If you’re looking for family-friendly fare near Times Square, you can’t beat the New Victory, one of the oldest theaters in New York City. You can recognize it by its sweeping staircase, which stands out from its surroundings like “a jewel set in pinchbeck” according to the New York Times. But believe me, it’s more than just the architecture that makes this theater fascinating.
This theater was the brainchild of Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the Hammerstein you’re thinking of.) Five years before the New York Times moved uptown, he built the Theatre Republic near what was then still called Longacre Square. His first production, Sag Harbor, opened in 1899 starring Lionel Barrymore. Audiences were probably as wowed by the decor designed by Albert Westover of J.B. McElfatrick & Sons as they were by the performances.
After a few years, Hammerstein leased the theater to competing impresario David Belasco. Belasco completely redesigned the theater, leaving only the domed ceiling, and humbly renamed it the Belasco Theatre.
He also added an enormous rooftop garden over both the Belasco and neighboring Victoria. At the Paradise Garden, guests enjoyed an outdoor theater, a three-tiered grand promenade, and a simulacrum of a Dutch farm where buxom milkmaids served glasses of cold milk. Entertainment included acrobats, magicians, jugglers, wire walkers, and a host of animal acts, including dancing horses, boxing kangaroos, and Augusta Rohoff’s Flea Circus. It wasn’t until 1914 when an act crossed the line. Belasco started showing “moving pictures,” which Hammerstein thought cheapened the theater.
Hammerstein sued, won, and returned the Republic to its dramatic roots. He earned a smashing success in 1922 with Abie’s Irish Rose, which audiences loved and critics loathed. “People laugh at this every night,” wrote Life’s Robert Benchley, “which explains why democracy will never be a success.” In fact, they laughed at Abie’s Irish Rose for 2,327 performances over six years. Until 1975’s A Chorus Line, it was the longest-running play in Broadway history.
It seemed like the Republic was on a roll, but the stock market crash drove the Hammerstein family into bankruptcy. Oscar’s son Arthur was forced to sell the Republic in 1931. The new owners – brothers Bill, Abe, Herbert, and Morton Minsky – made a mint replacing respectable theater with burlesque, that bawdy mix of music, slapstick, and striptease that rose from the ashes of vaudeville during the Great Depression.
While the crash of ‘29 shuttered many legitimate venues, it was an absolute boon for burlesque. Dancers were easy to find – there was no shortage of women eager to don a g-string and join a kickline if it meant a steady paycheck. Audiences unable to spring five dollars for more upscale entertainments eagerly paid fifty cents for an hour of cheap thrills in all senses of the phrase.
Minksy’s Burlesque opened on February 12th, 1931 (Lincoln’s Birthday.) They advertised themselves as “Not a Family Show” with tantalizing titles like The Sway of All Flesh, Julius Teaser, and my personal favorite, Panties Inferno. Red Buttons trod the boards here, as did Abbot and Costello, cribbing ”Who’s on First” from a classic Minsky sketch, “He Works on Watt Street?” Between bits, “candy butchers” patrolled the aisles selling bon-bons, cigarettes, and dirty comic strips.
Of course, all this was just preamble to the stripteases – fan dances, tassel dances, bump-and-grinds and the like. Big names like Georgia Southern and Margie Hart made between $700 to $2,000 a week. But none attracted a greater following than Rose Louise Hovick, better known as Gypsy Rose Lee. Audiences thrilled to her earnest demeanor and matter-of-fact approach to the striptease. Morton Minsky even installed a runway through the center of the auditorium to get her closer to her fans. When a reporter asked how she felt being naked in front of a packed house, Lee responded “I wasn’t naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.”
By the mid-1930s, it seemed like everything was coming up roses for the Minskys. At their peak, the Minskys operated 16 theaters – not just in New York, but in Albany, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Variety condemned them for “the dirtiest coochers ever forced upon a stage or platform,” which they wore as a badge of honor. Knock-offs sprouted up like weeds around Times Square, an area the New Yorker dubbed “Minskyville.”
Meanwhile, government officials were appalled, especially Mayor Fiorello Laguardia and his license commissioner Paul Moss. Together, they waged “a bitter fight to the finish against the incorporation of filth.” In 1939, the Little Flower succeeded in shutting down all burlesque houses in New York City in preparation for the upcoming World’s Fair in Flushing. He even banned the name “Minsky” from future theaters just to rub salt in the wound.
The Minskys sold the burlesque house in 1941 to the Brandt Organization, who owned seven of the eleven movie theaters on 42nd Street. They converted Minsky’s into a grind house, named the Victory in a fit of patriotic fervor after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Cheap serials and second-run adventure films were ostensibly the Victory’s bread and butter, but the promise of double- and triple-features at all hours of the night made the theater especially appealing to the homeless looking for a cheap place to sleep and gay hustlers turning an easy trick or two in the darkened balcony. The Victory’s already-low standards for film slipped throughout the ensuing decades until it started showing XXX features in 1972, making it the first porn theater in Times Square. Instead of Sag Harbor and Abie’s Irish Rose, audiences got Pussycat Ranch, All Night Orgy, and Hot Saddle Tramp.
Then in 1990, En Garde Arts produced Marc Wellman’s Crowbar, a site-specific production set during intermission of the Republic’s first show, Sag Harbor. Audiences sat on the stage as the action took place in the aisles, wings, balconies, and even trap doors of the Victory. Crowbar was the Victory’s first legitimate theatrical performance in 60 years, and it sparked interest in reviving the long-neglected gem. Later that year, the Victory came under public ownership and underwent an $11.4 million restoration.
The New Victory Theater reopened in 1995. The stage that once featured the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Lilian Gish, Mary Pickford, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Linda Lovelace had been restored to its former glory. In 2012, they even won a Drama Desk award for “providing enchanting, sophisticated theater that appeals to the child in all of us, and for nurturing a love of theater in young people.”
PS – If you want to know more about this theater, check out Morton Minsky’s memoir, Minsky’s Burlesque. As funny as it is fascinating, I can’t recommend it highly enough.