Tuesday, November 23, 2010

History Lesson

Riverside Park. 2:10 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010. A beautiful, warm (mid-sixties), sunny day in New York; yesterday.

History Lesson. Last night at the New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street (between 7th and 8th), currently the home of Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” there was a book signing for John Loring and his biography of Joseph Urban, titled aptly Joseph Urban (Abrams, publishers).
The author signs his book. Click to order Joseph Urban by John Loring, or buy immediately at Archivia Books.
Mr. Urban was one of the most influential designers of the first third of the 20th century and the breadth of his work is still apparent almost a century later right here in New York.

Viennese by birth, upbringing and early education, Joseph Urban came to America in 1911 at age 39 to become the art director for the Boston Opera. Florenz Ziegfeld, the celebrated producer of Broadway musical revues known as The Follies, hired him in 1914 to design stage sets for him, and for more than a decade thereafter Urban’s designs dominated the Follies.

When he visited his hometown of Vienna right after the War in 1919, Joseph Urban saw that many of his artist friends were almost starving. He purchased many of their works and in June 1922, opened Weiner Werkstatte showroom at 581 Fifth Avenue and installed among others, Gustav Klimt's "The Dancer," now in the collection of the Neue Galerie here in New York. Although Klimt died in 1918 in poverty, in 2006, five of his works were sold at auction for a net of $327 million.
In 1916, Otto Kahn, the financier who was a main supporter of the Metropolitan Opera, also signed him on to design for the Met. In the two decades following his arrival in this country, Joseph Urban also designed buildings -- the base of Hearst Publications, the no longer extant Ziegfeld Theater at 54th and Sixth, the New School on West 12 Street, the Atlantic Beach Club in Long Island, the Palm Beach Bath and Tennis, Marjorie Meriweather Post’s Mar-a-lago -- as well as interiors of theaters and auditoriums (his design for the New School inspired Radio City Music Hall); hotel ballrooms such as the St. Regis Roof, department stores, and restaurants, nightclubs and furniture.

In the late 19-teens William Randolph Hearst signed him on to design sets for his Cosmopolitan Pictures. When in 1922 he opened a Wiener Werkstatte showroom on Fifth Avenue, he introduced Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele to this country. Americans first taste of Klimt was his famous “The Dancer,” now part of the collection of the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue and 86th Street. Symbolist, Art Nouveau, Secessionist, Art Deco, Modernist, Urban worked in a broad range of styles, and brilliantly.

John Loring, who for years was design director at Tiffany, and who created an archive of Tiffany’s history of design in several books he authored, chose the New Amsterdam for his book signing last night because it was the first theater that Joseph Urban designed for when he went to work for Flo Ziegfeld.

The New Amsterdam, built in 1903, is considered the first concrete example of architectural Art Nouveau in New York, built by the theatre manager/owners Klaw and Erlanger. Some of the greatest entertainers of the American century first performed as stars on its stage including Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Ruth Etting, Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb.

When it opened for business the New Amsterdam was the largest theater in New York with a capacity of 1800. Along with the Lyceum on West 45, also designed by the same architects (Herts and Tallant) and built in 1903, it is the oldest surviving Broadway theater in New York.
Joseph Urban's Ziegfeld Theater, named for Florenz Ziegfeld and built in 1927 by William Randolph Hearst on 54th Street and Sixth Avenue. It opened on February 2, 1927 with the musical Rio Rita. Its second show, Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's ground-breaking musical, Showboat, opened on December 27, 1927. Loew's owned it as a movie house from1933 until 1944 when Billy Rose bought it. It was razed in 1966. A fragment from the original facade, a female head (above, right), has been seen on the NYSD, resting in front of a house on East 80th Street.
The Central Park Casino, originally designed and built in 1871 by Calvert Vaux as a "ladies restaurant," its renovation was conceived by Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr. and Joseph Urban who executed the redesign interior and exterior. Mayor Jimmy Walker awarded Biddle and his investors the franchise and it was opened as a nightclub restaurant in June 1929 with Eddie Duchin and his orchestra entertaining. It became a destination for the city wealthy and cafe society. It was closed in 1936 by Mayor LaGuardia and razed, replaced by a children's playground
The original production, with sets by Joseph Urban in the theater of his design, for Hammerstein and Kern's Showboat based on the Edna Ferber novel.
42nd Street in the 1920s with the New Amsterdam advertising "The Ed Wynn Carnival" and the marquee with the Ziegfeld Follies.
When Ziegfeld leased it for his Follies, he also had an after-theatre late night rooftop nightclub known as The Frolics. During the Great Depression, the theater closed briefly, re-opening in 1937 as a movie house, which it remained for the decadent years of that block of 42nd Street.

The Nederlander Organization purchased it in 1982. In 1990, the State and City of New York assumed ownership along with that of other theaters on the block. Disney Theatrical Productions under the direction of Tom Schumacher signed a 99-year lease for the property in 1993. Millions of dollars and several years later it was restored to its former glory. “Lion King” opened there in 1997 and ran for almost ten years before “Mary Poppins” moved in four years ago and has remained ever since.
The New Amsterdam today, now seven years into its second century.
The restored orchestra and balconies of the New Amsterdam Theater.
The Hearst Building, designed by Joseph Urban, commissioned by William Randolph Hearst and completed in 1928, was originally built as a base for a proposed tower which was postponed due to the Great Depression. Eighty years later, that tower was completed, designed by architect Norman Foster.
The Norman Foster design of the Hearst Tower, built on the Urban-designed base. The auditorum of the New School, another Urban design and the inspiration for the Radio City Music Hall.
Marjorie Meriweather Post's Palm Beach residence, Mar-a-Lago, now Donald Trump's private club.
Last night Tom Schumacher gave me a brief tour of what he considers (and who could disagree) the most beautiful Broadway theater of that golden era. I asked him about the roof garden where the Frolics took place. They are now his office since the roof couldn’t meet modern building codes.

John Loring’s Joseph Urban is a beautiful book, a treasure trove filled with his drawings, more than 200 color illustrations including paintings, renderings, stage sets, as well as photographs of both interiors and exteriors of his work, many of which have never been seen before. It’s a great gift for collectors and connoisseurs of art, architecture, design and 20th century culture and New York.


Meanwhile, last night JH went down to Barney’s to get a look at their intriguing and amusing holiday windows ...
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