This week, we continue with our series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
James Norman knew exactly what he was doing when he walked into 444 Broadway in the spring of 1862. And the woman he shot knew, too. The music was loud, drinks were flowing, and he was a jilted man. He gave $100 dollars (a hefty sum in 1862) to buy furniture to his fiancée Kate White, a waitress at the concert saloon on the ground floor of the building. She ran away with the money, never to be heard from again. They had met one of the many times he must have come in drunk, sweaty, and groping. It’s not hard to imagine why she took the money and ran.
At around 8:30 pm, the 37-year-old sailmaker walked roughly 20 minutes from his West Village shared apartment at 56 Morton Street, gun in hand. He sat at the bar in smoldering fury and approached Ellen Foos, another one of Kate’s waitress friends.
Ellen caught the look on his face and spied the gun. She asked Norman point blank if he planned to shoot her. He waved her concerns away and commanded her to bring him a drink. Back she came, drinks in hand, and just like that, he shot her in her side.
Luckily she survived.
Norman told a New York Times reporter that he “had plenty of money” and was the cousin of Secretary of State William H. Seward. If you ever thought that dangerously fragile white men were a phenomenon of the contemporary age, you are mistaken.
Norman said he was confident that “this affair would maybe finish up the concert saloon business.”
Passersby today may never notice 444 Broadway, although it is a landmarked building. There’s really nothing for them to see now. No sign remains that it once housed not only a saloon but a thriving illicit theater scene. Today, its storefront is empty. Most recently, it housed a Brazilian clothing shop called Aquamar that closed down earlier this year. The other current tenants of 444 Broadway are unremarkable among the fashionable stores that line contemporary lower Broadway. There’s an art gallery that specializes in taking portraits of children to raise awareness about foster kids in need of homes and a non-descript “Daylife, Inc.” that provides a “content services” platform.
Yet once upon a time, on nearly any given night, there was a show, and “Pretty Waiter Girls” who doubled both as cocktail waitresses and concert hall attractions and who would ply patrons with alcohol under the assumption that if they drank enough, they might go home with them at the end of the night.
Before that, in Manhattan’s earliest days, the site of 444 Broadway between Howard and Grand, and anything else north of Canal, was considered “out of town.” Much of the island was underdeveloped, and life was contained closer to Wall Street. But as the metropolis grew, it radiated out and followed the original Wickquasgeck Trail that the English eventually renamed Broadway.
In 1800, developers leveled the fields north of Canal. The land at what is now 444 was a circus field that served as an auction space and stables for horses, under the name Tattersall’s. By 1812, actors and stage managers took over the space and gave it the name Olympic Theatre, while it was popularly still referred to as Tattersall’s. After the collapse of a faulty stage injured the well-known actress Charlotte Memoth and inclement weather stranded the directors for several days outside of New York, the muddy stables became a muddy theater. It was still an indoor equestrian theater with horsemanship displays by such popular stunt performers as Jean-Baptiste Casemere Branchard. (Branchard also owned a similar indoor equestrian Olympic Theatre in Philadelphia.) Three nights of the week were dramatic shows and the other four were exclusively equestrian performances.
Twenty-five years later, despite the Panic of 1837, two stage managers, William B. Blake and Henry E. Willard, purchased 444 and commissioned the construction of a brand new theater. Well known architect Calvin Pollard designed a diminutive venue, but the new owners still called it the Olympic Theater. Blake and Willard claimed this was not to continue its prior legacy but was rather an homage to Madame Vestris’ better known London Olympic. It was taken over and managed by actor William Mitchell in 1839. The New York theater stood on a lot about 25 feet wide and the house could comfortably accommodate an audience of 500.
It was designed to exude luxury and wealth, decadence and a distinctly European influence. It was all dark red and gold. Rich, crimson damask curtains towered from the ceiling over the stage. Gilded ornaments and mouldings by “Signor Del Vecchio” and other Italian artists in “the most choice and elaborate style of that country” plastered the wall.
As gaudy as it sounds, it must have worked in convincing the public of its prestige. The Olympic theater drew some of the biggest names of its day. Charley White, Billy O’Neil and even Junius Brutus Booth—the patriarch of the Booth acting family and father of the actor and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth—all performed on its stage.
Those inclined to comment favorably on the style of the room likened it to a drawing room while others referenced its size as a “cubby hole.” Like other theaters of its kind, the Olympic “permitted prostitution in the uppermost tier of seats.”
Eventually, the theater was expanded under the direction of City Assembly Rooms, and by 1850, it also housed the country’s largest dancehall, capable of accommodating 3,000 dancers at a time and located directly next door to the 444 at 446 Broadway. News reports contemporary of the time often linked the two or frequently mistook one for the other.
It was briefly managed by George Fellows and called the Fellows Opera House— he was also connected to Edwin Pearce Christy and his minstrel group, Christy’s Minstrels. Edwin Pearce Christy’s son, George Christy, had a falling out with his father and eventually teamed up with Henry Wood in late 1853, thus renaming the troupe the George Christy and Wood’s Minstrels, or simply Wood’s Minstrels. To gain entrance to the shows, one needed to buy an admittance coin.
Christy’s Minstrels got its start in Buffalo in 1843, but moved to New York with the opening of a new theater opportunity. Major newspapers frequently listed their shows, sometimes calling them either “Ethiopian Minstrelry” or “Negro Minstrelry.” As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it at the time, blackface minstrels, Christy’s Minstrels included, were “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
In 1854, not even a year after Christy’s Minstrels took root at 444 Broadway, the Tailor’s Protective Union chose the site for its annual Christmas party on the night of Dec. 21, 1854. As attendees danced in the warmth of the ballroom, a fire broke out. By 3 a.m., smoke began to engulf the room. The bartender paid casual notice, and thinking the flames were no more than a “trifling affair,” he lazily threw water on the fire as it spread uncontrollably throughout the building’s back halls. It then tore through the ballroom and the music hall. By daybreak, the fire destroyed the building and consumed eight other buildings nearby. Damage to the structure was estimated at $200,000, which would be in the millions today. Rebuilding took the better part of a year and the ballroom and minstrel hall reopened in October 1855.
Three years later in 1858, the theater came under the new direction of manager Robert W. Butler. From then on it was always better known as “444,” although newspapers often referred to it by a variety of names, including The American Theatre, The American Music Hall, The American Concert Hall, City Assembly Rooms, or just the Christy and Wood’s Minstrel Hall.
Butler, unlike stage managers before him, welcomed the lascivious. The promise of sex was not hidden in the upper tier private booths of the minstrel hall, rather it was built into the performance of the show. Waiter girls would often be instructed to join in on the songs sung by the performers. The scene must have been one of a wild, interactive stage, where the performance literally surrounds you in sex and song. Debauchery and mischief would surely abound.
By 1860, prostitution was a well-known part of life in the theater district surrounding 444 Broadway, and prostitutes often worked in and around concert saloons such as Butler’s American Theatre. In his book City of Eros, historian Timothy Gilfoyle compiled a map of known brothels in civil war era New York. Both 444 and 446 Broadway are designated on this map, and although they are not counted as brothels, prostitution was found in every crevice of this neighborhood.
At around exactly the same time that James Norman walked into the 444, down to the same month in April 1862, was when Concert Saloon Bill was passed. The Concert Saloon bill was designed to curb the Waiter Girl/prostitution phenomenon that had been driving the business for nearly 25 years. The bill prohibited women from delivering drinks, that is, to be waitresses. Some mourned the bill, lamenting that it would force working women into explicit, streetwalker-style prostitution rather than the kind of work-play line they had previously walked.
The law was sporadically and inconsistently enforced, although the 444 and other theaters were subject to numerous police raids in the months following the bill’s passing. In one test case immediately after the bill passed, a “waiter girl” employed at American Theatre as well as another nearby saloon was arrested on charges of prostitution. However, the charges were dismissed as the case was “made up for the purpose of procuring the arrest of the prisoner, independent of the public authorities.”
By 1863 there had been sympathy generated for the waiter girls. Although widely recognized as vulgar prostitutes, others saw them as young, modern women looking to make wages for themselves who simply got caught up in some dirty business. A three part Saturday newspaper feature poem on the perilous life of “The Pretty Waiter Girl” appeared on the front page of the New York Clipper as a serial. They encouraged the possibility of reform, and an abandonment of sinful ways. The danger, of course, for the waiter girl was the fear that she may never be able to climb back from the shame of her scandal to a quiet, domestic life–the only goal a young woman should apparently have. The poem ends on a hopeful note intended to send a moralistic message to other waiter girls:
“My heroine melted down to quiet life;
but, reader dear, my work is almost done:
The rumors which concerning her were rife
Died out though they had truth to rest upon,
And she became the good, obedient wife.
Of some upright honest farmer, one
Who thought of her pure. It may be so, or not,
But love and babies blessed her future lot.”
Its seedy reputation notwithstanding, the 444 did boost the careers of some of the biggest names in American theater. Tony Pastor, a tall, hefty singer with a 1,500-song repertoire who appeared on stage dressed as a circus ringleader, was one of the minstrel house’s best-loved performers.
Before he got to the stage at 444, this son of a Spanish immigrant and his Connecticut-born wife, he had been performing since the age of 14. He had worked as a circus stagehand and animal tender and, in light of his natural charisma, imposing presence and ready command of song and dance, the circus promoted him to the role of ringmaster when its front man suddenly dropped dead.
The ravaging fire of 1854 was not the only one at 444. In 1866, just after 11 a.m., the theater’s backstage area sparked a blaze that burned just over two hours, causing the building’s walls to begin to crumble once again.
By then, however, evolving popular taste was doing as much to diminish interest in variety entertainment, saloon bar fights and salacious antics as a fire’s destructive path. In 1865, Pastor took his act a 15-minute walk north to the Volks Garten at 201 Bowery, renaming it, “Tony Pastor’s Opera House.” In this new incarnation, Pastor shed his unsavory performing past and became a more upstanding, more genteel “Father of Vaudeville.” The rowdy and the drunken could expect to be thrown out, and family friendly fun was on offer with no more suggestion of prostitution to be seen.
The structure at 444 Broadway was rebuilt, but there are no more entertainment advertisements that refer to this building after the 1866 fire. From then on, it had several new owners who leased it as offices or factories until fire No. 3, the third in as many decades, in 1876.
The fire of 1876 was particularly devastating, although some mocked the coverage as exaggerated. A flurry of articles came out at this time remembering the life and legacy at 444 Broadway. But like much of its surrounding neighborhood, 444 Broadway gave way to textile factories and clothing manufacturers.
The women of 444 Broadway are largely forgotten and are mostly only remembered as prostitutes and nameless victims of violence at the hands of patrons or police raids. Yet they were an integral and central part of the growth of early New York theater. They were performers, too, who defined an era.
As for the theater, in 1923 the only thing that was left of the stage at 444 was an ad for actors to get headshots.
Yet over 60 years after Butler’s saloon closed, a jilted man walked in again with a gun.
On October 16, 1930, in a shirt factory at 444 Broadway, a shot rang out once again. As cotton fluffs drifted in the air like snow and settled in the lungs of workers, and machines clanged and whirred, Ralph Ferrara, 20, decided he could not bear the thought of losing his 19-year-old love, Rose Provengano, to the other man she was set to marry in just one week. She, too, only came to realize how much Ferrara loved her when he shot her in the shoulder and then wounded himself. He luckily had terrible aim—he shot at her six times—and then only managed to graze his temple as he attempted to shoot himself in the head.
Provengano refused to sign a complaint against Ferrara, so attempted murder charges against him were dropped. She had found her love story, affectionately wrapped in an attempted murder-suicide. She declared she would marry her passion-driven assailant the following week—or at least as soon as he could post $500 bail on a separate charge of illegal gun possession.
Some reports joked, “Not so long ago no young woman would believe a man loved her unless he secretly knocked her down, and dragged her away by her hair. Courtship has become effete.”
They did get married and remained a couple for at least 25 years. Their last records put them and their two children in Miami, Florida in a 1955 census found on Ancestry.com. After that, no records for either of them two could be verified.
A love story so unlovely was surely fit for the 444 Broadway.