Thursday, May 8, 2014

Oscar Hammerstein I built Times Square

It is the birthday of Oscar Hammerstein I (1846), the father of New York’s Times Square, who built 10 theaters in New York and another one in London. He came to America from Prussia and swept up a cigar factory for three dollars a week. He learned the trade and built a fortune inventing machines that mechanized cigar making. He spent the fortune and a lifetime pursuing his passion, grand opera, bringing major European stars to America and featuring American performers as well.

He spent lavishly on productions, but in the end they were never as successful as the variety shows, comedies, dramas, and vaudeville that played at the theaters he built. New York’s Metropolitan Opera once paid him $1.2 million to stop producing opera in America for 10 years. He took the money and built a theater in London to compete with Covent Garden’s Royal Opera Company. In two years, he’d spent it all. A reporter once asked him if there was any money in opera. He replied, “Yeah, mine.”

Hammerstein’s grandson, Oscar II, who grew up in the theaters his grandfather built and his father managed, became the great musical theater lyricist who wrote Carousel, Showboat, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Desert Song, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.

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