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A CurtainUp Book Review
Historic Photos of Broadway
New York Theater, 1850-1970

There's something unbeatably alluring about great black and white photos. If you don't believe me, take a look at Turner Publishing Company's handsome new illustrated history of the New York Theater from 1850 to 1970. Here's one book you can safely judge by its cover. Make that plural, for both its front and back cover feature images from the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts. And in between those covers, there's a feast of handsomely reproduced photographs of great theatrical venues (too many of them gone from our the cityscape), along with the plays and musicals seen on their stages, and the thespians bringing them to life.

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Of course, there have been numerous theatrical histories, so this is basically an addition to the genre that's unique for being at once concise and comprehensive. Since the pictures all come from one source, the book is essentially an advert for the Library's collection, which accounts for the 1850 to 1970 date since that's the time frame for this huge and invaluable archive's most fruitful years.

Naturally, historic photos of Broadway's showplaces and show people need a historian to guide us through these pages with facts and anecdotes, and Leonard Jacobs is just the man to make these pictures come to life. Jacobs picked over 240 images out of an awesome total of 3million. He astutely organized his selections chronologically so that the text could flow briskly and organically, giving readers the sense of thumbing through a photo album with long-ish captions, yet providing enough meat to induce them to return for cover to cover reading.

Jacobs has divided his story into seven sections, starting with "Pre- and Proto- Broadway" (1850- 1870 and concluding with "Golden Era, Post-Broadway, and Beyond" (1950 - 1970). The text is richly detailed with material gathered from solid sources. Attribution to anecdotes from classic theatrical histories like Brooks Atkinon's Broadway and Moss Hart's Act One is meticulously but not distractingly included. The index enhances the book's reference value

Most of what you'll see in these pages adds up to an obituary for legendary actors and architectural treasures. While a few theaters on 42nd Street have been beautifully restored (albeit often with names tied to airlines and other commercial enterprises rather than acting or playwriting greats), many beautiful edifices, especially those well below 42nd Street, are gone and you'd have to be a cockeyed optimist to expect splendid new ones to replace them.

Choosing what to include and what to omit for a project like this is bound to reflect the decision maker' s own tastes, preferences and opinions. Jacobs tips his hat to Lunt and Fontanne as a major presence during the hundred plus years chronicled and thus includes more pictures of them than anyone else. That's not to say, that he doesn't include a fair share of interesting lesser known, and even obscure, personalities. Thus he includes Ferdinand Gottschall who was never a star, but enjoyed a 50-year career on stage. And, given the fact that when not busy with his job as Backstage's National Theater Editor, Jacobs also blogs under the pseudonym of Clyde Fitch, it's not too surprising that he include a biography and full-page photo of his cyber alias. The prolific and flamboyant Clyde Fitch who penned some sixty plays, with Beau Brummel, commissioned by actor-manager Richard Mansfield, led to him being tagged "playwright to the stars."

Browsing through the many pictures of long gone theaters, I was especially struck by the text accompanying a picture of The Eltinge Theater which opened on 42nd Street in 1912 and, as part of the street's redevelopment, was removed from its original location and rolled down the street where it became a multiplex (but with its facade intact). It seems that the original theater interior had seats labeled slender, medium and stout. With the current epidemic of obesity causing many theater goers to pay top dollar for tickets only to be squeezed in or have their vision blocked by over-sized patrons, this is an idea whose time may well be due for a comeback.

With each season bringing its share of revivals of classic plays, theater buffs will be especially interested in seeing the original cast members of shows such as Waiting for Godot, Man for All Seasons, South Pacific and Pal Joey. And while most readers will have to jump to at least the 1960s for their "Oh, yea, I saw that production" moments, with this volume they can at least take an armchair journey back to the times they missed.

Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theatre 1850-1970
Published by Turner Publishing Company
copyright 2008
1-800 788-3350
254 pages, including index
Price $39.95
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