It was a landmark in the entertainment world: a theater where stars were born, the go-to spot for tryouts bound for Broadway, the home to all of Rogers and Hammerstein’s world premieres.
Even its marquee, proclaiming “The Shubert,” played a cameo in the 1950 movie “All About Eve,” starring Bette Davis. The context, like in so many other films about the theatre world of that period, made reference to “going to New Haven.” In those days, that meant the cast and crew were traveling to the Shubert to test whether their show was ready for the bright lights of New York.
“That’s what this New Haven landmark was known for,” Anthony Lupinacci, the theater’s spokesman, says of the venue that opened in 1914.
Close enough to New York, the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, named by brothers Lee and J.J. Shubert in memory of their brother, regularly was the first stop for plays opening as a shakedown run, usually moving on to Boston or Philadelphia before landing on Broadway.
But nothing is constant. By the mid-1970s, New Haven faced many of the undercurrents then plaguing many dying industrial cities in the Northeast. College Street, where the Shubert stands, was all but deserted. Buildings were boarded up. Unless you were teaching or studying at Yale, who wanted to go to New Haven?
Indeed, the once grand theater was almost demolished after the unthinkable occurred in 1976: it closed. Was it any surprise?
And then, like a dramatic turnaround from the depths, came Act 2. Civic-minded residents, business leaders, and city officials joined forces, insisting they had to save the beloved Shubert. Without it, they reasoned, how would New Haven lure theater lovers back to catch a show, dine out, maybe even shop in what was once known as a wonderful commercial center?
The revival didn’t occur overnight. It took seven years to plan the restoration, paying close attention to its original interior colors, identify funding sources and creating a strategy that would solidify its health into the 21st century.
The long-standing Adams Hotel adjacent to the Shubert was demolished. In its place an expansive new theater lobby and plaza were created. A future renovation now calls for enclosing more of the outdoor space – a smart move, says Lupinacci, since so much of the theater’s season runs through the colder months of winter and early spring.
When the theater reopened in December 1983, it was rebranded the Shubert Center for the Performing Arts. In 2001, the city selected a not-for-profit theater management company called CAPA (the Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts) with a local board of directors to run the theater. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
To appreciate the revival, you need to look back at its history. When it opened in 1914, tickets sold from 25 cents to $1.50.
Over the Shubert’s first 100 years, it showcased 14 Shakespeare productions, none more famous that a 1923 production of “Hamlet” starting John Barrymore. Theater historians called it the most famous of the 20th century, calling Barrymore’s portrait “the greatest living American tragedian.”
Comedy, revues and vaudeville also entertained theatergoers, including the Marx Brothers, who used the Shubert to fine-tune their routines before turning them into movies. Their classic 1930 comedy, “Animal Crackers,” for example, started on the Shubert stage a year earlier.
The theater also revived careers, like Katharine Hepburn’s, which was slumping when in 1939 playwright Philip Barry wrote a comedy called “The Philadelphia Story,” which she starred in on the New Haven stage to rave reviews and leading to her Hollywood comeback.
Two years later spelled the end of the Shubert brothers’ ownership of the New Haven theater when they were forced to divest several of their properties to break their monopoly in the entertainment industry. The theater was sold to a corporation headed by Maurice Bailey who ran it until it closed in the 1970s.
Despite the ownership change, the theater’s legacy continued.
In 1943, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, who would grow into one of the legendary musical theater writing teams ever, got together for the first time at the Shubert to put on a show about cowboys, an unlikely subject. It was wartime, says Lupinacci, and the nation was looking for something uplifting and escapist. The musical was called “Away We Go!” But when the show moved on to Boston’s Colonial Theatre before Broadway, the creators realized no one would ever remember that name. Instead, they had a hunch: A hit song from the play might be a better name and so they renamed it, retaining the exclamation point from the original title, calling it More than a decade later, another great team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe brought the world premiere of “My Fair Lady” to the Shubert, starring a young actress and singer named Julie Andrews. She played opposite Rex Harrison, a classically trained actor. But hours before opening night in 1956, as a snowstorm raged through the region, Harrison told his publicist he wasn’t going on, so petrified was he, according to several accounts, including Bailey’s secretary Edith Goodmaster.
Harrison’s publicist went to Bailey.
“Rex won’t do the show,” he said.In that case, said Bailey, he’d have to send a press release to the New Haven Register, the dominant local newspaper, which ran multiple editions through the day. It was, after all, the only way in a pre-internet era to get the word out to ticket holders in Connecticut and those planning on coming in from New York.Harrison’s publicist knew what that meant, and he went back to the actor, imagining the headlines, “Rex Harrison Refuses to Go On,” and told him bluntly, “If you don’t go on, you’ll never work again. Your career will be finished.” They talked and the publicist returned to Bailey and said, “OK, he’ll do it.”Over the years, the hits kept coming to the Shubert. Other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows premiered on the stage including “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” and “The Sound of Music.”Dramas included Tennessee William’s premiere of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” where Marlon Brando was introduced to the world. Other future stars who got their start at the Shubert include Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and Gene Kelly. Mary Martin, Paul Newman, Jason Robards Jr., Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, Andy Griffith, Jane Fonda, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Liza Minnelli, Ken Howard and John Travolta are others who have graced the Shubert stage.The theater also has played host to ballet, opera, classical and popular music too with big names like Katherine Dunham, Jerome Robbins, Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, Beverly Sills, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and more.Since it reopened in December, 1983, after a $7 million renovation, the 1,600-seat theater’s mission has slightly changed from a place where shows try out to a place where touring shows get ready to go on the road, fine-tuning the technical aspects, and using a space for rehearsals that is far more affordable than working in New York.Since then, big Broadway shows starting their national or world tours that have launched from the Shubert include “Cats,” “Annie,” “Les Misérables,” “A Chorus Line,” “The Color Purple,” and “Jersey Boys,” helping to bring people streaming back to New Haven.Compared to many newer performing arts centers across the country, the Shubert stands about half the size of many theaters. In some cases, it’s a third the size.But that’s part of its allure, says Lupinacci. “When the curtain goes up, actors say they’re not expecting to see faces, to have such close eye contact with audience. They love feeding off that intimacy.”
The legacy of Eli Whitney and his family lives on generations later.How often do you drive down Whitney Avenue or through the Whitneyville section of Hamden, pass by the Eli Whitney Technical High School, or admire gorgeous Lake Whitney, and think about the names and their history?Like many of our routines, too often we take those signposts and landmarks for granted, unfamiliar with – or having forgotten – the contributions to our society they were intended to honor.Of course, we have American inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) to thank for those dedications. His invention of the cotton gin (a machine that quickly and easily separates the cotton plant’s seeds from the fibers used to create fabric) was incredibly important in world economic history, notes Douglas W. Rae, a professor of political science and management at Yale.It was in New Haven where Whitney actually invented the cotton gin, one of the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution. But his legacy to the city extends beyond that role in history.After graduating from Yale in 1792, Whitney “began a tradition of manufacturing and toolmaking that defined New Haven’s economy through the 19th and first half of the 20th century,” says Bill Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, located at 915 Whitney Avenue in Hamden.A major benefit to New Haven and, indeed, the entire nation, is what came to be known as the American system of manufacturing. That system, based on interchangeable parts and standardization, is often attributed to the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Yet it was Whitney who had the original idea and tried to implement it in his New Haven factory, making muskets for the federal government soon after ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the late 1700s.“Let’s say that a musket or any other thing has 50 parts,” explains Rae. “I should be able to take part 23 from one copy of the musket and exchange it with part 23 of another copy without modifying the part. The basic industrial system that was 19th-century New Haven was all about that,” he says.While Whitney didn’t quite perfect that process, he inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Traces of that industrial system can be seen throughout New Haven – in the Whitney Avenue historic district that includes the former Winchester Repeating Arms Company plant, in the city’s former tire and rubber manufacturing plants, and in the manufacturing operation that was Sargent & Company, and would become one of the largest suppliers and distributors of hardware in the nation.Whitney’s innovation wasn’t limited to the factory floor. In what is now the Whitneyville section of Hamden, stone houses for his employees were built; they’re believed to be the first example of employer-provided housing in American history.A famous portrait of Whitneyville, done in 1827 by William Giles Munson, hangs at the Yale University Art Gallery. That painting is often reproduced in textbooks as an example of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a time when factories were still built at a human scale, before cities were darkened by smoke stacks.The ethnic mosaic that New Haven is today can be traced to Whitney, as well. Immigrants found jobs in his small factory and in other factories that followed, even if the city’s absorption of immigrants was less than utopian.The Next GenerationWhitney didn’t live into the era of large immigration from places other than the United Kingdom, Germany and parts of northwestern Europe, but his son, Eli Whitney Jr., (1820-1895) did. The younger Whitney also organized the New Haven Water Company, which began operating in 1862, addressing the city’s growing demand for water while at the same time increasing the amount of power available for manufacturing. The origins of that water venture can be found in his peach-colored water tank, at the top of East Rock off Deepwood Drive in Hamden.Whitney Jr. personified the great industrialists of the post-Civil War years, according to Peter Dobkin Hall, who taught at Yale, Wesleyan and Harvard. Men like Whitney Jr., Oliver Winchester – the New Haven manufacturer who created the Winchester repeating rifle – and other contemporaries including Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller, made their mark by their sheer will and the trust lenders put in them.“Investors in the Gilded Age bet on personalities, not on managerial methods; on friendship and kinship, not on balance sheets and projections of anticipated earnings,” Hall writes in an article titled, “Images of Innovation: The New Haven Water Company, 1894-1906.”“Entrusting the construction of the New Haven Waterworks, as it was originally called, to Eli Whitney, Jr.,” writes Hall, “was no more than a statement of trust in Whitney as a person. He had neither knowledge of nor experience in public water supply systems. … His motives for being involved in the water project at all had more to do with his desire to consolidate his manufacturing operations than to supply the public with water.”Lake Whitney came about when, in 1860, Whitney Jr. enlarged the dam he had built at his mill, creating a reservoir that eventually became a major water source for the metro New Haven area until it was discontinued in the 1900s.The water company, which grandson Eli Whitney III (1847-1924) eventually led as company president in 1894, remained a private enterprise until 1977, when the Connecticut legislature created the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, serving the area’s recreational, environmental and water needs.Eli Whitney Sr. was born in Westborough, Massachusetts in 1765. Though his father was a farmer, the son was a talented mechanic, designing a nail forge and a violin as a youth.After graduating from Yale, he moved to the South, where he planned to work as a private tutor. He was living on a plantation known as Mulberry Grove near Savannah, Georgia, and while there, learned about cotton production and the challenges farmers faced making a living. As they say, the rest is history.Like other Connecticut cities, New Haven no longer is the industrial engine it once was, but the signs of Whitney’s influence are everywhere if you stop to look.“There are about 25,000 buildings in New Haven, counting everything,” says Rae. “Of those, a majority were constructed between the Civil War and World War I, and they represent New Haven’s industrial era.”FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share