Those attending the grand opening of the 1,600-seat Shubert Theater on Dec. 11, 1914, would especially remember comedian Sam Bernard singing "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle When Rip Van Winkle was Away?"
The show was "The Belle of Bond Street" and for two bits you could see it all from the second balcony
The show has recently played Broadway and established the New York-New Haven connection that would continue for the next century, as the theater became "the birthplace of the Nation's hits." Its evidence was the 600 pre-Broadway try-outs, 300 world premieres and 60 American premieres.
Two years after the theater opened, Al Jolson was starring in the world premiere of "Robinson Crusoe Jr.," beginning the long list of stars to play the theater. Among them were Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, George M. Cohan, Ed Wynn, Jolson, Ina Claire, Bert Williams and the Marx Brothers.
New Haven audiences were the first to hear the songs in 11 Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that had their world premieres here, including "Oklahoma!", (it was then called "Away We Go!"), "Carousel," " South Pacific," "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music."
Theatergoers were also the first to hear Marlon Brando cry "Stella" in the world premiere of "A Streetcar Named Desire," as well as having first looks at Ethel Merman in "Call Me Madam," Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story," Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday," Henry Fonda in "Mister Roberts," Paul Newman in "The Desperate Hours" and Frederic March and Jason Robards in Eugene O'Neill's shattering "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
New Haven was where America first discovered Arthur Miller who was premiering his first major play, "All My Sons," as well as Lorraine Hansberry whose "A Raisin in the Sun" would be the long awaited breakthrough for African-Americans on Broadway.
Reviews could be full of praise or pans or somewhere in between: "There are several nice things about 'Hair' which opened for a two-week strand at the Shubert," wrote critic T.H. Parker. "One is that the doors of the theater open both inward and outward. So, if you don't like the show, you can leave as easily as you entered."
Then there was The Courant reporting on Al Jolson who learned that a member of his cast in a Shubert show had been arrested. The star went down to the New Haven court "with the cast trooping behind him. He received a private audience with the judge. No one ever knew what was said between the two men but bursts of laughter were heard coming from inside the judge's chambers. The two men came out arm-in-arm."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun