Broadway names theater after beloved caricaturist

Sunday, June 29, 2003

— Broadway remembered Al Hirschfeld on Monday as the man who made the stage and its performers come alive in graceful pen-and-ink drawings -- and then it named a theater after him.

From Arthur Miller to Carol Channing to Whoopi Goldberg to Nathan Lane, they spoke and sang the praises of the show-biz caricaturist during a joyous ceremony in which the Martin Beck Theatre, a venerable Broadway playhouse, was rechristened the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

"People in a Hirschfeld drawing all shared the one quality of energetic joy in life that they all wished they had in reality," Miller said. "Looking at a Hirschfeld drawing of yourself is the best thing for tired blood."

"It was the honor of my life," confessed Channing of her many Hirschfelds, just before bursting into a snippet from "Hello, Dolly!" because "he loved to hear it."

Hirschfeld, who died Jan. 20 at age 99, began drawing theater performers in 1926. For nearly 70 years, much of his work appeared in The New York Times. He would have been 100 years old last Saturday.

The participants in Monday's memorial service spanned generations -- from 92-year-old Kitty Carlisle Hart to Channing and Barbara Cook to Audra McDonald and Matthew Broderick.

One of the more touching moments came when Victor Garber sang a song in praise of Nina, the name of Hirschfeld's daughter, who joined Garber on stage for a bow. Her name always appeared in each of her father's drawings, hidden in the lines for readers to find.

After the speeches and songs, the audience walked out of the theater and filled the street as a ribbon was cut and a red cloth fell from the theater's marquee, revealing a self-portrait of the artist in white lights. The crowd cheered.

Beck, a vaudeville impresario, built the theater in 1924 on what once was considered no man's land, just west of Eighth Avenue on West 45th Street.

Yet despite its location, the Beck had its share of memorable plays, including Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo," Miller's "The Crucible" and an Edward Gorey-designed version of "Dracula," starring Frank Langella. It also housed such musicals as "Candide," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Man of La Mancha" and "Into the Woods." The theater's current tenant is a revival of "La Mancha," starring Brian Stokes Mitchell.