The Union Square Theatre on East 14th Street was constructed within the walls of the Union Place Hotel (later, the Morton House) in 1871. In 1887, a year after taking over the management, James Hill made extensive renovations to the exterior and interior of the theater.
In Part I of the Old New York cat story, we met Union Square Jim, the large, blue-eyed, orange tabby mascot of the old Union Square Theatre in New York City. Jim was born in the theater sometime around 1886, a year after James Hill took over as manager of the theater.
Jim was certainly well-loved by all the actors and stage hands — especially when he performed his many tricks for them — but his favorite person was janitor Michael Sweeney. Every night as Michael made his rounds, Jim would be at his side.
The old Union Square Theatre, located at 58 East 14th Street, is noted in the top left quadrant of this 1885 map. The adjacent Star Theatre (previously Wallack’s Theatre; demolished in 1902) is just south on Broadway at 13th Street.
The Great Fall
One afternoon during the summer of 1887, a skylight on the roof of the theater sprung a leak during a heavy rainstorm. Michael reportedly went on the roof to fix it, and he took his feline friend along to get some fresh air and sunshine.
As Michael was in the progress of repairing the skylight, he heard a loud crash. Looking up from what he was doing, he saw that Jim had fallen through another skylight and was frantically trying to hang on to the framework with one paw.
Right before Michael’s eyes, Jim lost his “grip” and fell down about 80 feet to the center of the auditorium below.
Michael rushed down the stairs and ran into the auditorium, where he found Jim lying motionless between two rows of chairs. Micheal carried the unconscious cat into his room, where he tended to his feline friend as best he could with alcohol and bandages.
Two weeks later, Jim was alert and back on his feet again, making the rounds with Michael as if the plunge from the roof had never happened. On September 26, 1887, he made his accidental stage debut during opening night of The Henrietta, a romantic comedy written by Bronson Howard and produced by the comedians Stuart Robson and William Henry Crane.
The Union Square Theatre Fire of 1888
On the afternoon of February 28, 1888, a fire broke out in a loft between the ceiling and roof of the auditorium of the theater. The flames were discovered just before 1 p.m. by stage carpenters and painters, who had been working on the stage with Ben Teal, the stage manager. James Hill was also in the building at the time; one of the stage hands ran into his office to warn him of the fire.
Union Square Jim was in the basement of the building, but no one came to warn the cat as he slept peacefully in his wicker basket.
The large fire caused extensive damage as it burned through the partitions that separated the theater from the Morton House (all the hotel guests had been safely evacuated). The two upper stories of the hotel facing Union Square caught fire, and the roof of the theater was demolished.
When the firemen got the fire under control at about 4 p.m., the walls of the hotel and theater were still intact.
Union Square Jim Is Saved
“Has anyone seen Jim?” Michael Sweeney asked everyone when he arrived on the scene later that afternoon. When no one answered, Michael asked one of the firemen to help him find the mascot cat.
Using a lantern, the two men made their way through the basement corridor to the dressing room where Jim spent his days sleeping. There, in the flooded room, they found Jim perched on top of his basket, trying to stay dry with no means of escape in sight.
That evening, there was a reception in honor of Jim at the Criterion, followed by a “general jollification” at the Hotel Hungaria across the street. James Hill told everyone he would have the theater reopened on March 26 with Syndey Rosenfeld’s A Possible Case.
Three months after the fire, The New York Times reported:
“Jim was in troubled spirits and was moving about with an air of dejection. The chaotic and unsafe condition of the old building since the fire drove the petted darling Jim to the narrow confines of the property room in the rear of the theater, as dark and uninviting as a tomb. He was kept by himself in this room, on a 15-foot chain. He has been slowly withering in spirit and flesh in this chilly back room, and last week refused to eat at all. This alarmed the old stage hands, and after a solemn council it was decided to take Jim each night to the Madison Square Theatre in the hope that it would revive his health and spirits.”
Jim’s mood did change as soon as he saw his old friends at the theater. According to the news article, “He purred, jumped from chair to tables, frisked about the carpet, and peeked through the curtain from time to time to watch the assembling audience.”
One night during the performance of A Possible Cause, Jim decided to take the stage again, this time leaping onto the lead actor during a very dramatic scene. Jim brought the house down with laughter as he purred and licked the actor’s head and forehead in “a delirium of delight.” Although he was led off stage, there were many bursts of laughter as the drama progressed, and, after the last curtain, repeated calls were made for the theatrical cat to come and take a bow.
I do not know for sure what happened to Jim, although a story about him in the book “Lady Lee and Other Animals Stories” by Harmon Lee Ensign suggests that he died at the Madison Square Theatre in a very dramatic fashion when he pounced on some flames on stage (an actresses’ dress caught fire when she walked too close to the gas lights). I have a feeling the author made this up (a small news article in the May 5, 1890, issue of The Sandusky Register suggests that Jim died from an illness after an unsuccessful visit with Dr. Dovey, a veterinarian on 4th Street.
The Demise of the Union Square Theatre
A year after the fire, the Union Square Theatre reopened. It had been almost completely rebuilt to the designs of John Terhune and Leopold Eidlitz (although some of the design was by Charles P. Palmer, the manager of the property). Because of the cramped site, Palmer developed a horseshoe balcony that rose in the center to make good use of the high, narrow space. The interior was painted in old gold and ivory, and the proscenium arch (the part of the stage in front of the curtain) featured a large medallion with a painting of Shakespeare. The hand-carved cherry chairs were upholstered in electric blue.
In 1893, Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee, the most powerful and successful vaudeville producers of their time, purchased the lease for the Union Square Theatre and completely remodeled it. The offered continuous vaudeville — George M. Cohan made his New York debut on its stage.
In 1906 the theater exhibited some early motion pictures; in 1908, it was converted once again to showcase only films. As B.F. Keith’s, the theater dabbled in “the most dubious activities that a picture house can indulge in,” according to The New York Herald Tribune (alluding to racy films and lectures about sex.) The theater was sold and renamed the Acme in 1921, which featured primarily Soviet Russian films.
In May 1920, the old Morton House (then called the Hotel Churchill), B.F. Keith’s theater, and Union Square Hotel were sold at auction for the benefit of the Courtlandt Palmer heirs. The theater continued to run films until 1936, which is when the ground floor was divided for some dry goods stores, destroying the orchestra section of the auditorium.
In 1986, the Philips International Corporation acquired the site and completely vacated the buildings. Demolition of the theater began in 1989, and, a few later, as the building was peeled away, this amazing photograph revealed the ruined remnants of the old Union Square Theatre — complete with its finishes still brown with smoke from the fire that almost took the last of the nine lives of Union Square Jim.