Shubert Theater past and present

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As a little girl, I remember the excitement of going downtown to see a brand-new musical at the Shubert on a Saturday afternoon, then getting a meal at Kaysey’s Restaurant where the stars of the show would go to eat and relax. Picking a selection from the rolling dessert cart was the delicious ending to an idyllic afternoon.

Once touted as the place where Broadway shows came to get their legs on straight, New Haven’s Shubert Theater, which just celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first opening night, has done vaudeville and opera, burlesque and dance, jazz and classical, plays and musicals. Among the 600 Broadway trial runs it staged, 300 were world premieres and 50 were American premieres. Among its performers were Mae West, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando, Liza Minnelli, Sidney Poitier, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, James Earl Jones, Louis Armstrong and the list goes on.

But any list of the people who’ve made the Shubert what it is should start with brothers Lee and J.J., who brought it into existence. The Sam S. Shubert Theater, named to honor their late brother and founder of the broader Shubert theater chain, debuted with The Belle of Bond Street on December 11, 1914, when tickets sold for between a quarter and a dollar and a half.

The brothers held the reins until 1941, when impresario Maurice H. Bailey took over, then kept the curtains opening and closing for 35 years. Adopting the phrase “Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits,” Bailey and his playhouse in the heart of New Haven saw the world premieres of many of the most famous and enduring Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, including Oklahoma! (originally Away We Go), Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. The seminal play A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Mr. Brando and Jessica Tandy, premiered in 1947 at the Shubert.

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For most of Bailey’s run, Hamden resident Edith Goodmaster had a front-row seat. In the early ’50s, she accepted a “temporary” position as the man’s secretary, one that lasted 25 years until his death. Eventually she found herself helping him manage other pieces of his portfolio, including real estate, movie theaters, the Shubert and projects like the building of the B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Woodbridge. She still has his picture on her desk at home, where she does bookkeeping work, and remembers Bailey as an “incredible man in all respects and I worshiped him. He was a tough guy and set in his ways but we always got along wonderfully.”

After Bailey’s passing, in 1976 the Shubert shut off its lights and almost got swallowed up by a city in flux. But, through the efforts of Rita Bailey Gwin, Maurice’s daughter, and a dedicated committee, the theater got a second chance at greatness, reopening in 1983 as the Shubert Performing Arts Center after major restoration work.

The 100th-anniversary celebration which culminated in December has prompted a flood of memories for Maurice’s granddaughter and Hamden resident Susan Zimmerman Matican, who thought her grandfather had “the coolest job ever.” She fondly remembers that she “saw tons of shows. It was my favorite thing to do on Saturday, to sit in our reserved box seats and see shows like The Fantasticks, many Neil Simon comedies, anything that was appropriate for me. I was fairly young at the time and I grew up loving the theater. I was spoiled. Even today I only like good seats”—not that she isn’t willing to earn them, having ushered as a teen. Once when she was a hatcheck girl at Kaysey’s, she got to hand Mr. Simon his coat.

Matican likes to tell the tale, handed down as legend within the family, that as the world premiere of My Fair Lady was about to open, the curtain was late. The story goes that when Maurice Bailey went backstage to find out why, he found the leading man Rex Harrison afraid to go out on stage. Bailey told the star, who was apparently afraid to sing with a live orchestra, that he should “go out there and talk-sing the words and you’ll be fine.” Whether it actually happened that way, Harrison did go out there and the play was a hit, went to Broadway and earned him a Tony Award.

After the 1983 restoration, which called back to the theater’s original color scheme of ivory, ecru and gold leaf, with plush pink seats and an expanded lobby, it wasn’t long before Judy Lisi became the Shubert’s executive director, staying on until 1992. Broadway set designer and Milford resident Leo Meyer has fond memories of Lisi’s tenure, when she created the Shubert Opera Company and implemented several operas a season, with fine conductors and headline stars from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Meyer, who sang in the chorus for shows such as Madame Butterfly and Faust, says the operatic streak was very well-received, especially by the large local Italian community.

Opera’s still a part of the Shubert thanks to Yale Opera, which is performing The Marriage of Figaro there February 13-15. Challenging perceptions of the theater as a place devoted solely to the dramatic arts, sister-singers Erica and Tina Campbell, a.k.a. the modern gospel/R&B duo Mary Mary, perform this evening, followed by Robbie Wycoff’s Pink Floyd Experience tomorrow night.

Current executive director John Fisher, who’s held the position since 2001, says his time at the helm has been “wild and interesting.” He’s proud of the theater’s history but also its present, which includes community partnerships with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, A Broken Umbrella Theatre, Co-Op High School (the Shubert handles all its ticketing) and the New Haven Board of Education, among others.

The 100th anniversary has also spurred completion of the first phase of a new round of renovations to the building, which, when all is said and done, will mean an improved facade, a bigger lobby, a second performance space, new dressing rooms backstage and—“most exciting in its own way,” Fisher quips—bathroom facilities on every floor.

This is the Shubert’s next act, after all, and its leaders want to make it easier to get back to your seat.

Shubert Theater
247 College St, New Haven (map)
(203) 562-5666

Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographs provided courtesy of the Shubert Theater.

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