Then and Now: 140 Years Ago, Before the Townsend and St. James Were Even Built, A Nearby Theatre Wowed Audiences with Air Conditioning

July 9, 2019

Now and Then is a series of articles appearing regularly on our blog to make tenants aware of the rich and colorful history that occurred on the streets of our Manhattan neighborhood.  Once the center of New York social life and national political life, our neighborhood witnessed some of the epic events, firsts, building projects, and celebrities that signaled the beginning of U.S. power and influence.

 

A theatre stood just behind the Fifth Avenue Hotel, on 24th near Broadway, from 1865 until 1908. Its greatest years were under the management of Steele MacKaye who took over in 1877. MacKaye redecorated the interior and incorporated a number of brand new innovations including the double stage (allowing an entire set to be lowered into place), advanced lighting effects, folding auditorium chairs, and probably most astoundingly “air conditioning.”

Imagine the reaction of people in 1877, who had never experienced air conditioning before. Luckily, we don’t have to because we have a first-hand account of what it was like. An English novelist, Mary Duffus Hardy, noted:

“As the weeks passed on, the temperature became almost unendurable. The coolest place in all New York was the Madison Square Theatre. The thermometer had mounted to 100° when we received a box for an afternoon miscellaneous performance in aid of the Edgar Poe Memorial Statue. Among the many other things selected for the occasion was an abridged version of The Taming of the Shrew, when Edwin Booth consented to play Petruchio. Nothing less than a desire to see this celebrated actor would have tempted us to stir … armed with fans, smelling­ salts and sundry antidotes to fainting fits, [we] panted our way from Forty-fifth Street to a Sixth Avenue car, which landed us close to the theatre.

“Immediately on entering, we felt as though we had left the hot world to scorch and dry up outside, while we were enjoying a soft summer breeze within. Where did it come from? The house was crowded-there was not standing-room for a broomstick; but the air was as cool and refreshing as though it had blown over a bank of spring violets. We learned the reason of this. By some simple contrivance the outer air, circulating through and among tons of ice, is forced to find its way through a thousand frozen cracks and crevices before it enters the auditorium; thus a flow of fresh air is kept in constant circulation, which renders an afternoon in Madison Square Theatre a luxury during the hottest of dog days.”

The introduction of air conditioning was revolutionary, and today, we couldn’t imagine going to a theatre in summer without it. Listening to Ms. Hardy with her fans, smelling salts, and antidotes to fainting, we can appreciate the hazards of an afternoon of summer theatergoing in 1877 (particularly given the heavy clothes and strict clothing customs of the day). How fortunate we are today.

MacKaye’s ingenuity extended to other features of theatre life, too. There was the age-old theatrical problem of time-consuming scene changes—the “stage waits.” MacKay developed the “double stage,” which allowed a setting to be placed in position on a separate stage ready to be swiftly lowered into the proscenium opening when the script called for a change of scene. The previous scene was simultaneously lowered into the basement. This is something that is done many times every season now at the Metropolitan Opera, and without which the legendary magic at the Met could not be achieved.

MacKaye’s early interest in the potential of lighting effects to underscore the content of the play or establish a mood led to his experiments in gas lighting at the Madison Square. In later years, his theories were more influential and had much more pronounced success when incandescent lighting was brought into the theatres. While it is not completely clear, it may be that Edison installed his first theatre lighting at the Madison Square Theatre.

Finally, MacKaye invented the folding auditorium chair, the first major improvement in audience comfort since the addition of the cushion.