Actor and arts educator, Tim Dolan is a collector of stories. In his Broadway Up Close tours, he shares his love of theater by revealing the fascinating history of famous Broadway venues. His tours have been crafted to incorporate a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s really like to work on Broadway, as well as sharing some of the juicy scandals he has uncovered. His latest venture is the new “Hamiltour” in which tour-goers visit historical sites and are told never-before-heard stories and secrets from the creation of the musical.
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Serena: How did you get interested in theater?
Tim: My first exposure to theater was in second grade when we went to the high school to see a production of Oliver! and I just remember looking at all the little kids on the stage and being like, “wait, what is this and how did they do this?” I started acting as a hobby in school and then I realized you could do it as a job and people would pay you money hopefully. So I got a voice teacher in 11th grade and I got into a college in New York City called AMDA. It’s a two‑year conservatory and they gave me a little money and that got me to New York instantly. That was ten days after I finished high school in June 2003. I was 18 years old, my parents dropped me off. They pulled away in a cab, just like crying in the backseat, dropping their son from Detroit, Michigan off in New York City.
My first job out of college, I was a cruise ship singer on Norwegian Cruise Line. I mean, spending warm weather in pleather pants on a ship is not what you always dream of, but in the moment it was pretty cool. Great money. Good food. Really good first experience. I was on there for six months. You never get used to dancing and doing shows on a rocking ship. Or even a quick change backstage – if the ship takes a turn as you are standing on one leg putting on a pant leg… not what they train you for in college. After that, I did a tour of the old creaky musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes all around the country for about six months. Since then I have done almost everything– shows in New York City, on tour, cruise ships, film and TV. Lots of regional theater all over the country. I leave on Wednesday to do a show called It Shoulda Been You. So it’s been good. Theater has been a huge part of my life for at least the last 20 of my 32 years, which has been crazy.
Where did the idea for Broadway Up Close come from?
When I was on that first tour of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we played a lot of smaller theaters in small towns, old vaudeville theaters – to me, more interesting theaters because they had these weird little histories. In every theater I would go to the stage hands who were there for a long time and say, “do you have any ghost stories?” I think we played 47 states in six months. It was insane. We got back to New York and I had all of these stories that no one had ever heard. I don’t know what anyone would do with any of it, this was just me collecting weird random knowledge. I looked around and saw we had at the time 40 Broadway theaters that have this crazy history and ghost histories presumably and said I wonder if I can shape all of those stories and that info, using the buildings themselves as the way in to give a different perspective on Broadway in general.
The first tour we ever did on April 10, 2010, I decided to do all 40 theaters in one tour, so it was seven and a half hours long. It was ridiculous and crazy. I think I only did it twice. I had two guinea pig friends that allowed me to talk at them forever. I was like, “okay that sucks.” So we sliced it into three chunks of what we call Act I, Act II, Act III. Geographically you move north through the district starting at the southern most, the Nederlander where War Paint currently is playing. Act II starts with the Lyceum on 45th and the Act III tour starts at the Ethel Barrymore on 47th. So if you join us for three tours, you get almost every Broadway theater – and some of them have been demolished – to give you a different perspective on what the word Broadway means. More than just the gossip and how shows are doing, but the ghost stories and who built them, all the weird kind of quirks of the shows that have played there. We also talk about rehearsals at New 42nd, what it’s like to rehearse a show, what it’s like to be a swing or to understudy. It started as just myself and now I have 14 tour guides that are all actors and stage managers. What I call my green team. So they will insert their stories and their own specific experiences. They have done literally everything. One was just the lead in Paramour (Bret Shuford.) One just finished the Les Mis revival.
How did you find your tour guides?
We get lots of submissions from actors who think this looks like fun and a great job for in between shows. We have locked into this team through recommendations of people that I know, friends of friends, or started out with just a couple of friends of mine. Every once in awhile I will hire someone that has a great resume. I just hired this incredible dancer and singer and actor named Corey West who was in South Pacific and Nice Work If You Can Get It. He is really unbelievably talented and has a crazy interesting background. He just had his first tour last week.
What kind of experience does someone need if they want to work for you?
I think the biggest thing which sets my company apart from other tour companies is first and foremost, this has to be your life. It has to be a performer or arts professional that is living and breathing this, and then we just happen to spend two hours on the sidewalk with you talking about our weird lives. They have to be involved and active in the business. It helps if they have done shows that you have heard of. We also have a couple on staff who are young, just out of college that are ridiculously talented and I know they will be stars.
Are there any juicy stories you uncovered when you were doing all your research for the tours? Any scandals?
On the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue (currently the Chase and Skechers building), there used to be a 1,200‑seat Broadway theater (Victoria Theatre) built by Oscar Hammerstein I, which opened in 1898. Next to that is the New Victory off‑Broadway theater. Hammerstein ran out of money to build his theater, he only had enough money to buy the land. The old theater district used to be in Herald Square, so he convinced all his friends to move with him because he just thought Time Square (which was previously called Longacre Square) was better. So as everyone is moving, all of their theaters were empty, but not yet demolished. Hammerstein went to their theaters in Herald Square and stole of all their stuff. He ripped out the seats of one theater, the doors of another and built an entire 1,200‑seat theater with stolen stuff from every other theater in the area.
In the olden days, you would see a Broadway show and after it was over, there would be an elevator in the lobby which would take you up to the roof. On the roof was another theater where you would see the understudies perform. You would have smaller revue shows there. It was just like these open‑air shows on the roofs of these buildings, with two theaters in one. It was this whole kind of other culture.
Hammerstein built a 600‑seat theater across his roof. It connected all the way to the New Victory. The entire thing was covered, so if it was raining or snowing, you were protected. His competition right across the street was the New Amsterdam Theatre where Florenz Ziegfeld (most notable for his Follies) had a rooftop garden theater. These two guys would glare and shake their fists at each other from across the street. Hammerstein wanted to outdo Ziegfeld, so he added a farm on the roof of his theater. He built a farmhouse and windmill in the back and covered the entire roof in dirt, he also built a river on the roof. He had a woman dressed like a Dutch milkmaid who raised geese, ducks, chicken, cows, and a flock of sheep. You would go in your suit and tux and big corset evening gowns to see these revue shows and have these farm animals just hanging out with you while you are drinking. There were cows on the roof of this theater in Times Square. That is the craziest thing I have ever heard. The cow photo took me three and a half years to find – I went through every archive of every place in New York City and finally found it at the New York Historical Society. I put together this entire story by pulling all these little strands. Every story on the tour is like that. These crazy historical things that give you a sign of what theater used to be like, where we evolved from.
How do you think the culture of theatergoers have changed?
Now we have texting and people getting phone calls. In the early 1900s, the epidemic was hats. These woman would wear these huge hats and you couldn’t see through their hats. It was what they call the hat epidemic and they would have signs all over the theater, “take off your hat.”
Do you think the attitude or the kind of people who go to theater have changed?
You know, it’s a luxury item. I don’t think anyone can say it’s affordable by any means. You can get discount tickets, but if a family of four wants to go see a show, you are dropping hundreds of dollars and crossing your fingers that it’s good. We price our tour at $35 a person. If you are spending $167 or $1,000 dollars to see Hamilton, for $35 we will make that $167 dollars feel like it’s worth so much more, because you are really just paying lots of money to sit in a building that you know nothing about, to see a show that you probably know nothing about for two and a half hours.
When Hamilton was moving to Broadway, I had two people in my life who were in the show and I kind of just sat on my couch and watched as it got bigger and bigger and bigger and I gathered all of these crazy stories because I am a catch‑all for crazy stories. So then about six months ago I realized everyone in the world is obsessed with Hamilton. I have all these stories that no one ever heard because I witnessed it firsthand through these two people. My friend David Korins who designed the sets for my Altar Boyz on tour also designed the sets for Hamilton. So I went to him and asked if he could give me all of his early set designs of what it was going to look like and how it changed. My friend Jay Duckworth designed all the props, so he showed me how he created it historically accurate. So I put all this stuff together and created Hamiltour, The Tour Where It Happened, which we just opened in January. It’s going very well.
Why do you think people have such a fascination with Hamilton?
I think it’s a testament to Lin’s genius, that he took these big, kind of boring historical stories and figures and made them human. I think bad theater, you go and see a show and you just can’t connect because they don’t feel human. And not to say you can’t do a show with big, outlandish, cartoonish people, because I think that is also a comment on humanity, but I think he really made these people feel like real people with real drive. I think that’s why Come From Away to me is one of the most unbelievable things, because it’s art commenting on humanity and the goodness of people in the face of disaster and tragedy.
What makes Broadway Up Close different from all the other tours in NYC?
I challenge myself to dig up stories that are rarely known, which is hard. I mean, Broadway people get obsessed, so we have people who come on our tour that know a lot. How do you still provide an experience to those people and also to the average tourist from Iowa who has seen Wicked and Phantom, but doesn’t know too much? You are talking to both those people in one tour. So I thought if I can find really interesting stories that are less well known, maybe that will illuminate Broadway.
With all of our arts education being cut, we can’t talk enough on our sidewalks. I am a teacher too. When I am in a classroom working with students, I can’t talk enough of just the humaneness of what theater is, which is us as actors looking at human life and trying to tell that story through our bodies and make you connect with it. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. On our sidewalk it’s kind of the same thing. I want to connect with you through an hour‑45‑minute tour and want to make you understand why we would be crazy enough to move to one of the biggest cities and try to be actors, to live this very hard lifestyle where