|A postcard depicted the newly-opened theater in 1909.|
The daughter of a sea captain, Jessie Carolyn Dermot was born in Rockland, Maine on February 5, 1868. Jessie was not destined for the quiet life of a Victorian New England housewife. At the age of 15 she was enrolled in the Notre Dame Academy in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
While on a trip to New York City shortly thereafter, the teenager met attorney George A. MacDermott, who was in his 30s. After their brief marriage, Jessie enrolled in acting classes. Her instructor, Dion Boucicault, gave her the stage name Maxine Elliott. By the mid-1890s Maxine was touring the country and drawing large audiences; not because she was an especially good actress, but because of her extraordinary beauty.
She married her co-star, Nathan Goodwin in February 1898 and the pair continued to tour together. All the while Maxine Elliott’s personal fortune increased. She was firmly established as a star when she appeared in September 1903 in Her Own Way, by Clyde Finch. This time her husband did not share the stage with her. The smash hit traveled to London where her performance prompted King Edward VII to request an introduction. Whispered rumors suggesting a sexual relationship between the couple would follow Maxine for the rest of her life.
|Cabinet card from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Maxine Elliott was not merely a pretty face. She was a shrewd businesswoman and in 1906, after returning to New York, took over the management of her finances. Two years later, she divorced Nat Goodwin, and began negotiations with brothers Lee and Samuel Shubert in a brash—some would say shocking—venture. Maxine wanted to own and manage her own theater. A woman operating such a business was essentially unheard of at the time.
By now the entertainment district had begun the migration from 23rd Street to the former Longacre Square neighborhood (newly renamed Times Square). Lee Shubert purchased the four “tenements, with stores” at Nos. 105 to 113 West 39th Street in May 1908. The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted “The property is going to be improved with a theatre and will be called the Elliott Theatre, after Maxine Elliott.”
The Shubert-Elliott partnership prompted yet another rumor. Many suggested that Maxine’s share of the investment came from J. P. Morgan who was not only a close friend, but a rumored lover. The Record & Guide, by the way, got the name of the proposed theater wrong. The Shuberts suggested the name “The Maxine Elliott Theatre,” but Maxine resolutely resisted. She insisted on “Maxine Elliott’s Theatre.” The apostrophe, she realized, made the clear distinction between a theatre named in honor of an actress, and one owned and managed by her.
|A 1908 publicity photo posed Maxine with a pickax breaking ground for the new theater -- The Sketch, September 30, 1908 (copyright expired)|
It seems to have been Maxine herself who chose the Chicago architectural firm of Marshall & Fox to design the building. Just one month after the property was purchased, the announcement was made that “The construction is to be of stone terra cotta and brick, and will cost in the neighborhood of $300,000.” That figure would translate to about $7.8 million today.
The Record & Guide noted “When the playhouse is completed next January Miss Elliott will become the manager of it, and will be the first woman star in New York to own a playhouse and have it named for her…and hers will be one of the finest of the small modern theatres, in the city.”
Maxine directed the architects to model the façade on the Petite Trianon. Not content with limestone, brick or granite for her upscale structure, she insisted on white Dover marble. In September 1908, as the structure rose, The Sketch described what theater-goers might expect.
“The interior decorations are decidedly novel, the woodwork being a deep old ivory, forming panels which are filled with a glowing old gold brocade of the tint which is commonly known as castor brown. The stalls—which, in accordance with the American custom cover the whole of the floor—are very roomy chairs, so that the comfort of the audience is certain, and it will be studied in every way.”
Months later, after the building was dedicated, Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine added to the description of the 900-seat playhouse. “The lobby of the theatre, entirely finished, walls and ceiling, in a white veined Vermont marble is about 10 feet wide…In the lobby the lighting fixtures are handsomely designed and are of cast bronze, gold plate, as are all the others in the house.”
In the basement was the gentlemen’s smoking room with its oak furniture, the check room and toilet (“finished in old Ivory tints with paneled walls, outlined with mouldings of circassion Walnut"). The ladies’ dressing room was also on this level, furnished in Louis XVI reproductions, and the orchestra pit, hidden from the audience—“the sound of the music being wafted through a leafy screen which takes the place of the usual apron placed before the stage,” explained Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine.
|Maxine's dressing room was, in fact, a several-room suite -- Burr McIntosh Monthly, April 1909 (copyright expired)|
A large crystal chandelier hung above the audience, carrying on the French motif. The critic writing for Architects’ and Builders’ did not care for it. “In the criticism of the lighting, it might be said that the central chandelier, although a very beautiful piece of work in itself, is a relic of archaism in theatre construction that might well have been omitted. It is therefore to be hoped that the owners of the theatre will avail themselves of an opportunity in the near future to do away with this feature and to cover the auditorium ceiling with some soft and indefinite mural painting, lighted indirectly from above the heavy cornice which frames the ceiling panel.”
|Burr McIntosh Monthly, April 1909 (copyright expired)|
The Burr McIntosh Monthly spoke about Maxine’s close involvement with the interior decoration and the building’s safety. “It is scarcely necessary to say that the womanly thoughtfulness and care and taste which have been lavished on the public part of this notable structure have been as freely and generously expended to secure the comfort and safety of those behind the scenes…Really, Miss Maxine Elliott’s theatre makes one wish that they owned it for a home, and no greater testimony to its artistic perfection or of the womanly care which has been bestowed upon its details could be paid it.”
Putnam’s Magazine made special note of the Maxine’s thrust for sexual equality in erecting the theater. “In the first place, it is the only theatre ever built in this city by a woman and managed by a woman.” It added “She intends it primarily for women ‘stars.’ When she herself acts there, her plays will be by women, if women can give her what she wants. ‘The Chaperon,’ with which she opened the theatre, was written by a woman, being Miss Marion Fairfax’s second production. Miss Elliott has installed women ushers—an innovation in this country.”
|The glistening white structure stood in stark contrast to a pile of street debris in 1909 -- photograph Library of Congress|
The magazine suggested that Maxine’s ground-breaking endeavor would change the face of Broadway. “The success of the Maxine Elliott Theatre has incited other actresses to go and do likewise, and I hear that we are soon to have an Annie Russell Theatre. It may be that in time we shall have none but theatres that are emblazoned with the names of ‘stars.’”
As Putnam’s mentioned, the theater opened in 1909 with Maxine starring in The Chaperon. Not long after, Maxine donated the use of the theater for “a suffrage matinee” on March 31. She also paid for the orchestra. Three plays were staged for the benefit of the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women: Before the Dawn, A Woman’s Influence, and How the Vote Was Won.
The matinee was organized by Beatrice Forbes-Robertson, daughter of the great English actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, considered one of the finest thespians of the day. Not only did Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman recite a suffrage poem during one of the intermissions and Mrs. Stanton Blatch speak; but Beatrice managed to get her esteemed father to speak as well.
Maxine returned to London later that year, leaving the management of the theater to the Shuberts. She could not have known that in her absence the President of the United States would be in the audience of her new theater.
On December 30, 1909 Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson was back at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre; now performing in The Passing of the Third Floor Back. President Taft was in town, as were several members of his family from Ohio. The entire group decided to take in the show.
“Before his arrival at the theatre Thirty-ninth Street was lined with policemen from Broadway to Sixth Avenue,” reported The New York Times the following day, “and after he had entered his box there were officers in the lobby, on the sidewalk, and even in the auditorium of the house. A line of Secret Service men prevented any access to the stage box in which the President and his party sat.”
In anticipation of the President’s visit, his boxes were draped in the American and Presidential flags. “When the President entered the theatre, at exactly 8:30 o’clock, the orchestra played “America,” and the audience, already in place, stood until he was seated.”
Between the second and third acts Forbes-Robertson was brought to the Presidential box for introductions. “After the performance the President entered his automobile and was driven to the Pennsylvania Station in Jersey City, where he took the midnight train for Washington.”
Maxine Elliott returned to New York in 1910 and appeared in The Inferior Sex. A year later the theater was once again the venue of a suffragist benefit. On January 18, 1911 women from the highest ranks of New York society took to the stage in a series of tableaux representing historic women. Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson appeared as Motherhood, mimicking the Raphael Madonna. Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt was Joan of Arc and Mrs. Gould portrayed Catherine of Russia. Mrs. Archibald Mackay posed in “Discovery of Radium or Mme. Currie in Her Laboratory.”
The women in the audience were no less elevated with names like Goelet, Sloane, Morgan, Harriman, Mills, Whitney, Lydig and De Koven.
A performance in the theater later that year would be less polite. When Irish playwright John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World opened at Maxine Eilliott’s Theatre on November 27, 1911 a riot broke out. The play had already been staged in other cities and protestors who felt it portrayed the Irish badly, were now ready.
The New York Times reported on the mayhem. When an actor “in the humble dress of the Irish peasant” delivered the line “I killed my father a week and a half ago for the likes of that,” the audience yelled “Shame! Shame!”
“A potato swept through the air from the gallery and smashed against the wings. Then came a shower of vegetables that rattled against the scenery and made the actors duck their heads and fly behind the stage setting for shelter.
“A potato struck Miss MaGee, and she, Irish like, drew herself up and glared defiance. Men were rising in the gallery and balcony and crying out to stop the performance. In the orchestra several men stood up and shook their fists.”
When the stage manager insisted that the actors continue, the “tumult broke out more violently than before, and more vegetables came sailing through the air and rolled about the stage. Then began the fall of soft cubes that broke as they hit the stage. At first these filled the men and women in the audience and on the stage with fear, for only the disturbers knew what they were.”
They were stink bombs.
Policemen streamed in from the streets; and men and women alike were hauled out onto the street. “Even while the police were at work missiles kept striking the stage, and the actors, with one eye on them, were going on with their parts. A potato struck Miss MaGee and rolled to the wings. Lady Gregory, who has followed the play about on its troublesome course, picked it up and said she would keep it as a token of her visit to this country.”
The Times opined “It will be the greatest of pities if such rowdyism as last night’s is not speedily put down, for apart from its own despicable character it may be the means of preventing many people from enjoying what is really a very remarkable piece of dramatic literature.”
In 1913 Maxine scored a great success in Joseph and His Brethren in London. Suspecting that she had achieved the high point of her career, she decided to exit gracefully while on top. She acted sporadically for the next few years; then in February 1920 she appeared for the final time in her own theater, playing in Trimmed in Scarlet.
She retired to Europe, spending much of her time in her Riviera chateau. The international beauty entertained royalty and celebrities, growing corpulent—weighing 200 pounds at the time of her death on March 5, 1940.
In the meantime, Maxine Elliott’s Theatre had continued to thrive. Here Jeanne Eagels opened in Rain, Ethel Barrymore starred in The Constant Wife, and Helen Hayes thrilled audiences in Coquette. Plays by renowned playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, Noel Coward, John Galsworthy and George Bernard Shaw opened here.
But before long the theater district passed Maxine Elliott’s Theatre. By the time of the Great Depression few theaters remained south of 42nd Street. In 1930 Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Helen Tamiris (who went only by her last name) formed The Dance Repertory Theatre and the group made Maxine Elliott’s Theatre its home.
When it opened here on January 6, 1930 The New York Times called it “an unqualified success” and said “Not since the memorable debut of La Argentine last season has such a brilliant audience assembled for a dance performance.” Three days later Martha Graham gave her Dance Without Music.
The Dance Repertory Theatre would share the venue with stage plays and in 1931 Judith Anderson appeared here in Luigi Pirandello’s play As You Desire Me. On November 20, 1934 Lillian Hellman’s tragedy The Children’s Hour opened. It would run for an amazing 691 performances, finally closing on July 4, 1936.
With the closing of The Children’s Hour the theater was leased to the Federal Theatre Project. Trouble came to the Maxine Elliott’s Theatre the following year when Orson Wells began rehearsals of The Cradle Will Rock, produced by John Houseman. Violent labor unrest gripped the nation. The play’s story about the push to organize a union in the steel town, some thought, hit too close to home at a time when tensions and emotions were raw.
The WPA, which was funding the play, feared that the pro-union message may cause lawmakers to cut back its funding. Four days before the play was slated to open on June 16 a memorandum from the WPA put it off . On June 15 WPA police took over the Maxine Elliott Theatre to make sure the play did not open.
Defiantly Wells and Houseman marched the entire troupe and ticket-holding audience 20 blocks north to the empty Venice Theatre. Reportedly, thousands joined the impromptu march and the theater aisles were packed with those unable to find a seat. Following the performance, the cast went back to the Maxine Elliott Theatre in order to comply with WPA rules regarding absences.
Following the closing curtain of The Lady Who Came to Stay in January 1941 the out-of-place theater sat empty for nearly two years. It was used as a radio station in 1941 and in November the following year The New York Times mentioned “there had been talk about tearing it down.”
But by 1948 Martha Graham was back, sharing the theater with The Experimental Theatre. On February 9 that year The Times made a passing remark about “A company of talented Negro players” who were part of the third production of the Experimental Theatre’s season.
Still owned by the Shubert and Elliott estates, the once-grand playhouse was converted to a CBS television studio in 1949. Here Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town shows were aired. Then in 1956 the Elliott heirs sold their portion to the Shubert estate, which rapidly liquidated the property. The old theater, an anachronism among soaring Garment District loft buildings, had outlived its usefulness.
|By the second half of the 20th century the white marble building was surrounded by lofts. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
On February 21, 1960 The New York Times wrote “The demolition last month of a theatre landmark on West Thirty-ninth Street to make way for another office building was unnoticed by most New Yorkers.
“The building was Maxine Elliott’s Theatre, and though the city seemed indifferent—the theatre had not been important for many years—some people remembered its old elegance and the beautiful woman who gave it her name.”