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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Majestic BAM Harvey Theater

by Louie Fleck

Imagine if you will, the entertainment options in 1904: no internet, no video games, no YouTube or TV… in fact practically no movies! Oh yes, and no radio. If you wanted to be entertained, you had to go somewhere.
Imagine Fulton Street, Brooklyn in 1904… No sneakers or cell phone stores or discount closeout shops! But there were a lot of theaters. Only six years after consolidation to become part of the City of New York, Brooklyn had its own “Broadway” district on Fulton Street. The newest jewel in this Brooklyn theater row was designed by J. B. McElfatrick at 651 Fulton Street. Meanwhile, just a block away, construction was about to begin on the brand new Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The Majestic opened up with a production of The Wizard of Oz (yes, 33 years before the Judy Garland film). Here at the BAM Hamm Archives, we’re still looking for a program, but it was most likely a road version of the hit that was running at the Manhattan Majestic at the same time. For this production, Toto was played by a cow. Can you imagine the flying monkeys carrying Toto away?

According to the August 24, 1904 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, when it opened, “Brooklyn’s Perfect Theater” had a seating capacity of “over 2300, as follows: lower floor 724, balcony 564, and gallery about 1,000.” Add 12 boxes, each with a capacity of six people, and you have a total of about 2360, making it larger than the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Opera House at 2100 seats!

From 1904 through the late 1930s, Broadway shows regularly transferred to the Brooklyn Majestic. There were notable appearances by Al Jolson, Bert Lahr, Milton Berle, and the Earl Carroll Vanities.

With the changing times, the Majestic had to adapt. Legitimate theater was replaced by vaudeville and then burlesque. In 1942, the Majestic was transformed into a movie theater, but first run was eventually replaced by pornography. Then in 1968, the theater closed for about 20 years.

In 1987, when Harvey Lichtenstein, president and executive producer of BAM was looking for a suitable venue to stage a major epic production, drastic measures were called for. According to Harvey, he broke into the derelict palace and immediately summoned Peter Brook and Jean-Guy Lecat to take a look. This is where the nine-hour production of The Mahabharata would be staged to critical acclaim and packed houses for a three-month run.

Akram Khan in The Mahabharata
 With avant-garde techniques he refuses to explain, Harvey wrested $5 million dollars from the City of New York to renovate. After Hugh Hardy’s architectural design team was finished, the new BAM Majestic had 874 seats and a new lobby where the orchestra used to be. The mezzanine had been extended to reach a new floor about eight feet above where the old stage had been. Take a look at the back wall… it is a recreation of Peter Brook’s Bouffes du Nord, complete with real bullet holes.
There have been numerous extraordinary productions at the BAM Majestic. Some of the most notable include: Garrison Keillor, the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden directed by Ingmar Bergman, Don Byron… the list is astonishing. The Harvey has become the first choice of venues at BAM among directors and actors for presenting traditional theater.

When Harvey Lichtenstein left BAM in 1999, the theater was renamed the BAM Harvey in order to honor his tremendous contributions. In the lobby you can see an amazing portrait of Harvey created by Chuck Close.

As a regular visitor to the BAM Harvey, you are probably aware of another major renovation for the BAM Harvey two years ago. The new entrances and new seats for the orchestra have made the theater incredibly comfortable and luxurious. The Steinberg Screen with 5D capability changed the game once again last summer, and will screen Big Screen Epics (including The Wizard of Oz!) and first run films again this July and August.

Renovation of the orchestra seating begins (2012)
A rare view from above the ceiling medallion in the Harvey Theater

Louie Fleck is the manager of the BAM Hamm Archives.

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