by Mariah Fredericks
It’s always wonderful when a novel becomes a cheap excuse to do a deep dive into a subject near and dear to your heart. When researching Death of a Showman, the fourth Jane Prescott mystery, I was able to pull every book of Broadway theatre history off my shelves and browse many more at the Lincoln Center Library. Vernon and Irene Castle! Rector’s! George M. Cohan! Electric lights in Times Square! Fanny Brice! The Barrymores! My theatre geek heart was full to the brim.
A theatre is the perfect setting for all the secrets, rivalries and scandals that go into a good murder mystery. It has its hidden places—the warren of dressing rooms, the wings, the orchestra pit—as well as the vast stage where dramatic behavior is not only encouraged, it’s essential. I have been in many theatres throughout my life, but I’ve never worked in one. And if I was going to recreate one of the hallowed theatres of New York’s late Gilded Age, I needed to get inside and take a good look around. Many of New York’s surviving theatres were built in the 20s, later than 1914 when the book is set. Thankfully, a friend of mine was able to get into the fabled Belasco Theatre, built in 1907.
The theatre in Death of a Showman is called The Sidney, after the abusive impresario that built it, Sidney Warburton. Originally known as the Stuyvesant Theatre, the Belasco is the creation of David Belasco, producer, director, and Broadway pioneer. Known as the Bishop of Broadway—partly out of respect for his status and partly because he liked to wear a cassock and clerical collar—Belasco built a ten-room duplex apartment above the theatre where he lived after 1909. Many an actress was summoned to that apartment. A few lucky souls have been able to view it today, but I was not one of them.
I was however treated to a splendid tour by stage manager Brian Aman, who let me wander backstage, upstairs, peek into dressing rooms and ask about a million questions. Not only did I get to see all the glorious décor, I was able to see the theatre as a workplace, much as Jane and the cast of “Two Loves Have I” would have experienced it.
The Sidney is described as having the most modern advances as well as the “most lavish of interior design.” This is based directly on Belasco’s hopes for his theatre, which is both intimate and sumptuous. Even the ticket office is splendid.
Throughout the theatre, there are extraordinary touches:
But I was also interested in the raw spaces, such as this old dressing room that had not been refurbished since the theatre’s opening.
These weights were meant to be a counterbalance for an elephant in a Houdini trick. The stage has a “trapdoor” and the elephant would disappear by being lowered beneath the stage. The trick was abandoned. (Too much elephant poop?) But the weights remain.
Much of the theatre has been lovingly restored over the years. One of the original light fixtures does survive.
And in a closet, I managed to find the old signage that would have announced the theatre’s latest offering…
Belasco loved his theatre so he is said to haunt it to this day. After his death in 1931, actors reported seeing a tall figure in the balcony. The figure would approach, shake hands, pinch the occasional bottom. Even today, he is spotted. Melissa Errico, who played Mina in Dracula the Musical, said:
“My dresser Cathy saw him walk in to a mirror the other day. She thinks he lives in the mirror in the wall outside my dressing room. One night I forgot my coat and I had turned out the lights in my room. I turned back to get my coat in the dark and someone (David?) turned the small pretty table light on for me to see my way. It was spooky!”
I can only report The Belasco is a beautiful place to visit. Who would not want to live there?
Mariah Fredericks was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her family. She is the author of several YA novels. A Death of No Importance was her first adult novel.Tags: Belasco Theatre, Cultural History, Death of a Showman, Jane Prescott Novel, Mariah Fredericks, New York, New York History