As president of the City Investing Company, Robert Dowling somehow found his way into the theatre. The company, founded by his father Robert E. Dowling in 1904, began as a real estate firm. Over time, City Investing owned blocks upon blocks of Manhattan property, including a number of Broadway theatres (among them the Morosco, Bijou, and Fulton theatres as well as the Gaiety and Astor movie houses). Up until 1943, the company had always leased the operation of the theatres to others – until Dowling took a closer look:
I was dismayed at how miserable they were – how dirty and badly run. I lifted out whole hunks of rotten fabric from the curtains, and when I went backstage I was even more shocked. Why in the world, I asked myself, should our great stars, who are used to living in fine apartments and good hotels, be made to work in outright dumps – places where truck drivers wouldn’t hang out?
“Profiles: Useful on the Grand Scale”
The New Yorker
November 5, 1960
Thus was born City Playhouses, a company subsidiary designed to bring the theatre operations in-house and up to snuff. Dowling hired theatre veteran Louis Anthony Lotito to usher in changes and manage the properties. Major renovations followed, upgrading and improving everything from the seats to the dressing rooms to the plumbing. In a 1948 article in the Times, Lotito noted of Dowling: “He has a genuine love and respect for the drama. I may dream up the ideas but he goes along with me. It’s like having Santa Claus by your side.”
“The Customer is Always Right”
New York Times, Oct. 10, 1948
Dowling went on to become a producer of Broadway shows and chairman of the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA). He also co-produced a number of movies, including Summertime and Richard the Third.
The bust of Dowling at the top of this post, by the way, is the same bust that can be seen in this post. Sarah Chin, then a fine arts instructor, created the piece back in 1968. It’s been sitting in my office the last few months, keeping an eye over this project.