The small freight elevator quietly rattles its way to the top of the Lyceum Theatre. Countless relics of The Shubert Organization have been tucked away up here since the ‘70s, although many pieces of the collection are much, much older.
Perhaps more than any other name, Shubert is indelibly inked along the pages of American theatre history. And undoubtedly the best place to delve into that history is the Shubert Archive.
In the interest of preservation, the Archive is—by necessity—closed to the public, though researchers can contact the Archive to gain admission. (If you’re interested in digging into theatre history yourself, the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center has a wonderful public collection.)
As a member of the extended Shubert family, we are a lucky exception to that rule. Broadway Inbound is owned by The Shubert Organization, and because helping you book group tickets to Broadway shows is our job, it’s also our job to know as much about Broadway as we can. Including the old stuff.
The elevator opens into a Victorian penthouse apartment, furnished with a blend of ornate furniture, old art, stained-glass windows, and a couple utilitarian desks. Oh, and boxes. Lots of boxes.
The centerpiece of the room is a heavy table, covered with books and papers pulled out specifically for our visit, although I suspect that this is its usual state—concealed beneath an everchanging array of research materials.
The archivists walk us through the space, speaking of old Broadway, the Shuberts and the theatre we are suspended above. They tell us that long before this penthouse was the home of the archive, it belonged to Daniel Frohman, who built the theatre in 1903.
In one corner, low on the wall, is a trap door that opens over the house of the Lyceum. The legend is that Frohman would wave a white handkerchief through the tiny window when he thought his wife, the famed performer Margaret Illington, was overacting on the stage below. Years later, Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s assistant would wave a handkerchief at him in jest during the curtain call of Fully Committed. Illington went on to divorce her husband, while Ferguson forgot to look up.
The apartment is full of keepsakes and curios. Old Tony Awards. Photographs of the three young brothers from Syracuse who moved to New York City and established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the American theatre. Music boxes and pincushions commemorating past shows.
There’s a sliver of broken glass taken from the wreckage of the chandelier that once hung above Hitler’s desk, sent to J.J. Shubert as a token of thanks for the Shuberts’ involvement in the war effort. They ran the Stage Door Canteen—which provided food and entertainment for soldiers—out of the basement of their theatre on 44th Street, and they raised funds at theatres across the country to support the families of soldiers who were disabled, missing-in-action, or dead.
And the archivists are full of stories. Old stories, of Sam Shubert’s death in a train wreck in 1905, spurring his brothers, Lee and J.J., to open Sam S. Shubert Memorial Theatres across the United States. And new stories, of the archives inheriting oversized sardine cans from the original Broadway production of Cats and fending off researchers wondering if they have samples of Carmen Miranda’s DNA. (They don’t.)
We descend in the same elevator and exit through the same lobby, only this time we notice the little patch of the mural above the doors that is more vibrant than the rest; a spot-test for a potential restoration.
There used to be great urns that cast fire into the night sky above the Lyceum Theatre, prefiguring the lights of Times Square, way back when 45th Street was still a little ways off the beaten path. I peer upward, looking for them, as we step out into the winter air, and begin the walk back to the Broadway Inbound offices.