For generations, the prestigious collection of Broadway theatrical venues in New York City has carried an enigmatic alias: the Great White Way. Here's the story behind how it came to be.
The Great White Way is a nickname for a section of Broadway in Manhattan—specifically the area between 41st and 53rd Streets, clustered around Times Square. It’s also often referred to as the Theater District. Broadway itself is a catch-all term for the cluster of 41 theaters in the area that have 500 seats or more.
Keystone View Company/Library of Congress
Broadway's nickname comes from the Theater District’s many lit-up billboards, posters, and marquees that promote its plays and musicals.
What we now call Broadway has roots that trace back to the mid–18th century, when a 280-seat theater—called, yes, “the Theatre”—opened in lower Manhattan. Around the same time, Benjamin Franklin had started experimenting with electricity.
By 1880, the streets of Broadway were illuminated by arc lamps that produced light via an electric arc. Installed between Union Square and Madison Square, these lamps signaled progress for the Great White Way.
In what would become the Theater District, Oscar Hammerstein (not to be confused with his lyricist grandson of the same name) opened the Olympia Theatre in Longacre Square, later renamed Times Square. Though there were no modern street lamps on this section of Broadway at the time, Hammerstein made history when he lit the Olympia with electric light in 1895.
Theatergoers and producers accustomed to the open flames and smoke that came with lighting theaters with candles were intrigued by the electric lighting of the Olympia. As other theaters began to follow the Olympia’s lead, the growing brilliance of the electrical signs promoting the shows in the Theater District and the electrical fixtures used to illuminate the theaters themselves ushered the Great White Way into existence.
Library of Congress
The name first came to prominence thanks to Shep Friedman, a columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph, who published an article in 1902 under the headline “Found on the Great White Way.” There was a brief dispute in the New York press 25 years later over who coined the phrase when the Morning Telegraph itself credited advertising magnate O.J. Gude. The New York Press issued a correction, saying: “Shep Friedman, cleverest, brightest, and most sophisticated of the newspaper men of his day, so named the long street, and the name clung because it belonged.”
While most theater fans will know what you mean if you say “the Great White Way,” the moniker's historical context has largely faded with time—the same way we still say movies are “on the silver screen” despite it being nearly a century since cinemas projected film onto silver lenticular screens.
The nickname has also gone through a reassessment due to its unintended racial implications. Works like Warren Hoffman’s “The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical” have spotlighted how Broadway is historically very white in terms of who is creating shows, making decisions, and sitting in the audience.
In 2020, Whoopi Goldberg—an EGOT winner with a 2002 Tony for producing “Thoroughly Modern Millie”—suggested an alternate nickname. “Maybe we can stop calling it ‘the Great White Way’ and replace it with ‘the Great Bright Way,’” she said. “It’s not the words; it’s the way we think about it.”