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Shubert Theatre History

The Sam S. Shubert Theatre

Two years after opening their first Shubert Theatre in New York City, the Shubert Brothers built the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. The playhouse was named the Sam S. Shubert Theatre by Lee and J.J. Shubert for their brother, the founder of the Shubert organization. Designed by New York architect, Albert Swazey, the theatre was built by the H. E. Murdock construction company of New Haven. The Shubert Theatre opened on Friday evening, December 11, 1914 with The Belle of Bond Street. One of the highlights of the evening had comedian Sam Bernard, one of the greatest stars of the time, singing, “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle When Rip Van Winkle Was Away?” Seats for the opening engagement were priced from 25 cents to $1.50.

Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits

Local newspaper critics enjoyed the show, which had already played on Broadway, but they were more impressed with the much needed, “beautiful, ultra modern playhouse... which New Haven people can refer to with justifiable pride.” Their sentiments were echoed by the greatest stars, producers, and writers of the theatre world, who soon elected the Shubert Theatre and New Haven as their favorite place to try out shows before opening them on Broadway. There were many reasons for the choice: the beauty and efficiency of the theatre, the city’s proximity to New York, the avid support that area residents gave to the theatre, and many other bonuses, ranging from Yale University to the marvelous array of shops and restaurants in downtown New Haven.

From its very first season, the Shubert Theatre has been a performing arts center presenting plays, musicals, opera, dance, classical music recitals and concerts, vaudeville, jazz artists, big bands, burlesque, and a variety of solo performances. Since opening in 1914, the Shubert Theatre has played host to over 600 pre-Broadway tryouts, including over 300 world premieres and 50 American premieres. The totals are double that of any theatre in New York City or any of the other try out cities like Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington.

The Shubert brothers ran the theatre from 1914 through the 1940-41 season, establishing the pattern of try-outs. Of the 14 musicals in the first season, 4 were new shows that played the Shubert before opening in New York. The first world premiere of a play and a musical at the Shubert came in the second season. In the fall of 1941, Maurice H. Bailey took over the theatre and for the next 35 years continued to enhance the Shubert’s enviable reputation as a preeminent house. Under his stewardship the theatre became known as the "Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits" for the number of long-run productions that first came to life on the Shubert stage.

World Premieres and World-Class Stars

One of the first great shows to world premiere on the Shubert stage was Robinson Crusoe, Jr. in 1916. It starred Al Jolson, who became the greatest musical comedy performer of the day. He was followed through the twenties and thirties by the greatest stars including Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Marie Dressler, George M. Cohan, Sara Bernhardt, Eddie Cantor, The Marx Brothers, Lunt and Fontanne the greatest hits such as The Desert Song, Of Thee I Sing, Blithe Spirit, Room Service, Dead End, The Children’s Hour, Street Scene, Seventh Heaven, A Connecticut Yankee, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Sherlock Holmes, and Dulcy.

Building a Legacy

Fewer shows toured during the forties because of the war, but in 1943, New Haven audiences went wild over an unlikely musical comedy about cowboys entitled Away We Go. Before the show opened on Broadway, it was renamed Oklahoma! The show’s composer, Richard Rogers, loved the Shubert and New Haven; eleven of his shows, including Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, had their world premieres here.

Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, had its premiere at the Shubert in 1947. Not only was a great play born on opening night, but a new star, Marlon Brando, emerged. Half of the New York theatrical community vied with New Haven residents for seats to the engagement. Other cast members included Jessica Tandy, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter.

Where the Biggest Names got their Starts

The fifties and sixties were the most exciting days in the Shubert’s annals with premieres of The Cain Mutiny Court Martial starring Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan, Teahouse of the August Moon with John Forsythe and David Wayne, The Desperate Hours with Paul Newman and Karl Malden, My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, Call Me Madam with Ethel Merman, Dylan with Alec Guinness, and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into the Night with Frederic March and Jason Robards.

In keeping with its title of Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits, the Shubert is also the theater in which many of the world’s best and most popular actors received their first professional acclaim. In the early days, the theater featured newcomers like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Mary Martin, and Gene Kelly. More recently the Shubert showcased the talents of Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, Andy Griffith, Jane Fonda, Sidney Poitier, James Garner, Dyan Cannon, James Earl Jones, Liza Minnelli, Ken Howard, Robert Guillaume, and John Travolta. Former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, also got her first important break here.

Although the Shubert is best known for theater, it has also played host to the greatest artists of the ballet, opera, classical, and popular music. A small sampling would include: Pavlova, Nijinsky, Alexandra Danilova, Maria Tallchief, Alicia Markova, Roland Petit, Katherine Dunham, Jerome Robbins, Ruth St. Danis, Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, Nellie Melbe, Geraldine Farrar, Beverly Sills, Jan Peerce, Dorothy Kristen, Pierre Monteux, Fritz Kreisler, Efrem Zimbalist, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Buddy Rich.

Restoring History

The Shubert closed in 1976 and was threatened with destruction. (The last performance of a play was on November 13, 1976, the try-out of the comedy, Something Old, Something New.) Through the efforts of many, over a period of seven years, the theater was saved. The interior of the theater was lovingly and handsomely restored with particular care and attention given to historical accuracy. Ivory, ecru and gold leaf (the original 1914 colors) were used in refurbishing the auditorium. The old Adams Hotel on College Street was leveled to provide an expansive new theater lobby and plaza. The architect was Robert Wendler; the Fusco Corporation was responsible for the restoration and new construction.
The Shubert, New Haven re-opened in December 1983. From its original mission as a Broadway tryout house, the theater has evolved into a not-for-profit, community resource that serves as the heartbeat of the region’s cultural life. In addition to the Broadway offerings and performances of dance, cabaret, popular music and family entertainment, the Shubert Theater has comprehensive education and outreach programs, fulfilling its mission to make the best of the performing arts available to the most people.

Reclaiming the Legacy

In recent years, the Shubert, New Haven, has reclaimed its legacy by once again presenting world premieres and pre-Broadway shows. The 1995-96 included the pre-Broadway engagement of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde, starring Linda Eder – who went on to star in the show’s Broadway production, and in 1997 playwright Neil Simon attended his eighth pre-Broadway tryout at the Shubert, New Haven, during the run Proposals. The following three seasons boasted world premieres: Frank Wildhorn’s The Civil War (February, 1999), the Native American dance musical, SPIRIT (September, 1999), and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (February 2001). The 2003-2004 was highlighted by the American Premiere of Sir Peter Hall’s production of William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, As You Like It, and most recently the Shubert presented the American Premiere of Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre’s newest production of The Playboy of the Western World (October 2004).

Ensuring a Brilliant Future

Today, the Shubert, New Haven is the heart of a thriving downtown neighborhood bristling with alluring restaurants, cafes, shops and museums. The Shubert, New Haven is operated by CAPA, one of America’s most respected theatre managers and producers. In addition to managing the legendary Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, CAPA is owner/operator of downtown Columbus, Ohio’s magnificent historic theatres (Ohio Theatre, Palace Theatre, Southern Theatre) and manager of the contemporary Riffe Center Theatre Complex. Now in its 35th year, CAPA is a not-for-profit, award-winning presenter of national and international performing arts and entertainment.