Was This Midtown Hardware Store Once A Theater?

So here’s a mystery. A few months ago, I got an email from reader Matthew J. advising me to check out Brothers Hardware at 26 West 38th Street.

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The shop is pretty unassuming from the outside…

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But go inside…

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…head to the back of the store…

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…and head down the right aisle…

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…and buried in the rear corner…

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…you’ll find something really unexpected: a gilded statue at the base of an arch:

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There’s one at the end of the left aisle too…

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This one is female…

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…and like the other, is attached to an arch connecting to the ceiling:

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Otherwise, Brothers is pretty much your typical Manhattan hardware store. So where did these come from??

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According to the man at the counter, this was once a theater! If you step back, you can see how the stage would have been positioned under the arch, with the statuary at either end.

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But what kind of theater was here? Play? Film? As the store is currently situated, the roof comes down at an unusual angle, leaving very little room for any sort of depth to the stage.

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Unfortunately, repeated searches for the 26 West 38th Street address have turned up next to nothing. In the early 1900s, a store called Spiro’s was here, which sold makeup and lotions. Later in the 1990s, it was Manny’s Millinery Supply (a hat shop). But what happened in the years between?

I did find one potential clue: the neighboring building was once home to Samuel French and Company, the theatrical publishing house.

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The facades have all been altered in the ensuing years, but it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to think that a small theater might have been located next door to Samuel French.

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Or maybe this is completely off. Anyone have any ideas, or perhaps memories of that time you saw a play/movie at the tiny theater on West 38th Street? Please share!

UPDATE!

Thanks to Scouting NY readers Daniel J., Carter, and Jenny, it looks like we might have an answer! It appears that 26 West 38th Street was once the home to Ernst Böcker, a retailer of “automatic” (self-playing) musical instruments. This ad announcing the opening of his store notes a concert room on the first floor, which would explain the statuary:

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Another ad in a 1912 issue of the New York Tribune promotes daily concerts with the Phonoliszt Violin, the “world’s eighth wonder,” a self-playing violin.

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Curious what that would be like? Here’s the Phonoliszt in action!

An entire store of these instruments?? Seems like this was once a pretty magical place.

Thank you all for the excellent detective work!

-SCOUT

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19 comments

  1. What a great find! It looks like the first floor was a beauty salon in the 60’s (http://a810-cofo.nyc.gov/cofo/M/000/080000/M000080709.PDF). Have you tried looking at the 1940s tax photo? Might shed some light…

  2. Maybe someone at Samuel French can help?

  3. What I most love about this is that I’ve shopped there when doing theater down the street. Up until two years ago there was a theater on the 5th floor of 38W38 – we produced two shows a year there for about 4 or 5 years before the theater was shut down. I used to run there whenever we needed some last minute item. I can’t believe I never noticed those statues!

  4. Theatres weren’t always respectable.
    Perhaps burles–que is the answer?

  5. This looks promising:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=Q98IAQAAMAAJ&q=%2226+West+38th+Street%22+theater&dq=%2226+West+38th+Street%22+theater&hl=en&sa=X&ei=OZnRUbSUFMrA0AHtuoG4Dg&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAQ

    Apparently at one time it was the “studio” of a musical instrument technology firm? E. Böckus? That’s what I glean.

  6. Ernst Böcker, btw. Apparently imported and sold e.g. sophisticated automatic instruments:

    http://www.mechanicalmusicpress.com/history/hupfeld/hh_index.htm

    It would make sense if he is trying to sell these fancy automatic symphonic instruments, then a small but glorious theatre area would set the scene!

  7. You can try this blog:

    http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/

    He is probably one of the most knowledgeable about buildings in NYC and a transplanted Ohioan (I think Ohio) but he writes about one building’s history almost every day. He might know or have already posted about it.

    Either way, it’s very cool!

  8. Super cool blog! FYI there’s a word for columns with human figures supporting them – it’s “caryatids.” Agnes Varda made a great film about them here: http://mubi.com/films/the-so-called-caryatids

  9. Looks like Daniel may be onto something: scroll down to the ad at the bottom left-hand corner of the page http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1912-04-16/ed-1/seq-10.pdf

  10. Wow! $ 200 to $ 4,000 in 1915!! And you couldn’t even get Pandora on those things back then….

  11. Having just watched the video, I now can appreciate the pricing. Incredible mechanics and sound.

  12. I love this kind of research. Good luck with your movie. Also love your bumper sticker.

  13. Very cool! How coincidental is this? I was in that very hardware store 3 weeks ago! The only hardware store I’ve ever been to in NYC…I was visiting for work purposes and needed some nuts and bolts.

  14. you can check out similar instruments (Nickelodeons) for free the next time you are in los angeles.

    http://www.nethercuttcollection.org/

    you have to sign up in advance for the collection tour. the music room is awesome, and both museums are outstanding for free. they also have one of the largest pipe organs in the world and it autoplays 2 songs for you on the tour.

  15. Remarkable. Love your investigations. I am sending you a photo of an old movie theatre in the Bronx (Westchester Square) where my mom spent every Saturday of her childhood. The beautiful barrel vault tile ceiling remains but the rest of the building is now a furniture store.

  16. How wonderful – will repost (with your permission!) this entry to several of my mechanical music buddies. There is a whole community of folks, many of them engineers, who collect, restore and enthuse for hours over mechanical music like the Hupfeld example.

    For what it’s worth, one of the finest examples of automatic instruments is right there in New York, on the recently restored B&B Carousell in Coney Island (Boardwalk, just by the Parachute Jump). Just around a century old (if not older), the Bruder Elite Apollo Orchestral organ is one of only three such models operating worldwide, and it has an incomparable sound. I’m sure the folks who ran this business were well aware of the Bruder company. Enjoy – a wonderful entry on so many levels!

  17. More research:
    …. On May 26, 1911, Ernst Böcker, who conducted the E. Böcker Organ & Orchestrion Company, of New York City, perfected an agreement with Hupfeld to be its agent in the United States, accomplishing what the Wurlitzer had not been able to do…….
    …… A popular booth at the show was that occupied by Ernst Böcker, 26 W. Thirty-eighth St., New York, presenting a number of famous foreign makes of instruments which embodied many distinctive features. Mr. Böcker exhibited for the first time in public his new six-violin Phonoliszt-Violina which created strong country-wide interest…..
    ….. As fortune would have it, Böcker’s business failed in December 1913, by which time the Phonoliszt-Violina was very familiar to many Americans…..

  18. I now wonder if any of those automatic instruments are now at the House on the Rock, just north of Dodgeville, WI. They have a buncha.

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