David Belasco

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David Belasco
David Belasco circa 1915 oval portrait.jpg
Belasco circa 1915
Born(1853-07-25)July 25, 1853
DiedMay 14, 1931(1931-05-14) (aged 77)
Occupation Theatrical producer, director, playwright
Years active1884 to 1930
Known for Belasco Theatre; Pioneer of modern stage lighting and stage effects; stage naturalism
Notable credit(s)
Madame Butterfly
Cecilia Loverich
(m. 1873;her death 1926)

David Belasco (July 25, 1853 – May 14, 1931) was an American theatrical producer, impresario, director and playwright. [1] He was the first writer to adapt the short story Madame Butterfly for the stage, and he launched the theatrical career of many actors, including James O'Neill, Mary Pickford, Lenore Ulric and Barbara Stanwyck. Belasco pioneered many innovative new forms of stage lighting and special effects in order to create realism and naturalism. [2] [3]

A theatrical producer is a person who oversees all aspects of mounting a theatre production. The producer is responsible for the overall financial and managerial functions of a production or venue, raises or provides financial backing, and hires personnel for creative positions.

An impresario is a person who organizes and often finances concerts, plays, or operas, performing a role similar to that of an artist manager or a film or television producer.

Theatre director person overseeing the mounting of a theatre production

A theatre director or stage director is an instructor in the theatre field who oversees and orchestrates the mounting of a theatre production by unifying various endeavours and aspects of production. The director's function is to ensure the quality and completeness of theatre production and to lead the members of the creative team into realizing their artistic vision for it. The director therefore collaborates with a team of creative individuals and other staff, coordinating research, stagecraft, costume design, props, lighting design, acting, set design, stage combat, and sound design for the production. If the production he or she is mounting is a new piece of writing or a (new) translation of a play, the director may also work with the playwright or translator. In contemporary theatre, after the playwright, the director is generally the primary visionary, making decisions on the artistic concept and interpretation of the play and its staging. Different directors occupy different places of authority and responsibility, depending on the structure and philosophy of individual theatre companies. Directors use a wide variety of techniques, philosophies, and levels of collaboration.


Early years

David Belasco was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Abraham H. Belasco (1830–1911) and Reyna Belasco (née Nunes, 1830–1899), Sephardic Jews who had moved from London’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community during the California Gold Rush. [3] :13 He began working in a San Francisco theatre doing a variety of routine jobs, such as call boy, script copier or as an extra in small parts. [3] :14 He received his first experience as a stage manager while on the road. He said, "We used to play in any place we could hire or get intoa hall, a big dining room, an empty barn; any place that would take us." [3] :14

San Francisco Consolidated city-county in California, US

San Francisco, officially the City and County of San Francisco, is a city in, and the cultural, commercial, and financial center of, Northern California. San Francisco is the 13th-most populous city in the United States, and the fourth-most populous in California, with 883,305 residents as of 2018. It covers an area of about 46.89 square miles (121.4 km2), mostly at the north end of the San Francisco Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area, making it the second-most densely populated large US city, and the fifth-most densely populated U.S. county, behind only four of the five New York City boroughs. San Francisco is also part of the fifth-most populous primary statistical area in the United States, the San Jose–San Francisco–Oakland, CA Combined Statistical Area.

Sephardi Jews, also known as Sephardic Jews or Sephardim, originally from Sepharad, Spain, or the Iberian peninsula, are a Jewish ethnic division. They established communities throughout areas of modern Spain and Portugal, where they traditionally resided, evolving what would become their distinctive characteristics and diasporic identity, which they took with them in their exile from Iberia beginning in the late 15th century to North Africa, Anatolia, the Levant, Southeastern and Southern Europe, as well as the Americas, and all other places of their exiled settlement, either alongside pre-existing co-religionists, or alone as the first Jews in new frontiers. Their millennial residence as an open and organised Jewish community in Iberia began to decline with the Reconquista and was brought to an end starting with the Alhambra Decree by Spain's Catholic Monarchs in 1492, and then by the edict of expulsion of Jews and Muslims by Portuguese king Manuel I in 1496, which resulted in a combination of internal and external migrations, mass conversions and executions.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of both England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

From late 1873 to early 1874, he worked as an actor, director, and secretary at Piper's Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada, where he found "more reckless women and desperadoes to the square foot…than anywhere else in the world". He said that while there, seeing "people die under such peculiar circumstances" made him "all the more particular in regard to the psychology of dying on the stage. I think I was one of the first to bring naturalness to bear in death scenes, and my varied Virginia City experiences did much to help me toward this. Later I was to go deeper into such studies." By March 1874, he was back at work in San Francisco. His recollections of that time were published in Hearst's Magazine in 1914. [4]

Pipers Opera House theatre in Virginia City, Nevada, United States

Piper's Opera House is a historic performing arts venue in Virginia City, Storey County, Nevada in the United States. Piper's served as a training facility in 1897 for heavyweight boxing champion Gentleman Jim Corbett, in preparation for his title bout with Bob Fitzsimmons. The current structure was built by entrepreneur John Piper in 1885 to replace his 1878 opera house that had burned down. The 1878 venue, in turn, had been to replace Piper's 1863 venue which was destroyed by the 1875 Great Fire in Virginia City. Mark Twain spoke from the original Piper's stage in 1866, and again a century later in the third venue, as portrayed by Hal Holbrook in his one-man play Mark Twain Tonight! A lynch mob hung a victim from the first venue's rafters in 1871. American theatrical producer David Belasco was stage manager at the second opera house before moving to New York City. Piper's opera houses played host to Shakespearean thespians such as Edwin Booth. Musical performers Lilly Langtry, Al Jolson and John Philip Sousa once performed here. In 1940, Errol Flynn auctioned off historic Piper memorabilia from the opera house stage, during a live NBC broadcast that coincided with the premiere of Flynn's new movie Virginia City.

Virginia City, Nevada Census-designated place in Nevada, United States

Virginia City is a census-designated place (CDP) that is the county seat of Storey County, Nevada. It is part of the Reno–Sparks Metropolitan Statistical Area.

He eventually was given the opportunity to act and serve as a stage manager, learning the business inside out. A gifted playwright, Belasco went to New York City in 1882 where he worked as stage manager for the Madison Square Theatre (starting with Young Mrs. Winthrop ), and then the old Lyceum Theatre while writing plays. By 1895, he was so successful that he set himself up as an independent producer.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 20,320,876 people in its 2017 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 23,876,155 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Madison Square Theatre former New York theatre

The Madison Square Theatre was a Broadway theatre in Manhattan, on the south side of 24th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway It was built in 1863, operated as a theater from 1865 to 1908, and demolished in 1908 to make way for an office building. The Madison Square Theatre was the scene of important developments in stage technology, theatre design, and theatrical tour management. For about half its history it had other names including the Fifth Avenue Theatre, Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, Hoyt’s Madison Square Theatre, and Hoyt’s Theatre.

Young Mrs. Winthrop is an 1882 play by Bronson Howard which debuted on Broadway at the Madison Square Theatre on October 9, 1882, and ran for 183 performances, closing on April 7, 1883. It was the first play for which David Belasco served as stage manager at the theater.


Belasco in 1873 David Belasco 1873.jpg
Belasco in 1873

During his long creative career, stretching between 1884 and 1930, Belasco either wrote, directed, or produced more than 100 Broadway plays including Hearts of Oak , The Heart of Maryland , and Du Barry, making him the most powerful personality on the New York city theater scene. He also helped establish careers for dozens of notable stage performers, many of whom went on to work in films.

Broadway theatre class of professional theater presented in New York City, New York, USA

Broadway theatre, commonly known as Broadway, refers to the theatrical performances presented in the 41 professional theatres, each with 500 or more seats located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center along Broadway, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Along with London's West End theatre, Broadway theatre is widely considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world.

Hearts of Oak is an 1879 play by Americans James Herne and David Belasco taken from the British play, The Mariner's Compass, by Henry Leslie (1830–1881).

<i>The Heart of Maryland</i> (play) play

The Heart of Maryland was a theatrical play written, produced and directed by David Belasco. The four-act melodrama set in the American Civil War opened at the Herald Square Theatre in New York on October 22, 1895 and ran for 240 performances. Mrs. Leslie Carter originated the role of Maryland Calvert and Maurice Barrymore originated the role of Col. Alan Kendrick. William Furst composed the play's incidental music. The play toured throughout the United States for several years, and was made into a silent film by the same title in 1927. Silent versions also appeared in 1915, with Mrs. Carter in her original role, and in 1921.

Among them were Leslie Carter, dubbed "The American Sarah Bernhardt," [5] whose association with Belasco skyrocketed her to theatrical fame after her roles in Zaza (1898) and Madame Du Barry (1901). [5] Ina Claire's lead in Polly with a Past (1917) and The Gold Diggers (1919), similarly propelled her career. [5] Belasco wrote a lead part for 18-year-old Maude Adams, in his new play, Men and Women (1890), which ran for 200 performances. [5]

Mrs. Leslie Carter actress

Caroline Louise Dudley was an American silent film and stage actress who found fame on Broadway through collaborations with impresario David Belasco. She was a strikingly beautiful and vivacious performer, known as "The American Sarah Bernhardt", who continued to act under her married name, Mrs. Leslie Carter, even after her sensational divorce.

<i>Zaza</i> (play) play written by Pierre Berton

Zaza is a French-language play written by playwrights Pierre Berton and Charles Simon, and staged for the first time at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris, in May 1898. The title character is a prostitute who becomes a music hall entertainer and the mistress of a married man.

Ina Claire American stage and film actress

Ina Claire was an American stage and film actress.

Other stars whose careers he helped launch included Jeanne Eagels, who would later achieve immortality as Sadie Thompson in Rain (1923), which played for 340 performances. [6] Belasco discovered and managed the careers of Lenore Ulric [7] and David Warfield, both of whom became major stars on Broadway. He launched the career of Barbara Stanwyck, which included changing her name. [5]

Belasco is perhaps most famous for having adapted the short story Madame Butterfly into a play with the same name and for penning The Girl of the Golden West for the stage, both of which were adapted as operas by Giacomo Puccini ( Madama Butterfly 1904—twice, after revision) and La fanciulla del West (1910). More than forty motion pictures have been made from the many plays he authored.

To me, David Belasco was like the King of England, Julius Caesar and Napoleon rolled into one.

Mary Pickford [5]

Many prominent performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought the opportunity to work with Belasco; among them were D. W. Griffith, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford [5] and Cecil B. DeMille. [5] DeMille's father had been close friends with Belasco, and after DeMille graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began his stage career under Belasco's guidance. [8] DeMille's later methods of handling actors, using dramatic lighting and directing films, was modeled after Belasco's staging techniques. [5]

Pickford appeared in his plays The Warrens of Virginia at the first Belasco Theatre in 1907 and A Good Little Devil in 1913. The two remained in touch after Pickford began working in Hollywood; Belasco appeared with her in the 1914 film adaptation of A Good Little Devil. He is also credited as giving Pickford her stage name. He also worked with Lionel Barrymore who starred in his play Laugh, Clown, Laugh opposite Lucille Kahn, whose Broadway career Belasco launched. Belasco was a member of The Lambs from 1893 to 1931.


David Belasco was married to Cecilia Loverich for over fifty years; they had two daughters, Reina (who was married to producer Morris Gest) and Augusta.


Belasco died in 1931 at the age of 77 in Manhattan. [1] He was interred in the Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery on Metropolitan Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens. [9] [10]

Influence on American theatre

Poster for The Heart of Maryland with Maurice Barrymore and Mrs. Leslie Carter Belasco's The Heart of Maryland.jpg
Poster for The Heart of Maryland with Maurice Barrymore and Mrs. Leslie Carter

Belasco demanded a natural acting style, and to complement that, he developed stage settings with authentic lighting effects to enhance his plays. His productions inspired several generations of theatre lighting designers. [11] :29

Belasco's contributions to modern stage and lighting techniques were originally not appreciated as much as those of his European counterparts, such as André Antoine and Constantin Stanislavski, however today he is regarded as "one of the first significant directorial figures in the history of the American theatre," writes theatre historian Lise-Lone Marker. [3] :xi

He brought a new standard of naturalism to the American stage as the first to develop modern stage lighting along with the use of colored lights, via motorized color changing wheels, to evoke mood and setting. [3] :xi [11] America's earliest stage lighting manufacturer, Kliegl Brothers, began by serving the specialized needs of producers and directors such as Belasco and Florenz Ziegfeld. [11] :157 With regard to these modern lighting effects, Belasco is best remembered for his production of Girl of the Golden West (1905), with the play opening to a spectacular sunset which lasted five minutes before any dialogue started. [11] :29

Belasco became one of the first directors to eschew the use of traditional footlights in favor of lights concealed below floor level, thereby hidden from the audience. His lighting assistant, Louis Hartmann, fabricated Belasco's design ideas. [11] :29 He also used follow spots to further create realism and often tailored his lighting configurations to complement the complexions and hair of the actors. [11] :135 He ordered a specially made 1000-watt lamp developed just for his own productions, and was the only director to have one for the first two years after its introduction (1914-1915). [11] :135

In his own theatres, the dressing rooms were equipped with lamps of several colors, allowing the performers to see how their makeup looked under different lighting conditions.

Supposedly he put appropriate scents to set scenes in the ventilation of the theaters, while his sets paid great attention to detail, and sometimes spilled out into the audience area. In one play, for instance, an operational laundromat was built onstage. In The Governor's Lady , there was a reproduction of a Childs Restaurant kitchen where actors actually cooked and prepared food during the play. He is even said to have purchased a room in a flophouse, cut it out of the building, brought it to his theater, cut out one wall and presented it as the set for a production. Belasco's original scripts were often filled with long, specific descriptions of props and set dressings. He has not been noted for producing unusually naturalistic scenarios.

Belasco also embraced existing theatre technology and sought to expand on it. Both of Belasco's New York theatres were built on the cutting edge of their era's technology. When Belasco took over the Republic Theatre he drilled a new basement level to accommodate his machinery; the Stuyvesant Theatre was specially constructed with enormous amounts of flyspace, hydraulics systems and lighting rigs. The basement of the Stuyvesant contained a working machine shop, where Belasco and his team experimented with lighting and other special effects. Many of the innovations developed in the Belasco shop were sold to other producers.

F. Scott Fitzgerald references Belasco's reputation for realism in The Great Gatsby when he has a drunken visitor in the library of Gatsby's mansion exclaim in amazement that the books are genuine: "See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn't cut the pages." [12]


The first Belasco Theatre in New York was located at 229 West 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, in the Times Square district of Manhattan. Belasco took over management of the theater and completely remodeled it in 1902, only two years after it was constructed as the Theatre Republic by Oscar Hammerstein (the grandfather of the famous lyricist). He gave up the theater in 1910 and it was renamed the Republic. Under various owners, it went through a tumultuous period as a burlesque venue, hosted second-run and, eventually, pornographic films and fell into a period of neglect before being rehabilitated and reopened as the New Victory Theater in 1995.

The second Belasco Theatre is located at 111 West 44th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, only a few blocks away from the New Victory. It was constructed in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre and renamed after Belasco in 1910. The theater was built to Belasco's wishes, with Tiffany lighting and ceiling panels, rich woodwork and murals. His business office and private apartment were also housed there. The Belasco is still in operation as a Broadway venue with much of the original decor intact. In 2010 it underwent a massive US $14.5 million restoration, which strove to renovate and restore the theater to the condition it was in when David Belasco was alive. [13]

Belasco Theatres also existed in several other cities. In Los Angeles, the first Belasco Theatre was located at 337 S. Main St. The theater, which hosted the Belasco Stock Company, opened in 1904 and was operated by David Belasco's brother, Frederick. This theater was renamed twice: as the Republic in about 1913 and as the Follies, circa 1919. The theater eventually became a burlesque venue in the 1940s, fell into sharp decline, and was demolished in May 1974. [14] [15]

The second, and perhaps more well known, Los Angeles Belasco Theatre is located at 1050 S. Hill St in Downtown Los Angeles. The theatre, which was built by Morgan, Walls & Clements, opened in 1926, and was managed by Edward Belasco, another of David's brothers. Many Hollywood stars with theatrical roots, as well as Broadway stars who were visiting the West Coast, appeared at the theatre. [16] The theater declined after the death of Edward Belasco in 1937. After closing altogether in the early 1950s, the theater was used as a church for several decades. [17] In 2010 - 2011, the theater underwent an extensive restoration, and is currently in operation as a nightclub and convention venue. [18]

The Shubert-Belasco Theatre, purchased by Belasco in September 1905, was located in Washington D.C. Originally built in 1895 as the Lafayette Square Opera House, at 717 Madison Place, across from the White House, the theater was razed in 1962 and replaced by the U.S. Court of Claims building. [19]

Selected plays



Films about David Belasco

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  1. 1 2 "David Belasco Dies. Dean Of Theatre, 76, Had Long Been Ill. Stage Genius Who Is Dead At 76". The New York Times . May 15, 1931.
  2. Osnes, Beth, and Gill, Sam. Acting: An International Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO (2001) p. 34
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Marker, Lise-Lone, David Belasco: Naturalism in the American Theater, Princeton Univ. Press (1975)
  4. Belasco, David. Gala Days of Piper's Opera House and the California Theater. 1914. Sparks, NV:, Falcon Hill Press, 1991: v–vi, 18, 42
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Wilson, Victoria. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, Simon and Schuster (2013) ebook
  6. Botto, Louis; Viagas, Robert. At this Theatre: 100 Years of Broadway Shows, Stories and Stars, Hal Leonard Corp. (2002) p. 28
  7. "Lenore Ulric, Broadway Star of Belasco Era, Is Dead at 78", The New York Times, December 31, 1970
  8. Wallace, David. Lost Hollywood, Macmillan (2001) p. 21
  9. "Throng At Funeral Of David Belasco". The New York Times. May 18, 1931.
  10. "Actors Eulogize Belasco. At Meeting of Jewish Guild Frohman Recalls Early Days". The New York Times. May 20, 1931.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Cox, Jim. Sold on Radio: Advertisers in the Golden Age of Broadcasting . Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2008; reprint 2013. ISBN   9780786433919.
  12. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby , chapter 3.
  13. Isherwood, Charles. "Belasco Theater Is Burnished, and Back" . Retrieved 1 October 2018.
  14. "Follies Theatre - Historic Los Angeles Theatres - Downtown". google.com.
  15. "Follies Theatre". cinematreasures.org.
  16. "Belasco Theatre - Historic Los Angeles Theatres - Downtown". google.com.
  17. "Historic Belasco Theater Awaits Its Next Act". blogdowntown.com.
  18. "Bringing Back the Belasco". Los Angeles Downtown News - For Everything Downtown L.A.!.
  19. "White House Area - Sites on the East side of Lafayette Park". Library.thinkquest.org. Archived from the original on 2012-10-15. Retrieved 2013-01-24.

Further reading