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It doesn’t look like much right now. The theater seats were ripped out long ago. The moldings are chipped, the grand ceiling dome hidden by scaffolding, dirt and dust covers every surface, and the once elegant staircase has started to rust. There are signs of decay everywhere.

The view of W42nd Street from Times Square Theater. Photo: Phil O’Brien

But the constant barrage of construction noise is a sign of new life for the nearly century-old Times Square Theater. Vacant since the early 1990s, it once hosted the likes of Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead on its stage, and hit shows including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Front Page appeared on its marquee.

The Eugene De Rosa-designed space – whose majestic columns are still visible on the south side of W42nd St – 7th/8th Ave – has remained abandoned and unloved for 30 years while its neighbors have been revived by the New 42nd Street, the organization tasked with the preservation of the historic block.

Probably most ambitious will be the work to separate the entire front facade, made from Indiana limestone, from the rest of the building, before hydraulically raising it five feet off the ground.

The Apollo and Lyric Theatres have been transformed into the Lyric, home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The Empire Theatre became the AMC Empire 25 (a development that included rolling the entire building 170 feet down the street). The Republic Theatre is now the New Victory Theater, whose vibrant programming is aimed at children and families. And the Selwyn Theatre has been transformed into The Duke on 42nd Street theater and New 42nd Street Studios rehearsal space.

Only the Times Square remained boarded up. Long past its glory days, it had latterly become a budget movie house, showing mainly third-run movies, slasher, and action films. And the lack of any entrance not directly on W42nd St meant its usefulness as a traditional theater was at an end. It was the last remaining relic of The Deuce, when 42nd St was full of empty storefronts, go-go bars, sex shops, and sleazy cinemas.

Various plans for its future had been proposed in the last 30 years – including a “4D” film presentation on the history of Broadway. But nothing stuck.

Enter the dream team of Stillman Development International, Daishin Securities, and architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle – who were responsible for the restoration work on The Frick and Grand Central Terminal, and whose painstaking efforts nudged The Empire 170 feet west. Their proposed $100m renovation is now go.

Work underway inside the Times Square Theater. Photo: Phil O’Brien

The landmark building is set to become a 52,000 square feet “immersive” retail space, complete with a 23-foot cantilevered glass box perched over 42nd St, and a rooftop terrace.

Crucially, the heavily decorated proscenium arch, four seating boxes, sail vaults, cartouches, and the substantial dome will all be carefully removed and restored, before being brought back on site and reused in the new context.

The Times Square Theater in 1986 in use as a movie house. Photo supplied by Beyer Blinder Bell

Probably most ambitious, however, will be the work to separate the entire front facade, made from Indiana limestone, from the rest of the building, before hydraulically raising it five feet off the ground. The interior will then be demolished to make way for a purpose-built, high-tech space that could be home to a big brand like Amazon or Coca-Cola, or a more experiential concept like the nearby NFL Experience.

The whole process is expected to take two years, finally bringing the entire block into the 21st century.

Construction workers traversing the scaffolding inside the Times Square Theater. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Timeline

September 30, 1920 The 1,057-seat theater opens with The Mirage, starring Florence Reed. It runs for six months.
1924 The curtain goes up on Battling Butler, the play that will precede the Buster Keaton movie of the same name.
1926 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, another play that will inspire a hit film, opens.
1928 The original New York production of The Front Page opens at the theater.
1930 A run of George and Ira Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band.
1931 Noël Coward, Laurence Olivier, and Gertrude Lawrence star in Coward’s Private Lives.
1933 The last play to be performed on the Times Square stage is Forsaking All Others, starring Tallulah Bankhead.
1934 The theater is converted to a cinema.
1980 The final scene of the film Times Square is filmed at the theater, with Robin Johnson’s character performing a midnight concert on top of the marquee.
1990 The Times Square Theater finally closes its doors, and the City and State of New York takes possession of the building.
2004 Clothing brand Ecko announce they’ll convert the old theater into a four-story store. In 2009, those plans are abandoned.
2011 A proposal to open a Las Vegas-style multimedia show called Broadway 4D is announced, with an opening date penciled in for June 2014. Again, those plans are canceled.
2018 The latest $100m project is announced, turning the theater into a retail “experiential” space, complete with rooftop terrace.
2022 Proposed completion date.


This story originally appeared in Issue 52 of W42ST Magazine in April 2019.

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