Broadway week just ended, and if you were lucky you saw more than one of their fabulous shows. Broadway's endless stream of iconic, innovative and original productions helped make New York City an unparalleled tourist destination. The magic of Broadway has drawn singers, dancers, actors and comics from around the world to put on a show. There’s no better place to find an audience.
But there’s a hidden history to Broadway that we often don’t consider when scrambling for Hamilton tickets. What made this place the Mecca of live performance? It’s quite a story. One rife with drama, great characters, and unexpected twists.
These are some fascinating things you probably didn’t know about Broadway.
1. Older Than The Rest
The streets and avenues of New York City are brimming with history, but none is older than Broadway. To the thoughtful New Yorker, it probably seems strange that Broadway diverges so wildly from the comfortable grid layout that most of NYC’s streets conform. There’s a very good reason that it does. The iconic avenue originated as a Native American trail. Back then it was known as the Wickquasgeck Trail; having been carved through the brush of Manhattan long before European settlers arrived.
When Manhattan’s original Dutch settlers arrived, they found it to be one the the most convenient paths through “New Amsterdam." As history moved forward, much of the new settlement sprung up around this original avenue.
2. Longer Than You Think
Many Manhattanites imagine Broadway to be exclusive to our excellent little island, but the length of Broadway stretches much further than we might think! At the northern tip of Manhattan island, the legendary avenue crosses the Harlem River and eventually makes its way through the Bronx. It stretches all the way to Westchester county and beyond where it becomes known as South Broadway. It’s not until it reaches the historic town of Sleepy Hollow that it finally merges with a different roadway and becomes the much less iconically named Albany Post Road.
3. From Farmland to Fab
The region that we know as the Theater District extends from West 40th Street to West 54th Street, and from Sixth Avenue to Eighth Avenue. It’s home to Times Square, which is one of the busiest places on earth. It wasn’t always that way. At the dawn of the nineteenth century the area was mostly farmland with the bulk of the city’s population being located downtown. Mayor Cornelius Van Wyck built 42nd Street and encouraged folks to move up town where there was more fresh air and freedom.
As people moved up, the area became more chic. An art scene sprang up and Broadway legend Oscar Hammerstein decided to open his now-legendary Victorian Theatre. His shows became an immediate success, attracting dozens of theatrical entrepreneurs behind him. Soon after, there were few place in the world more synonymous with great theater than Broadway.
4. Just a Bit Dangerous
When Broadway was first founded, the theatrical experience was a bit more thrilling than it is today--and not for a good reason. The use of gaslights in poorly ventilated theaters presented a huge fire risk. So, if you were going to see the latest Broadway hit, there was a small chance it might end in chaos and fire. This was because electric lights hadn’t been invented yet. That’s just the price you pay for art.
The theaters located on Broadway were some of the first to start seriously using electric lights in their productions and on their marquees. The outsides of theaters were soon adorned by armies of flashing electrical lights. As the 20th century dawned, Broadway became the most illuminated place on earth, earning it the nickname “The Great White Way." To those unfamiliar with electric lights, the sight was both breathtaking and mind boggling.
5. A Tale of Redemption
For over a hundred years, Broadway has been associated with great theater, but it hasn’t always a great place to live. The Theater District deteriorated as time went on and soon became a dangerous place. By the 1970’s and 80’s it was home to all manner of ne'er-do-wells who presented a constant threat to theatergoers and damaged the once-thriving tourism in the area.
Thanks to the efforts of law enforcement as well as investments by business owners and property developers, the Theater District of today is unrecognizable from it’s seedy past. It’s even home to our gorgeous The Ritz Plaza.
The dazzle, history, and unmistakable character of Broadway remain without the grit and menace. The only thing you can really complain about these days are the crowds, and how tricky it is to nab tickets! It’s the place to taste amazing food, see some sights, and (of course) to take in a show.