Lena Horne
Lena Horne

The Lena Horne Theatre Becomes a Part of Broadway History

A pioneer who blazed trails across stage and screen for decades, Lena Horne was no stranger to the title “first.”

In 1942, she was the first Black woman to sign a long-term contract with a major film studio. In 1958, she was the first Black woman to be nominated for a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical. She was also the first Black person to join the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors.

On November 1, she becomes the first Black woman to have a Broadway theatre named after her.

When Broadway theatres shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only one out of the 41 was named after a Black artist: Tony- and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson. Discussions of representation and equity took on a new sense of urgency during the racial reckoning of summer 2020, with an emphasis of inclusion throughout the entire Broadway ecosystem — not just on the stage, but beyond the wings, and now on marquees.

As a part of Black Theatre United’s New Deal for Broadway that was released in August 2021, the three major Broadway theatre owners — the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, and Jujamcyn Theaters — committed to having at least one of the theatres they owned named after a Black artist. The Nederlander Organization began compiling a list of Black luminaries within the world of Broadway who they could honor, choosing to rename the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, which was named after the famous New York Times theater critic. The theatre, which opened in 1926, is located at 256 West 47th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Currently home to SIX, the theatre’s marquee will now shine Horne’s name.

“We chose Lena Horne because she is such an important part of the fabric of Broadway and of the fabric of Nederlander,” says Christina Selby, Nederlander’s Vice President of Production and Touring. “She had very close ties to Jimmy [Nederlander] Sr., because he produced her show at the Nederlander Theatre. This is a family company first and foremost, and we wanted to honor someone who was a part of the family.”

Horne began her performing career at New York City’s Cotton Club in the 1930s. The legendary nightclub was a venue where many Black entertainers would perform, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Ethel Waters. She soon made the move to Los Angeles and began acting in Golden Age Hollywood musical films such as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. She also made her mark with five productions on Broadway, including her Tony-nominated performance in Jamaica. Audiences clamored for her prowess as one of the biggest nightclub performers after World War II.

In May 1981, she opened her musical revue Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music at the Nederlander Theatre for a four-week run. That four-week run extended to an entire year, ending on Horne’s 65th birthday. Those 333 performances led to Horne receiving a Special Tony Award and two Grammy Awards for the revue’s cast recording.

Not only was Horne celebrated for her artistic accomplishments, but for her activism work as well, often fusing the two. She refused to perform for segregated audiences or play a maid or other servant-type characters in films. She joined the Council for African Affairs and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, and worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to lobby Congress to enact anti-lynching legislation.

“This is about the next generation of little Black girls who dream of Broadway,” says Jacquelyn Bell, an Associate at Nederlander. “Horne’s legacy reminds us that representation matters. Those girls will have a place where they can go and see someone who looks like them. They can point to it and say, ‘I belong here.’”

To celebrate this momentous occasion, Bell and Selby are the coproducers planning the special ceremony to unveil the new marquee shining Horne’s name. Festivities will kick off at 2 p.m. with a block party outside of the theatre on 47th Street, hosted by DJ Ari Grooves. The 3 p.m. ceremony will include special performances as well as an in-depth retrospective on Horne’s history-making career and legacy. The post-ceremony reception will take place at Brooklyn Chophouse, also on 47th Street, which is a majority-Black-owned business.

“Our whole theme is joy and celebration,” says Selby. “We want to bring a sense of community and people together.”