Vaudeville’s Rooftop Theatres

This great post, “New York’s Incredible Lost Rooftop Theatres,” from Messy Nessy Chic is a fun scroll-through.

One afternoon, in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the NYPL, I became distracted from my task as I began flipping through an old rooftop garden profile in a theatre program. It went into elaborate detail about the bucolic agricultural scenes fabricated for the audience. The tableaux starred buxom young women actually milking cows. And, apparently, it was an immersive environment that blurred the line between performer and audience space.

Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library. (1895-1935).

Once my current writing obligations are squared away, I’ll return to this eccentric moment in popular performance history. In the mean time, Messy Nessy Chic’s post rekindled my interest in rooftop theatres and reminded me how deeply peculiar they were (and that Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Theatre was a fiscal hot mess).

As someone who studies circus aesthetics, I’m intrigued by the indoor/outdoor hybridity of the rooftops. What does that hybridity mean for the vaudeville acts that performed in these spaces? Did they transform audience reception and, if so how?


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