The Martin Beck Theater on West 45th Street will be renamed for the illustrator Al Hirschfeld, in tribute to his running 76-year chronicle of the life of Broadway and its greatest performers.
Rocco Landesman, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which own the Martin Beck, said that the theater would officially become the Al Hirschfeld on June 21, 2003, the artist's 100th birthday.
Mr. Hirschfeld said he was shocked and honored.
"I'm startled: it's incredible," Mr. Hirschfeld said yesterday, when reached at the Upper East Side brownstone that acts as his home and studio. "I'm touched."
Mr. Landesman said: "It struck me as the most natural and obvious thing in the world. He's such an iconic figure. When I was a kid, the way I visualized Broadway was Al Hirschfeld. As far as I knew, Hirschfeld was Broadway."
Mr. Hirschfeld will become the first artist to have a theater named after him and one of the few people not directly involved in acting or producing ever so honored. In 1960 Brooks Atkinson, the theater critic of The New York Times, was honored when the Mansfield Theater on West 47th Street was renamed in his honor. Another critic, Walter Kerr, of The New York Herald-Tribune and later for The Times, was honored in 1990, when the Ritz Theater on West 48th Street was renamed the Walter Kerr.
Mr. Landesman said the idea had come from Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, Mr. Hirschfeld's wife and a prominent theater historian, and Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of The Times and a longtime friend of the Hirschfelds.
Mr. Landesman said plans called for a starry celebration of Mr. Hirschfeld's life and work to be preformed in honor of his centenary at the theater next summer, to be directed by Jerry Zaks, a four-time Tony winner. The theater will also be overhauled, with a new marquee and a gallery inside featuring Mr. Hirschfeld's work. The centenary performance will benefit the Actors Fund of America.
Mr. Hirschfeld, who turned 99 in June, penned his first theatrical caricature in 1926, when a fine-lined sketch of the actor Sacha Guitry appeared in The New York Herald-Tribune. Within two years, his work was being seen in five other New York papers, including The Times, in which Mr. Hirschfeld's work would be seen for the next 74 years (and counting).
In the decades that followed, Mr. Hirschfeld's delicate line has captured the essence of hundreds of Broadway productions and their stars, ranging from Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the 1930's to the likes of Kevin Spacey and Brian Dennehy in more recent years. He has also turned his pen to celebrities like Madonna (whom he sketched for Rolling Stone) and the magazine editor Tine Brown. Since 1945, when his daughter, Nina, was born, Mr. Hirschfeld has hidden her name in the lines of his sketches, creating a weekly perlor game for readers.
Even as he has approached 100, Mr. Hirschfeld has remained remarkably prolific, still sketching from his barber chair and regularly attending Broadway openings and events.
"I don't think there's anyone more loved in the theater than Al," Mr. Gelb said. "You name the big star and Al has caricatured him. I can't think of anyone who's had that impact."
The Beck, with its ornate Moorish design and spacious, two-tiered lobby, was named for Martin Beck, the vaudeville impresario who built the theater in 1923. Since its opening, the 1,437-seat theater, has been home to productions like "Bye, Bye Birdie," "Sweet Bird of Youth," Annie," "Guys and Dolls," "The Crucible," and "The Iceman Cometh." Currently dark, the theater will next house a revival of "Man of La Mancha," opening December and starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Martin Beck's contributions to the theater's history will be noted with a new plaque to be unveiled at the renaming.