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Why Is Theatre ‘On Broadway’?

Broadway shows in NYC Theater District, Limo service in New York City


For the tourists who bought 8.52 million tickets to Broadway shows last season—not to mention millions of New Yorkers—Broadway isn’t just a street: it’s a style of theatre, and an experience. Only a small part of Broadway forms New York’s Theater District: Broadway runs 13 miles diagonally across Manhattan and through the Bronx, ending in Westchester County. Originally a Native American trail, it’s far older than the street plan adopted for the city in 1811, disrupting Manhattan’s carefully laid out grid. So how did Broadway come to host one of the world’s premier theater districts?


The first theaters in New York appeared around 1750, but the concept didn’t really take off until the middle of the 19th century. Even then, Broadway and theaters went together, although all the early action was downtown. The city back then didn’t extend very far north: Times Square didn’t exist, and there was still a farm at what is now Broadway and 50th Street well into the 19th century.


19th century Broadway theaters staged melodramatic, sentimental fare, and the buildings themselves were made of wood, lit by gas jets, and had a bad habit of burning down. Niblo’s Garden, at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, was one of the best-known and most popular, and accidentally created the Broadway musical with its surprise hit The Black Crook in 1866. As rents and land prices rose downtown, most theatres migrated up Broadway (Niblo’s was demolished in 1895), until later in the 19th century, theaters were concentrated between 14th and 23rd Streets between Union and Madison Squares.


As the city expanded, theaters began to move further north. And new technology changed the experience of theatre forever—the electric lightbulb, patented in 1880. When Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater opened in 1895, near what was then Longacre Square, he flooded the outside of the building with electricity, setting the tone for the district. As more theaters opened nearby and electric street lights arrived, the area came to be known as “The Great White Way” due to the intensity of the light. Longacre Square became Times Square when the iconic Times Building went up in 1904, and by 1910 the makings of modern Broadway were in place. The expansion of the subway uptown accelerated this trend, as Times Square became a major station and theatergoers poured in from all over town.


As we explained in a previous post on Broadway, the name itself is misleading: a Broadway theater is one that seats 500 audience members, and only four are physically on Broadway. However, the only Broadway theater outside the Theater District is the Lincoln Center.


The fortunes of Broadway fluctuated over the years, weathering the introduction of films with sound, the Depression, the challenge of television, and the changing fortunes of New York itself. By the 1970s and 1980s, Times Square had become a seedy neighborhood known for drugs, prostitution, and pornography. As the area was cleaned up in the 1990s, Times Square theaters were revitalized and the area again became the tourist attraction and destination it had been a century before.


If you’re looking for a stress-free way to arrive at the theater in style on or off Broadway, be sure to book a limo with us.

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