Taking in a Broadway show is among the signature experiences of a trip to New York City. The massive productions on the Great White Way add high-tech sets, high-wattage names and special effects to live theater—all in historic playhouses that have hosted decades of blockbusters.
In the 1990s Disney moved into the New Amsterdam Theatre and helped usher in a new era for Broadway—and for the City itself, as Times Square was transformed into a family-friendly destination. So the theater is a natural location for a tour that offers visitors insight into the history of live theater in New York City and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into Disney's spectacular productions.
Led by Kimberly, a guide who mixed thorough historical knowledge with that trademark Disney charm and positivity, we became experts on the New Amsterdam Theatre, which currently hosts Aladdin. More important, we put on some cool costumes. Thinking about taking the tour? To whet your appetite, here's some of what we learned from the experience.
1. You too can be Mary Poppins.
The most exciting moment of the tour is probably the trip to the costume and prop shop, where you can see and even get your hands on items from The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, Aida and other musicals. If you're feeling sure-handed, you can even put on one of the expensive, lightweight masks from The Lion King. Mary Poppins' hat, umbrella and coat were especially popular, and made for fun photo ops.
2. The New Amsterdam is the oldest working Broadway theatre.
It was designed by the team of Henry Hertz and Hugh Tallant and was finished way back in 1903, opening days ahead of the Lyceum (also designed by Hertz and Tallant). The theatre's creators drew up its interior in the art nouveau style, which accounts for the flora and fauna imagery in its architectural details. All told, Kimberly says it cost $1.5 million to build the place—the equivalent of $40 million today.
3. It hosted the Ziegfeld Follies.
The first play at the New Amsterdam was A Midsummer Night's Dream—in keeping with the "garden in twilight" theme of the interior—but critics didn't think much of it. In 1913 the Ziegfeld Follies took over; those lavish variety shows would run until 1927 (they also ran elsewhere before and after, but the New Amsterdam was the site of their heyday). The revue sprang from the mind of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., popularly known as the "glorifier of the American girl" because of the beautiful, elaborately costumed chorus girls, comediennes and other entertainers in his productions.
The New Amsterdam's upstairs space used to be a second theater where the Midnight Frolic, a show after the show, would take place. Among its features was a glass runway that gave audiences below what might be called an unrefined perspective on the performers. While the smaller upstairs theater has since been converted to office space, an opaque version of that runway remains.
4. Some think there's a ghost in the theater.
Suspend your disbelief—that's the key to all sorts of entertainment, double for a Broadway musical and perhaps quadruple for Disney—and maybe you'll be on board with the story Kimberly told us about Olive Thomas, a onetime Ziegfeld girl who supposedly still haunts her old workplace.
Thomas came to New York City as a teen, starred in the Follies and the Frolic, and is widely reported to have had an affair with the married Mr. Ziegfeld. Our tour guide says that when the philandering Mr. Ziegfeld wouldn't leave his wife, Ms. Thomas ran off to Hollywood and married an actor. She died at 25 after accidentally ingesting a poisonous medication intended for topical use.
After the passage of some years, reports surfaced of Olive haunting the place. In Kimberly’s vivid retelling, one man who worked on the restoration spotted her and quit soon after. These days it's considered good luck to bid farewell to her framed picture in the lobby on your way out.
5. The place went through some tough times.
In the 1930s the New Amsterdam become a movie house. The owners coated its once-colorful interior in brown spray paint. Soon, patrons complained that its beautifully designed box seats were casting shadows on the big CinemaScope screen, so the owners took them down. Kimberly showed us a photo of the drab-looking interior, which seemed like a plausible rock-bottom moment in the theater's life—though there were still darker days to come.
As Times Square went through what might charitably be described as its rugged phase in the 1960s and '70s, the New Amsterdam screened B-movie fare along the lines of The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula—nearly high art compared to what was unspooling nearby.
In 1982 the theater was abandoned by owners who didn't have the money to maintain it according to its recently landmarked status. So the City took over, and for a while it was dormant. Kimberly says that when Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Mayor Rudy Giuliani looked around the place to explore the possibility of the company taking over in 1994, it was in such disrepair that there was a tree growing out of the orchestra pit; mushrooms sprouting; leaks in the roof; and a virtual zoo of cats, mice and roaches.
"You can imagine what the smell was like," Kimberly says.
It reportedly took six months just to air out the building, but after a year and a half (and $34 million from Disney and the City and State governments), it was ready for its relaunch.
6. The colors are duller than they were on opening night, on purpose.
When test audiences came in for the first post-renovation show (which was not a Disney musical but a five-night test run of King David), they felt that the paint colors—which were historically accurate—were too bright and seemed fake. So, Kimberly says, Disney added a "vintage glaze" to make the paint appear older.
The rest of the renovation is a mishmash of different periods from the theater's glory days. Handrails have original Italian terra-cotta from 1903, and many other details are from the Follies era, for example. So while the New Amsterdam is not exactly as it was at any particular point in the past, its renovation evokes much of what made the place historically relevant.
And some of the changes are welcome. When the New Amsterdam first opened, Kimberly says, there was just one women's bathroom stall. That would make for a rather unpleasant intermission. There are now 26.
To book Walks of New York's Disney on Broadway Tour, which makes a number of stops on Broadway and includes the Behind the Magic Tour of the New Amsterdam, visit walksofnewyork.com. Individuals and small groups are welcome.
To book a group (15 or more participants needed) for Disney’s Behind the Magic Tour of the New Amsterdam, visit disneytheatricalsales.com.