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Eugene O'Neill Tribute Cometh to Manhattan

August 21, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

NEW YORK — It's curtain time for the third act of Big Apple '88, a landmark year in the city's history as a center of the performing arts.

The first act began May 11 with the tribute at Carnegie Hall on the 100th birthday of Irving Berlin, who still lives in his home on 50th Street above the East River.

The second act, June 11 to July 11, was the New York International Festival of the Arts. The festival featured more than 350 events presented in more than 40 theaters and performance centers. Top talents came from 20 nations.

Now the stage is set for autumn tributes to Eugene O'Neill, the only American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He was born into a theatrical family Oct. 16, 1888, in a small Times Square hotel at Broadway and 43rd Street. He died in a Boston hotel in 1953, with a comment that could have been a line in one of his plays: "Born in a hotel room, and, damn it, died in a hotel room."

Visitors to New York's O'Neill centennial commemorations may also attend special events in New London, Conn., where O'Neill spent boyhood years. His Monte Cristo home there is still preserved. It's about two hours by train or car from New York City.

Overture to Third Act

In New York the overture to the third act of Big Apple '88 started during the International Festival this summer, when two of O'Neill's best-known plays, "Ah, Wilderness" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," were presented in repertory by a cast starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst. Both won Tony Awards in Broadway productions of O'Neill's plays.

Beginning in September the story of Eugene O'Neill and his contributions to the theater will be told by exhibits in the Museum of the City of New York, the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

O'Neill will be remembered with books about his life and works in the Sept. 18 "New York Is Book Country" fair on Fifth Avenue between 48th and 57th streets. That section of Fifth Avenue will be for pedestrians only during that day.

He will be saluted again when the American Museum of the Moving Image opens in Queens on Sept. 10, the only major museum devoted to films and TV. The museum is in a 1920s Astoria studio building at 35th Avenue and 36th Street.

On O'Neill's birthday, Oct. 16, there will be a memorial gathering at the plaque that marks his birthplace.

No one will mind (in fact, it might even have appealed to O'Neill's sense of humor) that the plaque is on the wrong Times Square corner, at Broadway and 44th instead of Broadway and 43rd.

Accounts vary as to whether the name of what was a hotel at the time of his birth was the Cadillac or the Barrett House. O'Neill later knew it as the Barrett House. Until it was torn down in 1940 he liked to point to the room in which he was born: Room 236, third floor, third window from Broadway on the 43rd Street side.

The New York Convention and Visitors Bureau has maps to help visitors walk, with connecting subway links, through the years of O'Neill's life into settings of late 20th-Century New York.

Knowing something about the early years of his life enriches the New York walks. His father was Irish-American actor James O'Neill. The young O'Neill accompanied his father on theatrical tours, spent one year at Princeton University, started working as a clerk in New York, then took off on adventures that included prospecting for gold in Honduras and sailing as a seaman to South Africa.

He returned to work as an actor in his father's troupe and as a newspaper reporter in New London, Conn. O'Neill was recovering from a mild case of tuberculosis when he began writing plays. From there he went on to study drama at Harvard.

In 1911 O'Neill got close to the characters of one of his plays by living in a flophouse over a saloon called Jimmy the Priest's near the waterfront at 252 Fulton St. in the city's 19th-Century port district. The saloon became the setting for his play "Anna Christie."

The site of the demolished saloon is now within South Street Seaport, a restoration with all-pedestrian streets of boutiques and seafood restaurants, the shops and river views of Pier 17, plus the pubs, street performers and an international food court, model ships museum and the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse. You can visit historic ships, sail the East River on sidewheelers and attend "The Seaport Experience" multimedia show.

Between 1915 and 1925 O'Neill lived in both New York and Provincetown, Mass., where he was a dramatist and manager with the Provincetown Players. While in New York he lived on Washington Square in Greenwich Village, at No. 38 and later No. 42.

We walked past those sites and on around the historic square, originally a potter's field and then graced by the neo-classic town houses where other literary greats, such as Willa Cather and John Dos Passos, also once lived.

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