Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre: Former Biltmore

Manhattan Theater Club's Biltmore Theatre
261 West 47th St (between Broadway & 8th Ave.)

Opened as the Biltmore Theatre in 1925, it was one of Broadway’s smaller venues, seating just 903. During its early history, Mae West’s star turn in her own play, Pleasure Man (1928), brought in the police, who arrested the entire cast of 56 actors, actresses and musicians on charges of indecency, immediately after the curtain fell on the first performance. George F. Kaufman directed Shirley Booth in My Sister Eileen, which premiered here in 1940. Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was staged here in 1946, and Lee Marvin made his stage debut in Billy Budd (1951). CBS later leased the theatre for use as radio/television Studio No. 62, its sixteenth Manhattan facility (1952-1961). Mike Nichols directed Robert Redford in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1963, for more than 1,500 performances), and the rock musical Hair played here in 1968 for four years.

In December 1987, just a month after the Biltmore's interior was designated a landmark, an act of arson destroyed the interior; the theatre sat empty for 14 years, until it was purchased by the Manhattan Theatre Club as a permanent home for its productions. Pre-restoration photos from the late 1980s showing fire and smoke damage:

With 622 seats the new theatre has about two-thirds of the capacity of the old, although it now boasts modern conveniences such as elevators and meeting rooms. The Biltmore's landmarked features, such as the proscenium arch, dome, staircases and a vaulted second-floor gallery, were restored or replicated in a $35 million facelift. The Biltmore reopened in 2003, winning the 2004 Lucy G. Moses Award for Preservation from the New York Landmarks Conservancy. In 2008 the theatre was renamed the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, to honor the famed Broadway publicist.

Recent productions include last summer’s Master Class with Tyne Daly and David Ives’s Venus in Fur, which moves this month to the Lyceum Theatre to make room for David Auburn’s The Columnist, starring John Lithgow.

Post-restoration photos: