The Broadway marquees will dim for two theater artists, Geoffrey Holder and Marian Seldes, who both died this week – tonight (Wednesday) for Seldes and Friday night for Holder. In addition, Lincoln Center announced that for the first time ever, “the distinctive digital signage (known as Blades) along West 65th Street” will be lit from 7:45―8:00 PM “with a special message in her honor. In addition to serving for many years as a Juilliard School faculty member, Miss Seldes appeared in a number of Lincoln Center Theater productions.”
Given the controversy that occurred after the death of Joan Rivers last month — in which the Broadway League first announced the lights would not dim for her, but reversed their decision after a social media rebellion — some may wonder about the history of the Broadway light dimming, and the criteria.
Robert Simonson attempted to answer these questions in Playbill four years ago. Nobody knows for sure when the tradition began, but some sources date it to the death of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II in 1960, and say it was a rare practice until the last couple of decades. The Broadway League, the trade organization of Broadway theater owners and producers, decides who gets the honor. So far this year, the lights have dimmed for Ruby Dee, Lauren Bacall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joan Rivers, Elaine Stritch, Eli Wallach, Robin Williams.
As British actor Michael Simpkins put it when reflecting on the bestowing of this “quaint and courtly gesture” on Natasha Richardson in 2009, “it is not surprising that the world of theatre should have such a keen sense of tradition: its output is so ethereal. …It may only have been a dimming of some lights for a mere 60 seconds, but in its own way, Broadway’s tribute was as profound a testimony as an entire mantelpiece of awards.”