Friday, November 4, 2011
125th Street PART 3: The Harlem Opera House and The R.K.O. Alhambra
The marquee displays the names "Hurtig & Seamon". They are names more often associated with the theater down the block that became the Apollo, as they were the original owners. At some point after the 1889 opening, Oscar Hammerstein lost this theater (he had a bad habit of losing theaters) and Hurtig & Seamon took over. In the the late teens, the uber-powerful Keith - Albee took over. By the mid 1920's Frank Schiffman took over the Harlem Opera House. Schiffman was already a presence in Harlem, having operated the Lafayette and in 1935 taking over the Apollo with Leo Brecher.
The facade shows two entrances. The main theater, in the center and then the upstairs (and smaller) theater for the "finest in moving pictures".
This is a program from March 16th 1904. The 16th is written in as the date March 14th is crossed out. The directors listed are Klaw & Erlanger, big time Broadway producers of the early 20th century (Broadway's very own Saint James Theatre was originally named the Erlanger). The owner appears to be someone named Lichtenstein. The name Hammerstein is not listed on this program. With the Apollo still 10 years away and the Victoria 13 years away, this was the second of the big important houses that made 125th street the entertainment center of Harlem. James Weldon Johnson in his book Black Manhattan referred to this theater district as the place where the African American actor was able to "finally make for himself a definite place on the legitimate stage of New York". However, the change that was to come is still a few years away as this is an all white cast.
This is looking south on 7th Avenue from 126th street. On the right is The Alhambra Theater. It was designed by the architect who I have referred to as the Thomas Lamb of the late 19th - early 20th centuries, John B. McElfatrick. The original owner sold the theater soon after it's August 1905 opening to the almighty B.F. Keith circuit. It was vaudeville only until 1913 when movies were added to the program. Eventually this 1500 seat house became known as the RKO Alhambra. It now houses the D.M.V., a bowling alley and the Alhambra Ballroom.
According to his incredibly detailed records, Will Rogers performed here the week of January 25 1914 at the rate of only $350.00. The Alhambra Theatre began as a vaudeville house called the Harlem Auditorium. The original builders ran into financial trouble and was purchased, finished and renamed Alhambra Theatre by Percy G. Williams, a vaudeville impressario of the late 19th - early 20th centuries. In 1905, the variety house was sold to the Keith Vaudeville Circuit and named Keith's Alhambra Theatre. As indicated by the ad above the audience that this theater catered to was white, 125th street was still the dividing line between "White Harlem" and "Black Harlem. Two months earlier, in late August of 1913, Billy B. Van and the Beaumont Sisters the headliners at the Alhambra for a week.