Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Plunging Horses and Vanishing Elephants at New York's Hippodrome Theater

In 1905, on the edge of Manhattan's theater district, a new, incredibly large theater was built -- the Hippodrome. Situated alongside the Sixth Avenue elevated train line on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, the Hippodrome was built  and managed by the creators of Coney Island's Luna Park, Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy.
The Hippodrome on Sixth Avenue in 1905. The Sixth Ave. elevated tracks are on the left. Image: LOC

The theater had a seating capacity of 5,300 and a giant stage that could accommodate 1,000 performers. It was also equipped with an 8,000 gallon clear glass water tank that could be raised and lowered onto the stage. The theater opened to a packed audience on April 12, 1905, and, in its early years, was known for featuring an equestrian ballet with "100 lady bareback riders" and 80 horses plunging into the tank.  Also, in 1913, the Victor Military Band performed, and the LOC has the recording.
The Hippodrome stage in the early 1900s shortly after its opening in 1905. Image: LOC
One of the more extravagant acts to hit the stage was magician Harry Houdini's Vanishing Elephant trick performed on January 7, 1918. With the help of the tank, Houdini made an elephant, "Jennie" and her trainer disappear in front of a captivated audience.

Houdini and Jenny on the Hippodrome stage, 1918. Image: LOC

In addition to stellar and strange bookings, the theater also had consistent money and management problems. Its astronomical operating costs ensured that the managers and bookers had to keep up with the public's fickle entertainment tastes: in 1923 performances included vaudeville acts, and in 1925 the theater began screening movies. Still, it couldn't be saved, and the Hippodrome closed its doors for good on August 16, 1939. The building was demolished and the lot used for parking. In the early 1950s, a parking garage was built on the parking lot.

The Hippodrome parking garage, November 27, 1954. Image: MCNY

The building there now bears the same name, though its purpose has changed, as the neighborhood has, to reflect its current status as a commercial center of the city.

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