BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, September 27, 1959
After a tense day of diplomatic negotiations, during which it was touch
and go, and an eleventh hour meeting last Tuesday, it has finally been
decided that the Coronet Theatre at 230 West Forty-ninth Street will be
renamed the Eugene O’Neill. Lester Osterman, who recently purchased the
thirty-four-year old Coronet and who took legal possession last Friday,
will officially re-christen the theatre during Thanksgiving week, with
the blessings of Mrs. Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, the dramatist’s widow.
Mr. Osterman, who has long considered O’Neill
America’s foremost dramatist, began consulting with designers early last
week about renovating the roof sign, the marquee and the lettering over
the entrance, and commissioned a portrait of O’Neill to be etched in
glass and embedded in the theatre’s concrete outer wall. He also sent
word of his plan on Monday to Mrs. O’Neill. He was totally unprepared
for her reaction. On Tuesday morning she sent back word that she could
not endorse the plan, that O’Neill would not have wanted a commercial
Broadway house named for him, that he had declined, several times, to
have theatres named for him during his lifetime, and that he felt his
name, if it was to live, must live through his plays alone.
“My husband was not interested in real estate,” she
said later that morning, when pressed by this column for a further
explanation of her opposition, adding that she assumed that Mr. Osterman,
like many theatre owners, would operate his new acquisition on a
strictly commercial basis, with no interest in the artistic merit of the
plays he booked.
“Putting up a few new signs saying ‘O’Neill’ on an
old, commercial theatre, is not an honor to my husband,” she said. “He
hated Broadway and its lack of artistic understanding.”
Mrs. O’Neill, however, was unaware, at that time,
that the Phoenix production of O’Neill’s “The Great God Brown” was to be
Mr. Osterman’s first tenant, and that Mr. Osterman was himself a
producer, who acquired the Coronet primarily as a showcase for his own
offerings, which, this season, will include William Inge’s “A Loss of
Roses” and Lillian Hellman’s new play.
Mrs. O’Neill’s rejection of the re-christening plan
threw Mr. Osterman into a quandary. He did not want to displease the
widow of the man he wished to honor, yet the machinery had been set into
motion and he had to make a quick decision. He persuaded Mrs. O’Neill to
meet with him Tuesday night and, after listening to his eloquent plea,
she conceded that she had been too hasty in rejecting his offer. ‘“You
may have my blessing” she told him.
Mr. Osterman, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man of
44, whose mother was a child actress, and who is a partner in a banking
and brokerage concern, began his theatrical activities a few years ago
as a hobby. Producing has since become his main interest, and he feels
strongly that American playwrights are not given their proper due.
“People tend to forget that the playwright is the
lifeblood of the theatre,” he said, revealing that he would now go ahead
with his plan as quickly as possible. “I’ve been disgusted for a long
time about the fact that we have no theatre in New York named for an
important playwright, while we have many named for actors and
The changes involved in renaming the theatre, which
can not be effected in time for the opening, on Oct. 6, of “The Great
God Brown” (which will have a limited run), will be ready by the time “A
Loss of Roses” moves in on Nov. 26. Mr. Osterman plans to hold a
dedication ceremony a few days before that date, to which he will invite
the Governor, the Mayor and other public officials and cultural leaders.
Coronet, incidentally, was originally called the Forrest in honor of
Edwin Forrest, an acting contemporary of O’Neill’s father, James. It was
Forrest who advised James O’Neill to get rid of his Irish brogue if he
wished to be a success on the stage.