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Botto Jackpot

Louis Botto offers a little gossip and a lot of history in a new edition of At This Theatre. logo

Since the 1930s, Playbill has included in its Broadway programs a column entitled "At This Theatre," which has provided audience members with a capsule history of different Broadway venues. For the last few decades, it has been written by Louis Botto, one of Playbill's senior editors. The columns were originally collected, expanded, and published in a handsome volume of the same name in 1984 (coinciding with Playbill's centennial), but that book has long been out of print. Now, Playbill has teamed up with Applause Theatre & Cinema Books to bring out a new, expanded version of At This Theatre that covers the past 100 years on the Great White Way.

The book serves as an invaluable resource for historians and trivia buffs alike. It includes architectural highlights, changes in theater names and ownership, famous productions, and some gossipy tidbits of information. For example, in a discussion of John Osborne's The Entertainer (1958) at the Royale Theatre, Botto notes that producer David Merrick forbade one of the actresses to take a curtain call because she played a topless statue and "would be too distracting to the audience." Botto also notes early appearances of up-and-coming celebrities; e.g., Yul Brynner and the future Nancy Reagan (neé Davis) appeared in Lute Song (1946) at the Plymouth, while a young James Dean played a North African homosexual in The Immoralist (1954) at the Royale.

Botto's prose is often quite evocative, and he's not shy about giving his opinion in regard to certain events. Here's his description of the opening night of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) at the Mark Hellinger: "Every creep in Manhattan showed up for the first performance. It was a grisly sight: a Biblical spectacle onstage, the dregs of society in the audience, and protestors picketing outside." As evidenced from this passage, the tone of the book is, perhaps, a little elitist. After all, it caters to theatergoers who pay as much as $100 per ticket these days (or, if they're buying tickets to The Producers through Broadway Inner Circle, $480).

At This Theatre focuses on 39 Broadway venues that currently operate as legitimate theaters, as well as the Mark Hellinger (where My Fair Lady (1956), Jesus Christ Superstar, and Sugar Babies (1979) all premiered), now known as the Times Square Church. The most significant difference from the 1984 edition is that the current volume reflects the revitalization of Times Square, which brought us The Ford Center (the combined Lyric and Apollo theaters), the restored New Amsterdam, and the garishly renamed American Airlines Theatre (that's my editorial comment, not Botto's). Interestingly, the author states in his introduction that he does not cover theaters that were once nightclubs; that rules out Studio 54, which currently houses the long-running revival of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Also missing is that revival's original venue, Henry Miller's Theater, now home to Urinetown.

The reason for the latter exclusion is inexplicable. Built in 1918 as a legitimate Broadway house and named after the actor/manager Henry Miller, the theater seems a logical candidate for coverage by Botto. Its roster of famous productions includes Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938), Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful (1953), and Frank Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses (1965). Since Botto includes not only the Mark Hellinger but also City Center -- home of the popular Encores! series but not a regular venue for theatrical productions for many years -- the Henry Miller house seems an odd one to omit.

Despite this fault, At This Theatre remains a worthwhile and engaging read filled with gorgeous reproductions of photographs and Playbill covers that span all of the century just ended and venture a little bit into the new one. The expanded edition also includes an index of over 5,000 entries, a feature that was sorely missing from the 1984 volume. A preface by Tony Award-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell sets a near reverential tone as Mitchell describes the combination of tradition and superstition that determines his relationship to the various theaters in which he has worked. Botto's publication, edited by Robert Viagas, maintains this personable tone, combining theatrical history with informal anecdotes.

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