“Playing the Palace” — it was the dream of every vaudeville performer. In its heyday, from 1913 until the 1930s, the “mecca of migrating minstrels” at Forty-seventh Street and Times Square booked everyone who was anyone — from Sarah Bernhardt to Trixie Friganza and her bag of Trix, from Ethel Barrymore to Dr. Rockwell (“Quack! Quack! Quack!”).
The Palace was the dream house of impresario Martin Beck, but by the time it opened he held only 25 percent interest in the theatre. By complex wheeling and dealing, vaudeville circuit mogul B. F. Keith and E. F. Albee (playwright Edward Albee’s adoptive grandfather) stormed the Palace and gained control.
In her book The Palace, Marian Spitzer describes the opening of the theatre on Easter Monday, March 24, 1913: “The theatre itself, living up to advance publicity, was spacious, handsome and lavishly decorated in crimson and gold. But nothing happened that afternoon to suggest the birth of a great theatrical tradition.”
On the Palace’s opening vaudeville bill, presented twice daily with a $1.50 top at matinees and $2.00 at night, were such acts as Ota Gygi (“the court violinist of Spain”), McIntyre and Harty (“a comedy team”), La Napierkowska (“pantomimist and interpretive dancer”), The Eternal Walk (“a condensed Viennese operetta with a cast of 30”), and Ed Wynn (“The King’s Jester”). It was the hope of the Palace Theatre management to give competition to its chief rival, Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre at Broadway and Forty-second Street, but it did not achieve this goal during its opening week. The show was negatively received, especially by Variety, the show business Bible, which lamented the poor quality of the acts and the outrageous $2.00 top.
It took the prestige of two major legitimate theatre actresses to put the Palace on the map. In its sixth week, the theatre presented “the First Lady of the American Theatre” — Ethel Barrymore — in a one-act play by Richard Harding Davis, Miss Civilization, and business began to improve. But the turning point came on May 5, when the Divine Sarah Bernhardt brought her French company of actors and her repertoire to the Palace and caused a sensation for almost a month. It was her first appearance in vaudeville in New York. She saved the Palace from disaster and helped turn it into the foremost vaudeville theatre in the world.
In the golden era of vaudeville, the Palace stage saw the likes of such great headliners as Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Smith and Dale, the Marx Brothers, Kate Smith, and countless others. Burns and Allen arrived with a new act every season. And then there were other acts, like Fink’s Mules and Power’s Elephants.
The Palace was the queen of Broadway in 1927 when a talking picture called The Jazz Singer opened a few blocks uptown. Once the silver screen began to talk, vaudeville was on its way out.
From the 1930s on, it was a constant struggle for survival. The Palace tried a little of everything — combination bills of movies and vaudeville shows, then just movies, and finally, in the 1950s, personal appearances by select superstars. The first arrived on the night of October 16, 1951, and her name was Judy Garland. She scored a triumph and played the Palace for 19 weeks. Next came Betty Hutton, then Danny Kaye (14 weeks), followed by return engagements of Hutton and Garland. Jerry Lewis was a hit with his personal-appearance show, but Liberace failed to draw crowds.
On August 13, 1957, the Palace reverted to showing movies, with no vaudeville, and interrupted this policy only once, starting December 15, 1959, when Harry Belafonte made a sensational appearance for more than three months. During this period the building was allowed to deteriorate.
On August 19, 1965, a miracle happened. James Nederlander, acting for the Nederlander family, who owned legitimate theatres in Detroit and Chicago, bought the Palace. At great expense, he had it beautifully restored to its original crimson and gold. Crystal chandeliers were removed from storage and rehung in the theatre, stage boxes that had been concealed for decades by false fronts were restored, and the lobby was refurbished and embellished with portraits of Palace greats, loaned by the Museum of the City of New York. The restoration of the Palace was achieved by the famed scene designer Ralph Alswang. When he and his workers were through, the Palace was ready for its first legitimate show.
The reopening of the Palace as a legitimate theatre on January 29, 1966, was a major news event covered by television cameras and print media. Fortunately, the opening show was Sweet Charity, starring the great Gwen Verdon. Both the musical and the restored Palace were huge hits. With a book by Neil Simon, a jaunty score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and spectacular choreography by Verdon’s husband, Bob Fosse, the musical, based on Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria, brightened the Messrs. Nederlanders’ Palace for 608 performances.
In July 1967 Judy Garland returned in a production called At Home at the Palace, followed later that summer by a double bill of Eddie Fisher and Buddy Hackett.
Don Ameche and Carol Bruce, aided by three talented young girls — Alice Playten, Neva Small, and Robin Wilson — were engaging in a musical called Henry, Sweet Henry (1967), but the show lasted only 80 performances. The Grand Music Hall of Israel paid a visit in the early months of 1968. Then, on April 10, George M! took over. It is ironic that George M. Cohan was one of the few headliners who never played the Palace. (Al Jolson was another.) But Cohan was skillfully impersonated by Joel Grey in George M! He strutted the Palace stage for 433 performances.
Lauren Bacall gave such a cyclonic performance in Applause (1970), her first Broadway musical, that she was awarded a Tony for her tour de force. It was a case of life imitating art, as the show included a scene of her character accepting a Tony Award. The musical, with a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, was based on the celebrated Bette Davis film All About Eve. Supported by Len Cariou, Bonnie Franklin, Penny Fuller, and Lee Roy Reams, Bacall flourished at the Palace for 18 months, and the show continued for eight months more.
During the 1970s, superstars such as Bette Midler, Josephine Baker, Shirley MacLaine, and Diana Ross made splashy Palace appearances. Legitimate attractions included Christopher Plummer in his Tony Award-winning performance in the title role of the musical Cyrano (1973); Carol Channing in a revised version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, called Lorelei (1974); Richard Kiley in a return engagement of Man of La Mancha (1977); Joel Grey in The Grand Tour (1979), a musical version of Jacobowsky and the Colonel; a lively revival of Oklahoma! (1979); and a colossal production of Frankenstein (1981), starring John Carradine, that closed on its opening night.
Lauren Bacall returned to the Palace in Woman of the Year, a musical version of the popular 1942 film of the same name starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Bacall’s costar in the musical was Harry Guardino. The show won four Tonys: Outstanding Actress in a Musical (Bacall), Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical (Marilyn Cooper), Best Musical Book (Peter Stone), and Best Musical Score (John Kander and Fred Ebb).
On August 21, 1983, the Palace welcomed La Cage aux Folles, with a score by Jerry Herman and a book by Harvey Fierstein. A musical version of the popular French film of the same name, it starred George Hearn and Gene Barry as gay lovers and ran for 1,761 performances. It won the following Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction of a Musical (Arthur Laurents), Best Actor in a Musical (Hearn), and Best Costume Designer (Theoni V. Aldredge).
After being closed for four years for extensive renovations, this historic theatre was beautifully renovated for the opening of the Tony Award-winning musical The Will Rogers Follies, starring Keith Carradine as the Hoosier Philosopher and featuring Tony-winning staging by Tommy Tune; a Tony-winning score by Coleman, Comden, and Green; and a Tony Award-winning book by Peter Stone. The show used the format of the Ziegfeld Follies (Ziegfeld himself was a character) to tell the story of Rogers’s marriage, career, and dramatic demise in a plane crash. The musical ran for 983 performances.
This was followed by the spectacular musical Beauty and the Beast (1994), which broke box-office records at this theatre and introduced children of all ages to the wonders of live Broadway entertainment. Adapted from the animated Disney film of the same title, the show marked composer Alan Menken’s Broadway debut and the inaugural presentation of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions, soon to become a powerhouse producer on Broadway. Susan Egan was the first of many Belles. As the Beast, Terrence Mann appeared to make a magical full-body transformation in full view of the audience each night. The show transferred in 1999 to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
From December 1, 1999, to January 2, 2000, Liza Minnelli returned to the scene of her mother, Judy Garland’s, triumph. However, her show, Minnelli on Minnelli, paid tribute to her father, Vincente Minnelli, the celebrated Broadway and Hollywood director. Supported by six male singer/dancers, Minnelli performed memorable songs from her father’s famed film musicals — Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, The Bandwagon, Gigi, and others. The revue was directed by her friend the lyricist Fred Ebb and had costumes by Bob Mackie and musical arrangements by Marvin Hamlisch.
On March 23, 2000, Hyperion Theatricals (a division of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions) presented a lavish new musical, Aida, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. Suggested by Verdi’s classic opera about a fatal love triangle involving two princesses and a handsome army general in ancient Egypt, the spectacle starred Heather Headley, Adam Pascal, and Sherie Rene Scott. The musical received five Tony Award nominations and won the following four: Best Original Score (Elton John, Tim Rice); Best Scenic Design (Bob Crowley); Best Lighting Design (Natasha Katz); and Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Headley). It settled in for a run of 1,852 performances.
What do Elvis Presley and William Shakespeare have in common? All Shook Up, the musical very roughly based on Twelfth Night that raided the Elvis songbook for a score. The unlikely combination had a book by Joe DiPietro and featured heartthrob Cheyenne Jackson in his first starring role. All Shook Up opened March 2, 2005, and stayed at the Palace for 213 performances.
In April 2006, composer Elton John had his first and (to date) only Broadway flop with Lestat, based on Anne Rice’s best-selling The Vampire Chronicles. Despite powerful performances from Hugh Panaro and Carolee Carmello, as well as some impressive special effects, the critics pounded in their hawthorn stakes and the show withered after only 39 performances. Lestat was the second of three unsuccessful vampire musicals that haunted Broadway in this decade.
Husband-and-wife Off-Broadway songwriters Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin made their Broadway splash on April 27, 2007, with Legally Blonde, a musical adaptation of the hit film comedy about a seemingly dim-bulb, clothes-obsessed party girl who sets herself the goal of getting into Harvard Law School in order to win back her ex-boyfriend, who found her too shallow. With a book by Heather Hach, Legally Blonde attracted a devoted following, especially among teenaged girls, and ran 595 performances. Laura Bell Bundy led a cast that included Christian Borle, Michael Rupert, and Orfeh. Late in the run, fans helped choose Bundy’s successor via a TV reality show, and winner Bailey Hanks got to play the “Omigod you guys!” role for the last three months of the run. During its run the show took the unusual step of allowing itself to be taped for broadcast on cable TV.
Just as Liza Minnelli’s 2000 Palace show saluted her father, her December 2008 concert show, Liza’s at the Palace…, was a bouquet of roses to her godmother, polymath Hollywood favorite Kaye Thompson, known for singing, dancing, arranging music, designing clothes, and even writing the Eloise series of classic children’s books. For this show Minnelli reminisced about Thompson and, for Act II, recreated highlights of Thompson’s nightclub show, to the delight of Minnelli’s legion of fans. Though it stayed for only 22 performances, Liza’s at the Palace… won the 2009 Tony Award as Best Theatrical Event. A subsequent Las Vegas production was taped for broadcast on cable TV and release on DVD.
As Broadway librettist Arthur Laurents approached his 90th birthday in 2008, he went into a frenzy of activity, first directing a revival of his classic Gypsy at Encores! and the St. James Theatre, and then following it by directing his other great classic, West Side Story, at the Palace. The Leonard Bernstein score was performed intact, but lyricist Stephen Sondheim granted Laurents permission to make an unusual change in the lyrics. The verses sung in many places by the Puerto Rican characters were translated into Spanish by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Tony winner for In the Heights. (Most of the English lyrics were restored several months into the run.) Despite mixed reviews upon its March 19, 2009, opening, the production quickly became one of the top-grossing shows on Broadway, and Karen Olivo, another graduate of In the Heights, won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, for her performance as Anita. The musical closed in January 2011 and was followed by Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a musical version of the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Dressed grandly in crimson and gold with marble trimmings, and ruling over the northeast corner of Times Square, the Palace has regained a measure of its vaudeville-era hauteur and is very much in demand for big musicals and concert shows.
New York, New York 10036
Take the N,Q,R,W or 1,2,3 to 42nd St., walk North on Broadway to the theatre
Take the A,C,E to 42nd St., walk East on 42nd St. to Broadway and walk North on Broadway to the theatre
Wheelchair accessible seating is available through the Box Office only. The theatre is equipped with an elevator that goes to the rear mezzanine and balcony. Hearing devices are also available. Call the Box Office for more information.