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May 8: Opera and Cigars

May 7, 2015

250px-Oscar_Hammerstein_001Oscar Hammerstein, an inventor, musician, and theater impresario who built several important opera houses and rekindled that classical singing art in American culture, was born in Prussia on this date in 1846. He was an eager young musician who ran away to New York to evade his punitive father (Hammerstein sold his violin to pay his fare) in 1864. He made a living as a cigar-maker and eventually founded the U.S. Tobacco Journal and owned some 80 patents, mostly for cigar-making machines and modifications. Made rich by his industrializing of cigar-making, he began to pour his fortune into theater. Hammerstein built the Harlem Opera House in 1889 (along with homes) and the Columbus Theatre the following year, both on 125th Street. He also founded the influential Manhattan Opera House (34th Street, 1893), the Olympia Theatre (Longacre Square, later named Times Square, 1896), and three other Times Square theaters. He also built important opera houses in Philadelphia and London. Hammerstein wrote his own comic operas and other theater pieces. His grandson was Oscar Hammerstein II, who became one of Broadway’s most influential lyricists and producers.

“Harlem then was still a largely uninhabited stretch of goat farms and shantytowns. Envisioning the needs of a fast-growing metropolis, he built more than 50 residences there. To entice the downtown populace uptown, he built his first theater in 1889, the Harlem Opera House, on 125th Street. Oscar presented the big-name, downtown talents of the day — Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Georgie Drew Barrymore, Lillian Russell, Fanny Davenport, E.H. Sothern, Margaret Mather, Otis Skinner and Helena Modjeska.” —Jewish VIrtual Library