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Wallack’s Lyceum Theatre: 485 Broadway’s Thespian History

SoHo Broadway History: District was once home to one of the city’s most venerable theaters

This month, the Initiative looks back on the many lives lived and showcased in 485 Broadway, at one time deemed a ‘temple of Thespis’ by the New York Herald.

In 1850, Irish-American actor and dramatist John Brougham built and opened the Lyceum Theatre on 485 Broadway, between Broome and Grand Streets. The building, designed by theater specialist John M. Trimble, was four stories high with a brick façade and a colonnade across the front that sheltered theater-goers, rain or shine. Most of the theater’s productions at the time were burlesques and farces. Despite being an initially flourishing venture, Brougham’s enterprise ultimately failed. It has been remarked that the demolition of the building next door made the theater appear unsafe, which made audiences wane.

In 1852, well-known British-American actor James William Wallack purchased the property from his friend Brougham, and renamed it Wallack’s Lyceum Theatre. He enlisted his sons Lester and Charles as stage-manager and treasurer. Soon after, it was the leading theatre in New York City.

Part of the theater’s success could be attributed to clever marketing strategies. At the time, New Yorkers were closely keeping up with the scandalous divorce of renowned actor Edwin Forrest and Catherine Forrest. Wallack hired Catherine, despite the fact that she had no acting experience. The theater drew major crowds when it was announced that she would appear as Lady Teazle in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. Ultimately, her performance was a success and Wallack was heavily praised in the media.

In 1861, as part of the northward movement of the theater district, Wallack relocated his theater further uptown. The Lyceum building then became the Broadway Music Hall, and later Broadway Theatre. In 1869, the theater was replaced by a cast-iron loft building for dry goods stores on 483-485 Broadway designed by Robert Mook. That building still stands and has been home to many commercial tenants and retail stores over the past century and a half, with T.J.Maxx currently occupying the storefront.

Top image: Illustration of Brougham’s Lyceum Theatre from Memories of Fifty Years by Wallack, Lester and Laurence Hutton (1889)

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