In the spot where the Selwyn once stood, now stand the New 42nd Street Studios and The Duke on 42nd Street theater (both operated by The New 42nd Street) and the entrance to Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre. The original building collapsed unexpectedly on December 30, 1997 destroying the historic facade and forcing a redesign of the redevelopment plans.
The Selwyn Theater was built by Edgar and Arch Selwyn in 1918, behind the brothers’ six-floor office building. The theater’s auditorium, designed by architect George Keister in an early Italian Renaissance style, was painted blue and antique gold, and was decorated with large murals, wreath moldings, dentils, scrolled modillions and stone balusters.
Opening night on October 2, 1918 found Jane Cowl starring in Information, Please, which she also wrote. After the play’s failure, Ms. Cowl returned in The Crowded Hour, which had better luck with audiences. The theater’s first real successes though, came with Buddies in 1919, and Tickle Me in 1920. Then, in 1921, two of Broadway’s luminaries—Mrs. Leslie Carter and John Drew—joined to star in Somerset Maugham’s The Circle. George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly presented their musical Helen of Troy, New York in 1923, followed by Charlot Revue starring Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan. Kaufman returned to the stage of the Selwyn in 1924 with co-author Edna Ferber and their play The Royal Family, which caricatured the flamboyant theatrical personalities of the Drews and the Barrymores. Other successes were 1928’s This Year of Grace starring Beatrice Lillie and the play’s author Noel Coward, Cole Porter’s Wake Up and Dream in 1929, and then Three’s a Crowd with Fred Allen, Clifton Webb and Fred MacMurray.
The Selwyn grinded out movies between 1934 and 1950, until its use was returned to legitimate theater with Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute, a condensed, hour-long show that ran five times a day, alternating with a feature film. This experiment of combining stage and screen entertainment continued for just one more show, Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath, after which the Selwyn became a double-feature movie house.
The New 42nd Street signed a 99-year master lease, during May 1992, with the City and State of New York for six theaters known as the Apollo, Liberty, Lyric, Selwyn, Times Square and Victory. (The Empire theater came under The New 42nd Street’s master lease once it was fully restored in April 2000.) A Memorandum of Understanding was signed, in September 1997, between The New 42nd Street and Roundabout Theatre Company for the use of the Selwyn Theater. Renamed the American Airlines Theatre, the Selwyn re-opened on July 27, 2000 with the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Man Who Came To Dinner.
The Selwyn is one of the theaters profiled in Spotlight on Broadway, a multimedia project of the City of New York’s Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment.