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1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition, Page 14 (2)

1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition
1947-48 Theatre Catalog
1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition, Page 14
Page 14

1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition, Page 14

Design Ideas for America's Playhouses

The Scenic Designer Looks at the Theatre

From Standpoint of Present, Future Needs


The problems of theatres as physical properties rary according to the purposes for which the house was built, and a legitimate theatre has requirements little considered by the cinema. Yet out of the study of the problems of both and an analysis of the solutions achieved, a mutually beneficial interchange of knowledge may" be accomplished. .

Some of the problemseand their solution-of the legitimate theatre are presented in this article, an amalgamation of three piecesethcenery in This Play?" "So Little Time," and uNote to Architectsile which originally appeared in Sunday editions of the New York Times under the present byline. Permission to reprint this material was granted 197 Daniel Schwarz, of the Times Sunday Department.


The air is astir with plans for new theatres. The pent-up demand for them is at last convincing the property owner's that the building of legitimate theatres is a fertile field for investment. Although there have been no new theatres, attempts have been made to transform some of the old ones into something more closely approaching- the ideal. The pleasantly renovated Coronet is an example of a step taken in the right direction.

So far, so goodebut this is only scratching the surface. The extent to which old theatres can be modernized is strictly limited. What is needed is a fresh and foresighted point of view. J0seph Urbanis Ziegfeld Theatre, now more than 20 years old, incredibly enough, is the last Word on the subject. Since then the number of theatres has been approximately halved, diverted one by one to continuous movies or to broadcasting studios, or torn down to make way for other buildings. The past season indicated the abysmal degree to which the fierce jockeying for playing time in the existing houses could strangle the incoming drama.

An intelligently designed theatre building and its operation can pay off handsomely, foot for foot, as any other form of real estate. Since the owners will be calling in the architects, I hope there is still time for a designer behind the footlights to make some recommendations.

The Pool of Knowledge

The dirth of theatre-building has discouraged, until now, the pooling of the combined requirements and knowledge of the audience, producer, actor, designer, and related theatre technicians.

I would urge first that all experts in all branches get together with the architects and discuss their technical func 2


Scenic and Slagc Lighting Designer

tions and needs. Let them point out the less obvious short-comings of the present theatre buildings, so that past mistakes can be avoided.

The rich reservoir of allied theatre craftsmen should be drafted to insure that the theatres now aborning will be serviceable far into the future.

The blueprints for existing theatre buildings took into consideration, apparently, only one group: the theatre owners.

Maximum seating capacity to the cubic foot seemed to be the guiding principle. Short-sighted failure to provide addi< tional necessary space and equipment have limited the uses to which these theatre buildings can be put, the number of hours a week during which they can be used, and cut off their sources of increased revenue.

The uneconomic allocations of theatre space also boosts the cost of back-stage operations to ruinously high figures, a fact which becomes notable when you consider the man-hours needed to set up and dismantle scenery units which could otherwise be kept in filive storage},

The Playgoer's Approach

Let the architect for the new theatre start with considerations of the playgoerls approach to the playhouse: a lobby Wide enough to accomodate lines at a hit show without packing them into subway formation; two box-office windows, placed on opposite sides of the lobby, one for advance reservations and one for the current performance.

While on the subject of box ofiices, I would like to see abolished the whole set-up of cages that suggest a Speakeasy atmosphere and surreptitious manipulations within. Substitute for it, the arrangements of a modern bank, with its open and above-board desks. The open window arrangement would take little more space than the old-fashioned cage and Would break down a pernicious psychological barrier.

Intermission Relaxation

Make ample provision for the audie encels relaxation during intermissions. The old theatres almost never recognized the diderence between a lobby and a lounge. The lounge should be in another part of the house, and I believe that the space devoted to it could more than earn its keep in a variety of ways. Not only income from dignified displays of refreshments, books, and theatre periodicals, but there could be sizeable revenue from advertising displays of luxury merchandise. Jewelry and perfume manufacturers, for instance, who are now confined to advertising in The Playbill, would pay a good revenue for the

opportunity to set handsomely designed display cases in the lounges of leading theatres.

Tomorrowis theatre architect must naturally reconsider all the obvious audience discomforts which have driven scores of legitimate theatre patrons to the movies and who would return in droves with an adequate assurance that they could at least hear what was going on. The technical means are known; they have only to be properly used.


As for the tfback of the house," or everything behind the footlights, the most important caution, I believe, is for the architect of the new theatre to recognize the trend of producing. The appetite for repertory is growing. The niggardly space in present theatres assigned for storage and movement of scenery is often inadequate even for a simple twoset play. Ample tfhanging spacellespace in which to ttfiyi, and stack scenery-is the greatest single need backstage. Installation of equipment to move scenery esuch as revolving stages, moving platforms, elevatorsewill repay the additional investment by the increase in the number of kinds of attractions that can play at one theatre.

It is ridiculous that the theatre building, as it is operated now, yields a revenue for only 24 hours a week. This is simply the unintelligent result of a backstage shortage of space so acute that only one production at a time, and that one with difficulty, can be adequately stored.

Increase this space to functional requirementseand you have not only a theatre which can house repertory, but one which can enormously increase its revenue through simultaneous rentals to different tenants at different times of the day.

With ample storage space for various productions, there could be morning matinees for children; afternoon performances of experimental productions or revivals; concerts, meetings, lectures.

The colossal amount of dead, unproductive time is due largely to a lack of live storage space backstage. A tfcommercialii hit show going on every night could make possible a variety of other tfsustaining programs,,- similar to the system in radioeat other times of the day.

Another great backstage need is standardization of dimensions and equipment. The choice of the home for "Dream Girl" was narrowed down to the Coronet simply because it was the one house available that had sufficient wing space on each side of the stage to accommodate the shuttling platforms. If this comedy hit should ever have to move to another Broadway house, it would have to have much of its scenery redesigned and rebuilt!

1947-48 Theatre Catalog, 6th Edition, Page 14