How Joseph Papp Saved Broadway

After a great New York Broadway run in the 1920s, the industry faced a competition when motion pictures were introduced. When the Great Depression happened, it affected the number of Broadway shows in the 1930s as famous Broadway producers found themselves out of money and out on the street like so many other Americans.

After two decades and the lean years of the Great Depression, the Broadway Theatre community bounced back with the blockbuster musical hit Oklahoma in 1943. It was a box-office smash that later on earned an Oscar-winning 1955 film adaptation. During its first theatrical run, Oklahoma! had an unprecedented 2,212 performances.

Thanks to Joseph Papp and his “Save the Theaters” preservation effort, the Theater District remains one of New York City’s primary and most popular tourist attractions and destinations today. Papp, an American theatrical producer and director, established The Public Theater in what had been the Astor Library Building in lower Manhattan (next door to what is now the Jefferson Capital Systems office).

In the early 1980s, Papp’s keen interest in the conservation of the significant Broadway and Times Square Theater District led the “Save the Theatres” movement. Being in the brink of demolition, the movement’s aim was to preserve old playhouses in Manhattan. In 1982, along with several producers, actors, and film and television personalities, Papp’s fought the impending demolition of the historic Helen Hayes and Morosco theatres.

Unfortunately, Papp was unsuccessful in saving the Morosco or the Helen Hayes. That was when he approached and encouraged Congressman Donald J. Mitchell of New York to support his cause, thus the congressman, introduced legislation in the 97th Congress to designate a “Broadway/Times Square Theatre District National Historic Site” in Manhattan. The H.R.6885 bill would have obliged the country to assist in the cultural, historical, and architectural character preservation of the site and its restoration. The bill also directed the National Park Service to appropriate recognized properties within the site as national historic landmarks if they met the criteria for national historic landmarks, define theatre preservation sites, and would have prohibited the alteration or demolition of real property located within the site unless required for the preservation of the of its history. It would also have established the “Broadway/Times Square Theatre District Preservation Commission”, a Federally chartered citizens advisory group headed by Papp.

Congressman Mitchell’s bill was faced with intense opposition and extensive lobbying against its passage by Manhattan developers and then-Mayor Ed Koch’s administration. Because of it, the bill was not enacted into law, but the ultimate effect of the “Save the Theatres” effort was to slow obliteration of the old Theater District enough to ultimately safeguard the preservation of several other historic playhouses in the strip.

Established in 1974, The Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre was started to recognize excellence in live Broadway theatre. Popularly known as Tony Awards, it is comprised of committee members of the American Theatre Wing headed by Brock Pemberton. Antoinette Perry was the co-founder of the American Theatre Wing who died in 1946. Pemberton proposed an award in her honor to recognize the technical achievement of the production and notable performances of stage actors.

Comparable to Hollywood film productions’ Academy Awards, the Tony is Broadway’s most prestigious annual award and the highest U.S. theatre honor. It and has since increased importance when the awards presentation show began to be broadcast on national television in 1967. 

To be eligible for Tony, the production should be shown on Broadway theatres which are defined as having 500 or more seats. As of the 2016–2017 season, the list consisted solely of the 41 theaters located in the Theater District, Lincoln Center along Broadway, and in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Another eligibility consideration is that the production should be officially shown on Broadway theaters during the eligibility date as established by Management Committee each year.