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New York State Theater No. 17 - Seating & Sightlines

The View from the Stage

“The best way to describe the theatre as a vista is to stand on its stage and look out and up. It has size, yet is not overwhelmingly a giant house. […] Standing there, with the chandeliers glowing and the golden light from them bathing the red and gold decor, you feel excitement, you feel that this new theatre is capable of great things. You even feel that a feeble thing would take on stature in this theatre” [1]

(left) Bob Serating, 1964

(right) Marty Prudenti, 2022

"Their new house had to be adequate, musically, fit an orchestra in the pit, and the architect was asked to bring the back of the house closer to the stage than a traditional horseshoe plan. Seating arrangements should provide a large number of seats with downward sight lines, desirable for watching ballet. The democratic tradition of their City Center home carried over in a specification that there should be no boxes. Kirstein and Balanchine had a clear conception of the atmosphere they wanted for the audience experience with traditional opera houses as the customary setting for ballet. Balanchine particularly wanted to stress a festive atmosphere with a commodious promenading area and a grand staircase, where beautiful women could be seen to advantage." [2]

Leg Room

“In determining both the overall design and the seating detail of modern halls, the architects had to take into account the fact that, in the period since World, War I, the average American had grown taller and heavier and translate this into more knee room and wider seats. This resulted in fewer seats in a given space.” [2]

“The theater, which has garnet red seats and walls, has more leg room than most playhouses in the country. It has Continental seating—no aisles—for 1,044 persons in the orchestra of the horseshoe-shaped auditorium. The rows in the orchestra are 40 inches apart. This provides 8 to 11 inches more leg room than is available in theaters with conventional seating. Five horseshoe-shaped shallow balconies faced with gold leaf almost encircle the auditorium. Most of the seats are within 100 feet of the stage. 'When someone passes you to get to his seat, you don’t have to get up,' Mrs. James McInerney of Bayport, L.I. added.” [3]

Photo by Bob Serating, video by Lauryn Johnson

“Although it appears to be a simple box, it is in fact quite complex; a structural tour de force, with hidden steel trusses spanning its width to support a giant cantilevered upper gallery of five hundred seats. That structure was disguised--a Miesian no-no--behind the theater's gilded ceiling, itself marked by a massive globe of circular lights. To stand beneath it was to be enclosed within an enormous jewel box. The "continental" orchestra seating, with no central aisles and extra legroom between rows, was also highly unusual for an American theater. The arrangement meant the most valuable real estate in the theater could be given over to seating, not circulation. While some patrons complained they had to climb over one another to get to their seats, the design fostered a sense of community within that audience, and indeed developed a reputation for initiating long-term friendships among ballet subscribers.” [4]

[1] Whitney Bolton, Morning Telegraph NY, March 25, 1964

[3] Milton Esterow in New York Times, April 24, 1964

[4] The Man in the Glass House by Mark Lamster

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