Oscar Hammerstein I (8 May 1847 - 1 August 1919) was a Jewish American businessman, theater impresario and composer. 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.

Cigar manufacturer

Oscar Hammerstein I was born in Szczecin, Poland (which was then in Prussia), to German-speaking Jewish parents Abraham Hammerstein and his first wife, Berthe. 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.

Producer and impresario

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.

Grand opera and later years

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.[1]

He produced contemporary operas and presented the American premieres of Louise, Pelleas et Melisande, Elektra, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, Thaïs, 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.

Broadway credits

  • Santa Maria (1896) - comic opera[2] - composer, lyricist, producer
  • Sweet Marie (1911) - musical - producer
  • Resurrection (1903) - play - producer, theater owner/operator
  • Punch, Judy & Co. (1903) - musical - composer, lyricist, bookwriter and producer
  • Hans, the Flute Player (1910) - opera - producer
  • Naughty Marietta (1910) - operetta - producer

Hammerstein family

Hammerstein had two sons, Arthur and Willie. Arthur continued the family business as an opera and Broadway producer, director, theater owner, and songwriter. Willie managed Oscar's Victoria Theatre, and Willie's son, Oscar Hammerstein II was one of Broadway's most influential lyricists and bookwriters, as well as a director and producer.


  1. "Philadelphia Opera House" at the New International Encyclopedia
  2. "Olympia Theatre Opened", The New York Times, September 25, 1896, p. 3.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Oscar Hammerstein I. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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