History Of The Bronx Opera House
Broadway’s premier producers, George M. Cohan and Sam Harris began planning the Bronx Opera House in 1911. At that time, Cohan and Harris controlled numerous theaters in Manhattan. Their goal was to build a sister theater to the old Grand Opera House on Eighth Avenue to try out pre-Broadway productions and to bring shows directly from a successful Broadway engagement. Cohan and Harris commissioned George Keister, one of the City’s foremost theatre architects. The result was a packed opera house that opened in August 30th, 1913, with a performance of “Fine Feathers.”
The Bronx Opera House featured all the major stars of the stage and was a great success. It was part of the “Subway Circuit,” a ring of theatres across New York City. Both the 149th street trolley car from Harlem and the 3rd Avenue subway ensured large crowds. As the years passed the Opera House turned to various forms of entertainment including vaudeville, plays, diverse showcases, and movies. As a first-run, then grind house, it remained one of the South Bronx’s most distinctive theatres. At that time, other theatres in the Bronx included the National, the Royal, the Empire, the Willis, the Loews Victoria, the Bronx, and the Metropolis Theaters.
The theatre building has a detailed Beaux-Arts façade fronting on 149th Street. The former auditorium was reached through a long foyer that backs onto 148th street. The interior was designed with a classical motif, with boxes surrounding the rectangular, 62-foot wide proscenium. On both sides of these boxes stood a huge Corinthian column, above which is a mural. The entire auditorium seating 1,920 on three levels adorned by murals was topped by a grandiose crystal chandelier which hung elegantly as the centerpiece of the room. The stage, equipped for Broadway productions including the scenery, was full size – 39 feet deep to the rear wall and 62 feet wide. The 62 foot wide stage hosted some of the top performers in the history of show business, including Harry Houdini, George Burns, John Bunny, Peggy Wood, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Eddie Cantor.
The Founders and Original Managers
George Michael Cohan (1878 – 1942) was an eminent actor, playwright, and producer from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Commonly referred to as, “the man who owned Broadway,” Cohan played a major role in shaping the American theatrical industry. Of his hundreds of contributions, many are still recognized today, including the famous “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which was the most popular song throughout the First World War. A statue of Cohan stands in Times Square, New York City, honoring the impact Cohan had on show business.
Sam Harris (1872 – 1941) and George M. Cohan worked great as a team throughout the twentieth century and produced several Broadway musicals. Harris produced over ten dozen shows, many of which were considered the biggest hits of the time. In addition to his success in theater, Sam was known for his kindness and fair treatment towards his actors and employees.
George Keister (1859 – Unknown) was the original architect of the Bronx Opera House. Regarded as one of New York City’s prominent architects for over fifty years, Keister was appointed secretary of the Architectural League of New York in 1887. His grand work is reflected on four NYC Landmark buildings: the Apollo Theater, the First Baptist Church, the Belasco Theater, and the Hotel Gerard. Keister was a remarkable man with an extraordinary career; his most notable commission, the Apollo Theater, is just one of the many theatres Keister designed. Others include:
- Colonial Theatre (1887 Broadway)
- Loews Victoria Theatre (157 East 86th Street)
- Astor Theater (1537 Broadway)
- Geroge M. Cohan’s Theatre (1482 Broadway)
- Willis Theater (411 East 138th Street, Bronx)
- Bronx Opera House (436 East 149th Street, Bronx)
- Jefferson Theatre (214 East 14th Street)
- Empire Theatre (867 Westchester Avenue, Bronx)
- Globe Theatre (7 Sumpter Street, Brooklyn)
- Selwyn Theatre (227 West 42nd Street)
- Benson Theatre (2005-11 86th Street, Brooklyn)
- Chaloner Theatre (847 9th Avenue)
- Earl Carroll Theater (753-759 7th Avenue)
In honor of the late George Keister, the Opera House façade has been restored to its original 1913 design.