Thursday, January 2, 2014

From the Archives: Koster and Bial's Music Hall on 34th Street

Let's start the new year with a history post on a vaudeville venue that predated Macy's Herald Square's flagship location. Written and researched by 34th Street Partnership's archivist Anne Kumer, this post also appears on NYC Circa.

Throughout the late 1800s Manhattan's Theater district crept northward towards along the city's Great White Way towards Times Square. Herald Square was home to several music and dance halls including Koster and Bial's. The theater's former location was a bit south at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. Two days after closing the 23rd Street location, John Koster and Albert Bial opened a new music hall with the same name on 34th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway.  On August 28, 1893 the hall opened its doors to the public, eight years before Macy's would buy the property, demolish the building, and build their famous flagship store.

Exterior of Koster and Bial's on the north side of  West 34th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway, 1896. Image: MCNY

Interior of the 34th Street Koster and Bial's Music Hall, 1896. Image: MCNY

Strobridge Lithographing, 1896. Image: LOC

A popular vaudeville venue with varied stage performances, Koster and Bial's hosted burlesque and acrobatic acts, as well as a whole host of musical performances.
Fannie Leslie [1896]. Image: NYPL
Trick horse of Emile outside the music hall's 34th Street entrance, 1896. Image: MCNY
Among the many dancers who made regular appearances at the venue, was "La Carmencita," also known as "The Pearl of Seville." Carmen Dauset was born in Seville, Spain in 1868, and began performing at the age of 12 in 1880. She made her American debut at the 23rd Street Koster and Bial's in February 1890, but performed several times at the 34th Street location.
The dancer as portrayed by painter William Merritt Chase, 1888. Image via

One of a few portraits painted of the dancer by painter John Singer Sargent, 1890. Image via
The theater was also the chosen location for the first exhibition of Thomas Edison's Vitascope projector on April 23, 1896. Originally invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armant, and called a Phantoscope in 1895, the two inventors both claimed the invention as theirs after dissolving their partnership. It was soon sold to Thomas Edison, in what sounds like a similar situation to the Emile Berliner gramophone incident in the late 1870s. The Edison Manufacturing Company renamed the machine the Thomas Edison Vitascope, and continued manufacturing it.

The first theatrical exhibition of a a film projection machine, the Vitascope. April 23, 1896 Image: LOC

Edison's company went on to produce 100s of "actuality" films -- watch them -- documenting real life scenes with little or no narrative. Here is a film of Carmencita made in 1894, most likely with one of Edison's previous camera inventions: the kinetograph or kinetoscope:

Almost since the day it opened, the theater was plagued with financial and management issues. On July 17, 1901 Macy's announced the purchase and future demolition of the property to make way for the flagship store at 34th Street and Broadway. Three days later, Koster and Bial's held their last performance on the rook garden, ending with a chorus of performers and loyal customers singing "Auld Lang Syne."

You can still find a plaque commemorating the Hall's existence just outside the 34th Street entrance to Macy's.

Other Sources:
-Snyder, Robert. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York.