Spring in New York City is glorious. Allergy issues aside, the season of rebirth is especially welcome after this winter’s polar vortex shenanigans. And though I celebrate the sunny days and refreshing rain of spring, I can see the heat waves forming on the horizon. Summer is coming and with it a suffocating wall of humidity.
One of my best strategies to beat the heat is going to the theater. Be it a movie, musical, or play, the cool darkness of a theater combined with a few hours of entertainment is my preferred place to be on an unbearably hot day. A hundred years ago, this wasn’t so much the case. Without air conditioning, the heat of the lights and the crush of fellow audience members could make visiting the theater intolerable. Not wishing to lose business during the summer months, theater owners came up with a new strategy: the roof!In the photograph above, a rooftop audience enjoys some light entertainment on the Madison Square Garden roof. This MSG was located at 26th Street and Madison Avenue. Designed by Stanford White, it was the second tallest building in the City at the time construction finished in 1890. Part of the fun for the audience was the chance to watch musical comedies and operettas from 32 stories off the ground. (Check out Mia’s early blog on the theater’s Diana statue.)
Further uptown at 44th and Broadway, the New York Theatre roof offered similar entertainment fare. The New York Theatre was originally built as the Olympia Theatre by Oscar Hammerstein I (the grandfather of the Oscar Hammerstein from musical theater’s famous “Rodgers & Hammerstein”).
Though a financial failure for Hammerstein I, the theater was only the second to be built in what would become the Times Square Theater District. In 1895, the area was known as Longacre Square.
Hammerstein I’s second effort at extravagant outdoor entertainment was the Paradise Roof Garden at 201 West 42nd Street. Part enclosed space and part open air, the Garden spanned the roofs of the Victoria Theatre and the Theatre Republic next door.The Paradise Roof Garden was run by Hammerstein I’s son Willie. As the noise of an ever expanding New York drifted upward, the vaudeville shows presented on the roof adapted to include wordless routines and pantomime. Just down the block at 260 West 42nd Street was the American Theatre. With a seating capacity of over 2,000, the American Theatre was a popular venue for melodrama and comedies. The roof offered escape from the crowds below.
Beautiful lights lit up the roof and audiences could gather around small tables to chat or enjoy a variety of entertainments.
Lighter fare was the entertainment of choice for rooftop theaters. Many of the auditoriums below were known for their comedic musicals and revues. Rooftops offered even less serious spectacle with acrobatic troupes, vaudeville sketches, and variety acts requiring minimal staging. It was just too darn hot to think of weightier things. No doubt it’s the same impulse that guides the current blockbuster push for summer movies.Movie screenings were also a part of rooftop entertaining. As the technology developed, projectors and screens were taken up top so that audiences could enjoy the silent films and a breeze.
Rooftop entertainment began a sharp decline in the 1920s, a decline that coincided with the rise of air conditioning installations in theaters of all types. While live performance on a rooftop may be a thing of the past, New Yorkers can still check out a movie thanks to the series set up by Rooftop Films. You can also get your fix for outdoor theater this summer with the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions. Another great way to beat the heat: visit a museum!