In studying the grand Broadway theaters of the “roaring twenties”, I have unearthed a New York gem: the Hippodrome, an iconic theater built in 1905. My research on the marquees depicted in Howard Thain’s “The Great White Way” led me to this mammoth of a theater that, to my great dismay, was demolished in 1939. The Hippodrome was located on 42nd St. and the modern Avenue of the Americas. Today, it would reside next to Bryant Park and the venerable Schwartzman library on 42nd. Built by Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy and designed by the architect Jay H. Morgan, the Hippodrome was built on the massive scale that today would be considered gross in its opulence. Jay H. Morgan’s grand architecture featured turrets on the corners of the building’s roof that, it was said, could be picked out of a New York skyline. Each turret featured a hollow globe not unlike the statue outside of the Time Warner building in Columbus Circle. For a time, the Hippodrome’s globes were an icon of New York theater.
The Hippodrome’s stage was twelve times the size of the average Broadway stage and could be lowered into a tank that housed 400,000 gallons of water. The theater could then house water ballets or underwater sequences for its circus-style variety shows. The concept of an onstage water ballet is difficult for a modern theater-goer to grasp, but the variety shows of Broadway in the 1920’s went far beyond the paltry fly system gimmicks of Mary Poppins(2006) or Peter Pan(1954). In addition to the Hippodrome’s water ballets, I found that the Palace Theater on 47th Street and Broadway once booked similar shows. A popular show at the Palace went by the title “Odiva and the Plunging Water Nymphs.” Odiva, a human, would perform with sea lions as her aquatic corps de ballet. The Palace Theater was far less extravagant than the Hippodrome, and so has survived to this day; it now houses Priscilla: Queen of the Desert(2011).
The Hippodrome’s unfortunate demise was a result of a high-running cost and a diminishing public interest in the variety show. As with most of the Broadway theaters from the turn of the century, the Hippodrome became part movie theater in 1925 in an attempt to battle cinema’s rise to popularity. The theater’s owner sold the Hippodrome in 1928 and from that point forward, the Hippodrome’s massive form and theatrical content were lost to Broadway. It closed officially after the stock market crash and was demolished in 1939. I only wish the Hippodrome had survived so that today theater historians could observe the theater where Harry Houdini once made an elephant disappear.