During his long career between 1884 and 1930, Belasco either wrote, directed, or produced more than 100 Broadway plays including Hearts of Oak, The Heart of Maryland, and Du Barry, making him the most powerful personality on the New York city theater scene. Although he is perhaps most famous for having penned Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West for the stage, both of which were adapted as operas by Giacomo Puccini, more than forty motion pictures have been made from the many plays he authored, including Buster Keaton's Seven Chances.
Belasco was informally known in the theatrical community as "the Bishop of Broadway," due to his penchant for dressing in black clothing which made him resemble a priest. He was also rumored to have used, or even originated, the casting couch. Belasco was mentioned as a contemporary celebrity in Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn. In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, chapter III, page 50, Nick encounters "Owl Eyes," who says of Gatsby "[T]his fella's a regular Belasco," in reference to his giant (apparently just for-show) library.
Many prominent performers of the late 1800s and early 1900s sought the opportunity to work with Belasco; among them was a young Mary Pickford. Pickford appeared in his plays The Warrens of Virginia at the first Belasco Theatre in 1907 and A Good Little Devil in 1913. The two remained in touch after Pickford began working in Hollywood; Belasco appeared with her in the 1914 film adaptation of A Good Little Devil. He is also credited as giving Pickford her stage name.
David Belasco was married to Cecilia Loverich for over fifty years; they had two daughters, Reina and Augusta. He died in 1931 at the age of 77 in New York City and was interred in the Linden Hills Cemetery in Queens, New York.
Belasco is recognized for bringing a new standard of naturalism to the American stage. Supposedly he put appropriate scents to set scenes in the ventilation of the theaters, while his sets paid great attention to detail, and sometimes spilled out into the audience area. In one play, for instance, an operational laundromat was built onstage. In another, there was a reproduction of a Childs Restaurant kitchen where actors actually cooked and prepared food during the play. He is even said to have purchased a room in a flop-house, cut it out of the building, brought it to his theater, cut out one wall and presented it as the set for a production. Belasco's original scripts were often filled with long, specific descriptions of props and set dressings. Interestingly, though, he has not been noted for producing unusually naturalistic scenarios.
Belasco was further known for his advanced lighting techniques and use of color to evoke mood and setting. He was one of the first directors to eschew the use of footlights in favor of follow spots and realistic lighting. Often, Belasco tailored his lighting configurations to compliment the complexions and hair of the actors. In his own theatres, the dressing rooms were equipped with lamps of several colors, allowing the performers to see how their makeup looked under different lighting conditions.
Belasco also embraced existing theatre technology and sought to expand on it. Both of Belasco's New York theatres were built on the cutting edge of their era's technology. When Belasco took over the Republic Theatre he drilled a new basement level to accommodate his machinery; the Stuyvesant Theatre was specially constructed with enormous amounts of flyspace, hydraulics systems and lighting rigs. The basement of the Stuyvesant contained a working machine shop, where Belasco and his team experimented with lighting and other special effects. Many of the innovations developed in the Belasco shop were sold to other producers.
The second Belasco Theatre is located at 111 West 44th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, only a few blocks away from the New Victory. It was constructed in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre and renamed after Belasco in 1910. The theater was built to Belasco's wishes, with Tiffany lighting and ceiling panels, rich woodwork and murals. His business office and private apartment were also housed there. The Belasco is still in operation as a Broadway venue with much of the original decor still intact.
Belasco Theatres also existed in several other cities. The Los Angeles Belasco was built in 1926, is located at 1050 S. Hill St downtown and has been used as a church in recent years. The Shubert-Belasco Theatre was located in Washington D.C.
Kim Marra. Strange Duets: Impresarios & Actresses in the American Theatre, 1865-1914.(Brief article)(Book review)
Mar 22, 2007; Kim Marra. Strange Duets: Impresarios & Actresses in the American Theatre, 1865-1914. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006....