Oscar Hammerstein I was as confrontationally public and larger-than-life as Times Square itself. An inventor, writer, editor, publisher, composer, speculator, designer, builder, promoter, showman - he was, above all else, an impresario who accomplished his dream of revitalizing opera in America. He pursued his private passion for opera in the public eye - his amazing successes and spectacular defeats made front-page news more often than any other entertainment figure of the era, yet he remained enigmatic. His is not the traditional success story - his is a passion play.
Oscar Hammerstein I was born in Sceczin, Pommerania, 1848, the eldest son of a large, middle-class, German-speaking, Jewish family. Oscar's mother encouraged his musical studies and opera was, from a very early age, his greatest love. At 15, after his mother died, he ran away from his brutal father and stifling homeland to seek a new life in the New World. After a grueling 89 days at sea, Oscar arrived in Civil War-torn New York City of 1864. He got a job sweeping up in a cigar factory for three dollars a week.
Precocious Oscar learned the cigar trade quickly. In 1874 he founded and edited a tobacco trade publication, the U. S. Tobacco Journal, which he managed until 1888. (During these years, he also moonlighted' as a theatre manager for several German theatres downtown, sometimes presenting German operas or straight plays of his own creation.) More profitably, he began inventing and patenting cigar machines. These machines, along with his trade paper, industrialized and reformed the tobacco industry and provided Oscar with a lifelong, dependable source of income for pursuing his theatrical and operatic ambitions.
Oscar's theatre-building first began at 125th Street. Harlem then was still a largely uninhabited stretch of goat farms and shantytowns. Envisioning the needs of a fast-growing metropolis, he built more than 50 residences there. To entice the downtown populace uptown, he built his first theatre in 1889, the Harlem Opera House, on 125th Street. Oscar presented the big-name, downtown talents of the day - Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Georgie Drew Barrymore, Lillian Russell, Fanny Davenport, E.H. Sothern, Margaret Mather, Otis Skinner and Helena Modjeska. In l890, Oscar built and managed his second theatre, also on 125th Street - the Columbus Theatre - which presented lighter theatrical fare - George M. Cohan, Chauncey Olcott, Walter Damrosch and countless others. In 1893, Oscar built his third theatre - the first Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street.
His desire to present popularly-priced opera at his new, midtown theatre proved financially disastrous, forcing him into a partnership with Koster & Bial, variety show producers. Their union fractured in a flurry of name-calling, fistfights and court battles, leaving a bitter and vengeful Oscar
to swear: "When I get through with you, everybody will forget there ever was a Koster & Bial's. I will build a house the likes of which has never been seen in the whole world." Maintaining,"It's not where the theatre is, it's what you give the public," he opened his Olympia Theatre, November 25, 1895. Nine years before Longacre Square was renamed Times Square, tens of thousands of New
Yorkers mobbed the opening of his enormous theatre complex. The world's premier theatre district was christened, fittingly, by a muddy riot.
Within a ten year period, Oscar built three more theatres in the heart of Times Square. In 1899, he built his fifth - the Victoria Theatre - at the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue. Stars like Will Rogers, W.C.Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Buster Keaton, Houdini and Mae West were among the thousands of performers who made Oscar's Victoria Theatre the vaudeville "nut house" of Times Square. Credit for the Victoria's 17-year success was mostly due to the management and Barnum-like, public relations acumen of Oscar's son, Willie Hammerstein.
In 1900, Oscar built his sixth theatre - the Republic Theatre - next door to his Victoria Theatre on 42nd Street and leased it to the immensely successful producer, David Belasco. Retaining roof rights of both buildings, he opened Hammerstein's Roof Garden above both theatres. In 1904, Oscar built
his seventh theatre - the Lew Fields Theatre - also on 42nd Street - for Lew Fields, half of the legendary comedy team, Weber and Fields. Times Square had now become one immense construction site of theatrical and business growth.
For Oscar, money was a means to an end, not the end itself. Oscar cared very little for the comforts of success. He paid the highest salaries in the business, yet seemed oblivious to his own needs. His sons had to hide money in his top-hat so he wouldn't be stuck without trolley fare. He was equally indifferent to failure: "I am never discouraged. I don't believe in discouragement...To do anything in this world, a man must have full confidence in his own ability."
Oscar knew that the Met's reputation for assembling the best singers money could buy - Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar, for example - did not disguise the mediocrity of productions geared toward an audience whose reasons for going to the opera were primarily social - to see and be seen. Oscar yearned for the opportunity to produce opera for opera-philes like himself. He recognized opera as profound drama, not narrative trappings for a series of emotionally unconnected song recitals. All the various stage arts had to work together to pack the greatest emotional wallop.
Now, at the age of 59, Oscar's obsessive passion for opera would bear remarkable fruit. In 1906, Oscar opened his eighth theatre - his second Manhattan Opera House and assembled a company of opera singers who could act. He combined his love for opera with his experience as a showman. For four astonishing years Oscar's Manhattan Opera Company would financially and creatively dominate the world of grand opera in New York City. In 1908, he expanded his operatic ambitions nationally by building his ninth theatre - the Philadelphia Opera House.
He presented the immensely successful American debuts of Mary Garden and Louisa Tetrazzini. His company included such stellar performers as Nellie Melba, Emma Trentini, Giovanni Zenatello, Allesandro Bonci, Maurice Renaud, Charles Dalmoräs, Mario Sammarco and John McCormack. Oscar emphasized contemporary works, offering the American premieres of Louise, Pellêas et Mêlisande, Elektra, Le Jongleur De Notre Dame, Tha S, Sapho and Grisêlidis, and such controversial works as Salome and Hêrodiade. He rediscovered and popularized Les Conte D'Hoffman and Samson et Dalila. He offered outstanding productions of traditional standards such as Aida, Carmen, La Traviata, Otello, La Boheme, Tosca, Rigoletto, Il Barbiere Di Siviglia and scores of others.
He could outwit them for a while, but he could not outspend them in the long run. The competition with the Met had so inflated the cost of opera production and so saturated the public's interest for opera that by his fourth year Oscar was going bankrupt. Oscar's son Arthur Hammerstein stepped in and negotiated a deal with the Met board of directors, led by financier Otto Kahn, which offered Oscar a flat sum of $1,200,000 in exchange for his written promise to refrain from producing grand opera in the United States for 10 years. He begrudgingly accepted the buy-out, but declined the Met directorship's invitation to a conciliatory dinner in his honor with the lament: "Gentlemen, I am not hungry."
Obsessively unstoppable Oscar took the money and promptly moved to England to build his tenth theatre - the London Opera House. Again, he waged another quixotic and financially ruinous opera war' with Covent Garden's royal opera company. A reporter asked Oscar if there was any money in opera. Oscar replied, "Yeah, mine." Oscar had spent the Met's money and was, once again, broke within two years.
Returning to America, Oscar sold the Victoria Theatre's lucrative vaudeville booking rights contract to vaudeville kingpin B. F. Keith to finance the building of his last theatre – the Lexington Opera House. His attempts to overturn and evade his contractual ban proved futile and the
Lexington opened as a movie house and was soon after sold. He died almost completely broke in 1919, one year shy of the ban's conclusion, while negotiating with singers and planning his next return to opera's center stage. "...I have no immediate desire to leave my life of usefulness here to go to heaven, where there is sure to be a chorus which I have not selected, like as not with wings, too."
His development of Times Square (and other theater districts in New York City) his acoustic and populist innovations in theater design, his introduction of the new and controversial into the staid conventions of opera, his bankrolling of opera productions with the profits from vaudeville comedy and cigar machines, and, above all else his passion and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds all combined to create the theatrical world within which his family, and so many others, would creatively thrive for generations to come. He was the father of Times Square.
Despite his immense contribution to the theater, Oscar’s grandson Oscar Hammerstein II, is the one who is more familiar to theatergoers because of his much beloved musicals Carousel, Showboat, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Desert Song, The King and I and the Sound of Music.
Sources: Oscar Hammerstein III, Reprinted with permission.