Hear the words “Hammerstein Ballroom” and you will likely think of Oscar Hammerstein II, the writer and producer who made a fortune by producing musicals on Broadway. But you’ve got the wrong guy. The Hammerstein Ballroom, part of the Manhattan Center, an event venue at 311 West 34th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenue, was named for his grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I who ironically made a fortune by not producing operas.
Oscar I was a cigar magnate and prolific builder of theaters, including the one that houses the ballroom. He built it in 1906. It was known then as the Manhattan Opera House. He built it for his Manhattan Opera Company, a popularly priced alternative to the costly Metropolitan Opera. Its affordable tickets proved popular indeed – resulting in a net loss for the Metropolitan Opera during the 1906-07 season. So in 1910, the Met decided to buy up all the tickets. It paid Hammerstein the enormous sum of $1.25 million ($695 million in today’s dollars) to stop producing operas at the Manhattan Opera House for ten years. With Oscar’s many projects seriously straining his finances, he accepted the offer. He briefly tried other acts, but in March of 1911, he sold the opera house to the Shubert brothers. They staged vaudeville acts during the week and concerts on Sunday nights.
Oscar I died in 1919. The Manhattan Opera House lived on, though in many different guises. It was purchased by the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in 1922. The building was renamed Manhattan Center in 1940, and became a hotspot for “big band” dances as well as trade shows, union meetings and other social functions. There were radio broadcasts, recordings, and performances by a range of artists, from Harry Belafonte to Bob Marley, from Leonard Bernstein to The Grateful Dead, over the years.
It fell into disuse until Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church bought it in 1976. Name changes ensued: the building was renamed Manhattan Center Studios in 1986. The theater inside became the Hammerstein Ballroom in 1997. Its box seats, balconies and proscenium arch were restored. Its 75-foot frescoed ceiling was recreated altogether.
The subject of the original fresco was an orchestra of angels. Alistair Farrant, an audio engineer, executed it as an oil painting on 16 canvases, and in so doing, added his own touch. He changed the ethnicities of some of the angels to mirror the diversity of today’s New York City. Turning to co-workers at the Manhattan Center for inspiration, he depicted an African American security guard as a violinist, and an Asian-American receptionist as an angel. Oscar would likely be gratified to see his opera house as home to an ever wider audience.
— Carol Cofone