Jujamcyn Theatres, which acquired this intimate house in 1981, has spent millions to restore the theatre to its original splendor. A 1983 refurbishment returned the house to legitimacy after years as a cinema. A fuller refurbishment in 1990, the work of the Roger Morgan Studio, Inc., has made this one of Broadway’s most impressive smaller playhouses.
The Ritz was built by the Shuberts as a sister theatre to their Ambassador Theatre on West Forty-ninth Street. It was built in a record 66 days in 1921. The architect was Herbert J. Krapp, the eminent theatre designer of that era, and the interior was done in Italian Renaissance style, with much gold leaf and Italian scrollwork.
On March 21, 1921, the intimate (under 1,000 seats) new house opened with Clare Eames in John Drinkwater’s Mary Stuart, preceded by a pantomime called A Man About Town that included in its cast the future opera composer Deems Taylor.
The Ritz flourished in the 1920s with some distinguished plays and players. A 1921 highlight was an ebullient performance by Ina Claire in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Roland Young appeared in Madame Pierre the following year, and in 1923 Katharine Cornell was admired in The Enchanted Cottage, as was Lynn Fontanne in In Love with Love. Audiences in 1924 were spellbound by Sutton Vane’s eerie Outward Bound, starring Alfred Lunt, Leslie Howard, and Margalo Gillmore as dead passengers on a boat that is sailing to the “other world.” The same year unveiled Hassard Short’s Ritz Revue, hailed for its scenic splendors, and John Galsworthy’s Old English, starring the noted character actor George Arliss.
A saucy Claudette Colbert graced The Kiss in the Taxi in 1925, followed by Helen Hayes in Young Blood, and Frank Morgan, Ralph Morgan, and Estelle Winwood in A Weak Woman. The next year found a young Ruby Keeler tapping in Bye, Bye, Bonnie; the beautiful Grace George in The Legend of Leonora; and Alice Brady and Lionel Atwill in The Thief.
On the day after Christmas 1927, bubbly Miriam Hopkins and Frank McHugh cheered first-nighters in Excess Baggage, followed by another winner, Janet Beecher in Courage, which ran until May 1929. The decade came to an end with the successful Broken Dishes, with Donald Meek and a young actress named Bette Davis, who was immediately snapped up by Hollywood.
Highlights of the 1930s at the Ritz included the famed comedy team of Smith and Dale in a hit play called Mendel, Inc.; noted monologist Ruth Draper in some of her celebrated character sketches; the thriller Double Door; Frank Lawton and Mildred Natwick in The Wind and the Rain; Dennis King and Leo G. Carroll in Mark Reed’s delightful Petticoat Fever; Ilka Chase and Peggy Conklin in Co-Respondent Unknown; the Surry Players (including Shepperd Strudwick, Anne Revere, and Katherine Emery) in a revival of As You Like It; and Jessica Tandy and Dame Sybil Thorndike in J. B. Priestly’s Time and the Conways.
During the late 1930s the Federal Theatre Project (also known as the WPA Theatre) staged some exciting productions at the Ritz. Among them were T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral; the stirring Power, staged by the WPA’s Living Newspaper unit, which ran for five months; and a lavish production of Pinocchio that ran for 197 performances.
In 1939 the Ritz became the CBS Theatre No. 4, from which live radio shows were broadcast, including the programs of the "The Town Crier," drama critic Alexander Woollcott. On December 22, 1942, the theatre went legit again with Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1943, with the producer onstage to introduce fresh talent, including John Lund and Alice Pearce. After that, the long-running Tobacco Road moved in from the Forrest Theatre. Toward the end of 1943 NBC took the theatre over for use as a radio and TV studio; later, so did ABC.
It was not until December 1970 that the Ritz returned to legitimacy, with previews for a new rock opera called Soon. The show, which opened on January 12, 1971, marked the Broadway debuts of Peter Allen, Nell Carter, and Richard Gere. Also featured in the cast were Barry Bostwick, Marta Heflin, and Leata Galloway. Unfortunately, it closed after three performances. Later that year, Rip Torn and Viveca Lindfors played a brief run in Strindberg’s Dance of Death.
Following a renovation in late 1971, the Ritz reopened on March 7, 1972, with the short-lived thriller Children, Children, starring Gwen Verdon in a rare nonmusical role. It had only a single performance, but it was succeeded later that year by a show that ran twice as long — two performances — Hurry, Harry. In 1973 the Ritz housed a brief run of the English farce No Sex, Please, We’re British. Shortly thereafter, the theatre was christened the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Theatre and, for a while, showed films.
The Ritz reopened under Jujamcyn ownership on May 10, 1983, with an entertaining troupe of New Vaudeville jugglers who named their show after themselves: The Flying Karamazov Brothers.
This was followed by the acclaimed Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare, a one-man show of brilliance (1984); Dancing in the End Zone, a play with Pat Carroll and Laurence Luckinbill (1984); Doubles, a hit comedy about four tennis players, starring John Cullum, Ron Leibman, Austin Pendleton, and Tony Roberts (1985); Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood, a revue of Kern melodies that brought back Elisabeth Welch, an American singer of fame in the 1930s who scored a huge success in London musicals (1986); a new play called A Month of Sundays (1987); the musical Late Nite Comic, with music and lyrics by Brian Gari and a book by Allan Knee (1987); the comedy team of Penn & Teller (1987); and a revival of the musical Chu Chem (1989).
In 1990 Jujamcyn spent $1.5 million to restore the Ritz to its original legitimate splendour. According to Interior Design magazine, the total interior renovation of the Ritz was achieved by Karen Rosen of KMR Designs, Ltd., Manhattan. Her client, Richard Wolff, then president of the Jujamcyn Theatre Corp., requested that the Ritz be made elegant by restoring its classical feeling of the 1920s. Rosen chose a color scheme of pink/mauve/gray touched with black to reflect the 1920s look while appealing to current tastes. She restored ceiling decorations and murals and designed Art Deco-type sconces, chandeliers, balcony, and ceiling lights to achieve illumination without jarring glare. The theatre also acquired one of the most colorful marquees on Broadway, framing the tenant’s title with a rainbow of hundreds of tiny lightbulbs.
The refurbished 947-seat Ritz Theatre was rechristened the Walter Kerr in 1990. The renovation and rechristening proved a boon for the theatre. In the following 20 years, the Walter Kerr housed a remarkable four Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas and six Tony Award winners as Best Play, plus many career-defining performances by rising stars of the period.
The inaugural production under the new name was August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Award for the season’s best play. Part of his Pittsburgh Cycle of dramas about black life in America during the twentieth century, The Piano Lesson involved a haunted piano that represented a black family’s legacy.
After that came Paul Rudnick’s amusing I Hate Hamlet, with Nicol Williamson playing the ghost of John Barrymore and sparkling performances by Celeste Holm, Adam Arkin, Jane Adams, and Evan Handler. Crazy He Calls Me ran briefly in 1991, and then came Two Trains Running, another chapter in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. It won a Tony Award for Larry Fishburne as Best Featured Actor in a Play.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches caused a sensation here in 1993. The first half of this epic drama about AIDS, loyalty, and war in heaven during the Reagan era won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best play of the season. Additional Tony Awards went to Ron Leibman (Best Leading Actor), Stephen Spinella (Best Featured Actor), and George C. Wolfe (Best Direction of a Play). The show continued for 367 performances.
In 1994, part II of the play, Angels in America: Perestroika, joined it in repertory and was critically acclaimed. Perestroika again won the Tony Award as Best Play, and Spinella won a second Tony for his acting in the role of Prior Walter, this time for Best Leading Actor. The Best Featured Actor award went to Jeffrey Wright. Perestroika continued for 216 performances, closing December 4, 1994, just two weeks after Millennium Approaches ended its run.
In February 1995 Terrence McNally’s play Love! Valour! Compassion! moved here from its successful Off-Broadway run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The play dealt with three weekends spent by a group of gay friends in Dutchess County, New York, and it received glowing reviews. It won Tony Awards for Best Play (McNally) and Best Featured Actor (John Glover). The play ran for 249 performances.
Patti LuPone on Broadway starred the popular diva backed by four men. Act I featured a variety of show tunes; Act II offered songs from LuPone’s Broadway career. The entertainment ran for 46 performances.
On March 28, 1996, the August Wilson play cycle added yet another chapter at the Walter Kerr with the opening of Seven Guitars, which received a dozen favorable reviews. The play, about a Pittsburgh musician who dreams of going to Chicago to record a hit song, won the 1996 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and a Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Play (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). Other Tony Award nominations included Featured Actor (Roger Robinson), Featured Actresses (Viola Davis and Michele Shay), Best Play (August Wilson), Best Director (Lloyd Richards), Best Scenic Designer (Scott Bradley), and Best Lighting (Christopher Akerlind). It had 187 performances.
A new production of Noël Coward’s comedy Present Laughter (first seen on Broadway in 1946 with Clifton Webb) arrived on November 18, 1996. This time Frank Langella acted the role of Garry Essendine, said to be patterned on Coward himself. The new production included full-frontal male nudity, which some critics and theatregoers found gratuitous. The comedy ran for 175 performances and was nominated for the Tony Award as Best Revival of a Play.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, an Irish play by Martin McDonagh, transferred from Off-Broadway to the Walter Kerr on April 23, 1998, to much acclaim. Concerning the thorny relationship between a repressed Irishwoman and her manipulative mother with whom she lives, the drama was hailed for its writing and acting and won the following Tony Awards: Best Actress (Marie Mullen), Best Featured Actress (Anna Manahan), Best Featured Actor (Tom Murphy), and Best Director (Garry Hynes). It was also nominated for Best Featured Actor (Brían F. O’Byrne) and Best Play (Martin McDonagh). It played for 372 performances.
April 1, 1999, brought another Irish play to this theatre: The Weir, by Conor McPherson. The play took place in an Irish pub, where several local men and a female visitor exchange increasingly chilling ghost stories. The play was moderately successful and ran until the end of November.
The next tenant was Waiting in the Wings, a 1960 play by Noël Coward that had never been produced on Broadway. Timed to the centenary of Coward’s birth, the play starred Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris as rival actresses in an English retirement home, with many vintage stars in supporting roles. The play was updated by Jeremy Sams. It received two Tony Award nominations: Rosemary Harris (Best Actress) and Helen Stenborg (Best Supporting Actress). It ran at the Walter Kerr Theatre for three months starting in December 1999, then moved to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Sadly, it was the last Broadway show produced by Alexander H. Cohen, who passed away in spring 2000.
Fall 2000 saw Mary Louise Parker starring in David Auburn’s Proof, a drama about a mathematician’s daughter who may be the one actually responsible for her father’s greatest work. Proof won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play. It ran 917 performances, making it the longest-running nonmusical drama of the decade. Proof was produced here by the Manhattan Theatre Club, which would bring another Pulitzer/Tony winner to the Kerr before the decade was out.
But first Off-Broadway’s The Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival and London’s Donmar Warehouse Theatre cooperated on another Tony winner for Best Play, the Broadway transfer of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out. Daniel Sunjata played a Major League baseball champion who comes out of the closet as gay. But the show was stolen by a secondary character (Denis O’Hare), who becomes smitten with the game of baseball while working on the player’s case. Take Me Out opened February 27, 2003, and ran 355 performances. Tony Awards were won by O’Hare and by director Joe Mantello.
Another issue drama arrived April 15, 2004, with Sixteen Wounded, Eliam Kraiem’s drama about the conflict that arises when a Jewish baker in Amsterdam hires a young Palestinian man as his assistant. The play treated the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the Mideast conflict as equally legitimate, but critics and audiences did not respond, and the drama, starring Judd Hirsch and Omar Metwally, lasted only 12 performances.
Gem of the Ocean was the third and last of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle to have its Broadway debut at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Chronologically the first in the ten-decade epic, Gem introduced the anchor character of Aunt Ester, played by Phylicia Rashad. Lisa Gay Hamilton, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and Eugene Lee were also featured in the production, which lasted 72 performances.
Starting March 31, 2005, the Kerr housed one of the most distinguished and honored dramas of the early twenty-first century, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Brían F. O’Byrne and Cherry Jones squared off as a Catholic priest who may or may not have molested a schoolboy, and the single-minded nun who is determined that he is guilty and should be brought to justice. The production was memorable for the groups of people who would gather under the colorful Kerr marquee after performances to debate whether the priest did it or not. Another production from Manhattan Theatre Club, Doubt, like Proof, won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award as Best Play. The production won the following Tony Awards: Best Play, Best Actress (Cherry Jones), Best Featured Actress (Adriane Lenox), and Best Direction of a Play (Doug Hughes). Doubt ran for 525 performances.
The Kerr next housed a musical, Grey Gardens, that developed a fervent following. The show was based on the true story and subsequent documentary film about two benighted members of the extended Kennedy clan: Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie” Beale. Born to be debutantes in a glamorous world of glittering wealth, the two dysfunctional women end up as “cat ladies” wandering their filthy and empty mansion halls together. Grey Gardens had a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie. The show proved to be a bonanza for its two stars, Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, who took the Tony Awards for Best Actress and Best Featured Actress in a Musical, respectively. Ebersole had the special assignment of playing the elder Edie in Act I, then her own grown daughter in Act II, with many juicy solos, notably “Will You,” “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” “Around the World,” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town.” Grey Gardens opened November 2, 2006, and stayed for 307 performances.
Actor Chazz Palminteri brought his one-man show A Bronx Tale to the Kerr on October 25, 2007. The play followed an unusual path to Broadway. Palminteri said he had originally conceived the show (about growing up among Mafiosi) for the stage, but it had been bought and produced as a film first. Taking the lead role himself, he now finally performed it the way it had been conceived. It ran 111 performances and went on tour.
Fans of Off-Broadway concert and club composer John Bucchino eagerly looked forward to his first full Broadway score, for the musical A Catered Affair, which opened here April 17, 2008. Based on a film of the same name, the show starred Tom Wopat and Faith Prince as a blue-collar couple split between his desire to spend their life savings on a taxicab, and her desire to spend it on a fancy wedding for their daughter, played by Leslie Kritzer. Harvey Fierstein wrote the book and costarred as the gay uncle who is not invited to the event. The beautiful ballad “Don’t Ever Stop Saying ‘I Love You’” was not enough to overcome unfavorable reviews, and the show lasted just three months.
An acclaimed London revival of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull came to the Kerr for 94 performances starting October 2, 2008. The story of a grande dame actress (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the group that gathers around her at her country home was presented in a new translation by Christopher Hampton and directed by Ian Rickson.
Tovah Feldshuh told a true story of World War II heroism in Dan Gordon’s drama Irena’s Vow, about Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish woman who hid a group of Jews in the basement of a Nazi official’s home. It opened March 29, 2009, and ran 105 performances.
In December 2009 the Kerr hosted a revival of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical A Little Night Music, headlined by film star Catherine Zeta-Jones and the beloved Angela Lansbury. Her performance as actress Desiree Armfeldt won Ms. Zeta-Jones a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. In an unusual twist, the show went on hiatus after the two principals left, and reopened with the legendary Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. The musical lasted for 425 performances.
A revival of John Guare's dark comedy, The House of Blue Leaves, was the next production to play here. Although headed by a high-powered cast (Ben Stiller, Edie Falco, and Jennifer Jason Leigh), the play didn't find an audience and closed prematurely.