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Looking back on why The Walt Disney Company decided to restore the New Amsterdam Theater in NYC

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Looking back on why The Walt Disney Company decided to restore the New Amsterdam Theater in NYC

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An estimated 1.5 million people made their way to Times Square last week to experience Super Bowl Boulevard. In fact, so many folks crowded into this 13-block area that they sometimes had to wait for hours before they could then zoom down that 60-foot long toboggan run on 40th Street or shuffle through that tent where the Vince Lombardi Trophy was on display.

Mind you, it's doubtful that this many football fans would have made their way to "The Crossroads of the World" if this section of New York City had remained just as it was back in the 1970s & 1980s.

How bad was this part of NYC back then? Mario Cuomo, the then-governor of New York State, once described Times Square & 42nd Street as ...

" ... a sewer and everybody knew it, right in the heart of New York City. Now we're going to get rid of all that filth and 42nd Street is going to come back. People are going to bring their kids in here. Can you imagine? It's the beginning of a whole new era for the City."

42nd Street back in the 1970s

Cuomo happily gave this quote at a press conference which was held at New York City Hall on February 2, 1994. Which was when The Walt Disney Company revealed its plans to rehabilitate and then re-open the landmark New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. Which -- City officials hoped -- would then kick-start their long-delayed plans to revitalize this portion of Midtown.

And who was the man that actually put this plan in action? The-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Who -- to be completely honest here -- wasn't initially all that enthusiastic about the Mouse getting involved in this Extreme Makeover. Especially given that -- back in the late 1980s / early 1990s -- the Times Square & 42nd Street area had one of the highest crime rates in Manhattan.

As Frank Rose recounted in his June 1996 story for "Fortune" magazine, it was postmodern architect Robert Stern who initially reached out back in 1987. Which was ...

The worry -- back in the mid-1980s -- was that
Times Square & 42nd Street would eventually
be permanently in shadow thanks to a never-
ending series of concrete towers like the 800
foot-tall Marriott Marquis Hotel.

... when Times Square seemed about to be paved with enormous office towers. Stern was commissioned to figure out what to do with the theaters that lined 42nd Street. Because of Eisner's close ties to the city -- he grew up on Park Avenue and started out as a page at NBC -- Disney emerged early on as a candidate to help redevelop the block. But when Stern, who'd once designed an East Side penthouse for Eisner's parents, mentioned the street to Eisner, he was told to come back in ten years.

Now keep in mind that this was actually before Michael hired Robert to design a wide variety of buildings for The Walt Disney Company. Among them the Roy E. Disney - Feature Animation Building in Burbank, the Walt Disney World Casting Center, Disney Boardwalk, the Yacht & Beach Club Resorts as well as Celebration Health & the full build-out plan for Celebration, FL. At that time, Stern was just another guy trying to get Eisner's attention at a time when Disney's then-CEO was far too busy trying to get the Company back on its feet to take on any outside projects.

Which isn't to say that people stop pestering Michael about this project. The non-profit corporation which had been set up to find a way to fix up this decrepit corner of Manhattan even went so far as to enlisted the services of civic activist Marian Heiskell. Who had known Eisner since he was 4.

The New Amsterdam (left) and 42nd Street as it looked before Disney began its
renovation / rehab of this corner of Midtown.

Sadly, Marian got no further with Michael than Robert had. As Rose reported in his "Can Disney tame 42nd Street" story, one evening when Heiskell was ...

... seated next to him at a dinner party at the Eisners' house in Beverly Hills, she even pulled out a map and said how wonderful it would be if Disney came to New York. He demurred, although he did send a couple of people to look at the block. "He was being polite," Heiskell says now. "He had said all along that he didn't want to be involved in cities."

So if that was Michael's attitude in the late 1980s / early 1990s, what changed? It was Disney's decision to get in the Broadway musical business that finally forced Eisner to get involved in Manhattan's revitalization efforts. But again not for the reasons that you might think.

Tom Bosley as Maurice, Heath Lamberts as Cogsworth and Gary Beach
as Lumiere in the original Broadway production of Disney's "Beauty
and the Beast." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

As James B. Stewart revealed in "DisneyWar: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom" (Simon & Shuster, February 205), when The Walt Disney Company began to get serious about possibly bringing a stage version of its Academy Award-winning film "Beauty and the Beast" to NYC ... 

... negotiations with the Shubert Organization, which, along with the Nederlander Group, owned nearly all the theaters on Broadway, (made it very clear to Michael) that Disney needed to own its own theater if it hoped to make money on Broadway.

(Which is why in March of 1993) Stern took Eisner, Jane and his son Anders over to the (New Amsterdam) theater, where they donned hard hats and carried flashlights. Water was leaking through the roof, forming puddles; bird droppings were everywhere; crumbled plaster and other debris was scattered all over the floor. Still, the potential grandeur of the theater was evident. remnants of allegorical murals, friezes, and mosaics; Art Nouveau architectural details.

What the interior of the New Amsterdam Theater looked
like prior to its restoration & renovation. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

By the time they had finished the tour, the prospect of salvaging a landmark theater and restoring its fabled grandeur had captured Eisner's imagination. This was a project that would cast Eisner in the role of Renaissance patron, not just another corporate CEO. As soon as he got on the company plan that day, (Michael called the then-president of the Disney Development Company, Peter) Rummell and told him to follow up. "This is going to be much more expensive that you think," Rummel warned. "And a lot of headaches."

There's another great quote from Peter Rummell about the New Amsterdam redo that I just have to toss in here. As he continued to try & dissuade Disney's then-CEO from taking on this project, Peter is reported to have asked Michael ...

Have you ever rehabbed your kitchen? Just think about this as a very, very big kitchen rehab."

The theater's lower lounge area was in serious need of repair. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So with that home improvement analogy rattling around inside of his head, Eisner decided to find out just how expensive the restoration of the New Amsterdam might actually be before he then fully committed The Walt Disney Company to this project. So he had the folks in charge of the Times Square & 42nd Street Redevelopment Project to reach out Tishman Realty & Construction and ask that firm to put together a preliminary cost estimate for this proposed theater rehab.

Now for those of you who don't know: Disney and Tishman Realty & Construction have quite the history. Tishman was the construction firm that the Mouse hired in the late 1970s to turn 600 acres of swampland in Central Florida into EPCOT Center. Tishman Realty & Construction also built that 814-room Hilton down in WDW's Hotel Plaza area.

And as soon as Tishman came onboard the New Amsterdam redo project ... Well, they immediately began pushing Disney to consider expanding what they were looking to do in NYC. To be specific: partner up with Tishman Realty & Construction to build a hotel-retail-entertainment complex at the northeast corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

Concept painting of the retail-entertainment-hotel complex
that Disney and Tishman & Construction planned on
building at the corner of 8th Avenue & 42nd Street.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

And to Eisner's way of thinking ... Well, taking on two hugely ambitious / sure-to-be-expensive projects in the then-troubled Times Square / 42nd Street area actually made more sense then just restoring the New Amsterdam. If only because it then gave the Company additional clout when it came time to hammer out the final terms of Disney's deal with city officials.

And let me just stress here that -- if Disney & Tishman had in fact gone forward with this project -- the $303 million hotel-retail-entertainment complex that they were looking to build together at the corner of 8th Avenue & 42nd Street would have really been something. Down at street level facing out towards Times Square would have been New York City's version of DisneyQuest. Directly above that would have a Disney Vacation Club which -- as part of the multi-day Manhattan vacation packages that this resort was going to offer DVC members -- would have made premium seats to Disney's Broadway shows available at discounted prices.

Before Disney could fully commit to this project, they did seek assurances from city officials that -- before the restored New Amsterdam theater as well as this proposed new  hotel-retail-entertainment complex would open -- the City of New York would do everything that it could to eliminate all of the drug dealers & prostitutes who were still using 42nd Street as their primary hangout.

Michael Eisner and Rudolph Guiliani at an event promoting "King David," the
premiere concert event that officially re-opened the New Amsterdam Theater
as a public performing space. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

During this phase of the negotiations, Michael Eisner recalled a particularly chilling conversation with Rudolph Guiliani, the then-Mayor of New York City.

I had a little concern about the adjacent nightlife, and he (Giuliani) looked me in the eye and he said, "It'll be gone," and I said, "Mr. Mayor, you know there is the American Civil Liberties Union, and I mean, they're just not gone." He said, "Look me in the eye." And I said, "What?" He said, "Look me in the eye." I said, "Okay." He said, "They will be gone." Scared me. I guess(ed) they were going to be gone. So that was that, and we said yes.

But before Disney finally, officially said "Yes" to the New Amsterdam redo, they did get the City & State of New York to agree to some pretty spectacular financial terms. To be specific: While the Mouse would put up $8 million of its own money to help with the renovation of this 10 story-tall Art Nouveau theater, the rest of this restoration's costs -- the remaining 75% -- would be covered by a series of loans provided by the City & State at a 3% interest rate.

Mind you, in exchange for this $28 million infusion of cash, the City & State of New York would then get an undisclosed share of the profits from any show that was presented at the New Amsterdam. And as for Disney ... Well, once work was completed in late 1996 / early 1997, the Company would then wind up with a 99-year lease on the property. Where Disney could then present stage productions in NYC without first having to agree to give the Shubert Organization or the Nederlander Group a large chunk of the proceeds.

But between this deal was first announced in February of 1994 and when the New Amsterdam officially re-opened in April of 1997, there were a few bumps in the road. A few changes in course. And even though Tishman & Disney did announce in May of 1995 that they would  teaming up to build that hotel-retail-entertainment complex at the corner of 8th Avenue & 42nd Street, by April of 1996, the Mouse had changed its mind. Given that those DVC Resorts which had been built away from WDW property (i.e., Vero Beach, which opened in October of 1995, and Hilton Head, which opened in March of 1996) had proven to be slow sellers, Disney was now having second thoughts about building a Disney Vacation Club Resort right in the heart of Manhattan. "We have simply decided not to do time shares in urban settings," said David L. Malmuth, executive vice president of the Disney Development Company, at that time to explain away the Company's decision.

Now what's kind of ironic about all this is that -- according to friends of Michael Eisner that I've spoken with -- Disney's ex-CEO now supposedly considers his decision to pull out of the 8th-Avenue-&-42nd-Street hotel-retail-entertainment complex to be one of his biggest mistakes. But then again, hindsight is always 20 / 20.

Anyway ... All that matters for theater fans is that "The House Beautiful" has now been restored. This historic structure (both the interior & exterior of the New Amsterdam were designated New York City landmarks back in 1979) is once again staging the sorts of theatrical spectaculars that would do Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. proud.

And speaking of Flo ... Given that the Ziegfeld Follies was famous for its skillful mix of beautiful women, elegant scenery as well as the antics of great clowns & comics like W.C. Fields, Leon Errol, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Will Rogers ... It's actually kind of fitting that the very next show that Disney Theatrical  will be staging in this space is "Aladdin." This new musical comedy begins previewing at the New Amsterdam on February 26th and -- if all goes according to plan -- opens on Broadway on March 20th.

By the way, if you enjoyed some of the New York-related stories that I shared in today's blog post, then you may want to head on over to the e.t.c. website. Where -- if you'll click on the walks link -- you'll discover that I'll soon be leading two tours in the City that will touch on a couple of places mentioned in today's articles. I'll also be sharing lots of other stories about how the history of New York City and The Walt Disney Company are interwined. So if you're headed to NYC in April or May of this year, you may want to consider signing up to take part in one or more of these walks.

Jonathan Freeman as Jafar and Don Darryl Rivera as Iago in Disney "Aladdin,"
the new musical comedy which will soon begin previews at the New
AmsterdamTheater. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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  • I already emailed e.t.c. for further information about the tour.  This must be a Disney/NYC year what with D23 Destination D's "64-"65 World's Fair event and your walking tour.  After all (to embellish on a Walt Disney quote), "We should always remember that it all started with a Mouse" at the Colony Theater in NYC.

  • You're killing me, Jim - I'd love to take your Disney walking tour in New York, but it doesn't look like that'll be in the cards for me financially this year. Hopefully, it'll do well enough that you'll offer it again in the future. (And hopefully, the tour also includes a subway ride to a certain location in Flushing, but I digress...)

    Interesting stuff about the New Amsterdam and the proposed development project in Times Square - if I were with the Company, particularly the folks shelling out money for the Disney Store or a DVC person watching all those folks booking hotel rooms or timeshares through an exchange, I'd be kicking Michael for not following through on the complex, too.

    As far as the seediness of the old Times Square, that was waaayy before my time. If you go to the free Times Square Museum - right across the street from the TKTS booth, IIRC - they have an exhibit on the old peep shows, including an example of a peep show booth (sans adult entertainment, of course). It was... interesting, to say the least.

  • This is an interesting project and must be quite a sight to see!

  • I wish I could go on this tour too. I would love to hear Jim speak in person. That would have been an incredible project if Disney had built the DisneyQuest and the hotel right there. They could have had a mini resort, right in the city. Maybe they will do that in the future. There are some NYC based Disney films (Rescuers is partly in NYC, Oliver & Company, Newsies)...they could have some fun with theming things to that. Maybe even come up with a new animated film set in NY. They could do a Princess movie there easily, with a Princess in town for a UN event or something and a fairytale is reimagined in more modern times (maybe with a Spanish princess since everyone is all about Spanish things right now).

  • The gentleman's name was Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., not Florence! Very interesting!

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