Oscar Hammerstein, I

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Oscar Hammerstein, I

Birthdate: (71)
Birthplace: Stettin, Prussia
Death: August 1, 1919 (71)
Manhattan, New York County, New York, USA
Place of Burial: Bronx, Bronx County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Abraham Hammerstein and Bertha Valentin
Husband of Rosa 'Rose' Blau and Mary Emma Hammerstein
Ex-husband of Melvina Hammerstein
Father of Harry Hammerstein; Arthur Hammerstein; William Hammerstein; Edward Hammerstein; Rose Tostevin and 1 other
Brother of Anna Rosenberg and Emil Hammerstein

Occupation: Businessman, theater impresario and composer
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Oscar Hammerstein, I

Oscar Hammerstein I was a businessman, theater impresario and composer in New York City. His passion for opera led him to open several opera houses, and he rekindled opera's popularity in America. He was the grandfather of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Born to German-Jewish parents, he took up music at an early age. His mother died when he was fifteen years old, and he fled his father, who maltreated him, to seek his fortunes in the United States, arriving in New York City in 1864. He worked sweeping the floor in a cigar factory. Ten years later, he founded the U.S. Tobacco Journal. He also moonlighted as a theater manager in the downtown German theaters.

He was an innovator in the tobacco industry and held patents for 52 inventions, 44 of them related to the cigar-manufacturing process. He became wealthy industrializing cigar manufacturing, and his tobacco fortune provided the money he used to pursue his theater interests.

He built his first theater, the Harlem Opera House, on 125th Street in 1889. His second theater, the Columbus Theatre, was built in 1890 on the same street. His third theater was the first Manhattan Opera House, built in 1893 on 34th Street. This failed as an opera house and was used, in partnership with Koster & Bial, to present variety shows. Disenchanted with the partnership, he opened a fourth venue, the Olympia Theatre, on Longacre Square, where he presented a comic opera that he wrote himself, Santa Maria (1896). Nine years later, Longacre Square was renamed Times Square, and the area had become, through his efforts, a thriving theater district.

Hammerstein built three more theaters there, the Victoria Theatre (1898), which turned to vaudeville presentation in 1904 and was managed by his son, Willie Hammerstein; the Republic Theatre was built in 1900 and leased to eccentric producer David Belasco, in 1901, and the Lew Fields Theatre for Lew Fields (half of the Vaudeville team Weber and Fields, and the father of lyricist Dorothy Fields), in 1904. He wrote a musical called Punch, Judy & Co. in 1903. Hammerstein also opened Hammerstein's Roof Garden above the Victoria and Republic theatres.

In 1906, Hammerstein, dissatisfied with the Metropolitan Opera's productions, opened an eighth theater, his second Manhattan Opera House, to directly (and successfully) compete with it. He opened the Philadelphia Opera House in 1908, which, however, he sold early in 1910.

He produced contemporary operas and presented the American premieres of Louise, Pelleas et Melisande, Elektra, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, Thaïs (opera), and Salome, as well as the American debuts of Mary Garden and Luisa Tetrazzini. Since Melba was disenchanted with the Metropolitan, she deserted it for Hammerstein's house, rescuing it financially with a successful season. He also produced the successful Victor Herbert operetta Naughty Marietta in 1910.

Hammerstein's high-quality productions were ultimately too expensive to sustain, and by his fourth opera season, he was going bankrupt. The costs at the Metropolitan, too, were skyrocketing, as the Metropolitan spent more and more in order to effectively compete. Hammerstein's son Arthur negotiated a payment of $1.2 million from the Metropolitan in exchange for an agreement not to produce grand opera in the United States for 10 years.

With this money, Hammerstein built his tenth theater, the London Opera House, in London, where he again entered competition with an established opera house, Covent Garden's Royal Opera company. He had run through his money in two years and thereupon returned to America.

With money obtained selling the sole booking rights to the Victoria Theatre, he built his eleventh and final theater, the Lexington Opera House. Unable to present opera there, he opened it as a movie theater, selling it shortly thereafter.

At his death in 1919, with his contractual ban on presenting opera due to expire in 1920, he was busy planning his return to the opera stage.

The Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street in New York City was renamed the "Hammerstein Ballroom" at the Manhattan Center Studios in his honor.

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Oscar Hammerstein, I's Timeline

May 8, 1848
Stettin, Prussia
Age 20
December 21, 1872
Age 24
New York, New York, United States
Age 25
Age 30
October 31, 1880
Age 32
New York, New York, United States
January 2, 1882
Age 33
New York, New York, United States