The Wizard’s Lair: The Man Behind the Belasco Theatre

Theaterhound
Mar 7 · 9 min read

by Barrie Kreinik

The Schoenfeld was once the Plymouth. The Lunt-Fontanne began life as The Globe. The August Wilson opened as the Guild, became the ANTA, then was renamed the Virginia. But for over 100 years, the Belasco has remained the Belasco.

Few theatres on Broadway can boast a history as colorful as the Belasco Theatre, which sits in solitary splendor on West 44th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It too was born with a different name, opening in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre before being rechristened by its eponymous owner in 1910. But despite its 109-year tenure as a Broadway house, few people without degrees in theatre history know much — if anything — about the eccentric impresario for whom the house is named.

The exterior of the Stuyvesant Theatre around 1907.

David Belasco was born in 1853 in San Francisco. When he arrived in New York almost thirty years later, he had already worked extensively in West Coast theatres as an actor, stage manager, playwright, and technician, and he quickly worked his way up to become one of the leading theatre managers of his day. By the time of his death in 1931, he had directed 95 Broadway plays, produced 72, and wrote or co-wrote over 200 plays of his own. He is now perhaps best known for penning two plays that were later adapted into operas: Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West. But it was his work as a producer and innovator that made the strongest mark on the annals of Broadway history.

Belasco’s rise to power in the New York theatre world coincided with the period when the figure of the actor-manager was being replaced by the producer-director. Such producers — still known, at that time, as “theatre managers” — held massive amounts of power: over actors, over production elements, and even over the theatres themselves. In her book David Belasco: Naturalism in the American Theatre, biographer Lise-Lone Marker refers to “Belasco’s insistence that a single will must reign in the theatre, and a single spirit must permeate and activate the entire production.” An autocrat to the core, Belasco exerted total control over every element of his productions — and over every move of the actors whose careers he fostered.

Some might call him a charismatic leader. Others might call him an egotistical tyrant. Either way, he was a tremendous success.

David Belasco as a young man.

Belasco’s operative word, when it came to theatre production, was verisimilitude. He was an enthusiastic proponent of naturalism, a theatrical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was espoused by literary theorist Émile Zola and epitomized by such playwrights as Strindberg and Ibsen. Belasco wanted his theatre to be like a living room: an intimate space in which audiences could watch actors behaving onstage exactly as they would in real life, down to the barest detail. His productions were noted for painstakingly realistic sets and props, including such touches as actors cooking and eating real food onstage. In the interest of creating the illusion of reality, he developed a number of new lighting techniques that revolutionized the way Broadway stages were lit from then on. His innovations included what is thought to have been the first spotlight ever used on Broadway; the abolition of footlights in favor of dimmable electric lights positioned above, beside, and in front of the stage; and the use of colored gels to change the lighting’s hue. Belasco believed, as Marker quotes, that “no other factor that enters into the production of a play is so effective [as lighting] in conveying its moods and feelings” — not even, apparently, the acting. Indeed, the content of the plays he produced mattered less to Belasco than the quality of their presentation. For the man known to some as the “wizard” of the theatre, the visual effects of a production were everything.

David Belasco at work.

The theatre he built supported his ideas and innovations. Designed by noted architect George Keister, with Belasco’s input, the Belasco Theatre is a comparatively intimate space, with seats for just over a thousand patrons and a rich, dark color scheme. The theatre’s ceiling — restored to its original grandeur in 2010 — contains 22 octagonal panels of Tiffany glass, which join the dozens of light fixtures mounted throughout the theatre to comprise what is thought to be the largest publicly displayed collection of Tiffany lamps in the country.

Newly restored Tiffany lamps and ceiling panels in the Belasco Theatre.

In addition, Belasco commissioned American painter Everett Shinn — a prominent member of the artistic movement known as the Ashcan School — to produce large-scale murals to adorn the theatre’s proscenium arch and interior walls. (The murals, too, were painstakingly restored during the 2010 renovation.)

Everett Shinn’s murals adorn the proscenium arch and surrounding walls.

Belasco also outfitted his theatre with all the latest technical innovations: a large fly gallery with counterweight machinery to shift set pieces; several small trap doors in the stage floor, surrounding a central elevator trap that could seamlessly bring scenery in and out from the basement; and the most technically sophisticated lighting system of the time, including a permanent dimmer board with sixty-five dimmers and an array of movable spotlights and projectors. All of this was generated in the interest of, as Marker writes, “the desire to create the illusion of a slice of reality behind the proscenium arch.”

What’s behind this proscenium arch?

While he deified the tenets of naturalism in his stage work, Belasco’s offstage persona was unabashedly theatrical. The black waistcoat and high clerical collar that he habitually wore earned him the title of the “Bishop of Broadway.” His flair for the melodramatic was also epitomized in the décor of what Belasco called his “studio”: a 10-room duplex apartment located on the top floor of the Belasco Theatre. Described in a 1931 New York Times article as “a cavern full of magic” — complete with a Tiffany glass skylight, fireplace tiles from the Alhambra Palace in Spain, a plethora of Napoleonic artifacts, and an extensive collection of erotic art — Belasco’s gothic-style studio was as mysterious and extravagant in appearance as the man himself.

The Wizard in his studio above the theatre.

Undeniably, however, the “magic” of Belasco’s persona had a sinister side. Though Belasco was married in 1880 to Cecilia Loveritch, with whom he went on to have two daughters, his reputation as a seducer of actresses trails him to this day. What went on behind the closed doors of his studio when he met with such young women is anyone’s guess — though with what we know today about men in power, and this one in particular, anyone’s guess would be a dark one. In a 1995 Times article, Adam Green called him “a shameless womanizer” who “liked to monitor the female members of his casts by way of a peephole into their dressing room.” Belasco was known for launching the careers of several of those female cast members, including Mary Pickford, Leslie Carter, and Barbara Stanwyck. But at what cost?

David Belasco with a bevy of actresses.

We can get a glimpse into one such meeting through the eyes of Eva Le Gallienne, one of the 20th century’s greatest actresses — and one of the only performers ever to turn down a job offer from the Bishop of Broadway. In her autobiography With a Quiet Heart, written in 1953, she recalls:

Belasco had seen me in one of my early parts, before I ever aspired to a leading role. He had sensed something in me that intrigued him, and felt I had ‘the makings of a star.’ He sent for me and offered me the lead in [a new] play. I remember the sensation his interest in me caused among my theatre friends. Here was the great opportunity. At that time every young actress’s dream was to become a Belasco star.

I was ushered into the master’s presence and left alone with him in his ornate and cluttered apartment on the top floor of the Belasco Theatre. The lights were very dim, and the rooms filled with an amazing collection of bric-a-brac of the most varied sort. The atmosphere troubled me; there was incense burning somewhere. I felt as if I were about to have my fortune told by an expensive soothsayer.

Mr. Belasco was a rather short man, at that time inclined to stockiness. His curly, gray hair, worn quite long, the clerical collar he affected, his carefully tended hands, white and soft as a woman’s, gave him a definitely theatrical appearance. His voice was so soft and low that I had difficulty in understanding what he said. He sat on a straight chair facing me, and so close that his presence made me uncomfortable. He fixed me with his black, piercing eyes as though he were about to hypnotize me, and indeed his personality was strongly hypnotic…He asked me innumerable questions about myself, and I had the feeling he wanted to take possession of my whole personality…I had to struggle hard to control a wild impulse to rise and make my escape, but my brain kept telling me that this was my great chance and that this suave, civilized gentleman was doing me a great honor by his faith in me and would help make me the fine actress I dreamed of becoming someday…Yet somehow my whole inner being rebelled. I felt as though I were being swamped, suffocated, trapped in some strange way. My instinct told me that if I succumbed to his man’s influence I would have to abandon my precious freedom of spirit. I had a vision of a heavy door closing behind me, imprisoning me in a world over which I would have no control, where I would be a slave to the rules and regulations, both of thought and conduct, imposed by a powerful and relentless master.

…I suddenly saw quite clearly that I must refuse his offer.

And so she did. One wonders how many other actresses were as brave — and what happened to those who weren’t.

Belasco’s studio now sits empty, having long since been divested of its contents and never given a new function. But his spirit still lives on — perhaps in more ways than one.

The desiccated remains of Belasco’s studio.

Legend has it that after his death, Belasco’s ghost appeared at every subsequent opening night in his theatre, watching each show from the balcony before slipping away. (The house is also said to have been haunted by the spirit of a chorus girl who fell down an elevator shaft to her death.) Apparently, upon the opening of the controversial show Oh, Calcutta! in 1972, Belasco’s ghost departed for the last time. They say that no one has seen it since. One wonders, however, what spirits one might find among the cobwebs that bedeck the interior of what was once the wizard’s lair.

Over the past 88 years, the theatre that bears the Belasco name has been home to numerous critically acclaimed productions, including the Broadway premieres of Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy, both by Clifford Odets. At the time of writing, the theatre is currently hosting the Broadway production of Network, starring Bryan Cranston. The Shubert Organization has owned and operated the theatre since 1948.

The Belasco Theatre in 2018.

Were David Belasco alive today, he would almost certainly have been knocked off his self-styled pedestal by the #MeToo movement, if not by the fact that his slavishly realistic approach to theatre production went out of fashion several decades ago. But however tainted, his legacy — particularly in the field of lighting design — lives on. And in the face of Broadway’s many rechristenings, it is Belasco’s name that continues to grace the “house” he called a home.

The Bishop of Broadway.

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