Oscar And The Opera

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The curtain of the Manhattan Opera House rose for the first time at nine o’clock on the night of December 3, 1906. But the crowds of curious New Yorkers who came to have a look at the new theatre and its audience had begun lining the sidewalks of Thirty-fourth Street before seven. By eight o’clock the block was so jammed with carriages that the cross-town streetcar lines were brought to a standstill. Eighth Avenue, according to an awed reporter from the New York American , was blocked solid from Twenty-third to Forty-second streets.

An extraordinary excitement was abroad among the 3,100 ticket holders, the hundreds of sidewalk spectators, and the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who had, for seven months, been following the fortunes of the Manhattan Opera Company in the newspapers. The Manhattan’s curtain was rising that night not only on Bellini’s Puritani but also on one of the epic skirmishes in the history of theatrical warfare. The David-and-Goliath aspect of the encounter heightened its enormous public appeal. The David in this case, who came wearing a top hat and brandishing a huge black cigar, was Oscar Hammerstein I. The giant he had sworn to lay low was the Metropolitan Opera Company.

Few men in turn-of-the-century New York were better known than Oscar Hammerstein. There was so much about him that lent itself to great cartoons and great copy: his portly shape and shapely beard; his unique, self-designed top hat and his perpetual cigar; his irascible and unpredictable temper; his endearing habit of announcing genuine financial ruin one day and breaking ground for a new theatre the next; his masterly control of his adopted tongue—although his English remained heavily accented, he had developed it into a magnificent instrument for the putdown of his rivals. His long hold on the imagination and affection of New York was manifest in the fact that newspapers called him simply Oscar— long before most public figures were on a first-name basis with the readiner public.

There was, in addition, the ever popular rags-to-riches story behind Oscar’s rise to the rarefied heights of opera impresario, although the rags aspect of his life did not apply to the first fifteen years of it. He had grown up in Berlin, in a household prosperous enough to provide flute, piano, and violin lessons, to hire him tutors in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and to send him to the conservatory for studies in harmony, counterpoint, and composition. Although these musical studies would later prove valuable, they sometimes seemed a fearful drag to a boy of fifteen. So did his father’s stern views on the priority of practice and study over pleasure. One day Oscar went ice-skating and came home late for a lesson. The ensuing fracas left a permanent scar on his forehead and hardened his determination to leave home. That night he slipped quietly out of the house and pawned his violin to finance steerage passage to America. In New York in 1863 he found a two-dollar-a-week job in a cigar factory and began his lifelong romance with the product, which would supply moral solace and financial support to the end of his days. Young Oscar, having observed the methods of American cigar manufacture and found them wanting, began inventing and patenting superior machinery. With his cigar capital he entered the gold fields of uptown New York real estate and escalated his fortune to the point where he could fulfill his true ambition. He became a tireless builder of theatres. “If Father could buy enough plush to make a theater curtain,” his son Arthur later told biographer Vincent Sheean, “there would be a theater built around it!”

 

There was no known form of theatrical entertainment that Oscar did not produce in one or another of his theatres. This included his own works, for he had been writing plays and music since his early days in the cigar industry. He once wagered a hundred dollars against skeptical friends on his ability to write the book, lyrics, and music of a show in forty-eight hours. The result, a threescene operetta called The Kohinoor , opened its rather short run a few months later.

Oscar’s theatrical career had actually begun back in the 1880’s, when he produced a number of low-budget German-language plays. An early effort called The Knight Errant —a farce written by the producer himself—would be eminently forgettable today except for one crucial factor. Its star was a newly arrived immigrant actor named Heinrich Conried. Oscar next presented Conried in an item called The Perjured Peasant . It came to an untimely closing when producer and leading man got into a violent, soulsearing quarrel. The origin of the feud is lost in antiquity, which is unfortunate considering its ultimate consequences in the mortal struggle between the Metropolitan and the Manhattan opera companies.