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 everybody says you will never make it and you have to have survival jobs. For me, it’s just trying to make people understand the true sense of what the word Broadway stands for, from our humane little ants running around at the bottom of the anthill of Broadway. I think you can read our reviews online and see that thankfully we have succeeded in that goal of connecting and sharing and talking about our love for one common thing which is Broadway, and everything that that word means.
Do you have a favorite Broadway theater?
My absolute favorite is the Belasco. Hands down. I named my French bulldog after the Belasco. There is an apartment above the theater– David Belasco lived at the theater starting in 1910 and the apartment has been sealed since 1989. Rarely ever seen, if ever seen. One of the most haunted places in New York City they say. Lots of corroborated crazy sightings and reports of this man.
Years ago I met a man named Tom, who had worked for the Shuberts and renovated their theater for 15 million. He overheard one of our tours where we were talking about the history of the Belasco theater and introduced himself. He said to me, “if you ever have any questions, here is my card,” so I said, “Tom, I have only one question. Who has the key to the apartment?” And he laughed and said, “I do.” He gave me a private tour of the haunted Belasco apartment. There are not many who have been in that place. So that exclusivity and that kind of uniqueness of me being able to tell you and show you photos that he let me take firsthand, I think it’s one of a kind. It’s what we shoot for in an hour and 45 minutes, all the stories that no one will ever tell you that illuminate our lives in these crazy buildings. When you go and look at the building, you can see the apartment. It’s right there. I mean, it’s stained glass windows.
Do they have plans to do anything with it?
No. There is no exterior access. You have to go through the theater to get there. The elevator doesn’t work. Years ago they would hear the elevator moving between the floors and it was ruining some of the shows and you could hear it on stage. They went and pried open the doors and the elevator was sitting at the bottom with all the cables disconnected. It has been disconnected since 1989. But they would hear it for years moving through the walls of the shafts. So all kinds of weird stuff. But the elevator doesn’t work, so in theory it’s just this little pocket above. The Shuberts hate it. It’s prime real estate that’s just sitting there.
Have you ever spotted any ghosts?
In a theater, no. I lived in an apartment in New Jersey where all kinds of weird stuff would happen. Lights turning on and off and cupboards opening and closing. In a theater I never personally experienced it. Maybe my one tour guide, Tom, who has been in Lion King for 14 years. Olive Thomas is a ghost we talk about at the New Amsterdam Theatre and Tom, or many of the people that he worked with had lots of very strange encounters and things that they chalk up to this girl. You know, it’s tricky because I have gone to the ends of the earth to research ghost stories, but there is really not much evidence. You are just going off what someone in the dark alley says one night. There does seem to be a couple of theaters where there are enough corroborated reports, that in those moments you can tell a story and feel like maybe there is something going on.
You probably get an interesting mix of customers all the time. Have you ever had anyone ask crazy questions?
People that keep me on my toes the most are the ones who ask dates and years. They want to know the year of everything. It used to stress me out. It feels like they don’t trust you– I know I am 32 years old, but I look like a child. There is a sense that you don’t know what you are talking about. They very quickly realize that we are on our game and we know our stuff.
You also get a lot of people who come in thinking they know it all. I will never be the one to say I know everything. I know a lot, I have been doing this for seven years. But many of the stories that we dug up are really unique and interesting. I think people walk away impressed because they are like, “there is no way you are going to tell me something I don’t know, but I love Broadway so maybe this will be worth it.” At the end they love it because there is so much stuff they didn’t know. Those are kind of a fun challenge. Then you get people from all over, tourists from the Midwest who are just happy to be here and talk to an actor and hear stories about shows they have seen.
What’s the best feedback or compliment you have gotten after a tour?
That’s a great question. We have had a couple of New Yorkers, born and bred. They have lived here their whole life, they have seen every show. The original Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing, the original King and I with Yul Brynner. We have had a couple I can think of that pulled me aside at the end of the tour and said, “I lived here my whole life. I would say about 70 percent of that I did not know and you have made me look at my city and Broadway with fresh eyes”.
I think we all become jaded once you have seen enough shows and it becomes a thing you do, whether you are writing about it, whether you are doing it. You inherently become jaded to the magic of seeing a Broadway show, whether it’s good or it’s bad. So I think any time you can re-inspire or re-instill that original magic that we all had either falling in love with Broadway or doing Broadway, it makes me smile and I feel like, “okay, mission accomplished.” I guess that was our full goal, but is by no means a no small feat because some people know and have seen everything. So I think that’s probably the biggest compliment.
Especially since New Yorkers are not forthcoming with compliments.
Oh, my God. That is the truth.
As someone who is not a native New Yorker, what do you think the best and worst thing is about living here?
Well, owning a walking tour business, I would say the worst is the weather. It’s always just too hot or too cold. In the winter, about our third year in 2013, we had a group come and it was freezing, So I bought a couple of boxes of hand warmers and handed them out on our winter tours that year. So now that we do thousands and thousands of people a year, my apartment is just full to the ceiling with boxes of hand warmers for the winter months. That’s certainly something that we have had to overcome and deal with. Rain is something we deal with. Luckily, every theater has a marquis, so there are always places to stand. Even when it’s been a torrential downpour, you still are pretty dry by the end. Then it’s really hot and people are sweaty – you don’t want people to pass out because you are standing and your knees are locking for an hour and 45 minutes.
The best – I mean, I don’t think it will ever get old to me, that on a whim, I can go right now and get a ticket to Phantom if I want. I can go see a Broadway show at the drop of a hat. When I was in college, I had to limit myself because of money to see two shows a week. And I would just walk down Times Square and go see a show. There is still something so unbelievably magical about that. I have never lost that spark. For the amount of shows that I have seen and the amount of days in my life that I spent on the sidewalk talking about this, it doesn’t get old to me. Talk to me in 30 years and we will see where I am, but seven years in, so far so good.
Is there anything else you want to people to know about Broadway Up Close?
There are not a lot of other Broadway activities other than seeing shows in New York, which is kind of why I crafted it. People come in for five‑show weekends and there is nothing to do during the day because they are just waiting for the shows at night. So finding us, spending an afternoon with us, that enhances when they actually get in the building. My life goal with Broadway Up Close is to be the thing that anytime anyone mentions they are seeing a Broadway show someone says, “you have to do this tour before you go into that show.” That’s when I know I can rest happy and I achieved my goal.
Interview has been edited for clarity
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