NE corner of Broadway & W. 44th Street,
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Architects: John Bailey McElfatrick
Firms: J. B. McElfatrick and Sons
Styles: French Renaissance
Previous Names: Lyric Theatre, Vitagraph Theatre
Broadway’s first Criterion Theatre was originally called the Lyric Theatre, opening in 1895 as part of Oscar Hammerstein’s block-wide entertainment complex, the Olympia (see the listing here for Loew’s New York for more details). The Lyric Theatre was decorated in Louis XVI-style and had about 1,700 seats, many in five tiers of boxes that flanked both sides of the stage. In 1898, Hammerstein’s numerous creditors forced him to sell the Olympia at an auction in which the components were sold separately.
Stage producer Charles Frohman took over the Lyric Theatre and re-named it the Criterion Theatre in honor of the famous playhouse in London’s Piccadilly Circus. The ex-Lyric’s seating capacity was substantially reduced to about 900 by removing many of the boxes. In 1914, the Criterion Theatre became one of Broadway’s first “movie palaces” when the Vitagraph Company took over and turned it into a self-named showcase for its major releases. The Vitagraph Theatre opened on February 7th, 1914, with the Vitagraph feature “A Million Dollar Bid” and some Vitagraph short subjects. Music was provided by a Wurlitzer organ capable of sounding like a full orchestra. Although the Vitagraph Theatre proved successful, rival exhibitors were outraged by a producer-distributor operating its own theatre and began to boycott Vitagraph product.
When its lease came up for renewal in 1916, Vitagraph gave in to the pressure and withdrew from the theatre, which was returned to the “legit” fold under its previous name of Criterion Theatre. In 1920, Paramount-Famous Players, which also ran the Rialto Theatre and Rivoli Theatre, took over the Criterion Theatre and made it a reserved-seat showcase for some of its most important releases, including “Beau Geste”, “The Covered Wagon”, and DeMille’s first “Ten Commandments”. With the opening of the flagship Paramount Theatre in Times Square in 1926, the Criterion Theatre started showing films from other distributors as well.
The Criterion Theatre survived the arrival of “talkies” and operated almost to the time of its demolition in 1935, when the entire Olympia complex was razed to make way for new buildings that included a modern cinema of the same name.
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