Today in History

Today in History: August 16

Hippodrome Closes

Hippodrome, New York
Hippodrome,
New York, New York,
c1905.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

On August 16, 1939, New York City's Hippodrome Theater closed its doors for the last time. Built in 1905 with a seating capacity of 5,200, for a time the Hippodrome was the largest and most successful theater in New York. The Hippodrome featured lavish spectacles complete with circus animals, diving horses, opulent sets, and 500-member choruses. The most popular vaudeville artists of the day, including illusionist Harry Houdini, performed at the Hippodrome during its heyday.

In 1922, the elephants that graced the stage of the Hippodrome since its opening moved uptown to the Bronx's Royal Theater. On arrival, stage worker Miller Renard recalled, the elephants were greeted with extraordinary fanfare:

The next day the Borough President gives them a dinner on the lawn of the Chamber of Commerce up on Tremont Avenue, with special dinner menus for the elephants. It was some show to see all those elephants march up those steps to the table where each elephant had a bail of hay. The[n], the Borough President welcomes the elephants to the Bronx, and the place is just mobbed with people. And that was the worst week's business we ever done in that theatre.

"Folklore of Stage Folk,"
New York, New York,
Terry Roth, interviewer,
January 30, 1939.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Houdini and Jennie, the elephant, performing at the Hippodrome, New York
Houdini and Jennie, the Elephant, Performing at the Hippodrome,
New York, New York,
1918.
The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920

Others might vanish rabbits, but in 1918, on the brightly lit stage of the Hippodrome in New York City, Houdini made a 10,000-pound elephant disappear. He created a sensation. When Houdini fired a pistol, Jennie vanished from view.

By the late 1920s, the growing popularity of motion pictures eclipsed the vaudeville acts and circus spectacles presented at the Hippodrome. In 1928, the RKO motion picture company purchased the theater. Ten years later, the Hippodrome was demolished.

Learn more about the vaudeville era: