Hammerstein III Discusses Book, Family Tuesday
Oscar Hammerstein II was 24 years old in 1919, when he stood next to the deathbed of his grandfather and namesake, the legendary theater and opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein.
"The four minutes in the hospital was the longest time I had ever spent with him," he later wrote. "I was astonished to realize how little I knew the man I had just left. The fears and resentments of this remote 'old man' developed in my childhood were no longer a block to our union. It is ironic and sad and strange that I did not begin to understand or like my grandfather until the day of his death."
From the time they were in their teens, Hammerstein's three sons, Arthur, Harry and Willy (Oscar II's father) became irrevocably intertwined in their father's -theater-building mania - "Give him a plush red curtain and he'll build a theater around it," his son Arthur said - and his all-consuming obsession with opera. "Opera's no business, it's a disease," Hammerstein admitted.
Being sacrificial pawns in their father's "opera game" figuratively and literally killed two of his sons just months apart in 1914: Willy, the youngest, at age 38, and Harry, the oldest, at age 43. Only Arthur survived his father and went on to become a theatrical legend in his own right and mentor to his nephew Oscar II.
Perhaps it is no wonder that as he lay dying, Willy asked his son, Oscar II, to swear he would never go into the -theater. Oscar kept his word for six years while he finished college, went to law school at Columbia and started a family. But once his father and the "old man" were both gone, he pleaded with his Uncle Arthur to release him from that -promise. With his permission and lifelong support, Oscar Hammerstein II became "the most important lyricist and librettist in the history of the Broadway stage."
On Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 5:30 p.m. at Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, The Country Bookshop will host Oscar "Andy" Hammerstein III, grandson of Oscar Hammerstein II, when he shares his book, "The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family."
"The impact three generations of Hammersteins had on the development of the American musical theater has no historic equal," Hammerstein says. "It is simply unique."
For all his faults, Oscar Hammerstein I was "the spark for the flame that followed." The middle generation - Harry, Arthur, and Willy - learned all they knew from him, and in turn, taught all they knew to Oscar II. "Without Oscar I there would be no Oscar II."
Oscar Hammerstein was 15 when he ran away from his home in Szeczin, Pomerania, and came to New York City in 1864. Penniless and speaking only German, he took unskilled, low-paying jobs on Manhattan's Lower West Side. From his job as a sweeper at a cigar manufactory, he quickly advanced in the business. He churned out scores of cigar-related patents which, by the end of the 1870s, attained status as the industry norms, reaping him a fortune. At 27, he founded and edited the U.S. Tobacco Journal, which became "the" source of tobacco-trade information. He also became the No. 1 real estate speculator in Harlem, a largely uninhabited stretch of goat farms and shantytowns where he built apartments and brownstones. But it was his love of opera that consumed Hammerstein - and his fortunes - for the rest of his life.
In 1887, Hammerstein, a short man who became recognized for his distinctive look - a Vandyke beard, large top hat and Prince Albert morning coat, sunk his fortune into building his first theater, the Harlem Opera House on 125th Street. There he presented the big-name downtown talents, including Edwin Booth and Lillian Russell, as well as German operas performed by his own opera company. To offset his losses there, he built a second theater in Harlem where he drew greater audiences with "lowbrow entertainment." In 1893, he built the Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street (where Macy's now stands). With his patented wider and shallower design and cantilevered balcony, the theater allowed everyone a better seat for his moderately priced operas.
That midtown effort at opera practically bankrupted him. Ever the optimist, he sold the theater and his cigar patents, refinanced both Harlem theaters and in 1895, built The Olympia at the muddy and dangerous intersection of Broadway and Seventh. The massive structure housed a music hall, a theater and a concert hall and cost $3 million. But when the "one-size-fits-all-entertainment mecca" drove him to bankruptcy again, Hammerstein sold it and bought land at Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street in what is now the Theater District.
Over the next several years, he built and sold many theaters, sometimes losing a fortune in the process, and eventually running into a family lawsuit when he built the Lexington Opera House at 51st and Lexington, an acoustical marvel but an operatic pipe dream.
Shortly after two of his three sons died in 1914, Hammerstein, age 68, married a 32-year-old divorcee. The next year, in a tribute by America's most notable composers, he was hailed as musical theater's "Columbus." They declared he had "done more for the field than any other man in America."
"He had built their world," Andy Hammerstein writes. "To be precise, he had created, to a great degree, their stage, their theatre district, and their audience."
Oscar Hammerstein died penniless in 1919 at the age of 74. He never lived to see any of his grandson's masterpieces that would revitalize the American musical theater.
Oscar "Andy" Hammerstein III, the grandson of Oscar II, is a painter and writer, lecturer and family historian. He is adjunct professor at Columbia University, where he teaches graduate level New York City theater history.
For reservations to the Meet the Author event at Weymouth Center, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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