September 25, 2015
Koster and Bial’s Music Hall
A large part of today’s NoMad was not always what it is today. One could argue it had the same exciting nightlife, but it definitely walked on the darker side of the law and respectability.
At the end of the 19th Century, the Tenderloin, perhaps New York City’s most infamous den of iniquity, ran from 23rd to 42nd Streets, Fifth to Seventh Avenues. Nestled inside the Tenderloin was an even greater concentration of booze, betting and prostitution. Called by reformers “Satan’s Circus,” this area ran roughly from 23rd to 31st Streets (40th Street according to some), from Fifth to Seventh Avenues.
Half the buildings in the Tenderloin were said to be dedicated to some form of deviant behavior. Satan’s Circus boasted 49 houses of prostitution. Raucous bars, such as Bill McGlory’s Armory Hall, The Star & Garter, Buckingham Palace and Egyptian Hall, lined the streets. Gambling dens run by John Daly and the Madison Square Club of Richard A. Canfield on West 26th were among the best known of the numerous gambling establishments. Women drank free in the bars. Prostitutes were paid a commission for every drink they sold. Locals and foreigners filled the streets drawn by the promise of anonymity and debauchery. Bouncers were gang members from Five Points and carried bats and guns. The neighborhood had all the excitement of the Wild West with steady stream of bloody fights, robberies, murders and police bribes.
Koster and Bial’s
In the midst of all this was Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, and it fit right into the atmosphere of dissipation and vice.
John Koster, a brewer and saloonkeeper and Albert Bial, a Berlin concert garden manager, were both born in Germany in the 1840s and immigrated to America in the early 1860s. The two men met in 1869 when Koster hired Bial to work at his restaurant at 200 Worth Street, on the corner of Park Row. They soon became partners in a beer-bottling business and owned several restaurants, combining liquor and light music.
On May 5, 1879, they bought or leased (there is conflicting information) Bryant’s Opera House on the northwest corner of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue. Opened in 1870 as one of the last minstrel theatres in New York, the opera house had been home of the popular blackface minstrel troupe, Bryant’s Minstrels.
Koster and Bial tore out the Bryant’s Opera House stage and replaced it with a small platform to increase seating. In 1881, the partners expanded the business into a 1200-seat vaudeville theatre next door at 115-117 West 23rd.
Koster and Bial continued to expand, adding gardens through to 24th Street, and in 1886, the partners built an annex called “The Corner” at the southwest corner of 24th Street and Sixth. The annex had a saloon and retail outlet for Koster and Bial’s beer bottling business on the ground floor and sitting rooms on the upper floors. You can still see the markings of “The Corner” on the annex building, which has survived at 24th and Sixth. With “The Corner,” Koster and Bial’s took up the entire west side of the block from 23rd to 24th Streets on Sixth Avenue.
Pictures of “The Corner” (Click Above for Slideshow)
Wildly successful for many years, Koster and Bial were able to skirt the law by pretending that they were running a restaurant that provided entertainment (rather than a concert hall that served alcohol, which was illegal). They succeeded at this ruse by replacing the theatre curtain with a folding fan that would rise from the stage to reveal the performers.
However, lucky they were with this maneuver, trouble began later when Koster and Bial’s started offering more than beer and vaudeville. According to The New York Times, the concert hall had a notorious “cork room” in which the walls were covered with champagne bottle stoppers. “The affairs that took place in the room in the late hours after show time would have astonished the churchgoers,” the Times noted. After numerous police raids and the scandal they created, Koster and Bial were eventually forced to close their music hall and annex on August 26, 1893 for “encouraging prostitution.”
It wasn’t infrequent that Satan’s Circus saw the cross over from booze to prostitution. In fact, four blocks up from Koster and Bial’s was the The Haymarket, the Tenderloin’s most famous den of iniquity. Located on the southeast corner of 30th and Sixth, The Haymarket, just inside Satan’s Circus and present day NoMad, also provided sexual favors as part of the entertainment.
The New Koster and Bial’s and the Advent of the Movie Theatre
On August 28, 1893, two days after closing the Music Hall on 23rd Street, Koster and Bial opened a new hall with Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein owned the Manhattan Opera House, a large theater built in 1892 at 34th Street on Herald Square. Having failed to succeed with high-class opera, Hammerstein offered Koster and Bial a partnership under which he would manage the vaudeville entertainment and they would manage the food.
It was at this Koster and Bial’s on 34th Street that inventor Thomas Armat gave the first public demonstration of the projecting kinetoscope movie projector, called the Vitascope, on April 23, 1896 — the first showing of a motion picture. The partners’ plan was to use the Vitascope to reproduce scenes from various successful plays and operas, as well as political speeches. The Vitascope was invented and developed by Thomas Armat, but by mutual agreement Thomas Edison’s Kinetograph company acquired, manufactured, and marketed it as having been invented by Edison. Koster and Bial had exclusive rights for exhibiting the projector.
Although the music hall had some successes, it was more often plagued with financial and management issues. On July 17, 1901, Macy’s announced that it had purchased the property and would be demolishing the theater and other buildings to make way for its flagship store at 34th Street and Broadway, which still stands on the site today. A plaque at Macy’s commemorates the first movie showing and the location of Koster and Bial’s Music Hall.
Check back next week for: Unusual Entertainment at Koster and Bial’s was Typical of Satan’s Circus
Art and Picture Collection
The New York Public Library
Koster & Bial’S Concert Hall, 23d Street Near Sixth Avenue
Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-0677-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Henderson, Mary C., The City and the Theatre: The History of New York Playhouses — A 250 Year Journey from Bowling Green to Times Square, New York: Back Stage Books, 2004.
Published Wed, 13 Aug 2003
Last updated: July 20, 2015
Bayles-Yeager Online Archives of the Performing Arts
“Koster & Bials Music Hall and Roof Garden”
An Illustrated History of the Early Cinema
“The Vitascope at Koster & Bial’s”