David Belasco, between 1898 and 1916.
David Belasco (July 25, 1853 - May 14, 1931) was an important American playwright, director and theatrical producer.
Born in San Francisco, California, to which his Sephardic Jewish parents had moved from London during the Gold Rush, he began working in a San Francisco theatre doing a variety of routine jobs such as call boy and script copier. He eventually was given the opportunity to act and serve as a stage manager, learning the business inside out. A gifted playwright, Belasco went to New York City in 1882 where he worked as stage manager for the Madison Square Theater while writing plays. By 1895, he was so successful that he set himself up as an independent producer.
During his long career between 1884 and 1930, Belasco either wrote, directed, or produced more than 100 Broadway plays including Hearts of Oak, The Heart of Maryland, and Du Barry, making him the most powerful personality on the New York city theater scene. Although he is perhaps most famous for having penned Madama Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West for the stage, more than forty motion pictures have been made from the many plays he authored, including Buster Keaton's Seven Chances.
Poster for The Heart of Maryland
Belasco is also recognized for bringing a new standard of naturalism to the American stage. Sets used in his stage plays were lavish, with great attention to detail, and sometimes spilled out into the audience area. In one play, for instance, an operational laundromat was built onstage; in another, there was a reproduction of a Childs Restaurant kitchen where actors actually cooked and prepared food. Belasco's original scripts were often filled with long, specific descriptions of props and set dressings.
Belasco was further known for his advanced lighting techniques and use of color to evoke mood and setting. He was one of the first directors to eschew the use of footlights in favor of follow spots and realistic lighting. Often, Belasco tailored his lighting configurations to compliment the complexions and hair of the actors. In his own theatres, the dressing rooms were equipped with lamps of several colors, allowing the performers to see how their makeup looked under different lighting conditions.
Both of Belasco's New York theatres were built on the cutting edge of their era's technology. When Belasco took over the Republic Theatre he drilled a new basement level to accommodate his machinery; the Stuyvesant Theatre was specially constructed with enormous amounts of flyspace, hydraulics systems and lighting rigs. The basement of the Stuyvesant contained a working machine shop, where Belasco and his team experimented with lighting and other special effects. Many of the innovations developed in the Belasco shop were sold to other producers.
David Belasco was married to Cecilia Loverich for over fifty years; they had two daughters, Reina and Augusta. He died in 1931 at the age of 77 in New York City and was interred in the Linden Hills Cemetery in Queens, New York.
The first Belasco Theatre in New York was located at 229 West 42nd Street in the Times Square district. Belasco took over management of the theater and completely remodeled it in 1902, only two years after it was constructed as the Theatre Republic by Oscar Hammerstein (the grandfather of the famous lyricist). He gave up the theater in 191 and it was renamed the Republic. Under various different owners, it went through a tumultuous period as a burlesque venue, hosted second-run and, eventually, pornographic films and fell into a period of neglect before being rehabilitated and reopened as the New Victory Theater in 1995.
The second Belasco Theatre is located at 111 West 44th Street, only a few blocks away from the New Victory. It was constructed in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre and renamed after Belasco in 1910. The theater was built to Belasco's wishes, with Tiffany lighting and ceiling panels, rich woodwork and murals. His business office and private apartment were also housed there. As of 2006 the Belasco is still in operation as a Broadway venue with much of the original decor still intact.
Belasco Theatres also existed in several other cities. The Los Angeles Belasco was built in 1926, is located at 1050 S. Hill St downtown and has been used as a church in recent years. The Shubert-Belasco Theatre was located in Washington D.C.
- Known informally as "the Bishop of Broadway" for his penchant for dressing in black clothing that made him resemble a priest.
- Credited with giving Mary Pickford her stage name. Pickford appeared in his plays The Warrens of Virginia at the first Belasco Theatre in 1907 and A Good Little Devil in 1913. The two remained in touch after Pickford began working in Hollywood; Belasco appeared with her in the 1914 film adaptation of A Good Little Devil.
- In The Great Gatsby, when Nick encounters "Owl Eyes," Gatsby is called "a regular Belasco," in reference to his giant (apparently just for-show) library.
- Rumored to have often used, or even originated the "casting couch."
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