In 1913, the Palace Theatre opened and for many years it was the most prestigious vaudeville theatre in the United States. If a performer had the opportunity to perform in this Broadway venue, the leading playhouse of the Keith-Albee association, it was proof of their success. Playing at the Palace was so esteemed that Albee, the theatre manager, sometimes forced performers to accept a pay cut for the privilege of being booked into the venue.
A Prestigious Theatre
The Palace opened on March 24, 1913, with the popular American comedian and actor, Ed Wynn. Wynn would become famous for the giggly, shaking voice he created for the 1921 musical revue, The Perfect Fool. He was also known for his funny, outlandish props and costumes. The Palace was a dominant venue for more than a decade but then film and radio became popular during the Great Depression, and vaudeville began its regression. In 1929, all of Keith-Albee-Orpheum’s vaudeville houses were converted into movie houses.
The Nederlanders turned the Palace into a legitimate theatre in 1965 for the production of Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields’s Sweet Charity featuring Gwen Verdon. Since then, it’s stage has seen many successes, including Applause starring Lauren Bacall, Man of La Mancha with Richard Kiley, and Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s musical La Cage aux Folles featuring George Hearn. The Tony Award-winning The Will Rogers Follies starring Keith Carradine and the popular musical Woman of the Year with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Cooper were also produced at the Palace. The theatre was restored for Disney’s long-running Beauty and the Beast in 1994, which was followed by the Tony Award-winning musical Aida.
The ‘60s and ‘70s were an especially rich time for this venue. A vaudeville show called At Home at the Palace, starring a glorious Judy Garland, was presented at the Palace in the 1960s. The audience had the pleasure of watching Garland’s young children, Lorna and Joey Luft, perform with her. The show was a major triumph for Garland. The musical Henry, Sweet Henry with Don Ameche and Carol Bruce played on the Palace boards in 1967.
The musical George M!, featuring Joel Grey as George Cohan and Bernadette Peters as his sister, opened in 1968. The musical featured many of Cohan’s classic songs and ran for 427 performances. Oddly, Cohan was one of the few luminaries who never played at the Palace in its prime time as a vaudeville house. Popular shows of the 1970s include the musical Cyrano starring Christopher Plummer (who won a Tony Award), a revised adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes featuring Carol Channing, Jerry Herman’s The Grand Tour with Joel Grey, and a sensational production of Frankenstein starring John Carradine.
Truly a Palace
The Palace Theatre was designed by Milwaukee architects Kirchoff & Rose and backed by Martin Beck, a San Francisco vaudeville impresario. A gigantic hotel was constructed above the Palace in the 1980s. Today, the theatre is almost completely hidden behind a massive wall of billboards and under the skyscraper. The theatre is expansive, beautiful and sumptuously decorated with a color scheme of gold and crimson with marble embellishments. The venue features crystal chandeliers and stage boxes, and the lobby is decorated with pictures of significant Palace talents.
Once Superior, Always Superior
Some of the brightest luminaries have graced the stage of the Palace Theatre, including Ethel Barrymore, Will Rogers, Judy Garland, Shirley MacLaine, Harry Houdini, Ethel Merman, Jerry Lewis, Bette Midler, and Diana Ross. With a seating capacity of 1,740, the Palace is one of the Nederlander’s nine Broadway theatres, and dominates the center of the theatre district. It has housed popular hits such as Legally Blonde: The Musical, a revival of West Side Story, the offbeat musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and the Broadway revival of Annie. The Palace has reclaimed a degree of its former vaudeville superiority, and is highly desirable for large musicals and concerts.
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