One day after his 100th birthday—Sun., June 21, 2003, to be exact—Al Hirschfeld will receive one of the highest honors the American theatre can bestow: a Broadway house bearing his name.
Last week, the decision to rename the Martin Beck Theater, located on West 45th Street, in favor of the artist was announced by James Binger, chairman of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns the property, and Rocco Landesman, the organization's president. In a statement, Binger said, "Al Hirschfeld is an irreplaceable fixture of Broadway. I've been lured to Broadway for many decades by the promise of excitement, laughter, and romance that permeate all of his work. And since he started working in New York only two years after the Martin Beck Theater was built, it seems wholly appropriate that the building bear his name—they have shared the street during Broadway's golden age and beyond."
To which Landesman added, "The renaming of a Broadway theatre is an important event for the history and the heritage of Broadway. No one working in our world is more deserving than Al Hirschfeld, who has been chronicling the look, the energy, and the excitement of the New York theatre scene for more than 75 years."
Hirschfeld told The New York Times, "I'm startled; it's incredible," in response to the news, adding, "I'm touched." In a follow-up statement, he called it a "thrill to have my name on a Broadway theatre, and especially to join company with my esteemed colleagues Brooks Atkinson and Walter Kerr," Times critics who have theatres named for them. "I happily accept this accolade."
The June renaming will include an all-star celebration of Hirschfeld's life and work to be performed at the theatre, under the direction of Jerry Zaks, as a benefit for the Actors' Fund. Hirschfeld's wife, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld (herself a theatre historian) and former Times managing editor Arthur Gelb will serve as co-chairman and associate producers for the event.
In the interim, the playhouse will receive a significant sprucing up—its first since an extensive 1996 renovation—that will include the erection of a brand new marquee and the installation of a gallery filled with examples of Hirschfeld's art. And while the name "Martin Beck" will no longer preside over the house he built, a plaque commemorating the late impresario's theatrical contributions will also be unveiled at the renaming ceremony. Contradictory to a Playbill Online report, however, Beck's name will not be scratched off the building's cornerstone, according to a spokesman for Jujamcyn Theaters.
Hirschfeld's History; Looking Back at the Beck
Around the world, Hirschfeld's singular caricatures are synonymous with Broadway, from his first sketch in 1926 of Sacha Guitry in The New York Herald-Tribune to his latest constructions for the Times. As Binger noted, Hirschfeld's career began two years after Beck opened his Moorish-style playhouse with "Mme. Pompadour," an operetta now remembered mostly for that fact.
Before his death in 1940, Beck—a native of Austria who ran the Orpheum circuit from 1905 to 1923 and built the Palace Theatre—also played a role in bringing Helen Hayes in "Victoria Regina" and Maxwell Anderson's "Winterset" and "High Tor" to Broadway. Beck's family retained ownership of the structure, the only Broadway house west of Eighth Avenue, until 1966, when it was sold to Jujamcyn Theaters. In addition, the latter organization also owns the St. James, the Virginia, the O'Neill, and the Walter Kerr Theaters. The Al Hirschfeld Theater, however, will be the first Broadway house to be named after an artist.
Ideally suited to plays and musicals, the Beck has long been a home to hits. On the musical side, the original mountings of "Cabin in the Sky," "On the Town," "St. Louis Woman," "Candide," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Milk and Honey," "Oliver!," "Hallelujah, Baby!," "Man of La Mancha," "The Rink," "Into the Woods," and "Grand Hotel" happened here. And on the play side, "Watch on the Rhine," "The Iceman Cometh," "Ring Round the Moon," "Barefoot in Athens," "The Crucible," "The Teahouse of the August Moon," "Orpheus Descending," "Marat/Sade," "A Delicate Balance," and "Moon Over Buffalo" all distinguished its stage.
New Victory Renaming
Elsewhere along the Rialto, the New Victory Theater on West 42nd Street announced last week that it will dedicate its main lobby to the late theatrical benefactor LuEsther T. Mertz. Mertz, who died in 1991, founded Publishers Clearing House with her husband and daughter, and subsequently used the success of the venture to express her support for the arts and other causes, including Lincoln Center and the New York Shakespeare Festival. The New 42nd Street, the independent nonprofit with long-term responsibility for the redevelopment of the street where the New Victory sits, will recognize Mertz's contributions with a Thurs., Oct. 3, renaming ceremony. "LuEsther's Lobby" will feature a plaque reading, "Remembering LuEsther T. Mertz, who celebrated New York, the theater, and kids!"