Vaudeville Vignettes: New York Hippodrome


The dawning of the 20th century brought in many new inventions and dreams of a brighter future. The construction of the Hippodrome Theater, also known as the New York Hippodrome, helped bring in this new age. Construction began in the summer of 1904 in the theater district of Manhattan. Built by some of the same people who created Luna Park in Coney Island, the theater was designed to be unlike any other theater in existence. Construction on this titan project was so much work, finishing touches were still being completed days before the April, 1905 opening.

In less than a year, New York City was unveiling what is still considered one of the greatest architectural achievements in theater. The theater held 5,300 seats and on opening night, every seat was packed with patrons paying between 25 cents and $5.75 for the privilege of seeing the first show. The stage was 100ft by 200ft and capable of holding up to 1,000 performers at a time. The stage space allowed for a whole menagerie of animals to have room to safely perform on stage and then be housed in the built-in stalls beneath the stage. There was also a 14-foot high and 60-foot diameter glass water tank operated by hydraulic pistons capable of holding 8,000 gallons of water for swimming or diving shows.

For a while, the Hippodrome was the place to be and the place to perform. Everything from diving horses to hundred piece choirs to elaborate musicals were brought to life on that stage. Competition to fill seats in theaters was so heated, there were often scandals with competitors vying for performers. The Hippodrome was one of the most successful theaters in New York City for a while. With a change of ownership in 1922, new changes also came to the New York Hippodrome. The large stage was downsized and some of the more elaborate features of the theater were removed. For many of the Vaudeville performers of the time, including the famous Harry Houdini, The Hippodrome was still the place to be.

Unfortunately, the rise of cinema brought down the desire for live shows and movies were added to the Hippodrome in 1925. Unlike the first show, there were now more empty seats than patrons. Even late night movies, boxing, and various other events could not save the grand structure. In 1939, the building closed its doors for the last time and was demolished the same year. Even though it no longer exists, the New York Hippodrome still lives on in the memories and pictures of the era.


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