The John Golden Theatre at 252 West Forty-fifth Street was originally named the Theatre Masque. It was the fifth theatre built by the Chanin Brothers, and once again they chose Herbert J. Krapp as their architect. This house was their smallest, with 800 seats, and the Chanins announced that it aimed to be “the home of fine plays of the ‘artistic’ or ‘intimate’ type.” They also reiterated their philosophy that their theatres were built to afford ease and comfort to actors as well as playgoers.
The New York Times reviewed the first production at the Theatre Masque, an Italian play called Puppets of Passion, which opened on February 24, 1927, and the paper liked the new playhouse more than the new play. “Like all the Chanin houses,” wrote critic Brooks Atkinson, “the Theatre Masque is pleasing and comfortable. The architecture is modern Spanish in character, and the interior of the house is decorated in pastel shades, trimmed in grayish blues and reds.” Of the play, which had Frank Morgan in the cast, Atkinson wrote that it moved along at a funereal pace. It expired after 12 performances, though its title would become ironic in light of the theatre’s longest-running show some s75 years later, Avenue Q.
The theatre’s next attraction fared better. It ran for 15 performances. This was a play called The Comic, with J. C. Nugent, Patricia Collinge, and Rex O’Malley. The program stated that the author was one Lajos Luria, a pseudonym for a famous serious European dramatist, who wouldn’t use his real name on a comedy.
During the remainder of 1927 this theatre housed a revival of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience; a play about the corruption of the Harding administration in Washington, Revelry; Lionel Atwill in a sorry swashbuckler, The King Can Do No Wrong; and, finally, a misguided comedy called Venus, by the usually skillful Rachel Crothers, who, this time out, wrote a futuristic play about man’s first flight to the planet Venus. Her play was visible for only eight performances.
Things did not improve much in 1928. There were eight productions here, and only one ran more than 100 performances. This was an ethnic comedy called Relations, written by and starring Edward Clark. The Scarlet Fox, written by and starring Willard Mack, ran for 79 performances. Young Love, by Samson Raphaelson, starring Dorothy Gish and James Rennie, lasted for 87 performances.
Theatre Masque’s biggest hit in 1929 was a macabre drama called Rope’s End, by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. The play detailed the grisly murder of an Oxford undergraduate by two upperclassmen, just for kicks. Although the playwright denied it, he was obviously influenced by the similar murder of a young boy in Chicago by Leopold and Loeb, two intellectuals who also committed a thrill kill. In Rope’s End, the murderers put their victim’s body in a chest, then invite his father and aunt to dinner. The meal is served on the chest. Alfred Hitchcock made a rarely shown film of this play and called it Rope.
In early 1930 the hit play Broken Dishes, with Bette Davis and Donald Meek, moved here from the Ritz and played for three months. A comedy about life in Greenwich Village, Up Pops the Devil, with Roger Pryor, Sally Bates, Brian Donlevy, and Albert Hackett (who coauthored the play with Frances Goodrich), ran for 146 performances that year. An interesting but unsuccessful drama, Brass Ankle, by DuBose Heyward (who later wrote Porgy and Bess with the Gershwins), starred Alice Brady in 1931.
A Norman Krasna farce about Hollywood, Louder, Please!, was a moderate success in 1931. It starred Lee Tracy as a loudmouth publicity man, and it was directed at top speed by George Abbott. A much bigger hit was Goodbye Again, a comedy in which Osgood Perkins felicitously played a novelist who tries to renew an old affair while on a publicity tour for his latest book. This romantic trifle kept the Theatre Masque full for 212 performances in 1932-33.
Post Road, a hit 1934 play about kidnapping, featured delirious performances by Lucile Watson and Percy Kilbride. The following year brought J. B. Priestley’s Laburnum Grove, starring Edmund Gwenn, Elizabeth Risdon, and Melville Cooper, which moved here from the Booth. In 1936 Russet Mantle, a pleasant play about Santa Fe characters by Lynn Riggs, moved in and stayed for 116 performances. There was much praise for the actors — Evelyn Varden, John Beal, Martha Sleeper, Margaret Douglass, Jay Fassett, and others.
The last show to play the Masque before it changed its name was The Holmeses of Baker Street, in which Sherlock’s daughter (Helen Chandler) proved that she was as good a sleuth as her old man. Cyril Scott played Sherlock, Conway Wingfield was Dr. Watson, and the wonderful mimic Cecilia Loftus was Mrs. Watson.
On February 2, 1937, the Masque became the John Golden Theatre, making it the third house named after the illustrious theatrical producer. Its first play was And Now Good-bye, a drama based on a James Hilton novel, starring Philip Merivale as a reverend who falls in love with a parishioner. It was not successful.
A radiant play, Shadow and Substance, by Paul Vincent Carroll, arrived in January 1938 and was acclaimed by the drama critics. It had shining performances by the ethereal Julie Haydon as the servant to an intellectual snob, and by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who played her employer. The spiritual play found favor and stayed for 206 performances. The following year, another memorable play by Paul Vincent Carroll, The White Steed, moved here from the Cort. It starred Jessica Tandy and Barry Fitzgerald.
On December 5, 1941, a Victorian thriller called Angel Street opened here, with Judith Evelyn, Vincent Price, and Leo G. Carroll. Produced by Shepard Traube, in association with Alexander H. Cohen, it was not expected to succeed, and consequently, only a three-day supply of PLAYBILL magazines was ordered. The producers underestimated their show. It played 1,295 times (the last two months at the Bijou Theatre), making it the longest-running nonmusical in this theatre’s history.
Rose Franken’s comedy Soldier’s Wife found an audience in 1944 and ran for 255 performances. The play, which had a star-studded cast — Martha Scott, Frieda Inescort, Lili Darvas, Glenn Anders, and Myron McCormick — was not a war play. It was about a woman who wrote a best-seller and the problems it engendered for her family.
The remainder of the 1940s brought a number of shows to this theatre, but none was outstanding. Among them were The Rich Full Life (1945), with Judith Evelyn and Virginia Weidler; S. N. Behrman’s Dunnigan’s Daughter (1945), with June Havoc, Dennis King, Richard Widmark, Jan Sterling, and Luther Adler; January Thaw (1946), with Robert Keith and Lulu Mae Hubbard; and I Like It Here (1946), with Oscar Karlweis and Bert Lytell.
From mid-1946 until February 1948 the John Golden was leased as a motion picture theatre. It returned to legitimacy on February 29, 1948, with Maurice Chevalier in a one-man show of songs and impressions.
Highlights of the 1950s at the John Golden included Grace George and Walter Hampden in The Velvet Glove (1950), which moved here from the Booth; Emlyn Williams in a solo performance of six scenes from the works of Charles Dickens (1952); Cornelia Otis Skinner in Paris ’90 (1952), a monodrama that moved here from the Booth; and the long-running comedy The Fourposter (1952), which moved here from the Ethel Barrymore.
On October 2, 1953, the witty Victor Borge opened at this theatre in a one-man show called Comedy in Music. Borge played the piano and indulged in deadpan patter and lampoons that kept audiences in stitches for 849 performances.
In 1956 comic Bert Lahr gave one of his most unforgettable performances as Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s parable of perpetual anticipation, Waiting for Godot. It was a radical departure for this famed clown of revues and musical comedies, and the critics hailed him, though few at the time recognized the play as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century drama. Also in the cast were E. G. Marshall, Kurt Kasznar, and Alvin Epstein.
In late 1956 Menasha Skulnik appeared in a comedy, Uncle Willie, that stayed for 141 performances. The play was a variant of Abie’s Irish Rose, focusing on two neighboring families, one Irish, the other Jewish.
John Osborn’s vitriolic hit Look Back in Anger moved here from the Lyceum in 1958 and stayed for six months. A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with the popular duo singing their witty lyrics from Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, was welcomed in 1958-59, as was the Billy Barnes Revue from the West Coast. The British duo of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann scored a hit in their two-man revue At the Drop of a Hat (1959).
One of the John Golden’s most cherished entertainments was the brilliant Alexander H. Cohen production of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Even their PLAYBILL biographies, which they wrote themselves, were hilarious. The duo presented some of their classic comedy sketches that satirized everyday foibles, and they kept the John Golden Theatre quaking with laughter for 306 performances in 1960-61.
An Evening with Yves Montand (1961) also proved a hit, with the French actor/singer charming audiences in a one-man show. Robert Redford appeared here in Sunday in New York, a fair comedy by Norman Krasna that moved to the Golden from the Cort Theatre in 1962. On October 27, 1962, a tornado of mirth called Beyond the Fringe arrived from England and fractured audiences for 667 performances. This Alexander H. Cohen import was a delirious revue written and performed by Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore; Cohen staged the uproar.
In 1964 Victor Borge returned to the Golden with Comedy in Music, Opus 2, which was good enough for 192 performances. Another hit revue, Wait a Minim!, opened here in 1966, bringing eight extremely personable and talented performers from South Africa. Their zany entertainment delighted theatregoers for 457 performances. The remainder of the 1960s brought seven shows, but only two of them were of much interest: John Bowen’s British play After the Rain (1967) with Alec McCowen; and the British actor Roy Dotrice in his one-man show, Brief Lives, about an English antiquarian named John Aubrey.
Highlights of the 1970s included Bob and Ray — The Two and Only (1970), a two-man show featuring the popular radio comics Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding; David Rabe’s Vietnam War drama Sticks and Bones (1972), which won a Tony Award for best play of the season; Words and Music (1974), a revue featuring the songs of Sammy Cahn, who appeared in the show with Kelly Garrett, Jon Peck, and Shirley Lemmon; Robert Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children (1975), with Shirley Knight, who won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress of the season; and Tom Stoppard’s Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land (1977), two plays in one, performed without intermission.
D. L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Gin Game (1977) starred husband-wife team Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as two residents of a nursing home whose relationship is reflected in the games of cards they try to play. Tandy won a Tony Award for her performance.
The 1980s began with a revival of Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, soon followed by A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980), which transferred to the larger Royale Theatre; Tintypes (1980), a diverting revue of turn-of-the-century songs, which moved to the John Golden from the Off-Broadway Theatre at St. Peter’s Church; Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Crimes of the Heart (1981), which transferred from Off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club; and Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play ’night, Mother, with Kathy Bates as a daughter who announces to her mother (Anne Pitoniak) that she intends to commit suicide.
In 1984 another Pulitzer-winning play opened here: David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, making it three Pulitzer Prize plays in a row — four in seven years — a record for any Broadway theatre. Gregory Mosher won a Tony Award for his direction of the Mamet play about ruthless real-estate salesmen, which starred Ron Silver, Joe Mantegna (Tony Award), and Robert Prosky.
This was followed by a revival of Athol Fugard’s play Blood Knot, starring the playwright and Zakes Mokae. Tandy and Cronyn returned in The Petition, a British play having its world premiere on Broadway. Another British production, Stepping Out, directed by Tommy Tune, arrived for a brief run in 1987; then came a revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons; the Gate Theatre Dublin production of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, presented in a limited engagement by the Circle in the Square Theatre as part of the first New York International Festival of the Arts; Paul Robeson, starring Avery Brooks; Richard Greenberg’s Broadway debut, Eastern Standard, with Peter Frechette, Anne Meara, and others; Sid Caesar & Company: Does Anyone Know What I’m Talking About?; and Michael Feinstein in Concert : Piano and Voice.
In 1992 the Golden hosted an unusual musical: Falsettos, an amalgam of William Finn’s and James Lapine’s two earlier Off-Broadway musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. The combined show chronicled the misadventures of Marvin, a married man who comes out as gay and tries to build a family that includes his son, his ex-wife, her new husband, and Marvin’s lover, Whizzer. The combined show won Tony Awards for Best Musical Book and Score and ran 487 performances.
In 1993 a play called Mixed Emotions by Richard Baer, with Katherine Helmond, ran for 55 performances. It depicted a romance between a widow and a widower. This was followed by an evening of political comedy by Jackie Mason called Politically Incorrect. Hilariously performed by Mason, it ran for 347 performances.
The next tenant at this theatre scored a resounding hit. It was Terrence McNally’s fascinating Master Class, which opened to rave reviews on November 5, 1995. McNally, who was a friend and great admirer of opera superstar Maria Callas, attended some of her master classes in which she tutored aspiring opera singers. In the play, Zoë Caldwell, who played Callas, dramatically coached three would-be singers with volcanic fury, commanding them, “You’ve got to get a look!” Caldwell and Audra McDonald, who played one of her badgered students, both won Tony Awards for their dynamic performances. Their offstage friendship was so warm that McDonald named her daughter after the star. Master Class won the Best Play Tony Award for the season. During its 601-performance run, Caldwell was succeeded by Patti LuPone and Dixie Carter. McDonald was succeeded by Helen Goldsby and Alaine Rodin-Lo.
On April 1, 1998, a revival of Eugene Ionesco’s play The Chairs, translated by Martin Crimp, opened at this theatre. A production of Théâtre de Complicité and Royal Court Theater, the acclaimed absurdist play starred Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers and filled the Golden’s chairs for a 12-week limited engagement. The two stars played a very eccentric old couple who entertain a growing number of invisible guests, each of whom needs a chair. Both stars made their Broadway debuts in this production, directed by Simon McBurney. The Chairs received six Tony Award nominations: Best Actor (Briers), Best Actress (McEwan), Best Revival of a Play, Best Director (McBurney), Best Scenic Designer (Quay Brothers), and Best Lighting Designer (Paul Anderson).
Side Man, a memory play by Warren Leight, had a fortunate career. It opened Off-Broadway in March of 1998 and earned such glowing reviews that it moved to the uptown Roundabout Theatre Company’s Criterion Center Stage Right, where it again received rave notices. From there it moved to the Golden Theatre on November 8, 1998, and critics again hailed it. It was a deft examination of the troubled family life of a professional jazz trumpet player who is married to his music, with little emotion left for his wife and son. The son is the play’s narrator, reviewing his life with father and mother in vivid flashbacks. One of the play’s attributes was the use of the recordings of jazz greats in the background. In music circles, a side man is a musician who plays alongside the star performer, an anonymous artist to the audience. The autobiographical play won the Best Play Tony Award. Frank Wood, who played the father, won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Play. Side Man ran at the Golden until October 31, 1999. During the run, Robert Sella, who played Clifford, was succeeded by Christian Slater. Sella returned to the role in March 1999 and was succeeded by Scott Wolf in May of that year. The cast also included a group of actors who played musicians and who enlivened the play with jazz slang.
Comedian Jackie Mason returned to the Golden in December 1999 to share his views on race, politics, and the state of coffee in America in his solo show Much Ado about Everything.
Marie Jones’s April 1, 2001, play Stones in His Pockets told what happens when a Hollywood film company virtually takes over a small Irish town to shoot a movie. Seán Campion and Conleth Hill impersonated the whole town for 198 performances.
Edward Albee painted another of his savage portraits of toxic marriages in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, about a married woman (Mercedes Ruehl) who discovers that the “other woman” is literally a goat, whom her husband (Bill Pullman) has named Sylvia. The titillating drama opened March 10, 2002, and won the Tony Award as Best Play, en route to a 309-performance run. The Golden was occupied for nine weeks in spring 2003 with a British drama, Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton, which imagined a powerfully formative love affair early in the life of painter Vincent Van Gogh (played by Dutch actor Jochem Haaf).
Though the Golden had been occupied for more than a decade by nonmusicals, it enjoyed the greatest success in its history starting July 31, 2003, with the transfer of the hit Off-Broadway musical Avenue Q. The show, which was designed for the generation raised on PBS’s "Sesame Street," used songs, puppets, and politically incorrect comedy to guide a young man on his voyage from college into a cold, hard world filled with unemployment, drugs, racism, and broken romance. The songs “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is for Porn” were popular with ticket buyers, and with Internet users who created animations and viral videos riffing on the songs.
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx won the Tony Award for Best Score, Jeff Whitty won the Tony for Best Book, and Avenue Q won the Tony as Best Musical of 2004, beating pundits’ favorite, Wicked, after Avenue Q mounted an imaginative Tony campaign in which the show’s puppets urged voters to “Vote your heart.” The puppets became mainstays of Broadway benefits and other special gatherings.
During Avenue Q’s house-record 2,534-performance run, many young puppeteers worked on the show, following in the footsteps of John Tartaglia, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Ann Harada, and others in the lively cast. The show was scheduled to close September 13, 2009, but at its final performance producers dramatically revealed that the show would be moving to the Off-Broadway New World Stages instead.
The Goat leading man Bill Pullman returned to his old dressing room at the Golden in fall 2009 for a revival of David Mamet’s teacher/student, man/woman power-battle drama Oleanna, costarring Julia Stiles.
It was followed in April 2010 by John Logan’s drama Red, in which Alfred Molina gave a dramatic portrait of artist Mark Rothko. The play was a critical success and won Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Featured Actor in a Play (Eddie Redmayne), Scenic Design (Christopher Oram), Lighting Design (Neil Austin), and Sound Design (Adam Cork).
Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy made it's Broadway debut in October 2010 with an outstanding cast: Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, and Boyd Gaines. Ten days after Driving Miss Daisy closed in April 2011, another famed play also celebrated its Broadway debut: The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's explosive drama about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. The show was embraced by the theatrical community, including Tony voters, who bestowed prizes on John Benjamin Hickey (Best Featured Actor) and Ellen Barkin (Best Featured Actress) in her Broadway debut. The Normal Heart also won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
The John Golden is a Shubert Organization Theatre. It has been very successful as a house for intimate revues, one- and two-person shows, dramatic plays with small casts, and one tiny, long-running musical.