Virtual Vaudeville Title

The Union Square Theater

Virtual Vaudeville is set in New York's Union Square Theater in 1895. The theatre was operated by B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee, the most powerful and successful vaudeville producers of their time. Many of the practices established by Keith and Albee in this theater, and also in the Boston theater they opened in 1894, set the pattern for vaudeville theaters throughout the country.

Unfortunately, the Union Square Theater no longer exits, and our historians have not found any photographs of the theater's interior during the period of our simulation. We based our reconstruction of the theater on the evidence described below.

Union Square Theater Exterior

Frank Mohler developed the basic design for the Virtual Vaudeville reconstruction of the Union Square Theatre after conducting extensive archival research into the theatre's history. He discovered that the 19th century Union Square Theatre, at 58 E. 14th Street, existed in three versions: 1871-1888; 1889-1893; and after 1893.

1871-1888

The Union Square Theatre was built in the center of the Union Place Hotel (later Morton House Hotel) replacing the large dining room. The site was long and narrow. It soon achieved some fame under management of A.M. Palmer. The evidence for a reconstruction consists of:

  • A. newspaper articles giving a number of dimensions and other information.
  • B. an 1883 seating drawing and a second drawing with the same number of seats, but different decor on the boxes.
  • C. View east on 14th Street showing exterior of the Union Square Theatre flanked by the Morton House Hotel. n.d.
  • D. a drawing of the exterior facade of the theatre.
  • E. Two drawings showing the exterior of the building during the fire of 1888 that destroyed the front of house areas and the auditorium, but apparently not the stage.

1889-1893

The Union Square Theatre, "the Drawing Room Theatre of America," was rebuilt. The evidence for a reconstruction consists of:

  • A. a NY Clipper article describing the new theatre with a description of the interior and some dimensions. This article describes the 1889 UST orchestra as "under the stage, separated from the back of the stage by a brick wall." The renovations by Keith in 1893 would probably not have changed this significantly.
  • B. a 1889-90 exit plan from a program showing the shape of the parts of the auditorium and the location of the exits. It also shows a part of the lobby. The relative dimensions of part of the building are inaccurate.
  • C. a drawing of the interior of the auditorium showing the proscenium, the boxes, the fronts of the balcony and gallery and part of the side walls.

1893-1908

In 1893 Albee telegraphed B.F. Keith that the Union Square was up for sale and he had 20 minutes to make up his mind. Keith wired back "yes" immediately. Keith fully renovated the theatre that year. He converted it to a film theatre in 1908. The evidence for a reconstruction consists of:

  • A. a newspaper article describing the opening of the new theatre
  • B. a program mentioning some of the features the theatre.
  • C. two pictures of the exterior.
  • d. a number of dimensions relating to the stage from the 1909-10 edition of Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide.

Additional Material

  • a. photos and detailed descriptions of Keith's 1894 New Theatre (Gaiety Theatre) in Boston that opened less than a year after the renovated Union Square Theatre. This "model playhouse of the country," however, was much larger than the Union Square Theatre and was a new theatre not a renovation.
  • b. William Birkmire's 1896 The Planning and Construction of American Theatres includes plans, sections and descriptions of several NYC theatres built in the middle of the 1890s.
  • c. New York Building Law Relating to Theatres. This is included in Birkmir's 1896 book. Birmire indicates that one of the first theatres built following the new fire laws was Abbey's Theatre in January 1894.

Extant Theatres from the Period

David Saltz designed the ornamental details in our reconstruction of the Union Square Theatre, including moldings, carvings, paint and upholstery. Every ornamental detail is derived from high-resolution photographs recently restored theatre buildings from the period, in particular the Southern Theatre in Columbus Ohio (1896), the New Victory Theatre in New York City (1900) and Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn (which holds a vaudeville theatre that opened in 1892).

We based the carved panels over the proscenium on the spandrel panels created by Louis Sullivan for the Wainwright Building in St. Louis (1890-91). The carpeting is adapted from nineteenth century textile patterns in the Michigan State Capital building.


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