On August 16, 1939, New York City’s Hippodrome Theater closed its doors for the last time. Built in 1905 with a seating capacity of 5,200, for a time the Hippodrome was the largest and most successful theater in New York. The Hippodrome featured lavish spectacles complete with circus animals, diving horses, opulent sets, and 500-member choruses. The most popular vaudeville artists of the day, including illusionist Harry Houdini, performed at the Hippodrome during its heyday. In 1922, the elephants that graced the stage of the Hippodrome since its opening moved uptown to the Bronx‘s Royal Theater. On arrival, stage worker Miller Renard recalled, the elephants were greeted with extraordinary fanfare:
The next day the Borough President gives them a dinner on the lawn of the Chamber of Commerce up on Tremont Avenue, with special dinner menus for the elephants. It was some show to see all those elephants march up those steps to the table where each elephant had a bail of hay. The[n], the Borough President welcomes the elephants to the Bronx, and the place is just mobbed with people. And that was the worst week’s business we ever done in that theatre.Others might vanish rabbits, but in 1918, on the brightly lit stage of the Hippodrome in New York City, Houdini made a 10,000-pound elephant disappear. He created a sensation. When Houdini fired a pistol, Jennie vanished from view. By the late 1920s, the growing popularity of motion pictures eclipsed the vaudeville acts and circus spectacles presented at the Hippodrome. In 1928, the RKO motion picture company purchased the theater. Ten years later, the Hippodrome was demolished.
“Folklore of Stage Folk,” New York, New York, Terry Roth, interviewer, January 30, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 Manuscript Division
- Browse the subject index of The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 collection to find additional resources documenting popular entertainment in America. Search this collection on the term Harry Houdini to find several items documenting Houdini’s association with the Hippodrome, including a program from the 1917-18 season, and a 1925 Variety article about a Houdini performance at the theater.
- Visit the collection Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies to access over 300 motion pictures and sound recordings intended for turn-of-the-century audiences. Browse the collection by the Title List or Subject Index or search by keyword for something of interest.
- Enjoy Bob Hope and American Variety, an online exhibition. Hope was among the 20,000 vaudeville performers working in the 1920s, and this presentation gives information about his life in vaudeville, his joke file, and much more.
- Search Today in History on vaudeville to read features about impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, master hoofer Bill Bojangles Robinson, escape artist Harry Houdini, and songwriter George M. Cohan.
- Relive the demolition of New York’s famous Star Theater. Search the collection The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906 on the term demolition to see a 1902 film that uses time-lapse photography to record that event.