The Theatre Guild building on Broadway at 226 West 47th Street, New York

NYC Theatre Guild Building with TobyIf Walls Could Talk

My New York office was located in a 10 story office building designed by architect George F. Pelham and built in 1923 in the heart of NYC’s Times Square at 226 West 47th Street.  I rented about 6,000 sq ft over 2 floors for my companies in this iconic and theatrically historical building.  My office desk on the 8th floor was towards the rear of the building, and was the exact same position as that of Lawrence Langner, head of the Theatre Guild.

My office on one side was adjacent to the TKTS booth, and overlooked The Palace Theatre (in my final year of tenancy, the W Hotel was built, blocking my view).  My office looked down at the rooftop of the adjacent Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and 15 second walk on my street was the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (now the Lena Horne Theatre), the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and the Biltmore Theatre (now the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre).

The Theatre Guild

Theatre Guild

Established in New York City in 1919 as an independent theatrical production company, the Theatre Guild contributed significantly to American musical theatre by producing George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess and by bringing Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II for a whole new era of Broadway musicals with as Oklahoma! and Carousel, and contributed greatly to the success of Broadway from the 1920s throughout the 1970s, producing a total of 228 plays on Broadway, including 18 by George Bernard Shaw and 7 by Eugene O’Neill, including world premieres. Other major playwrights introduced include Sidney Howard, William Saroyan, Maxwell Anderson, and Robert Sherwood — all Pulitzer Prize winners.

In the field of musical theatre, the Guild has promoted works by Richard Rodgers, teamed with both Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, George and Ira Gershwin, Jule Styne, and Meredith Willson, all of which have become classics. Under President John F. Kennedy, the Guild was engaged to assemble a U.S. theatre company headed by Helen Hayes, to tour the capitals of Europe and South America with works by Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, and William Gibson.

Theatre Guild Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma! and CarouselNotable productions of the Theatre Guild included:

1920: Heartbreak House
1923: Saint Joan
1931: Mourning Becomes Electra
1933: Ah, Wilderness!
1935: Porgy and Bess
1939: The Philadelphia Story; The Time of Your Life
1943: Oklahoma!
1943: Othello
1945: Carousel
1946: The Iceman Cometh
1947: The Winslow Boy
1950: Come Back, Little Sheba
1955: The Matchmaker
1956: Bells Are Ringing
1960: The Unsinkable Molly Brown
1965: The Royal Hunt of the Sun
1974: Absurd Person Singular

Some other productions include The Adding Machine; Amphitryon; Androcles And The Lion; The Apple Cart; Arms And The Man; Back To Methuselah; Biography; Both Your Houses; The Brothers Karamazov; Caesar And Cleopatra; Call It A Day; Caprice; The Devil’s Disciple; The Doctor’s Dilemma; Elizabeth The Queen; Escape Me Never; Fata Morgana; FDR; Foolish Notion; The Garrick Gaieties; Green Grow The Lilacs; The Guardsman; He Who Gets Slapped; Hotel Universe; Idiot’s Delight; Jacobowsky And The Colonel; John Ferguson; The Lady’s Not For Burning; Liliom; Major Barbara; A Majority Of One; Marco Millions; Mary Of Scotland; The Millionairiess; Mr. Pim Passes By; O Mistress Mine; Peer Gynt; Picnic; The Pirate; Pygmalion; R. U. R.; Reunion In Vienna; The Second Man; The Silver Cord; The Silver Whistle; Strange Interlude; Sunrise At Campobello; There Shall Be No Night; They Knew What They Wanted; Tunnel Of Love; Without Love; Dear Me, The Sky Is Falling; The Homecoming

The last Broadway play produced by the Theatre Guild was State Fair in 1996.

Many distinguished actors appeared in Theatre Guild productions, including Helen Hayes in Caesar and Cleopatra and Alla Nazimova in Mourning Becomes Electra. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, golden couple of the Broadway stage, were individually among the most popular and highest paid actors of their day, they a contract with Theatre Guild as a team in Ferenc Molnár’s Guardsman and went on to act together in many other notable Theatre Guild productions, such as Arms and the Man and The Taming of the Shrew.

Theatre Guild Lawrence LangnerInitially administered by a board of managers, the Theatre Guild was for the greater part of its history co-directed by Lawrence Langner and Theresa Helburn, with Langner’s wife, Armina Marshall Langner, and son, Philip Langner, serving in several administrative roles.

During my time in the Theatre Guild offices and building, other tenants included:

  • The League of American Theatres & Producers
  • Group Sales Box Office
  • Hoagy Carmichael

Early in my tenancy, I was lucky to share office with Cy Coleman, whose career stories were sensational, motivational, and inspiring. Cy was the composer of so many legendary shows such as Sweet Charity, Wildcat, Little Me, On The Twentieth Century, Barnum, The Will Rogers Follies, City Of Angels and The Life, which I worked on marketing.

Next door was the Cafe Edison within the Edison Hotel (228 W 47th St) referred to as the ‘Polish Tea Room’, after the more famous Russian Tea Room next to Carnegie Hall, in part due to its opulence since the diner space used to be the Edison Ballroom, and in part due to its cuisine, a mix of Eastern European dishes and diner staples.

As the only unpretentious, inexpensive, non-chain restaurant in Times Square to escape the tourists, it was the preferred choice of Broadway producers, actors, playwrights, dealmakers and stars who loved to have our cheap lunch meetings there, typically chowed down on borscht, beef brisket, matzo ball soup and blintzes for less than $15. Any day, you would see the who’s who of Broadway, and often could tell which deals were percolating, based on who their lunch companion was. Careers were launched here. Indeed, we had a roped off VIP section at the front window for regulars.

Regular lunch guests would include producer Manny Azenberg, playwright August Wilson, who scribbled ideas for three scripts on napkins over lunch, producer and Shubert theatre chain president Bernie Jacobs, director Jerry Zaks, composer Marc Shaiman, actors Christine Pedi, Bryan Batt, Sarah Jessica Parker, Linda Lavin, Michael Urie, Jackie Mason and playwright Neil Simon, who set his 2001 play 45 Seconds From Broadway in a fictional version of Cafe Edison and composer Cy Coleman.

The 9th floor of this historic hotel was home to George Burns and Gracie Allen after the marriage in 1927; their friend Jack Benny also lived here, on the 4th floor. Moss Hart lived in a tower apartment in 1931 after his Once in a Lifetime was a Broadway hit. The hotel is featured in the movies “The Godfather” and “Bullets Over Broadway”.

My own building doorman, after many years seeing me daily, apparently always thought I was Brian Dennehy, and wished me good luck on the Death of a Salesman opening night as I headed to the opening in my tuxedo.

On the Block Where I Lived

within a 15 second walk on my street…

  • Hotel Edison (228 W 47th St) Next door to my office, the 9th floor of this historic hotel was home to George Burns and Gracie Allen after the marriage in 1927; their friend Jack Benny also lived here, on the 4th floor. Moss Hart lived in a tower apartment in 1931 after his Once in a Lifetime was a Broadway hit. The hotel is featured in the movies “The Godfather” and “Bullets Over Broadway”. The cafe here was lovingly known as the “Polish tea room”, and was typically packed with Broadway dealmakers and stars daily.
  • Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 W 47th St) A 1928 Herbert J. Krapp design, noted for its ironmongery supporting the marquee. It was named for Ethel Barrymore, the Shuberts’ star performer, who appeared in 4 shows here in its first 4 years. Marlon Brando played here in A Streetcar Named Desire, Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorce, Sydney Poitier in Raisin in the Sun.
  • Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 W 47th St) A Herbert J. Krapp design in the “modern Spanish” style for the Chanin Organization, completed in 1926; the ornamentation is by Roman Meltzer, formerly architect to Czar Nicholas II. Originally named for the 19th Century actor Richard Mansfield, it was renamed in 1960 for the theatre critic.  Renamed again in 2022 as the Lena Horne Theatre.
  • Toby Simkin in Times Square at George M Cohan Statue Give My Regards to BroadwayTimes Square, Duffy Square At the north end of this triangular traffic island is the TKTS booth, offering half-priced tickets to selected shows on the same day. The old canvas-and-pipe structure was quite attractive, but it’s now been replaced by a red staircase-to-nowhere. Standing in front of the staircase is a statue of the square’s namesake, Father Francis P. Duffy, was Broadway’s spiritual advisor, backed by a Celtic cross.  Also here is George M. Cohan, forever giving his regards to Broadway. In 1909, a 50-foot statue of Purity was erected here. It lasted two months.
  • Ramada Renaissance (1580 Broadway): This wedge-shaped building, put up in 1989, is most famous for its Coca-Cola signage since 1936 (though it’s temporarily absent). In the 1920s it was the Palais Royale, with the ‘Moulin Rouge’ in the basement; then from 1936 to 1940 it was the Cotton Club’s post-Harlem home, featuring stars like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Lena Horne.
  • The Palace Theatre (Corner of W 47th St and Broadway): built in 1913 by Kirchoff & Rose. In its heyday it was every vaudevillian’s dream to play the Palace; among those who made it were W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope and the Marx Brothers. “Citizen Kane” had its world premiere here May 1, 1944, when the Palace was converted to a cinema; after it returned to live theatre, Judy Garland had a smash 19-week run in 1951. Subsequently it’s seen the openings of such musicals as Sweet Charity, La Cage aux Folles, The Will Rogers Follies, Beauty and the Beast and Aida. The casting scene in All That Jazz was filmed here. The Doubletree Guest Suites Times Square Hotel was built in 1991 enveloping the old Palace Theatre, Before the Palace was built, there was a brownstone here where the Barrymore kids–Lionel, Ethel and John–lived in 1889. In 2022, the Palace Theatre was raised 10m to make more room for more street level commercial retail space.
  • The Coolidge Hotel (131 W 47th St) was popular with entertainers for its proximity to The Palace. Gracie Allen lived here in 1921 when she was dating George Burns; her roommate, Mary Kelly, was seeing George’s friend Jack Benny, who also lived at the Coolidge.
  • Biltmore Theatre (261 W 47th St) Another Chanin Organization house completed in 1926; the interior is by Herbert J. Krapp. Barefoot in the Park and Hair had long runs here. Now renamed the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
  • Stella’s (266 W 47th St) one of the last places to see go-go boys in Times Square, and one of the not-so-secret hideouts of the Broadway companies men after their shows.
  • The Americana Hotel (155 W 47th St) was where comedian Lenny Bruce lived when he was in New York City. Biographer Albert Goldman described it as “one of the most bizarre hotels in the world: a combination whorehouse, opium den and lunatic asylum.”

Every Broadway theatre was within a 5 minute walk.

Toby Simkin office in the Theatre Guild building location in Times Square

226 W 47th St., New York, New York, 10036 USA
GPS 40.759506, -73.98532

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