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Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theater 1850-1970

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Jan 25, 2009
Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theater 1850-1970

Leonard Jacobs uses his first photograph of the Booth family as a running symbol of American theater. Like everything else in this fantastic, invaluable compendium, the choice reflects the archivist's consummate taste, intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge of the subject.

Unlike so many critics, Jacobs, who is the principal reviewer for Back Stage, the industry newspaper for the theatrical set, is as much of the theater as an observer. This book represents a long time spent in the stacks of the Billy Rose Collection. As someone who himself has sat for many an afternoon on the top floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, I can attest that this collection presents a treasure trove of theater memorabilia.

By far the largest such collection in the world, it also presented a daunting task for Jacobs, who had to sift through thousands of photographs, and, even more difficult, had to cull the herd to the very few hundred that make up this volume.

The result is a feast for the eye and mind, a visual history of theater in America (which basically means New York) from the time that Louis-Jacques-Mand? Daguerre's invention of the photograph made it to our shores to 1970. For serious students of the dramatic arts and theater queens alike, perusing this tome will be akin to eating one of those outsized candy bars they sell during intermission at the Broadway houses--only with nutritive value as well as being delicious.

The photo of Junius Brutus Booth and son Edwin perfectly sets the stage. Judging from Edwin's age, the photograph was taken sometime around the Astor Place Riots, the deadliest anti-immigrant street fight in the nation's history. Just to show the primacy of theater in the mid-19th Century, the cause was a British and American actors' interpretations of "Macbeth."

The Booths, of course, are known not only because they were the greatest acting family of the century, but because Edwin's actor-brother John Wilkes Booth caused a stink at a performance of a lightweight comedy, "Our American Cousin," at Ford's Theater in Washington.

Jacobs gives us all of the other acting legends of the time: Duse, Bernhardt, Marlowe, Russell and O'Neill. But my favorite photo of the era is of the great impersario David Belasco directing. Belasco is another potent symbol of the theater's hold on the popular imagination in a pre-electronic medium age: He bult theaters (including the still-extant Broadway house named for him), as well writing plays that included two that provided libretti for Puccini, "Madame Butterfly" and "Girl of the Golden West."

There are so many wonderful photos that everyone will have his or her favorite, but I have to point out a svelte, 22-year-old Ethel Merman with her Svengali, accompanist Al Siegel. There's Alfred Lunt with Helen Hayes and Mary Boland (who achieved immortality as La Comtesse de Lave in the filmed version of "The Woman," much younger and thinner here).

Seeing Tallulah Bankhead in her most famous performance in "The Little Foxes" makes me regret (once again) that Hollywood gave Bette Davis the part in the film version. But seeing Katherine Hepburn with Van Heflin in "The Philadelphia Story," which revived her career, made me realize that Cary Grant, handsome as he was, was no match for the young Heflin, much prettier than his co-star.

There are, in fact, many reminders here of how gorgeous many stage actors were. Lewis Wallace, packed into his armor as "Henry V," looks as chiseled as a statue. If Wallace looks like a bas-relief in a Gothic cathedral, many years later, Robert Goulet, being armored for "Camelot," looks like he stepped out of a GQ shoot.

You'd have to be a persnickety so-and-so to read Jacobs' wonderfully informative and occasionally opinionated (he especially rails against the destruction of theaters) captions looking for errors. A casual reading did reveal two minor ones: He describes a billboard for a Lower East Side production as Hebrew; actually, it's Yiddish, which is traditionally written in Hebraic characters. And in a rehearsal still from "The Women," he misplaces Phyllis Povah.

Still, isn't that part of the fun: Looking with a magnifying glass at these historic captures of theatrical lore? Jacobs has given all of us who may never get closer to the stage than Row D, Center Aisle, a chance to bask in the greatness of "all the religions in the world rolled into one," and the "gods and goddesses" who populate it, to quote another legendary stage actress, Margo Channing.

The book ends as perfectly as it began, with the cast of "Hair" celebrating its second anniversary on Broadway. Hair wasn't the first--and most certainly not the last--rock-themed musical. But its huge success spelled an end for good to the classically oriented, tradition-bound theater of the Booths and their ilk.

People like to call Broadway "the fabulous invalid," because it keeps limping along in an age when live entertainment takes a back seat to the two-dimensional. Yes, but the key word is "fabulous": for all the brickbats that's it's too expensive, elitist or out of touch, the theater continues to thrive, because there's a whole world of wonder in live--living, breathing, immediate--theater.

Jacobs gives us a beautifully packaged reminder of that.

"Historic Photos of Braodway: New York Theaer, 1850-1970"
Text & captions by Leonard Jacobs
Turner Publishing Co.
Hardcover $40 (and worth every penny!!)

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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