This Day in Jewish History, 1907

The Most Beautiful Theater in the World Opens

David Belasco, Jewish monastery pupil and prolific producer and playwright, knew the secret to superb theater: 'the lighting.'

Whitney Cox, courtesy of The Shubert Archive

On October 16, 1907, a new state-of-the-art theater built by Broadway producer David Belasco opened in New York with a drama called “A Grand Army Man,” co-written and directed by Belasco. Initially the theater was called the Stuyvesant because Belasco was then operating another hall that bore his name. When he sold that, however, in 1910, he transferred the name “Belasco” to the grand new theater on West 44th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues.

The architecture of the Belasco by George Keister, its Tiffany lighting fixtures,  leaded glass, sumptuous wood paneling, advanced lighting and hydraulic elevator system for moving sets all made the Belasco the most beautiful and advanced theater in New York.

This was to be expected from the man who was the leading figure on Broadway of his day, a producer, director and writer who had spent his early years before the footlights, too.

Yet even when he was at the peak of his power and powers, Belasco was known more for his production values and the technological advances he introduced than for the plays he wrote and staged, few of which are remembered or performed a century later – the principal exceptions are “Madame Butterfly” and “The Girl of the Golden West,” both adapted by Giacomo Puccini for the opera. Belasco himself once declared: “The all-important factor in a dramatic production is the lighting of the scenes.”

He really did run away to the circus

David Belasco was born in San Francisco on July 25, 1853. Both his parents – Humphrey Abraham Belasco and the former Reina Martin – were London-born Jews of Portuguese-Sephardi heritage who, bitten by gold-rush fever, had left England for North America in 1852. They moved back and forth between British Columbia and California, and David grew up in San Francisco, Vancouver and Victoria, on Vancouver Island.

Library of Congres, Chico, Wikimedia

Humphrey had appeared on the stage in London, although in America he tried his hand at commerce and land speculation, with limited success. His son David began acting from a young age, performing at mining camps around the Pacific Northwest, playing most any role imaginable, as well as serving as a stagehand.

Though the family was Jewish, during one of their sojourns in Victoria, David was sent to school at a Catholic monastery, where he studied for two years until, as he described it in his memoirs, “the falseness of one of the monks to his vows rudely awakened me from my spiritual dreaming.” So he ran off and joined a traveling circus.

He also had positive memories of the monastery. Belasco later explained his habit of regularly dressing with a white clerical collar around his neck – which led to his being dubbed the "Bishop of Broadway" – as a tribute to one Father McGuire, a beloved mentor. 

By the time Belasco moved permanently to New York in 1882, he was a highly experienced actor, playwright (he penned his first play at age 12) and stage manager.

He began his career in New York in the latter position, working with the esteemed producer Daniel Frohman, among others, while continuing to write in his free time. In 1895, Belasco began his career as independent producer.

On Broadway alone, Belasco either produced, directed or wrote more than 100 plays, and over his life he claimed to have been responsible for 374 productions.

Whitney Cox, courtesy of The Shubert Archive

Since Belasco's life was in the theater, he decided to reside there, and created a 10-room, duplex apartment in the upper floors of the 44th Street hall. It was not included in the $14.5-million renovation undertaken by the current owners of the Belasco, the Shubert Organization, and completed in 1910.

The public part of the theater, however, underwent a sumptuous face-lift, which even included the excruciatingly delicate restoration of murals, which had been painted by three different artists a century ago and which in the interim had been covered over with a layer of gray paint.

David Belasco died on May 14, 1931, at age 77, a little more than four years after the death of wife of 58 years, the former Cecilia Loverich.

Mademoiselle Sabina, Wikimedia