Walking into a Broadway theater at show time is something special — the electricity, the excited murmurs, the shared anticipation. But, it turns out, walking into an empty Broadway theater can be just as fun.
A newly launched tour of the Hudson Theatre offers a rare chance to wander around the interior of Broadway’s oldest theater and hear some of the fascinating stories that have happened over its 116 years.
“I would encourage you to bask in the rare moment of being in a Broadway theater by yourself with no other audience members,” says tour leader Tim Dolan, moments before opening the Hudson’s inner doors.
Over the next 90 minutes, Dolan weaves real stories about Hudson Theatre veterans like Barbra Streisand, Louis Armstrong and Elvis with historical events like the sinking of the Titanic and the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903 in Chicago.
“The stories are crazy. Across all boards — tragedy, American history, TV and film, pop icons, and then Broadway, of course, which I’m obsessed with,” Dolan says after the tour.
Dolan, an actor who has performed on Broadway, off-Broadway, cruise ships, national tours — and who had one line on an episode of “Boardwalk Empire” that he’s happy to deliver when prompted — runs the Broadway Up Close tour company, which prides itself on hiring working actors and stage managers for authenticity.
It has taken him years to convince Hudson’s owner, the Ambassador Theatre Group, to let him bring tours into the Hudson during lulls between shows. He uses an iPad filled with period photos and video clips to bring the place alive.
While there are other walking tours of Broadway — and one that also can get you inside a theater — none match Broadway Up Close’s ability to mix history and architectural knowledge and convey it from a performer’s perspective. Whenever he can, Dolan will also get his tour group up onto the Hudson’s stage, a very rare feat.
Highlights of the tour include wandering the 100-foot green marble lobby, admiring the turquoise, orange and mauve luminescent mosaic tiles by Louis Comfort Tiffany and spotting the ghost light on the stage. You’ll learn that the best seats cost just $2 when the theater opened in 1903, and you’ll find out why women’s theater bathrooms are so crowded today.
The tour takes you to the orchestra seats, up into the balcony and into a private bar area. Dolan shows photos he took of the empty top two floors, which once housed a family and are now sealed off from the rest of the theater. Dolan’s infectious energy, insight and handle on history makes the tour a Broadway visit must-do.
To find his stories, Dolan has scoured the Library of Congress, The Shubert Archive, The Museum of the City of New York, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, memoirs and biographies. He filters it through his own show business life. “I’m going to try and make you understand how I look at a building like this,” he says.
The Hudson was built by theater producer Henry Harris, who perished aboard the Titanic. His widow, Rene, who was the last Titanic passenger to be rescued, managed the Hudson for another 20 years, staging more than 90 plays.
Among them was the 1929 musical revue “Hot Chocolates,” noteworthy for music by Thomas “Fats” Waller and for launching the career of a then little-known Louis Armstrong, who stole the show with his singing of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
The Hudson operated as a theater on and off until 1960, with shows starring some of the biggest names in show business, including Ethel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Sidney Lumet, Mae West, Lena Horne and Maureen Stapleton. “The Price Is Right” with Bob Barker once originated from the Hudson, and “American Idol” auditions have been held on its stage.
After 1960, it narrowly escaped a wrecking ball four times — the existence of a family in the top floors probably helped — and went through many hands and incarnations, including stints as a radio and TV studio, burlesque theater and porn movie house.
Jack Paar’s variety show was broadcast from the Hudson and it was where Streisand made her first TV appearance. Steve Allen’s show was housed at the Hudson for a time, and he was responsible for an infamous episode in which Elvis sang “Hound Dog” to a real hound dog. You’ll also see what Jake Gyllenhaal — who reopened the Hudson in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2017 — left as a permanent mark: His handwritten notes of a Stephen Sondheim lyric have been turned into a neon sign at one of its bars.
As an actor, Dolan can explain technical stage details, from the way backdrops move to the staggering price each production pays to get everything loaded into the theater. He reveals that actors carefully listen to the number of coughs in the audience — a sure sign of boredom. And if you’re the kind of person who dares to record a show on your phone, he warns you that his fellow actors can spot the tiny red light and will tell an usher.
“We see everything,” he jokes. “We pretend we don’t but we’re watching everything you do.”
Dolan hopes his tour can demystify Broadway and reveal the rich history of buildings we often enter without much thought. Ultimately, he’s a Broadway fan and wants more people to want to come back and see a show.
“We need to make them feel connected and feel a part of it,” he says after his latest customers spill out into Times Square.q