In this new series, Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the author of The Untold Stories of Broadway book series and creative and programming director of Feinstein’s/54 Below, will be sharing fascinating facts about Broadway’s historic venues. Next up, the Palace Theatre!
The Palace Theatre was built in 1913 and purchased by the Nederlander Organization in 1965. Initially, it presented vaudeville, concerts, and other special events until 1966, when it became home to legitimate musicals and plays. Its longest running show has been Beauty and the Beast, and is currently home to SpongeBob SquarePants the Broadway Musical.
The Judy Garland Staircase
One of the most famous insider spots on Broadway is affectionately called “the Judy Garland Staircase.” Garland played the Palace in 1951, 1956, and 1967. Before making her entrance, she’d smoke a cigarette or two in the hidden staircase located at the back of the house left orchestra section of the Palace … and then she’d emerge as the audience went wild.
During its early years, the Palace was the premiere vaudeville house. Its stars included everyone from the Marx Brothers to Fanny Brice, Weber & Fields to Ethel Waters. Will Rogers played the Palace during its vaudeville heyday, and later on in 1991, the musical about his life, The Will Rogers Follies, would play the same theatre. When actress Sarah Bernhardt played the Palace, she was paid $500 per performance — in gold bars that were held for safe-keeping in a giant safe in the basement! By 1930, the Palace was the only remaining true vaudeville house left, and in 1932, this ended and the Palace began screening films and holding concerts.
Sweet Charity and All That Jazz
In 1966, the first legitimate musical to play the Palace opened: Sweet Charity! The former vaudeville venue was the first Broadway house owned by the Nederlander Organization. Sweet Charity, starring Gwen Verdon and directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, made a huge splash at the Palace. Because of Verdon, the balcony seats were given for free to students and servicepeople. Fosse would later return to the Palace to film the opening sequence of All That Jazz.
The Palace’s star dressing room is on its basement level and has a rich history of diva occupants. Currently occupied by Sunset Boulevard star Glenn Close, the room has previously belonged to Liza Minnelli, Lauren Bacall, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Josephine Baker, and Shirley MacLaine.
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS
The Easter Bonnet event, which raises an impressive amount annually for BC/EFA, was born at the Palace Theatre. During the original run of La Cage Aux Folles, cast members organized to address the AIDS crisis and figure out ways for the theater community to help. Easter Bonnet features each season’s show casts presenting creative skits or songs, as well as festive bonnets they’ve constructed.
Disney Sets Records
Disney has spent some quality time at the Palace. Beauty and the Beast is the theatre’s longest running production, having spent 1994 to 1999 in the house. Its second longest running production is another Disney show: Aida, which ran from 2000 to 2004.
For more on Broadway’s Palace Theatre, check out Tepper’s book series, The Untold Stories of Broadway, available at dresscirclepublishing.com.