overview

Opened in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theater and renamed the Belasco Theater in 1910, this venue has staged multiple productions involving major LGBT performers and creators, including Katharine Cornell, Guthrie McClintic, Alexander Woolcott, Tallulah Bankhead, Adrian, Arthur Laurents, Oliver Smith, and Lorraine Hansberry, among others.

In 1945, the Belasco Theater’s lesbian drama Trio was the last Broadway show impacted by the Wales Padlock Law, which was passed in 1927 and forbade the depiction of “sex perversion” onstage, including gay or lesbian characters.

Header Photo

Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

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History

The Stuyvesant Theater, built for theater impresario David Belasco, opened in 1907 and was renamed the Belasco Theater in 1910. Early plays here with LGBT associations included The Case of Becky (1912), with Eugene O’Brien; Seven Chances (1916) by Roi Cooper Megrue; Daddies (1918), with Jeanne Eagels; The Son-Daughter (1919-20) and Tonight or Never (1930-31), with Edmund Lowe; Tiger Cats (1924), with Katharine Cornell; and Young Woodley (1925-26) by John Van Druten.

After Belasco’s death in 1931, the theater was leased to Katharine Cornell Productions, Inc. “First Lady of the Theater” Katharine Cornell and her husband, director-producer Guthrie McClintic, had one of the most famous Broadway “lavender marriages” (a marriage in which one or both partners are gay) of their time. McClintic staged six productions here: Brief Moment (1931-32), with Alexander Woolcott; Distant Drums (1932); The Truth About Blayds (revival, 1932); Criminal at Large (1932-33), with Emlyn Williams; Lucrece (1932-33), translated by Thornton Wilder, and with Cornell; and Alien Corn (1933), with Cornell. Other LGBT performers at the Belasco included Sanford Meisner in productions by The Group Theater of Awake and Sing! (1935), Waiting for Lefty (1935, opened at the Longacre Theater), and Rocket to the Moon (1938-39); Marjorie Main in the big hit Dead End (1935-37); and Tallulah Bankhead in Clash by Night (1941-42).

In 1927, the New York Legislature had passed the Wales Padlock Law, which made it illegal “depicting or dealing with, the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion,” and offending theaters could be closed. (Similarly, Hollywood movies were subjected to the infamous Motion Picture Production (Hays) Code of 1930.) This was the result of early 20th-century censors, excited about “controversial” subjects being explored in New York’s theaters, but focused mainly on sexuality – in particular, homosexuality and interracial relationships. Although the New York law was not often enforced, and was protested by the theater community, it had a huge and censorious effect on the Broadway stage. Despite the law, which remained on the books until 1967, lesbian and gay characters did manage to make it to Broadway, often in the works of lesbian and gay playwrights. The last Broadway show impacted by the Wales law was Dorothy and Howard Baker’s lesbian drama Trio (1944-45) at the Belasco Theater, which was shut down by the LaGuardia administration two months after opening, but engendered a protest over censorship from theater folks, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the press, and politicians.

Later shows at the Belasco by LGBT creators and with LGBT performers included Mrs. January and Mr. X (1944) by Zoe Akins, with costume design by Adrian; In Bed We Cry (1944), with costume design by Adrian; Kiss Them for Me (1945), with Judy Holliday; Home of the Brave (1945-46) by Arthur Laurents; This, Too, Shall Pass (1946), by and staged by Don Appell; The Madwoman of Chaillot (1948-49), with scenic and costume design by Christian Berard; Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955-56), a hit with scenic design by Oliver Smith; A Clearing in the Woods (1957) by Arthur Laurents, with scenic design by Oliver Smith; Nude with Violin (1957-58), written and directed by Noel Coward (who also performed in it), and with production design by Oliver Smith; A Raisin in the Sun (1959-60, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater), a hit by Lorraine Hansberry that was the first work on Broadway by an African-American woman and winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award; Write Me a Murder (1961-62), with Denholm Elliott; A Very Rich Woman (1965), with scenic design by Oliver Smith; The Killing of Sister George (1966-67), with lesbian main characters; Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (revival, 1980, opened at the Ambassador Theater), with music and lyrics by Alex Bradford; Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1981-82, opened at the Longacre Theater), an enormous hit with scenic design by John Lee Beatty; Ring Round the Moon (1999), with music by Francis Poulenc, and scenic design by John Lee Beatty; and James Joyce’s The Dead (2000), with Stephen Spinella.

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