the Broadway frontage. The corner of Broadway and 50th Street was leased out as an eatery. It was originally designed as a restaurant space in the Flemish style. Over the years, it became a nightclub known as Palais de Danse, Montmartre, and Singapore.
The ticket office is just inside the Broadway entrance. It leads to a rectangular inner lobby 20 by 50 feet (6.1 by 15.2 m). The inner lobby is a rectangular space, with doors on the west and east walls. The walls contain panels with foliate decorations in the Adam style. These are separated by Adam-style pilasters, topped by Corinthian-style capitals. The west doors lead to the ticket lobby and are made of bronze. The east doors lead to the auditorium and are made of bronze with glass frames; these doors are separated by pilasters that hold up an arched entablature. The walls also have lighting sconces. The lobby's ceiling contains Adam-style bands that split the ceiling into Adam-style quadrilateral panels. Adjoining the inner lobby was a smoking room, measuring 30 by 35 feet (9.1 by 10.7 m), with an attached men's restroom. There was also a bar and a service room.
View from the stage toward the seating areas
The auditorium has an orchestra level; two levels of boxes above the orchestra; one balcony; and a stage behind the proscenium arch. The auditorium's width is greater than its depth, and the space is designed with plaster decorations in high relief. According to the Shubert Organization, the auditorium has 1,600 seats; however, Playbill gives a different figure of 1,493 seats and The Broadway League cites 1,526 seats. There are 1,045 seats in the orchestra, 486 on the balcony, 36 in the boxes, and 33 standing-only spots. In its original configuration, the Winter Garden had 1,200 seats at orchestra level and 400 at balcony level. In addition, the original theater had 150 box seats.
The original decorative elements were designed by John Wanamaker. The theater was initially designed with latticework rather than Adam-style detailing, since latticework was commonly used as a design motif in Broadway theaters of the 1910s. The theater's name, as well as its original design, was meant to evoke an English garden.
The orchestra floor is raked. The rear (north) end of the orchestra contains a shallow promenade, which wraps around to the auditorium's sides. Pilasters with Corinthian capitals divide the promenade's rear wall into sections, and a cornice with dentils and modillions also runs along the wall, above the pilasters. The promenade is separated from the orchestra seating by a row of columns, also topped by Corinthian capitals. The orchestra promenade's coved ceiling is divided by Adam-style bands with foliate decorations. Each cove has circular decorative elements at their centers, which contain coffers and swags. The promenade forms part of a "grand promenade" connecting Broadway and Seventh Avenue. A standing rail is placed behind the rearmost row of seats. The orchestra level previously had 12 boxes extending along the sides of the auditorium. The walls originally contained latticework, behind which were lights. One architectural critic said that the rake of the orchestra "makes for poor visibility from most locations" due to its shallowness.
The balcony level is also raked; the front section contains several curves, which resemble the curves of boxes. The rear of the balcony level contains a promenade, which starts behind the center of the balcony and extends around to either side. This promenade was originally designed as a foyer measuring 30 by 40 feet (9.1 by 12.2 m), which had balconies overlooking Broadway. Columns separate the promenade from the balcony seating areas. The front railing of the balcony is decorated with molded bands, swags, and foliate ornament. There are lighting fixtures and other equipment in front of the railing. The underside of the balcony has Adam-style bands with foliate decorations, as well as air-conditioning vents.
On either side of the stage is an outwardly splayed wall section with boxes at the balcony level and directly above the balcony. Both levels have three boxes on either side, which are curved outward. The fronts of the boxes have similar molded bands, swags, and foliate ornament as the balcony's front. In addition, the centers of the boxes have rosettes and oval panels. Pilasters with Adam-style decoration, running the full height of the auditorium, flank the boxes' wall sections. Each of the boxes' pilasters is topped by a Corinthian capital. There are griffin motifs and cartouches above the higher level of boxes. The present boxes and pilasters date from the 1923 renovation. The original design had only one level of boxes, which was at the balcony level. In the original design, the entire balcony front was occupied by a row of 21 boxes, and the wall sections on each side had two large party boxes, for a total of 25 boxes.
Other design features
The proscenium arch measures 24 feet 4 inches (7.42 m) high and 44 feet 10 inches (13.67 m) wide. It consists of a wide, molded band with foliated swags, rosettes, and molded figures. There are medallions within the spandrels at the corners of the arch. The present size and design of the proscenium arch dates to the 1922 renovation; an inner arch and drapes were installed to artificially reduce the original arch's size. In the proscenium's original configuration, it measured 30 feet (9.1 m) high and about 50 feet (15 m) wide. A sounding board curves onto the ceiling above the proscenium. It contains a panel that shows dancing and music-playing figures in a forest. These figures are surrounded by a Adam-style foliate band. The panel measures 30 by 40 feet (9.1 by 12.2 m) and is titled "The Shepherd's Dream".
The depth of the auditorium to the proscenium is 40 feet 0 inches (12.19 m), while the depth to the front of the stage is 44 feet 2 inches (13.46 m). When the theater originally opened, the stage had a semicircular apron with a 5-foot (1.5 m) radius, as well as a runway.[a] The runway, added in 1912, was intended to bring the performers much closer to the audience. The apron and runway were removed in the 1922 renovation, and seats were added in their place. The dressing rooms were placed in a separate structure directly behind the stage, separated from the auditorium by brick walls. There is an orchestra pit in front of and below the stage.
The modern ceiling contains vaults, placed between ribs that are designed in the Adam style. The vaults themselves are divided into panels by Adam-style moldings and bands. The center of the ceiling contains a panel with a dome, surrounded by latticework and foliate decoration. At each of the dome's four corners, there are medallions, which depict mythical fauns playing lyres and pipes. In the theater's original design, the ceiling trusses remained exposed, a vestige of the old Horse Exchange. The ceiling was finished in wooden latticework, and the ceiling was painted blue, giving an impression of an open-air venue. The original ceiling had poor acoustics. During the 1922 renovation, Krapp had lowered the ceiling to below the trusses.
Both Sam and Lee Shubert had prevented Jacob from taking a full role in the operation of the Shubert syndicate, and Lee had often sent Jacob to oversee productions outside New York City after Sam died. This prompted Jacob to develop his own theater; he subsequently recalled that, while walking up Broadway in early 1910, he looked at the Horse Exchange. Though the exchange was far north of the established Broadway theater district at the time, the raked balcony above the horse-auction ring appealed to Jacob, even after he learned that Vanderbilt was the landlord. With the horse transportation declining in favor of automobiles, Vanderbilt leased the Horse Exchange site to the Shuberts in 1910. While Vanderbilt did not want to sell, he was willing to lease the site for 40 years at an annual fee of $40,000.
The plans for the Winter Garden itself dated to December 1909, when producer Lew Fields, a close associate of Lee Shubert, was planning a music hall-style venue. Despite Fields's greater expertise, Jacob Shubert had a greater advantage; because of large expenditures, Fields became indebted to Lee and ultimately became an employee of the Shuberts. In May 1910, the Shubert brother filed plans for a theater called Lew Fields' Winter Garden, which would be built on the Horse Exchange site at a cost of $500,000. William Albert Swasey would be the architect while John McKeefrey would be the builder. The Winter Garden was originally intended to host operas, ballets, dances, and other large performances, similar to variety and music halls.
During mid-1910, while Fields was on tour, Jacob changed many of Fields's plans for the theater's physical specifications. Jacob also sent harsh letters to Fields about the latter's overspending, causing conflict between the two men. By the end of 1910, Fields had transferred his entire stake in the Winter Garden's operation to the Shubert brothers. A factor in Fields's withdrawal was Lee's lack of intervention in the dispute, implicitly favoring his less experienced brother over his longtime partner. Although Lee controlled bookings and financing, Jacob was in charge of the Winter Garden's operation. Jacob wanted the new theater to produce musical revues, in effect competing with the Ziegfeld Follies operated by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. The Winter Garden was to be the flagship venue for the Shuberts' own productions.
1910s and early 1920s
The Winter Garden was supposed to open at the beginning of March 1911, but ticket sales did not even begin until March 6 due to difficulties in scheduling productions. It opened on March 20, 1911, with the two-part musical La Belle Paree. The show featured the Broadway premiere of actor and singer Al Jolson.The New York Times wrote that the Winter Garden was "New York’s latest plaything, a very flashy toy, full of life and go and color and with no end of jingle to it". Conversely, when flops were staged at the Winter Garden, critics said they could smell the horse stables. After La Belle Paree closed, the show Revue of Revues, featuring Gaby Deslys, opened in September 1911 and ran for two months. That November, the revue Vera Violetta opened, with numerous performers including Jolson, Deslys, and Mae West. In its early years, the Winter Garden hosted a successful series of concerts on Sunday nights, which featured performers such as Jolson. Jacob Shubert soon realized that Jolson was a major factor in the Winter Garden's success.
While on a trip to Europe, Lee had met with German producer Max Reinhardt, who had pioneered the idea of a runway extending from a stage into the audience. Lee copied Reinhardt's idea, adding a bridge above the orchestra seats. In early 1912, Jolson, Deslys, and Stella Mayhew starred in The Whirl of Society, the first show to use the Winter Garden's runway. Jolson performed near the audience on the runway, as did 80 lightly clothed showgirls, leading the runway to be nicknamed the "bridge of thighs".(From) Broadway to Paris premiered in November 1912, and Jolson, Deslys, and Fanny Brice appeared in The Honeymoon Express the next year. Jacob's son, John Shubert, subsequently recalled that after The Honeymoon Express, Jolson returned to the Winter Garden once every 18 months on average. Jolson's shows typically premiered early in the year, then went on tour after a summer break. These shows included Dancing Around (1914),Robinson Crusoe, Jr. (1916),Sinbad (1918), and Monte Cristo Jr. (1919).
In November 1922, the Winter Garden was closed for a renovation. The work was intended to make the theater suitable "more for revue than for extravaganza", as The New York Times described it. The proscenium arch was reduced in size and the ceiling was lowered under plans by Herbert Krapp. One hundred seats were installed in the former runway, and 50 boxes were added, 12 of them at orchestra level. Workers renovated the theater 24 hours a day, working in three shifts of eight hours. The theater's decorative scheme was changed to gold and white, and mulberry-colored damask panels were installed to give a perception of intimacy. Smoking, which had been allowed in the theater's early years, was banned after the 1922 renovation.
After the operetta Marinka played in 1945, the Winter Garden again became a cinema for three years.United Artists started negotiating for the rights to use the Winter Garden for motion pictures in August 1945, but there were disputes over sound equipment. An agreement was reached later that month, with United Artists taking over that October. By the end of 1947, United Artists struggled to find films to screen, and it was paying $7,500 a week in rent.As the Girls Go, which opened in November 1948, was the first production to be staged after the Winter Garden again became a legitimate theater. The production, by Michael Todd, charged a top admission price of $7.20, which at the time was a record.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats had been booked for the Winter Garden in April 1982, with a premiere scheduled for that October. In mid-1982, the Shuberts closed the Winter Garden Theatre for a major renovation of both the exterior and the interior. The auditorium was gutted to accommodate the show's junkyard setting, under the supervision of designer John Napier. In addition, the interior was painted black, as was the billboard outside.Cats opened on October 7, 1982, and quickly became successful, winning multiple Tony Awards.Cats became the longest-running Broadway show in history in June 1997, when it hit 6,138 performances. Ultimately, Cats ran 7,485 performances spanning nearly eighteen years.
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) had started considering protecting the Winter Garden as an official city landmark in 1982, with discussions continuing over the next several years. Though both the exterior and interior were considered, the LPC designated only the interior as a landmark in January 1988. This was part of the LPC's wide-ranging effort to grant landmark status to Broadway theaters, which had commenced in 1987. The New York City Board of Estimate ratified the designations in March 1988. The Shuberts, the Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn collectively sued the LPC in June 1988 to overturn the landmark designations of 22 theaters, including the Winter Garden, on the merit that the designations severely limited the extent to which the theaters could be modified. The lawsuit was escalated to the New York Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States, but these designations were ultimately upheld in 1992.
2000s to present
Seen while Mamma Mia! was in production
In 2000, the Shubert Organization and General Motors (GM) began discussions over a possible sponsorship, in which the Winter Garden could be rebranded for Cadillac, a division of GM. Early the same year, theatrical media announced that Cats would close that June, having played to more than 10 million guests and grossing over $380 million.Cats closed on September 10, 2000, and objects from the production were auctioned at the Winter Garden. Afterward, architect Francesca Russo restored the theater to its 1920s appearance. The $10 million project entailed restoring many of the architectural features that had been heavily modified for Cats, as well as restoring the lobby, lounges, seats, and ticket areas. Historical design features, such as light fixtures and plasterwork, were restored or replaced. The stage, which had been disassembled for the run of Cats, also had to be reconstructed.
^ According to Architecture and Building, the stage originally measured 45 feet (14 m) deep and 108 feet (33 m) deep. According to The New York Times, the stage measured 55 feet (17 m) deep and 116 feet (35 m) wide.
^The Passing Show of 1921 technically opened at the end of 1920.
^"Scores of Horses Perish: More Than a Hundred Lost by the Burning of the American Horse Exchange One Man Reported to Have Been Killed--Several Persons Injured--The Total Loss Estimated at $300,000". New-York Tribune. June 12, 1896. p. 1. ProQuest574192624.
^ abc""The Dancing Girl" Exuberantly Opens The Winter Garden: Stars of Varied Fields of Theatric Art Assembled for Pretentious Premiere of Theater Newly Rebuilt". New-York Tribune. January 25, 1923. p. 8. ProQuest1237238928.