The George Gershwin Theatre was originally named the Uris. When it opened in 1972 it was the first large Broadway theatre to be built since the Earl Carroll in 1931.
Occupying six stories of the new Uris Building on the site of the old Capitol movie palace at Broadway and Fifty-first Street, the huge theatre, with more than 1,900 seats, was designed by the late set designer Ralph Alswang. At the time of the theatre's opening, Mr. Alswang told PLAYBILL: "The Uris represents what I think is the total philosophy of modern musical comedy house --seating, sight lines, acoustics--the economy and aesthetics of this kind of theatre. I was given a completely free hand by the Uris people and by the Nederlanders and Gerard Oestreicher, who have a thirty-year lease on the house."
The designer stated that the whole theatre was done in a sensuous Art Nouveau style. The auditorium is on the second floor and is reached by escalators. "The bar, the plaster wall running 200 feet on a reverse curve and the Lalique lighting fixtures are all Art Nouveau shapes,"' Alswang stated. "Most people want to sit in the orchestra, so we have 1,280 seats downstairs and a very small balcony with 660 seats with projecting side sections to replace box seats. We have dark proscenium panels that serve as light towers and that are removable if the production demands it. The flexible stage floor can be taken apart like a Tinker Toy or be extended as a thrust stage. And for the first time in theatre history, there is a water curtain instead of an asbestos curtain in the event of an onstage fire."
Another "first" for a legitimate theatre is a revolutionary automatic rigging system called Hydra-Float. Mr. Alswang estimated that the theatre's building cost would amount to about $12.5 million.
A special feature of the theatre is the inclusion of a theatre Hall of Fame with the names of stage greats inscribed in bas-relief on the walls of an impressive rotunda. Another rotunda on the theatre's other side may be used for theatrical exhibitions. The Hall of Fame rotunda was suggested to the Nederlanders by Earl Blackwell.
The Uris opened on November 18, 1972,with a spectacular rock musical, "Via Galactica," with Raul Julia and Virginia Vestoff as space beings in the year 2972. Unfortunately, the special effects were more dazzling than the show and it closed after only seven performances.
The theatre's next tenant was much more successful. It was "Seesaw," a musical version of William Gibson's hit comedy "Two for the Seesaw." It had a book by Michael Bennett, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and starred Ken Howard and Michele Lee. Tommy Tune won a Tony Award as best supporting actor in a musical and Michael Bennett received another for his choreography. On March 23, 1973, Mayor John V. Lindsay replaced Ken Howard in the "My City" number for seven minutes. The musical ran for 296 performances.