In the Thick of It: Remembering the Fight to Save the Theater District

Author and preservation activist Roberta Gratz reminisces about her experiences with the Save the Theaters campaign.

The Morosco Theater, pictured in 1981. Of the two theaters that were demolished to construct John Portman’s Marriott Marquis hotel, the Morosco was the greater loss.

Courtesy the Library of Congress

It is terrific that Jack Goldstein will be returning the spotlight to New York’s theater district and the 42nd Street redevelopment to bring a fresh up-to-date eye to an unfortunate chapter in the city’s planning and development history. As I reported in detail in my book, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way (Simon & Schuster, 1989), this saga actually started in the 1970s with John Portman first proposed a vaulting hotel for Times Square. Though they were to change their minds later, many cities and architecture critics (including Ada Louise Huxtable) were smitten by Portman’s atrium style, which felt bracingly new at the time. A pair of historic theaters were, of course, razed to make room for the hotel.

But the citizen-based opposition to the unnecessary loss of the incomparable Helen Hayes and Morosco Theaters cannot be told without the prominent role of civic activists Barbara (Bobbie) Handman and Joan K. Davidson. Bobbie, vice chair of the local community board and one of the first outspoken critics of the Portman plan, quietly took the issue to a variety of political and governmental leaders. Actor’s Equity, at first, was a nervous partner to the conflict when Lenore Loveman and Sandy Lundwall organized the Save the Theaters campaign. After all, this fight was taking on the formidable theater owners whose political reach was incalculable. Lenore and Sandy brought passion, energy and determination to this challenge but, by their own admission, knew nothing of taking on the city and state powers when it came to planning, development, and landmark issues. It was a morass of the most complicated sort.

Bobbie, with her close ties to everyone in both the theater and politics world, brought a sharp sense of how to work the governmental process. Joan K. Davidson, a long defender of good development and landmarks preservation, brought the backing of the J.M.Kaplan Fund for an ad in the New York Times, a court battle and much of the work of the citizen-led campaign that helped shape the final decisions.

But it was Bobbie above all, working with then Actors Equity president Colleen Dewhurst, Sandy, Lenore, Jack, and myself who led the Save the Theaters fight which ultimately lost the battle to save the 47th Street theaters. We did, however, succeed in finally getting the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate all the remaining historic theaters.

As a final and desperate attempt to bring sense to the governmental bodies from the state Urban Development Corporation to the City Planning Commission, Bobbie persuaded Joe Papp to work with us to stage what was probably the finest street-theater protest the city ever saw. As the wrecking ball stood poised over the Morosco and Helen Hayes in March, 1982, 170 of us were carted off in police vans to be arrested. It was to no avail.

The real tragedy is that it didn’t have to be. We could have had the hotel and the historic theaters. Architect Lee Harris Pomeroy designed an alternative plan showing how the hotel could be built over the Morosco and Helen Hayes. But neither of those theaters were owned by one of the powerful theater owning groups; they were orphans in the world of theater politics.

When I wrote my first article in 1979 in New York magazine, it was entitled “Save the Helen Hayes.” That theater was the more obvious architectural treasure. But I came to understand from the many theater people involved in the fight that the Morosco was the greater treasure—what with its incomparable acoustics, sight lines, magical intimacy and rich history.

Two years after the theaters went down, a public hearing was held on the first of several plans to remake 42nd Street and the next battle began. Ironically, the development community, anxious to build in the newly designated theater district, wanted nothing to do with flashy traditional Broadway signage on new buildings. The Planning Commission was ready to comply with a ban. For that, the Municipal Art Society, having avoided the front lines of the theater battle, sprang into action to save the signage tradition that so defines the district today.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is the author of The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.

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