Blue-Collar Broadway

A rich history of American theater, Timothy White's Blue-Collar Broadway tells the story of the people who created costumes, shoes, scenery, lights, and props. From the 1880s to the 1990s, White explores the shifting centers of theatrical craft and their impact on the nation and the iconic New York City district of Times Square.

Blue-Collar Broadway
The Craft and Industry of American Theater

Timothy R. White

2014 | 288 pages | Cloth $45.00 | Paper $24.95
American History | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1. "Second-Hand Rose": The Stage Before the Broadway Brand
Chapter 2. "A Factory for Making Plays": Broadway's Industrial District
Chapter 3. "Sing for Your Supper": Theater-Related Craft Work in Radio, Film, and Television
Chapter 4. "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'": Show Construction at Midcentury
Chapter 5. "Sunrise, Sunset": The Decline of Broadway Craft and the Rise of Regional Theaters
Chapter 6. "Every Day a Little Death": Times Square After the Collapse of a Theatrical Production Center
Chapter 7. "When the Money Keeps Rolling in You Don't Ask How": Broadway Craft in a Globalized Industry

Notes
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction

It is said that good magicians never reveal their secrets. This has certainly been true on Broadway, where the virtuosos of stagecraft have built scenery, costumes, lights, and other components for decades but left few clues about their work. Theater historians have gathered some information about these physical components and the stagecraft of putting them together, but most studies of scenery, costumes, or lights focus on design rather than construction or implementation. Despite a rich scholarship of theater history, there exists scant published information about how and where American craftspeople actually built such products. Perhaps this is because no party is sufficiently interested in knowing such details. Why investigate the sources of lumber or the carpenter pay scales for Death of a Salesman when one could discuss Jo Mielziner's clever scenic design? When Jule Styne's rousing score, Jerome Robbins's brilliant staging, or Ethel Merman's clarion voice is available for study, why would anyone care about the costume fabric sources used for Gypsy? Such questions of craft often pale in comparison to more exciting questions of artistry.

Another reason not to dissect the construction and craft of Broadway is that this strips the Great White Way of its mystery and magic. As any good magician will explain, details of a hat or sleeve can ruin the allure of an elegant trick. So it goes on Broadway, where stage lighting is said to be best when not noticed, where scene shop foremen have held their secrets close for decades at a time, and where costume designers rarely discuss the small armies of seamstresses who bring their designs to fruition. Design has reigned supreme in most histories, and craftspeople have generally stayed out of the spotlight.

Had anyone developed a special curiosity about the people who hammered, painted, and sewed behind the scenes in the commercial theater, they would have been easy to find. Especially prior to the 1970s, such skilled workers were overwhelmingly clustered in one district: Times Square. Despite their ubiquity for many decades, previous histories of this quintessential urban space give short shrift to the carpenters, seamstresses, and other craft experts who brought stage shows to fruition. They often operated major supply shops and theater-related contract businesses but have yet to factor significantly into any history of Times Square.

From a single vantage point, Broadway between 48th and 49th Streets, one can easily trace the prominence of such shops throughout the twentieth century. In August 1936, for example, the visitor to this stretch of Broadway would have quickly encountered theater-related buildings, businesses, and workers. At midday he or she might have seen actors from the Federal Theatre Project's We Live and Laugh on their way to rehearsal at Ringle Studios, 1607 Broadway. Directly across the avenue, he or she may have spotted the proprietor Morris Orange or one of his seamstresses on lunch break from their costume rental store at 1600 Broadway. Immediately to the north, the visitor may have seen the cast and craftspeople of the play Stork Mad as they walked to the Ambassador Theatre next door.

Twenty years later a 1956 visitor would have been surrounded by the highest concentration of theater-related businesses and employees in the block's history. On the northeast corner of 49th and Broadway, one of the several local Capezio stores offered dance shoes and clothing for hoofers and ballerinas. The Morris Orange costume shop had left 1600 Broadway, but the Broadway Music Soundtrack Service had moved in. Across the street Ringle Studios still operated at 1607 Broadway and was joined by Selva & Sons, suppliers of dance clothing. Just around the corner, at 209 West 48th Street, the Carroll Musical shop offered music publishing and orchestral arrangements, while on the southeast corner of 49th and Broadway, one store sold "novelty costumes" and another "shoes for dancers." The Brill Building housed singers, songwriters, and music publishers, and though the DuMont Television Network had colonized the Ambassador Theatre in 1950, the Shubert organization would quickly reclaim the space for theater by October 1956.

Beyond this one intersection, a 1956 New Yorker could walk for twenty minutes in any direction and easily find the following: talented scenic designers; lumber, canvas, plywood, and paint; skilled costume beaders; wild varieties of fabric, of every texture and color imaginable; prima ballerinas; finely crafted toe shoes; violin strings; world-class musicians; the union offices of stagehands, carpenters, and actors; technologically advanced spotlights; skilled spotlight operators; baritones, tenors, and sopranos; method actresses; Shakespearean actors; composers of beautiful melodies; writers of witty lyrics; and of course actors of many heights, sizes, shapes, and personalities. It was an age when the theater district was thoroughly theatrical.

At the same spot in 1976, a visitor would have encountered an entirely different mix of stores and people. Many more nontheatrical workers would have sauntered on city sidewalks, from the topless dancers of the Pussycat Lounge and Cinema to the peep show and massage parlor employees of 1609, 1601, and 1591 Broadway. Although massage parlor prostitutes plied their trade at 1591 and peep show patrons brought their quarters to 1601, Ingerid's Hair Salon of 1595 Broadway survived right between them, with a full stock of wigs for Broadway hoofers and pole dancers alike. Across the street the Music Soundtrack Service had fallen by the wayside, but a veteran costumer, Madame Bertha, had moved her rental business into its former workspace at 1600 Broadway. The Brill Building languished, with a full third of its rental space vacant, but the Ambassador Theatre next door hosted three legitimate plays throughout 1976. Adult establishments had certainly invaded the block by the 1970s, but they were not so dominant that theater-related businesses were invisible.

After another twenty years, however, by 1996, anyone visiting Broadway between 49th and 48th Streets would be hard-pressed to find a single site of theatrical craft or construction nearby. Real estate development had radically transformed the block, first with a massive Holiday Inn at 49th and Broadway in 1986 and then with an office tower at 1585 Broadway. The closest this block got to theater craft was the sheet music at Colony Records and the Broadway Video Company, both in the Brill Building. At the Ambassador Theatre, a popular tap show, Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, opened in April 1996, and the new Holiday Inn across the street undoubtedly facilitated attendance. Broadway consumption was robust, and city leaders had made considerable progress in reducing adult establishments, but in so doing they had left little to no room for theater craft.

As profound as it was for the Broadway craft economy to be pushed out of this district by one more global, white collar, and tourist oriented, the displacement of Broadway's craft and construction activities was not the only major force at work here. During the same decades that theater-related shops such as Morris Orange costumes were being squeezed out of midtown, their proprietors and unionized workers were also pulled out of the region, toward jobs in regional theaters and performing arts centers. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, American theater craft shifted away from Gotham and into the basement scene shops and costume workrooms of countless regional theaters and performing arts centers nationwide.

With no small amount of local pride, cities that had enjoyed first-rate commercial theater in the late nineteenth century, before New York City's Broadway brand became predominant, stole back control over production by investing in state-of-the-art theaters. Having been ensnared in the awesome power of the Broadway brand from the turn of the twentieth century to the 1960s, cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Dallas began to manufacture their own costumes, scenery, and other components in these buildings, engaging in substantial theater craft for the first time in decades.

For these reasons Blue-Collar Broadway begins in the late nineteenth century, back when theater-related work was relatively multinodal and spread liberally across a national economic landscape. Before the Broadway age, stock and repertory theatrical companies often recycled and reused old costumes and scenery with abandon. From the 1870s to the 1890s, when most lighting was not bright enough to reveal flaws in well-worn costumes or scenery, resident and traveling theater troupes had almost no incentive to pay for new, professionally constructed components. Audiences' expectations for scenery, costumes, wigs, and other items were generally low, enabling a small market for finished components to emerge, but nothing on the scale of Broadway many decades later. This market and those who manufactured for it were well dispersed nationally, as there was no dominant Broadway brand demanding that specialty components be hammered and sewn on the streets surrounding Times Square.

By the turn of the twentieth century, this brand began to shape America's commercial theater with considerable force. Through the "production photos" used to advertise Broadway tours, featuring costumes, scenery, and backdrops that audiences would now expect to see, along with changes in playwriting and production styles, New York City gained more control than ever over commercial theater. As Manhattan-based shows and the national tours they spawned began to tour aggressively, the number of components needed in Manhattan grew by leaps and bounds. To keep pace with this expansive industry, enterprising New Yorkers founded a wide array of theatrical supply companies and shops. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, such theater-related businesses and their employees grew increasingly specialized and unionized. By the end of the 1920s, there were so many people and buildings dedicated to these activities in and around Times Square that it was a veritable factory for making plays.

Though the 1929 stock market crash was devastating for Broadway, the years between 1929 and World War II were not as lean in the theater district as one might expect. Theater-related craft work in the 1930s and 1940s was highly fluid, with theater-related businesses moving between stage work, radio broadcasting, and eventually television. Because the shops, suppliers, and skilled workers in and around Times Square succeeded in contracting with alternative forms of media, they stayed relevant and solvent in a rapidly changing economy. Even as they did so, the seeds to Times Square's precipitous decline took root. As sites of radio or television broadcasting, many of Broadway's playhouses suffered from deferred maintenance, neglect, and structural damage.

By the 1940s and 1950s theater-related trades revived along with the national economy through hits such as the famous musical Oklahoma! As the costumers, designers, actors, and other individuals working on this musical tromped across the sidewalks of Times Square en route to rehearsals, fittings, design meetings, and other work sessions in 1942 and 1943, they infused the neighborhood with law-abiding pedestrian traffic. These individuals made western midtown a theater district, not just when curtains went up at 8:00 p.m., but every morning, afternoon, and evening. They crafted Oklahoma! during the day from workrooms and rehearsal studios tightly concentrated within one district of midtown; yet most of the buildings where they did this work were at least twenty if not forty years old. As vital as it was through the 1950s, the Broadway industry would soon suffer the consequences of its aging stock of buildings.

In the 1960s the centripetal forces that had piled so much theatrical craft work onto the island of Manhattan in earlier decades dissipated. Though some of this enervation had to do with the shift of American freight transport from rail to roadways, most of it stemmed from the decentralizing power of the regional theater movement and the construction of many dozens of performing arts centers nationwide. Each time civic leaders and local philanthropists joined forces to concoct a self-sustaining theatrical production center in a city such as Minneapolis, Dallas, or Seattle, complete with new costume workrooms and scene shops, they weakened Broadway's grip on the national market for specialized theatrical goods.

Compared to the newly built work spaces of the regional theater, the walkup buildings and dilapidated lofts near Times Square in the 1970s and 1980s were a sad excuse for theatrical production infrastructure. Too small and run-down to merit refurbishment, those buildings that were not torn down tended to be underutilized. This legendary midtown district was dealt a double blow after the 1960s. It lost jobs and businesses to the Sunbelt while also playing host to a shocking new mix of drug peddlers, prostitutes, and criminals. The underutilized, abandoned buildings of Broadway's former production infrastructure became fervent petri dishes for the proliferation of crime and adults-only entertainment in Times Square after 1960. The fact that Times Square lost a sizable part of its theatrical craft and construction economy was certainly not the only cause of this notorious flowering of all things adult and criminal in the 1970s and 1980s, but it did play a strong role.

In the late 1970s, Broadway industry leaders navigated new problems of localized crime, rising costs, rapid globalization, and insufficient local work spaces for craft, rehearsal, and component construction. As anyone familiar with the multimillion-dollar shows of the 1980s knows, America's commercial theater was transformed but not crushed by forces of decentralization and deindustrialization. Much to the contrary, Broadway tourism grew more profitable than ever for the producers of international hits such as Evita, Cats, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon. But in this era, traditional theater-related craft work played an increasingly smaller role, as breathtaking new technologies began to whisk scenery around at the touch of a button.

Through these narratives of growth, transformation, and loss, Blue-Collar Broadway pushes against the design-oriented boundaries of theater history. As an alternative, this book invites readers to consider the very real and well-documented history of the Great White Way as an industry, in the full blue-collar sense of the word. After gaining profound cultural power over the national market for theater, largely through the Broadway brand, New York City producers got to work in the early and mid-twentieth century, paying professional craftspeople to make shows. Through all of these decades, more individuals got paid to sew costumes than to design them or wear them onstage. There were more people standing on ladders painting than there were actors emoting in front of finished backdrops, before audiences. Even when jobs began to bleed out to other states and regions, these craftspeople and proprietors were still a crucial, if diminished, part of the New York City economy. Wedged between the fifty-story office tower next door and the drug pusher on the sidewalk, they continued to do craft work against all odds. This book is their story.