After 1914, when the book is set, several of New York’s remaining Belasco theatre were built in the 1920s.
When a book serves as a convenient pretext for delving deeply into a topic that is dear to your heart, it is always lovely. I was able to get every book on Broadway theatre history off my shelves and peruse a ton more at the Lincoln Center Library while conducting research for Death of a Showman, the fourth Jane Prescott mystery. Castles, Vernon and Irene Rector’s! It’s George M. Cohan! Times Square has electricity! Brice, Fanny It’s the Barrymore’s! My theater nerd heart was bursting at the seams.
A good murder mystery needs all the secrets, rivalries, and scandals it can get, and a theater is the ideal place for them. It has its own secret spaces, such as the maze of dressing rooms, the wings, and the orchestra pit, in addition to the enormous stage where dramatic behavior is not only encouraged but also necessary. Throughout my life, I have visited numerous theaters, but I have never held a position there. I also wanted to enter and take a thorough look around if I was going to reproduce one of the revered theaters from late Gilded Age New York.
Many of the remaining theaters in New York were constructed after 1914, when the book is set, in the 1920s. Thankfully, one of my friends was able to enter the legendary Belasco Theatre, which opened in 1907.
In Death of a Showman, the theater is referred to as The Sidney, after the cruel showman who commissioned its construction, Sidney Warburton. The Belasco was designed by producer, filmmaker, and Broadway pioneer David Belasco and was once known as the Stuyvesant Theatre. After 1909, Belasco constructed a ten-room duplex apartment above the theater where he resided. He was known as the Bishop of Broadway, partly out of reverence for his rank and also because he preferred to wear a cassock and clerical collar. Many actresses received invitations to that apartment. I was not among the fortunate ones who were able to see it today.
However, tour manager Brian Aman gave me a wonderful tour, allowing me to stroll upstairs, peak into dressing rooms, and ask a gazillion questions. In addition to taking in all the beautiful décor, I was able to see the theater as a workplace, much like it would have appeared to Jane and the cast of “Two Loves Have I
This is based closely on Belasco’s expectations for his theatre, which are both intimate and opulent, and the Sidney is described as having the most current advancements as well as the “most lavish of interior architecture.” Even the ticket booth is beautiful.
The theater has remarkable details throughout:
But I was also drawn to the unfinished areas, like this dated dressing room that hadn’t had any renovations since the theater’s debut.
In a Houdini trick, these weights were intended to serve as an elephant counterweight. The elephant would vanish by being dropped below the stage, which contains a “trapdoor.” The ruse was dropped. But the weights are still there (too much elephant poop?).
Over the years, the theater has been painstakingly repaired in many areas. One of the initial lighting fixtures is still in place.
I also discovered the outdated marquee that would have proclaimed the theater’s most recent production in a closet.
It is rumored that Belasco still haunts his theater because he loved it so much. Following his death in 1931, actors claimed to have seen a tall figure in the balcony.The person would approach, shake hands, and occasionally pinch someone’s bottom. He is still visible today. Dracula the Musical’s Mina, played by Melissa Errico, said:
“Cathy, my dresser, just witnessed him enter a mirror. She believes he resides in the wall-mounted mirror outside my change room. One evening, I had shut out just the lights in my room and forgotten my coat. Someone (David?) turned on the small, lovely table lamp as I turned around to collect my coat in the pitch black. It was terrifying! “
All I can say is that the Belasco is a lovely place to visit. Who wouldn’t choose to reside there?