There aren’t many abandoned places in NYC you can visit (at least not legally), but it’s particularly fun when an opportunity arises to do just that. So when I learned that it would be possible to visit the abandoned Times Square Theater, which has sat vacant for 30 years, I knew I had to take the chance to get inside and see it for myself. Untapped Cities Insiders arranged the tour of this delightful little theater, and my friends, it was fantastic!
Though it has been vacant since 1988, the Times Square Theater is about to go through a major transformation. Armen Boyajian from Stillman Development International, the group redeveloping the site where the theater sits, led our tour a couple weeks ago and gave us the skinny on the theater’s history and what they have planned for its future.
Built in 1920, the Times Square Theater was used for about a dozen years as a Broadway theater (and was even graced by the presence of Laurence Olivier back in its heyday), but it soon fell out of favor with major stage productions. It’s quite small, having only had about 1,000 seats and pretty much no back of house space (even the dressing rooms were all stacked vertically, which means actors would have to run up and down stairs for costume changes).
So, not long after major stage productions abandoned the theater for larger spaces, the Times Square Theater began to be used for smaller vaudeville and burlesque shows. Then, it was eventually put to use as a movie theater in the ‘30s until it showed its last film in December of 1988, which was a pretty interesting time in history for 42nd Street and the Times Square area in general.
You see, not so long ago, Time Square was where you went for drugs, hookers, and peep shows–you definitely weren’t taking the kids there to see Lion King after dinner at Red Lobster and shopping at the M&M store. But when the Times Square Theater closed back in the ’80s, there was a plan underway to start cleaning up 42nd Street. In 1990, a nonprofit organization called the New 42nd Street was formed to oversee the redevelopment of seven of the theaters that lined 42nd Street, including the Times Square Theater.
Unfortunately, though, the Times Square Theater was never redeveloped, despite New 42nd Street’s efforts. There have been several attempts over the years to resurrect the theater, but no developer had been able to get a project off the ground. That is…until now.
The theater itself is beyond renovation so, sadly, it won’t be returned to its former glory. Stillman actually plans to turn the theater into a retail store, but they’re doing good by the theater’s history and plan to restore and reinstall some of its remaining features, including the beautiful plasterwork, the box seats, the proscenium arch, and the colonnade that is still visible outside the theater. All to the tune of about $100 million dollars…
Presently, Stillman’s contractors are cataloging and tagging the features they plan to restore, and professional plaster workers will carefully remove and then restore the features offsite. Stillman then plans to keep the theater’s facade, jack it up 4-5 feet, demolish the rest of the building, and then build a 4-story building back behind the facade. Once the building is completed, the historic interior features will be placed back inside, allowing visitors of the new retail space to get up close and personal with the beautiful plasterwork.
And believe me when I say that the plaster design work is quite beautiful! When we arrived for our tour, we entered through a construction entrance on 42nd Street that led into what would have been the backstage area of the theater. The original stage would have been situated perpendicular to 42nd Street, which was a little disorienting at first! Off to the left, you could see the proscenium arch and lots and lots of scaffolding up in and around the orchestra level and the balcony.
All of the seats have long since been removed from the theater, and there is now a very large hole where the stage once would have been. We were able to wander in through the orchestra-level seating area and then up the stairs to the balcony level where we spent a bit of time enjoying the view. You could step into the boxes and also see the beautiful plasterwork that covered the tops of the boxes. What was most amazing to me was just how close the balcony would have been to the stage! If you had come for a stage production, it would have been an intimate setting indeed.
And if exploring an abandoned space wasn’t cool enough already, we were able to climb up a ladder onto a scaffolded level just under the theater’s gorgeous plaster ceiling. It was here that you could really appreciate how lovely the theater must have been once upon a time. And honestly, how often do you get a chance to be close enough to a theater’s ceiling that you can reach out and touch it?!?!
Stillman is preparing to start construction soon, so there’s not much time left before the Times Square Theater as we know it will cease to exist. It is sad that the theater can’t be fully restored and used as a theater again, but at least this restoration project will make some of the theater’s interior features accessible to the public again in the future.
And while I’m not often super thrilled about the prospect of going to Times Square, I will say that having seen the delightful interior features they plan to preserve, I’m actually looking forward to visiting the future store that will house them for many years to come. And once the new store is built, I hope you’ll take some time to stop by and admire the beautiful 100-year old features yourself!