David Belasco was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Abraham H. Belasco (1830–1911) and Reyna Belasco, née Nunes (1830–1899), Sephardic Jewish parents who had moved from London England during the California Gold Rush. He began working in a San Francisco theatre doing a variety of routine jobs, such as call boy, script copier or as an extra in small parts. He received his first experience as a stage manager while on the road. He said, "We used to play in any place we could hire or get into—a hall, a big dining room, an empty barn; any place that would take us."
From late 1873 to early 1874, he worked as an actor, director, and secretary at Piper's Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada, where he found "more reckless women and desperadoes to the square foot…than anywhere else in the world". He said that while there, seeing "people die under such peculiar circumstances" made him "all the more particular in regard to the psychology of dying on the stage. I think I was one of the first to bring naturalness to bear in death scenes, and my varied Virginia City experiences did much to help me toward this. Later I was to go deeper into such studies." By March 1874, he was back at work in San Francisco. His recollections of that time were published in Hearst's Magazine in 1914.
He eventually was given the opportunity to act and serve as a stage manager, learning the business inside out. A gifted playwright, Belasco went to New York City in 1882 where he worked as stage manager for the Madison Square Theatre (starting with Young Mrs. Winthrop), and then the old Lyceum Theatre while writing plays. By 1895, he was so successful that he set himself up as an independent producer.
During his long creative career, stretching between 1884 and 1930, Belasco either wrote, directed, or produced more than 100 Broadway plays including Hearts of Oak, The Heart of Maryland, and Du Barry, making him the most powerful personality on the New York city theater scene. He also helped establish careers for dozens of notable stage performers, many of whom went on to work in films.
Among them were Leslie Carter, dubbed "The American Sarah Bernhardt," whose association with Belasco skyrocketed her to theatrical fame after her roles in Zaza (1898) and Madame Du Barry (1901). Ina Claire's lead in Polly with a Past (1917) and The Gold Diggers (1919), similarly propelled her career. Belasco wrote a lead part for 18-year-old Maude Adams, in his new play, Men and Women (1890), which ran for 200 performances.
Other stars whose careers he helped launch included Jeanne Eagels, who would later achieve immortality as Sadie Thompson in Rain (1923), which played for 340 performances. Belasco discovered and managed the careers of Lenore Ulric and David Warfield, both of whom became major stars on Broadway. He launched the career of Barbara Stanwyck, which included changing her name.
Belasco is perhaps most famous for having adapted the short story Madame Butterfly into a play with the same name and for penning The Girl of the Golden West for the stage, both of which were adapted as operas by Giacomo Puccini (Madama Butterfly 1904—twice, after revision) and La fanciulla del West (1910). More than forty motion pictures have been made from the many plays he authored.
Many prominent performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought the opportunity to work with Belasco; among them were D. W. Griffith, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille's father had been close friends with Belasco, and after DeMille graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began his stage career under Belasco's guidance. DeMille's later methods of handling actors, using dramatic lighting and directing films, was modeled after Belasco's staging techniques.
Pickford appeared in his plays The Warrens of Virginia at the first Belasco Theatre in 1907 and A Good Little Devil in 1913. The two remained in touch after Pickford began working in Hollywood; Belasco appeared with her in the 1914 film adaptation of A Good Little Devil. He is also credited as giving Pickford her stage name. He also worked with Lionel Barrymore who starred in his play Laugh, Clown, Laugh opposite Lucille Kahn, whose Broadway career Belasco launched. Belasco was a member of The Lambs from 1893 to 1931. The Lambs (www.the-lambs.org) was founded in NYC in 1874 and still operates.
David Belasco was married to Cecilia Loverich for over fifty years; they had two daughters, Reina and Augusta.
Belasco died in 1931 at the age of 77 in Manhattan. He was interred in the Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery on Metropolitan Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens.
Belasco demanded a natural acting style, and to complement that, he developed stage settings with authentic lighting effects to enhance his plays. His productions inspired several generations of theatre lighting designers.
Belasco's contributions to modern stage and lighting techniques were originally not appreciated as much as those of his European counterparts, such as André Antoine and Constantin Stanislavski, however today he is regarded as "one of the first significant directorial figures in the history of the American theatre," writes theatre historian Lise-Lone Marker.
He brought a new standard of naturalism to the American stage as the first to develop modern stage lighting along with the use of colored lights, via motorized color changing wheels, to evoke mood and setting. America's earliest stage lighting manufacturer, Kliegl Brothers, began by serving the specialized needs of producers and directors such as Belasco and Florenz Ziegfeld. With regard to these modern lighting effects, Belasco is best remembered for his production of Girl of the Golden West (1905), with the play opening to a spectacular sunset which lasted five minutes before any dialogue started.
Belasco became one of the first directors to eschew the use of traditional footlights in favor of lights concealed below floor level, thereby hidden from the audience. His lighting assistant, Louis Hartmann, fabricated Belasco's design ideas. He also used follow spots to further create realism and often tailored his lighting configurations to complement the complexions and hair of the actors. He ordered a specially made 1000-watt lamp developed just for his own productions, and was the only director to have one for the first two years after its introduction (1914-1915).
In his own theatres, the dressing rooms were equipped with lamps of several colors, allowing the performers to see how their makeup looked under different lighting conditions.
Supposedly he put appropriate scents to set scenes in the ventilation of the theaters, while his sets paid great attention to detail, and sometimes spilled out into the audience area. In one play, for instance, an operational laundromat was built onstage. In The Governor's Lady, there was a reproduction of a Childs Restaurant kitchen where actors actually cooked and prepared food during the play. He is even said to have purchased a room in a flophouse, cut it out of the building, brought it to his theater, cut out one wall and presented it as the set for a production. Belasco's original scripts were often filled with long, specific descriptions of props and set dressings. Interestingly, though, he has not been noted for producing unusually naturalistic scenarios.
Belasco also embraced existing theatre technology and sought to expand on it. Both of Belasco's New York theatres were built on the cutting edge of their era's technology. When Belasco took over the Republic Theatre he drilled a new basement level to accommodate his machinery; the Stuyvesant Theatre was specially constructed with enormous amounts of flyspace, hydraulics systems and lighting rigs. The basement of the Stuyvesant contained a working machine shop, where Belasco and his team experimented with lighting and other special effects. Many of the innovations developed in the Belasco shop were sold to other producers.
The first Belasco Theatre in New York was located at 229 West 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, in the Times Square district of Manhattan. Belasco took over management of the theater and completely remodeled it in 1902, only two years after it was constructed as the Theatre Republic by Oscar Hammerstein (the grandfather of the famous lyricist). He gave up the theater in 1910 and it was renamed the Republic. Under various owners, it went through a tumultuous period as a burlesque venue, hosted second-run and, eventually, pornographic films and fell into a period of neglect before being rehabilitated and reopened as the New Victory Theater in 1995.
The second Belasco Theatre is located at 111 West 44th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, only a few blocks away from the New Victory. It was constructed in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre and renamed after Belasco in 1910. The theater was built to Belasco's wishes, with Tiffany lighting and ceiling panels, rich woodwork and murals. His business office and private apartment were also housed there. The Belasco is still in operation as a Broadway venue with much of the original decor intact. In 2010 it underwent a massive US $14.5 million restoration, which strove to renovate and restore the theater to the condition it was in when David Belasco was alive.
Belasco Theatres also existed in several other cities. In Los Angeles, the first Belasco Theatre was located at 337 S. Main St. The theater, which hosted the Belasco Stock Company, opened in 1904 and was operated by David Belasco's brother, Frederick. This theater was renamed twice: as the Republic in about 1913 and as the Follies, circa 1919. The theater eventually became a burlesque venue in the 1940s, fell into sharp decline, and was demolished in May 1974.
The second, and perhaps more well known, Los Angeles Belasco Theatre is located at 1050 S. Hill St in Downtown Los Angeles. The theatre, which was built by Morgan, Walls & Clements, opened in 1926, and was managed by Edward Belasco, another of David's brothers. Many Hollywood stars with theatrical roots, as well as Broadway stars who were visiting the West Coast, appeared at the theatre. The theater declined after the death of Edward Belasco in 1937. After closing altogether in the early 1950s, the theater was used as a church for several decades. In 2010 - 2011, the theater underwent an extensive restoration, and is currently in operation as a nightclub and convention venue.
The Shubert-Belasco Theatre, purchased by Belasco in September 1905, was located in Washington D.C. Originally built in 1895 as the Lafayette Square Opera House, at 717 Madison Place, across from the White House, the theater was razed in 1962 and replaced by the U.S. Court of Claims building.