I’ve memorized their faces without having to try. The cowboy with the under-bite, two guns pointed upwards; the curly-haired, pensive woman, frowning a toad-like frown and wringing her hands; the protruding, heavy brow of the man hovering above her; the pleading girl; the smoking clown; the tiny explorer. Though I’ve never given them much thought, these black-and-white cartoons have loomed on the wall of my playroom for what seems like forever. Under their grotesque gaze I learned to walk and read, to gather my stuffed animals and leaf through teeny bopper magazines.
Twenty-five years ago, my mother had one of her first adult jobs working in the development office of the Shubert Theater, the New Haven landmark that stands next to the Taft Apartments on College Street. When she moved away from New Haven, and from her temp position at the Shubert, she took with her a poster — a commemoration of the theater’s 1984 reopening — and has held onto it ever since. Now, the caricatured faces on that poster are permanently etched in my memory.
“I imagine, after 100 years, it might be pretty run-down by now,” my mom said about the Shubert when I called.
In some ways, her suspicion is right: in the lobby one sees exposed pipes and ancient concessions. Just last Sunday at the Shubert, a 500-600-pound box fell and crushed someone — who was subsequently hospitalized — an event that has generated no follow-up report.
Still, my mom’s nostalgia for the theater peeks through in her voice. “It was definitely the most fun job I had in New Haven,” she told me.
* * *
“I have to hug you,” Anthony Lupinacci, the director of marketing and community relations for the Shubert, tells me when we first meet. “I still remember when your mom took us out to lunch at IHOP before she left. We saw the last name, but didn’t think it could ever actually be the same family.” When he first started working here, we ascertain, my mother had just started working here. Time flies, he says.
The two of us are standing in front of the Shubert’s new “gallery,” a timeline of some of the biggest stars and performances the Shubert’s seen over the last century. The lights go up on the framed posters, illuminating the young faces of national dramatic treasures: Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Mary Martin, Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford, to name a handful. We start at the beginning.
It’s December 1914, and the Shubert Theater, a new branch of the New York-based Shubert brothers’ company, is preparing to open. A Dec. 3 article from the News boasts of the incoming attraction: “New Theatre Most Modern in United States — New Haven Assured of Best Theatrical Season it Has Ever Had — New Theatre Practically Fireproof.”
Over the next several decades, the Shubert would be christened “the birthplace of the nation’s greatest hits.” It functioned as a premier “tryout theatre,” or a venue for nascent shows to run trial performances before making their debut on Broadway. The stage has played host to the world premieres of quite a few now-canonical shows, like “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947, which launched the career of a young, then-unknown Marlon Brando.
This “golden age” at the Shubert spanned the 35 years that it was owned by a certain Maurice Bailey. Bailey took it over in 1941, when the Shubert Foundation, which had become a national theater monopoly, was forced to transfer its ownership, and held onto the theater until it closed in 1976.
Rachel Alderman is a producer for A Broken Umbrella Theatre, a local company that is currently in rehearsals for “Seen Change,” an original musical about the Shubert Theater and New Haven that will premiere Feb. 18 at the Shubert. She noted the venue’s storied history.
“Frankly, you can’t talk about the history or the legacy of the American theater scene without talking about the Shubert in New Haven,” she said. “One birthed the other.”
A show’s try-out period at the Shubert was truly raw and led to notable changes: “Oklahoma!” was named “Away We Go” when it played at the Shubert in 1943, and the responses of New Haven audiences contributed in large part to the addition and subtraction of songs before the final Broadway debut.
In a video she recorded for the Shubert’s centennial in November, Julie Andrews recalled a crippling attack of stage fright by a then-inexperienced Rex Harrison on the opening night of “My Fair Lady.” The performance was called off, but due to a record-breaking blizzard, word did not reach audience members, who filled the seats anyway. The Shubert crew then scattered, gathered the cast members from around New Haven, and put on the show.
“Everything about it was high drama,” she says in the video, holding the original 1956 playbill. “And great fun.”
Andrews’s is one of 44 “shout-out” Youtube videos uploaded by former Shubert stars to commemorate its anniversary. A quick scroll through the playlist makes it clear: The stars remember the Shubert as fondly as the Shubert remembers them, and its legacy has stretched well beyond the local.
“The whole thing kind-of went viral,” Lupinacci said about the shout-out project, which began with staffers reaching out to just a handful of familiar faces. “We started getting emails and submissions from people we hadn’t even contacted.”
A selfie-angle video of Perez Hilton, lying in bed, saying one day he’d feel so honored to act in a play at the Shubert, stands out as a potentially unsolicited submission. Marie Osmond, Jane Fonda and Kristin Chenoweth have posted their own tributes. James Earl Jones recalls spending his 26th birthday at the Shubert performing in the world premiere of “Sunrise at Campobello.”
Lupinacci nods his head in affirmation when Andrews praises what is perhaps the Shubert’s most noteworthy attribute. “Congratulations,” she says, “for surviving all the other theaters that come and go.”
* * *
Survival has not been easy.
During an economic downturn in New Haven, the Shubert closed its doors in 1976, and remained shuttered for seven years. A 1983 project to revitalize downtown brought it back to life.
Funds were poured into renovations and the theater’s mission was reimagined. It would no longer exist as merely a tryout theater and a Broadway junction, though those ties were to remain strong. It would become a community resource and a more versatile venue.
“Since reopening, there’s been an increased diversity in the programming, and an increased functionality,” Lupinacci said. The last season, for example, has seen everything from local high school productions to stand-up comedians to a Gospel act to ballets to, of course, Broadway musicals.
Alderman says that this versatility is so much of what makes the Shubert, and New Haven as a whole, special. She recalled watching her young niece’s recital in the Shubert, where she also saw the Tony-award winning “Peter and the Starcatcher” last week.
“If a three-year-old tap dancing in a bumblebee costume in the same space as that Broadway production is not a beautiful symbol for what’s possible when a city is alive with the arts, I don’t know what is,” she said. “It’s like the whole birth-life cycle right there on stage.”
In 2001, the Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts took over management of the theater, though the city still owned the building. Around this time, a new movement emerged that sought to re-create — and update — the tryout theater golden age. The Shubert’s executive directors and board undertook an effort to debut the national tours of Broadway plays. Now, before travelling across the nation, Broadway productions hunker down in New Haven for several weeks to build their sets and — just as in the old days — to test out their performances.
“We have this wonderful past that we love to celebrate, but we’re constantly looking to the future,” said Lupinacci. “We like to remind people that this is not a museum.”
The initiative has landed some huge names: in the past three years, “Jersey Boys” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” made their national tour debuts at the Shubert, and “Matilda” will do the same this May. These big fish not only inflate the Shubert’s credibility, but also pump money into the city. For six weeks at a time, Lupinacci pointed out, creative teams are staying in local hotels, ordering supplies for their shows and patronizing local shops and restaurants. Every year, the Shubert brings in $5 million in revenue and, according to a Quinnipiac University study, generates $20 million of economic impact for the city.
As the centennial approached, the Shubert underwent further changes. Although being owned by the city had its benefits for many years (protection from demolition, for example), converting to a not-for-profit model would allow the Shubert to apply for grants and save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
In a unanimous vote in November 2013, the city elected to transfer building ownership to CAPA, a move that, entirely by coincidence, was finalized on the 99th anniversary of the Shubert’s opening night in 1914.
Lupinacci waves his hands and smiles. He says he can only attribute such a happenstance to the spirit of all the old stars who at one point have called the Shubert home.
* * *
“If you look closely enough, you can see the gerbils running through!”
So says a woman cleaning the newly expanded Shubert lobby, referring to the large and exposed mechanical pipes on the ceiling. By the end of the $14.8 million renovation period in October 2016, Lupinacci says, they’ll be covered, but the renovation is being executed in phases.
More dire woes than gerbils — the falling box comes to mind — have befallen the Shubert during the renovation. These oversights are symptomatic of a general state of disrepair in the theater, which hasn’t undergone any substantial renovation since reopening in the 1980s.
In 2013, the board of directors, the staff and the city all agreed: It was time. The first phase, completed from May to October of 2014, addressed the antiquated heating and cooling systems, dressing rooms, lobby and hospitality suite, as well as general maintenance problems.
Lisa Sanborn, who has been artistic director of the New Haven Ballet for the last 14 years (and has consequently worked on 14 productions of the Nutcracker at the Shubert), said that the “single greatest change” has been the implementation of more bathrooms throughout the building. Previously, there were only bathrooms in the basement, which proved challenging for casts as well as audience members.
“It’s a lot easier to implement plumbing now than it was decades ago,” Lupinacci said, adding wryly, “We’re committed to ‘seats where there’s seating.’”
In spite of millions of dollars’ worth of changes, CAPA and the board of directors are committed to preserving the theater proper — which is essentially the same as it was on its opening night in 1914.
Indeed, the 1914 News’ description of the theater rings true 100 years later: “The interior design is in New England Colonial style, the entire effect being of old ivory, with golden brown velvet hangings, seat upholstery and carpets. The Curtain will also be of the same rich tone of brown velvet.
Lupinacci says he’s proud of the theater’s “classic elegance,” and its avoidance of the “overly extravagant, gingerbread style” that many other 20th-century theaters adopted.
He does concede they might like to expand the space, in order to accommodate some larger and more complicated musicals, like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Lion King.” But it can’t happen, he explained, because the theater is sandwiched right in between the Crown Street parking garage and the Taft Apartments.
But according to Sanborn, the theater’s design could not make for a more optimal audience experience. She argued that it has the same, or even better, acoustics as the most technologically advanced theater, and that no matter which of the 1,600 seats you get, there’s a clear and intimate view of the actors.
Not only does the theater create intimacy between performers and the audience, it also fosters intimacy between the audience members themselves. When crafting the conceit for a centennial painting for the theater, New Haven-based artist Tony Falcone asked Shubert staff members what they most wanted to capture about their beloved theater. According to Lupinacci, “It was that feeling of anticipation as the curtain goes up and the audience — who come from all different racial, socio-economic and personal backgrounds — are all united in their excitement about what’s to come.”
That feeling is precisely what Falcone captures in the painting, now hanging at the end of the gallery timeline at the Shubert. The picture is pink and exuberant, reminiscent of Chagall. In it, beams of light emanate from beneath the curtain, which has just started to rise, and shine onto a full house.
When I look at it, I remember the old Shubert poster in my playroom, the histrionic black-and-white expressions of the figures. I can’t help thinking that these two images are indicative of the Shubert’s shift in focus: from the drama of its star-studded past to the joy of giving back to its own community.
For Shubert patrons and performers, these images are complements.
Describing the experience of setting foot into the theater and onto the stage, Sanborn says, “You stand there and think to yourself about all the incredible, world-famous performers that have been backstage, and have performed there, and it really does give you goosebumps.”