Two years after they opened their theatre on West 44th Street in New York City, the Shubert brothers started construction on College Street in New Haven where, they reasoned, shows could be tried out before a New York opening. The result was the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, and the brothers were right. In the one hundred years of its existence, more than 600 Broadway productions opened there – more than twice the amount in any other “tryout theatre” in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington DC.
The New Haven Museum and Historical Society recently opened an exhibition celebrating the Shubert. It’s called “The Nation’s Greatest Hits: 100 Years of New Haven’s Shubert Theatre.”
The exhibition welcomes visitors with a red carpet, bright lights, and a larger-than-life black and white image of a young Jessica Tandy in Marlon Brando’s arms. To stroll through the rooms of the exhibition is a kind of time-travel. Walls are covered with photos of stars in their heyday, or stars in the making, along with scenes from beloved shows like Oklahoma!, Streetcar Named Desire, The Sound of Music, and The King & I.
From a golden age of theatre, there are the young faces of Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Kate Hepburn, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers, and Karl Malden are displayed alongside original Playbills and posters. There are vintage ushers’ uniforms on dressmakers’ dummies and a stretch of old theatre seating on which visitors are invited to sit.
Another room reveals the workings and riggings of backstage. The famous backstage and basement murals (with signatures of cast and crews from beloved and unforgettable productions) are reproduced on the walls. Most of the originals have been lost or painted over during necessary renovations.
Visitors to the Museum might want to wander to the first floor to learn about another less recognizable movie star, Deane Keller. A New Haven native and long-time Yale professor, Keller served in the US Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program during WWII. He and his military cohorts’ efforts to save important works of European art inspired the 2014 film, Monuments Men.