- Historic Sites
Cigars And Broadway
How a tireless impresario parlayed a cloud of smoke into several fortunes
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
As he was leaving the lawyer’s office a very rich man, Hammerstein turned to his erstwhile partners and said, “When I get through with you, everybody will forget there ever was a Koster and Bial’s. I will build a house the like of which has never been seen in the whole world.”
Hammerstein was as good as his word. He built the Olympia, the first major theater north of the Metropolitan Opera, in what would in a few years’ time be called Times Square. As so often happened to Hammerstein, however, his reach exceeded his grasp. The Olympia was no regular theater. Indeed, it had no fewer than three theaters in it, not to mention billiards rooms, smoking rooms, and a roof garden. One ticket, costing fifty cents, bought admission to what was, in many ways, the world’s first entertainment multiplex.
There was just one problem: The Olympia Theater complex was hopelessly uneconomic. With at least six thousand seats to fill, only the top acts and biggest hits could hope to fill them steadily enough to make a profit. Moreover, many of the productions Hammerstein put on, some with music he wrote, were less than hits. As Hammerstein himself ruefully admitted, “There is no limit to the number of people who will stay away from a bad play.” Meanwhile, other theater managers, seeing the Olympia’s troubles, thought it was too far uptown and stayed away from Times Square.
The Olympia threw off a net profit of four thousand dollars a week when forty dollars was a middle-class income.
By June of 1898, three years after the Olympia’s opening, it was all over. The New York Life Insurance Company foreclosed on the mortgage, and Hammerstein had lost everything—except an endlessly inventive mind, an unquenchable spirit, impressive powers of persuasion, good luck, and a profound knowledge of the cigar business. He would make Times Square the center of the American theater yet.
The northwest corner of Forty-second Street and Seventh Avenue, at the very heart of Times Square, had long interested him. Only shacks and rundown boarding stables covered it, but he thought it “the finest site in New York for a theater.” Hammerstein managed to rent it with no money down.
Then he invented a machine that split and made usable the stems of tobacco leaves, formerly a waste product. Royalties from this would probably have made him millions over the years, but he needed cash then, so he sold it for twenty-five thousand dollars.
However, Hammerstein still needed two thousand more. He took a ride on a trolley car, as he often did when he needed to think. A young woman in the next seat recognized him and told him she had been in the chorus of one of his productions. “You were very good to me,” she said. Learning of his problem, she promptly lent him the money. As Hammerstein explained, “If opportunity does not come knocking at your door, you may be sitting beside her in a street car.”
Still, the Victoria Theater, as it was named, was built on a shoestring. Its red plush came from a fire insurance company, its seats from an old theater, its carpets from a retired transatlantic liner. The color scheme was white and gold so that the white plaster didn’t need to be painted.
Astonishingly, the Victoria opened in March 1899, less than ten months after the debacle of the Olympia, and was an immediate hit. When it began showing vaudeville a couple of years later, it became one of the most successful theaters in the country, often throwing off a net profit of four thousand dollars a week, when forty dollars a week was a middle-class income.
Hammerstein and others began building more theaters in the immediate area. (Many of them are now being restored, after years as movie theaters and porno palaces.) Times Square’s destiny was assured. Hammerstein’s, almost needless to say, was not. In the last twenty years of his life, he would go broke twice more, and he died as poor as he had been the day he arrived in New York more than half a century earlier. The city, of course, was vastly the richer because of him.