Built on the site of the former American Horse Exchange, owned by W. K. Vanderbilt, the theatre was designed by architect William Albert Swasey to resemble an English garden, with latticework on the walls and a trellised ceiling. Roof gardens were a popular motif on Broadway at this time, especially on top of such theatres as the Casino, the Olympia, the American, the Victoria, the Century, and the New Amsterdam. Despite the Winter Garden’s ambience of an outdoor roof garden, some unkind critics claimed they could still smell the horses whenever a flop show opened there.
Unmarred by a marquee, the original Winter Garden had a classical facade with Palladian arches and columns, and it contained, besides the auditorium, a “promenoir” in the rear of the house, extending from Broadway to Seventh Avenue for intermission processions “which are joined in by everyone of prominence,” an early program proclaimed.
The Winter Garden’s opening production, La Belle Paree (1911), was composed of two parts. Part one was a one-act “Chinese opera” called Bow Sing; part two was a lively vaudeville, Jumble of Jollity, with songs by Frank Tours and Jerome Kern. The hit of this segment was singer Al Jolson, who for many years would be the Winter Garden’s biggest star.
The Winter Garden was an instant hit (“New York’s latest plaything, a very flashy toy, full of life and go and color and with no end of jingle to it!” wrote one critic). Two of the theatre’s most talked-about features in its early days were a series of Sunday-night concerts, in which new talent such as Jolson and Marilynn (later shortened to Marilyn) Miller were brilliantly promoted, and a structural innovation that became a Winter Garden trademark: the “runway.” On a European trip, Lee Shubert had met the great German producer/director Max Reinhardt, who broke down the invisible wall between actors and audience with a thrust stage that jutted out into the orchestra section of the theatre. The Shuberts borrowed this idea and built a bridge over the tops of orchestra seats from the stage to the rear of the house. On this bridge Jolson pranced into the audience, belting his songs and communicating with his delirious fans. Eighty near-nude showgirls also paraded on the runway, which soon became known as “the bridge of thighs.”
Though it was subsequently removed, the “bridge” would return to the Winter Garden some 60 years later when director Hal Prince installed a Japanese Kabuki-style hanamichi runway through the Winter Garden (sans thighs) for the musical Pacific Overtures.
Just as the New Amsterdam Theatre became identified with the Follies and the Apollo with the Scandals, the Winter Garden became the home of a rowdy revue series called The Passing Show. From 1912 through 1924 there was an annual edition, except in 1920. Among the luminous stars who appeared in these shows were Fred and Adele Astaire, Marilyn Miller, Willie and Eugene Howard, Charlotte Greenwood, Ed Wynn, Frank Fay, John Charles Thomas, Marie Dressler, the Avon Comedy Four, Fred Allen, George Jessel, and James Barton.
The major song contributors were Sigmund Romberg and Jean Schwartz; the gilded sets were mostly by Watson Barratt, and the silken costumes mostly by Cora McGeachey and Homer Conant.
The Passing Show revues were less subtle than those produced by the Shuberts’ archrival, Florenz Ziegfeld. One wonders what women’s lib would have said to a bizarre “Rotisserie” scene in which showgirls were roasted on a spit and then placed on tables like well-done chickens. In The Passing Show of 1924 (the last of the series), a chorus cutie named Lucille LeSueur portrayed a “Beaded Bag” and “Miss Labor Day.” The chorine went to Hollywood and became better known as Joan Crawford.
Al Jolson never appeared in a Passing Show, but he headlined some of the Winter Garden’s biggest hits. He first appeared in blackface (which became his specialty) in Vera Violetta, a 1911 musical in which he costarred with the French singer Gaby Deslys and a sexy newcomer named Mae West. He again appeared with Deslys in The Honeymoon Express (1913), with a funny girl in the cast named Fanny Brice. In 1918 Jolson took Broadway by storm in Sinbad, a fantastic musical in which he belted out some interpolated numbers that were forever identified with him: “My Mammy” (sung on the runway in blackface and white gloves), “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” and “Chloe.” When the show went on tour, Jolson added a song called “Swanee,” which made George Gershwin famous overnight. In many of his shows, Jolson played the same character, a smart-aleck blackface servant named Gus. In his last Winter Garden show, Big Boy (1925), the singer made Gus a stableboy who suddenly finds himself riding as a jockey in the Kentucky Derby.
After the Passing Show series was through, the Winter Garden staged other revues, such as Artists and Models and The Greenwich Village Follies, studded with tall, medium, and “pony”-size showgirls and low comics. Eddie Cantor appeared in two Winter Garden shows, Broadway Brevities of 1920 and Make It Snappy, and Martha Graham danced in the 1923 edition of The Greenwich Village Follies.
During the 1920s the Winter Garden was redesigned as it appears today by architect Herbert J. Krapp, and an enormous marquee was added. But to Broadway’s dismay, from 1928 to 1933 the theatre was leased by Warner Brothers and converted into a Vitaphone (talking pictures) temple. Aptly, the first movie shown there was Al Jolson in The Singing Fool.
After a shaky return to legitimacy with Joe Cook in a mediocre musical, Hold Your Horses (1933), the Winter Garden embarked on its golden era of glittering revues, noted for their beauty and sophistication. It all began when the Shuberts and Billie Burke (Ziegfeld’s widow) combined to present a posthumous Ziegfeld Follies (1934), starring Fanny Brice, Willie and Eugene Howard, Vilma and Buddy Ebsen (who stopped the show with their dancing), and Jane Froman.
In 1934 Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Luella Gear, and Frances Williams brightened the house in Life Begins at 8:40, a breathtaking revue with mechanical sets and a hit tune, “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block.” This was followed by the racy Earl Carroll Sketch Book, starring Ken Murray.
In 1935 Vincente Minnelli began his splashy tenure as revue master of the Winter Garden and he came up with At Home Abroad, a travelogue starring Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, Eleanor Powell, and Reginald Gardiner. Minnelli designed eye-filling sets of foreign ports, Lillie did her hilarious “Dozen Double Damask Dinner Napkins” sketch, Gardiner imitated wallpaper and trains, Powell tapped up a storm, and Waters sang Dietz and Schwartz gems.
Another Ziegfeld Follies arrived in 1936 with Minnelli sets and costumes, Fanny Brice doing Baby Snooks, Bob Hope singing “I Can’t Get Started” to Eve Arden, and Josephine Baker singing and dancing dressed in strings of bananas.
Late 1936 brought perhaps the Winter Garden’s best revue of all time — Vincente Minnelli’s The Show Is On, a tribute to show business through the ages, with Bea Lillie swinging out over the audience on a huge half-moon and dropping garters on bald-headed men, Bert Lahr immortalizing “Song of the Woodman,” the Gershwins providing “By Strauss,” and Hoagy Carmichael contributing “Little Old Lady.”
In late 1937 Ed Wynn moved in with the marvelous antiwar musical Hooray for What! by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse. Wynn played a zany inventor of gases who is pursued by nations that want his concoctions for their wars.
A phenomenon called Hellzapoppin’ opened at the Forty-sixth Street Theatre in 1938 and proved so successful that it was moved to the Winter Garden, where it became the longest-running Broadway musical up to that time (1,404 performances). Starring Olsen and Johnson, the revue was a lunatic uproar, with all sorts of practical jokes played on the audience. It sparked two more Winter Garden revues: Sons o’ Fun (1941) and Laffing Room Only (1944).
In between the last two Olsen and Johnson shows came two hits: Milton Berle, Ilona Massey, Arthur Treacher, and Jack Cole in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1943, and Cole Porter’s Mexican Hayride, starring Bobby Clark and June Havoc, lavishly produced by Mike Todd.
In the summer of 1945 an operetta called Marinka opened at the Winter Garden and proved to be the last legitimate show to play there for several years. Once again, the theatre reverted to a movie house.
In November 1948 the rowdy Bobby Clark brought live theatre back to the Winter Garden in Michael Todd’s funny As the Girls Go, a fast-paced musical in which Clark played the husband of the first female president of the United States (Irene Rich). Todd’s production was so lush and expensive that he charged a $7.20 top, a record price at that time. Todd continued his association with this theatre by presenting a high-class burlesque, Michael Todd’s Peep Show (1950).
Phil Silvers, another raucous comic, scored at the Winter Garden in a noisy musical, Top Banana (1951), about television, with Silvers impersonating a TV comic said to be inspired by Milton Berle. Then in 1953 Rosalind Russell triumphed in Wonderful Town, a brilliant musical by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green.
A rarely performed classic, Tamburlaine the Great, by Christopher Marlowe, was given a spectacular production in 1956, with Anthony Quayle in the title role and a newcomer named Colleen Dewhurst listed in the cast as“A Virgin of Memphis in Act I and A Turkish Concubine in Act II. Her fall occurred during the intermission. Also making his Broadway debut in this play: William Shatner, the future Captain Kirk of TV’s "Star Trek," who played a character named“Usumcasane. During the same year, the Old Vic Company from England performed Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and other plays.
The last Ziegfeld Follies opened at the Winter Garden in March 1957 and starred the illustrious Beatrice Lillie and Billy De Wolfe, but the critics were not enthusiastic and the show closed after 123 performances. On September 26, 1957, the landmark musical West Side Story blazed across the Winter Garden stage with its jazzy, violent treatment of Romeo and Juliet set in the rumble-ridden slums of Manhattan. The unusual musical was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Jerome Robbins; had a book by Arthur Laurents and music by Leonard Bernstein; and introduced 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim to Broadway as a lyricist. West Side Story moved to the Broadway Theatre in March 1959. After a brief hiatus for the 16-performance debut of Marc Blitzstein’s musical Juno, based on Juno and the Paycock, West Side Story returned to the Winter Garden for the final two months of its run.
The offbeat actress Tammy Grimes proved a sensation in The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1960, playing an actual character from the early 1900s. Harve Presnell was her costar in this popular Meredith Willson musical. Act II included a depiction of the sinking of the Titanic. It would not be the last musical to do so.
Fanny Brice, who had been a Winter Garden favorite for many decades, was memorably impersonated by Barbra Streisand in the 1964 bonanza Funny Girl. The show had a striking score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill that included the standard “People,” which became Streisand’s signature tune. Funny Girl ran for 1,348 performances.
Another musical triumph was scored by Angela Lansbury in the title role of Mame, Jerry Herman’s musical treatment of the popular play Auntie Mame. Lansbury won a Tony for her spirited performance. Beatrice Arthur and Jane Connell were her hilarious sidekicks. The hit show ran for 1,508 performances, a new house record.
Hal Prince brought a most original musical to the Winter Garden in 1971: Follies. The title was meant to suggest both the glittering revues of the 1910s and 1920s, and the mistakes the main characters have made in their love lives. The musical focused on a reunion of a group of former Follies girls and their husbands on the stage of the theatre where they once performed. With an exciting score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Goldman, the surrealistic musical starred Alexis Smith, John McMartin, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson, and Yvonne De Carlo and featured old-timers Ethel Shutta and Fifi D’Orsay. Follies won seven Tony Awards.
In 1972 and 1973 Neil Diamond and Liza Minnelli made highly successful personal appearances at the Winter Garden. Also praised was the New York Shakespeare Festival’s revival of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, imaginatively set in the early 1900s in the United States by director A. J. Antoon. Sam Waterston played Benedick, and Kathleen Widdoes was a radiant Beatrice.
Angela Lansbury returned to the Winter Garden in 1974 in a dynamic revival of Gypsy. Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim came back in 1976 with the original musical Pacific Overtures, about the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry. Boris Aronson won a Tony for his splendid settings, and Florence Klotz won another Tony Award for her colorful costumes. Prince’s Tony-nominated staging incorporated many conventions of Japanese Kabuki theatre.
Zero Mostel, who won a Tony in 1965 for his portrayal of Tevye in the award-winning musical Fiddler on the Roof, recreated his performance in a 1976 revival of the famous musical. It played for 167 performances. In 1977 a multimedia show called Beatlemania vividly recreated the career of the Beatles in remarkable fashion. It stayed at the Winter Garden until 1979.
A series of shows and personal appearances filled the theatre during 1979 and 1980, including Zoot Suit, Gilda Radner – Live from New York, and Twyla Tharp and Dancers. In August of 1980 David Merrick returned from producing films in Hollywood to bring glamour and excitement to the Winter Garden with an opulent tap-dancing musical based on the famous 1933 movie 42nd Street. The brilliant opening night, Broadway’s most exciting in years, was darkened by Merrick’s announcement, at the show’s curtain calls, without prior knowledge of the cast, that the musical’s choreographer and director, Gower Champion, had died that afternoon.
In 1981 Richard Harris starred in a revival of Camelot, and in 1982 Christopher Plummer played a memorable Iago to James Earl Jones’s powerful Othello.
In the summer of 1982 the Shuberts renovated the Winter Garden extensively, indoors and out. One feature that was retained was the blocklong billboard over the marquee, which has carried enormous advertisements for each show playing the theatre.
In preparation for the arrival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s British hit Cats, set designer John Napier and a battery of workmen transformed the theatre into a “cosmic garbage dump.” The effort paid off. Not only did the unique Cats win seven Tony Awards, but by the time it closed on September 10, 2000, it had run for 7,485 performances, making it the longest-running show in Broadway history, a title it held for six years until eclipsed by another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Phantom of the Opera, at the Majestic Theatre. For 18 years the yellow eyes of the Cats logo (with tiny dancers as pupils) kept watch over Broadway from that huge billboard.
Based on T. S. Eliot’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, about a tribe of anthropomorphized felines calling themselves Jellicle Cats, the musical used spectacular choreography by Gillian Lynne to tell the stories of Rum Tum Tugger, Skimbleshanks, Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, Bustopher Jones, Mister Mistoffolees, Grizabella, and the rest of the nimble band. The song “Memory” became one of the few show tunes to achieve pop-standard status in the rock age. The show proved to be such a durable favorite with children and grownups alike that it advertised for more than a decade with the slogan “Now and Forever.” For a generation of youngsters, Cats — and the Winter Garden — formed their introduction to Broadway.
In constant use for nearly two decades, the Winter Garden closed following Cats for another yearlong refurbishment. It reopened in fall 2001 with Mamma Mia!, a musical built around the 1970's-era hits of the Swedish rock group ABBA. Opening October 18, 2001, Mamma Mia! was one of the first new musicals to bow on Broadway following the terrorist attacks of September 11 of that year, and it provided audiences with a welcome burst of comedy and dance, telling the story of a young woman on a romantic Greek island who uses the occasion of her wedding to discover which of her disco-singer mother’s three ex-boyfriends is her true father. Mamma Mia! was still a near sellout in the eleventh year of its run, well fulfilling the Winter Garden builders’ original promise of “novel, international, spectacular and musical entertainments.”
In 2002 the Shubert Organization signed a contract granting naming rights to Cadillac, a division of the General Motors Company. The Winter Garden was rechristened the Cadillac Winter Garden from May 5, 2002, to January 1, 2007, when it reverted to simply the Winter Garden.