Our guide for the day, Drew Pournelle is originally from Soperton, Georgia, a town of roughly 3,000 people. It was so small that there wasn't a community theatre or even a theatre program in his school. He has been in New York for eight years working as an actor. When he isn't performing in Thoroughly Modern Millie or one of the many other musicals he's done, he takes theatre lovers around the theatre district and tells them some of its rich history the stories of some of the characters that have inhabited it.
We met Drew in front of the Nederlander Theatre on the south side of 41st Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, the plastics for Disney's Newsies still on the marquee (the show closes on August 24). Originally our tour guide was to be the company's owner, Tim. Tim emailed me the night before to let me know he was under the weather but that we would be in Drew's capable hands. Dolan had the added pressure this week of opening as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. He, like the rest of the tour guides for Broadway Up Close are all professional actors and stage managers.
Drew advised us that this was an unusually large tour. We had twelve in our group that day. He said that the company doesn't have a regular tour schedule. Rather, they accommodate the schedule of those who want to take their tours, frequently resulting in smaller, more intimate tours. Though I'm not sure that guiding any number of people through the Times Square district at lunchtime on a Tuesday could ever be described as intimate.
Our tour was filled with tid-bits about Broadway past and present. One of Drews first stories was about how Disney has kept their show Newsies cast with young teenage boys without having to pay for tutors (required for minor actors). They went to dancing competitions around the country and plucked 18 year olds from obscurity and put them in their first Broadway show. Several of the young cast members even missed their own high-school graduation to be in the show.
Some of the theatres covered on the tour were no longer there, others have been retrofitted into movie theaters, still others have completely new theatres behind the original façade. On Broadway Under Cover tours you don't actually go into the theatres but our tour guide traveled with an iPad with images and video. He had pictures of the interior of theatres like the New Amsterdam just prior to their being restored to their original glory. He also had photos of areas of theatres that are now no longer available to be viewed, except by a very few select folks (David Belasco's apartment atop the Belasco Theatre).
The tour lasted one hour and forty-five minutes and was thoroughly engaging. It was rich in theatre history and Drew was personable, engaging and knowledgeable. He gave his presentation despite having to compete with idling delivery trucks, theatre attendants power-washing their sidewalks, dueling Elmo costumed characters in Times Square and even a few eccentric hangers-on who just thought they could join our tour.
A growing operation, Broadway Up Close was started by working actor Tim Dolan four-and-a-half years ago. He was out on a bus-and-truck tour as an actor. The shows itinerary took them through some amazing old Vaudeville houses. Dolan began to keep track of the stories he heard about each theatre as they passed through them. Then he began to wonder "is this something that could be turned into something?" He then wondered aloud, as if reliving the moment in his head, "we have 40 theatres here in New York City and we have no one sitting me down and telling me the really cool stories and the history of why they were built where they were."
After reading everything he could get his hands on, he built his tour, got his tour operator license and gave his first tour. At the time, it was just himself. When he first started his tours, Dolan put all forty theatres into a single tour. "The whole tour was eight hours long," he said. Bit by bit it got partially divided into to two subsections. The Act I tour focuses on theatres in the lower-most part of the Broadway district, the oldest part. The Act II tour covers the theatres on the East side of Broadway, north of 44th Street. Act III will open in the fall and will cover the upper-most part of Broadway from the Palace Theatre up to Studio 54. The only two theatres not covered by one of the company's tours is the Vivian Beuamont and the Cort. This is due to logistics and their geographic location.
Broadway Up Close isn't the only player in the Broadway tour market. But they are the only player with actual working actors as their tour guides. The Broadway League prototyped a similar tour program several years ago, but that program no longer exists. Other than that, Dolan has been first to market with a couple of imitators coming along since. Dolan isn't resting on the success of the company, he has big plans. They can't be shared just yet but stay tuned to The AndyGram and I'll follow Tim's success and future endeavors.
If you are a theatre-lover and are coming to New York (or even if you live in New York) put a Broadway Up Close tour on your calendar. No matter how knowledgeable you think you are about Broadway, I guarantee you you'll learn something new on a Broadway Up Close tour!
To book your Broadway Up Close tour, head to BroadwayUpClose.com.