There’s nothing quite like stepping out of a Broadway theatre, full to the brim with artistic inspiration, into a warm Manhattan summer night. The feeling reaches a crescendo when the performance was the stage legend Hello, Dolly!, which itself celebrates with joyful exuberance that’s been lived out loud on such Manhattan evenings for centuries.
I was fortunate enough to see the revival of the 1964 smash hit musical starring Bette Midler last July, and it was an experience to watch a turn-of-the-century Manhattan summer evening unfolds on the stage, only to step out into a modern one when the performance was over.
As I walked up 44th Street I began to wonder how similar the scene and feeling were to what the fictional Dolly Levi might have done during the play, set in the waning years of the 19th Century.
So I set out on a hunt to find Dolly Levi’s New York, and what I found was surprising. The city has spent the better part of two centuries slowly growing north from the southern tip of Manhattan Island, and the Schubert Theatre where Hello, Dolly! is currently in production didn’t exist during the time the play was set. It was built in 1913, and most of the neighboring theaters were built between 1900 and 1925.
The 1890s in New York City also immediately preceded a massive building boom in the first decade of the 20th Century, when several famous New York landmarks such as the St. Regis Hotel, Grand Central Station, and the Plaza Hotel were all constructed.
Visitors wanting to recapture the magic of Hello, Dolly! need travel downtown from the Theatre District, where much of the action of the musical takes place. At the turn of the century, the “Great White Way” was still Broadway, but the famously illuminated portion was several blocks south, between Union Square Park and Madison Square Park. The South end of Union Square Park is the 14th Street of the “14th Street Association Parade” that Horace Vandergelder travels to the city to march in. At the time, 14th Street was one of the city’s main retail districts.
Today, the neighborhood is still punctuated by period buildings and fixtures. Although the entertainment district has moved further uptown to the current 42nd Street location, there’s certainly a taste of Dolly’s New York to be had. The Flatiron building, on the south end of Madison Square Park, would have been under construction—completed in 1902, it was the first skyscraper north of 14th Street.
Few, if any of the grand Teutonic-style dining palaces like the fictional Harmonia Gardens have been lost to fire or the wrecking ball, although the model for the fictional restaurant was Luchow’s on 14th Street. Fans wishing to “see the shows at Delmonico’s” will find that the 19th century demand for entertainment as a dining amenity has waned, but they can still order the restaurant’s eponymous steak in a revived incarnation of the restaurant in its 19th Century 2 South William Street location.
Not mentioned in the musical, but still period, is Macy’s which was also on 14th Street at Sixth Avenue during the period until it moved to the current Herald Square location. At the time and still today one of the world’s largest department stores, visitors will feel transported to another period while riding on the building’s wooden escalators.
Modern Midtown Manhattan was a decidedly residential district during the 1890s, yet existing structures there include Carnegie Hall (1891) and the 1882 vintage Villard Mansion, which today is occupied by Lotte New York Palace.
2018 marks the last year to visit New York City to take in Hello, Dolly! on a Broadway summer evening. Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber perform in the title roles of Dolly Gallagher Levi and Horace Vandergelder through July 15. Beginning July 17, Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce return to close out the show’s Broadway revival run with a limited engagement of 42 performances through the end of August. So, as the song goes, “get out your feathers, your patent leathers, your beads and buckles and bows” to head to Broadway and take in the matchmaker of all Broadway shows.
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