A Door To The Past
One of my favorite stories we tell on our ACT I Tour takes place at the Lyceum Theater. The theater holds the distinction of being the longest running continually operating Broadway theater that has only presented Broadway shows since it's first opening night in 1903. The facade of the theater is a beautiful design by the architecture firm of Herts and Tallant who designed the New Amsterdam and the Shubert Theater among others. It's hard to believe but in 1903 the theater, which is situated on 45th street just off of Times Square, was hard to find because it was considered "off the beaten path". It's hard to imagine Times Square without all the billboards and bright lights but electricity had only reached the area eight years prior. To illuminate the upper reaches of the imposing facade four pots of fire were lit in the evenings in hopes that they were attract theatre-goers to the beautiful building each night.
But it's the area right behind these flaming fire pots that has fascinated me for years. Built on top of the front portion of the theater is the ol' Frohman Apartment that used to be inhabited by Daniel Frohman and his wife Margaret Illington. Almost on cue at least one tour-goer on every tour asks "Who lives there now?" The question: no one. It is currently home to the Shubert Archives. If you don't know who the Shuberts are then you obviously haven't taken a BUC Tour yet! In this beautiful old apartment the Archives contain memorabilia, pictures, correspondence and other artifacts of the Shubert Brothers' dealings from over 100 years.
And yet, still, it wasn't the Archives that I was most fascinated by. It was one small door that I had heard tell of hidden in a wall of the Frohman Apartment. According to legend, Daniel didn't think his wife Margaret was the most wonderful actress of her day. What a loving husband he was! (Can you sense my sarcasm?) In 1907 Margaret was appearing in a production of an old play entitled The Thief. In Act II Margaret had a big scene fraught with emotion that Daniel didn't think was up to snuff. So, to remedy the situation and to "help her with her acting" Daniel carved a small door in the wall of his apartment that when opened gave a bird's eye view of the stage from just above the balcony. He would get down on his hands and knees and watch each night while Margaret played out her scene in front of a watchful audience. On certain nights that Daniel thought Margaret could "do better" he would stick his arm through the trapdoor and wave a white flag. Margaret, upon seeing this white flag, would begin speaking louder or "acting better" as Daniel wished.
107 years later, thanks to the efforts of my loving girlfriend Emmy who was appearing at the Lyceum in A Night With Janis Joplin, I was granted entrance to the famed Lyceum Apartment. As we rumbled up to the apartment from the small hidden elevator in the lobby I couldn't help but feel I was standing in the exact same footsteps as Mr. Daniel Frohman himself making the same journey that he made daily. As the doors to the ol' Apartment opened I felt like a kid on Christmas morning mentally taking in every detail of the room and it's fixtures. We were led to a table full of some selected photos, sketches and memorabilia that had been hand selected by the Shubert Archive staff for us to see. My two favorites were an original sketch of a costume worn by Mae West and Al Jolson's first Broadway contract from the Wintergarden Theater in 1911 seen below.
And yet, as incredible as these treasures were one thing was on my brain: Was the trapdoor still visible? The answer, simply...YES! We stepped into a smaller room just off the main living room and there, carved in the wall just as it had been described to me in many books was the famed Frohman trap door. I couldn't believe it! I just had to kneel in the same spot Daniel had 107 years prior to see the stage as he had seen it. I couldn't help but imagine myself working up here each night while Emmy was onstage performing A Nigth With Janis Joplin in front of hundreds of theatre-goers below. The main difference: never in a million years would Ms. Emmy Raver-Lampman need my "white flag acting lessons from above"!
It is always unbelievable to me when things remain untouched over the course of 100 years or more, especially in a place as ever-changing and evolving as New York City and Times Square. To witness these glimpses into the past first-hand is a rare blessing. On each of our tours I have always sought to illuminate these past theatre giants and their journeys in creating the epicenter of commercial theatre in the world in a small swath of land in Manhattan's center. Kneeling with my hand on that trapdoor I couldn't help but feel connected to the past in a very direct way. If that's not Broadway Up Close, then I don't know what is!
See you on the sidewalk!