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DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS The development of the Broadway Theater District The area of midtown Manhattan known today as the Broadway theater district encompasses the largest concentration of legitimate playhouses in the world.
The theaters located there, some dating from the turn of the century, are significant for their contributions to the history of the New York stage, for their influence upon American theater as a whole, and in many cases for their architectural design.
By the turn of the century, the section of Broadway between 37th Street and 42nd Street was known as the Rialto. Producers could sometimes cast a play by looking over the actors loitering on the Rialto; and out-of-town managers, gazing out of office windows, could book tours by seeing who was available.^ The theater district that began to move north to Long Acre Square in the 1890s was thus a vast array of business enterprises devoted to every facet of theatrical production.
The movement of the theater district north along Broadway had proceeded at a steady pace during the latter part of the 19th century.
In the early 1800s, businesses, stores, hotels, and places of amusement had clustered together in the vicinity of lower Broadway.
As New York's various businesses moved north, they began to isolate themselves in more or less separate areas: the financial institutions remained downtown; the major retail stores situated themselves on Broadway between 14th and 23rd Streets, eventually moving to Herald Square and Fifth Avenue after the turn of the century; the hotels, originally located near the stores and theaters, began to congregate around major transportation centers such as Grand Central Terminal or on the newly fashionable Fifth Avenue; while the mansions of the wealthy spread farther north on Fifth Avenue, as did such objects of their beneficence as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Close to the theater district were boarding houses catering to the hundreds of performers who came to New York in the hope of being hired for a touring show or a Broadway production.
As theaters were built farther uptown, the auxiliary enterprises also began to move north.
The area was then renamed Times Square in honor of the newly erected Times Building.
By 1904 there were some 420 combination companies touring through thousands of theaters in cities and towns across the country.
Of crucial importance to the operation of the combination system was a single location where combination shows could be cast, rehearsed, tried out, and then booked for a cross-country tour.
In 1888, the Broadway Theater was erected on the southwest corner of Broadway and 41st Street.
Five years later, the American Theater opened its doors at Eighth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets, as did Abbey's Theater at Broadway and 38th Street and the Empire Theater at Broadway and Fortieth Street.