Henderson’s Music Hall, located on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, was one of Coney Island’s most important venues for theater, live music and vaudeville acts, providing indoor entertainment that rivaled that of Manhattan’s theater district.
Though Henderson’s was originally developed in 1881 by Coney Island impresario, Fred Henderson, the music hall expanded by 1899, but was lost to a Bowery fire in its first year. Henderson, who also owned a bathhouse and restaurant in Coney Island, rebuilt the restaurant and theater immediately afterwards, this time using fireproof materials to execute the design by architect John B. Elfatrick. The new building took up an entire block of Surf Avenue, and was bounded by Bowery, Stratton Walk and Henderson Walk. The reconstructed building endured another fire by 1903, and though the interior was lost, the exterior walls of the building, being made of brick, survived.
The music hall was restored, but was again altered in 1923, when Stratton’s walk was widened to become Stillwell Avenue. At this time, the music hall stage was demolished in order to reduce the footprint of Henderson’s by nearly half and a new façade facing onto the Bowery was added. More recent alterations to the austere Neo-Classical design include the modern storefronts of the ground floor, though the original bracketed cornice, brick piers and decorative brick paneling remain.
Until it closed in 1926, Henderson’s Music Hall brought some of the most popular contemporary American and international acts to perform at Coney Island in the early part of the twentieth century. Some of the most prominent performers that graced the stage here include Al Jolson and the Marx Brothers, who first appeared in public at Henderson’s in 1907. When the appeal of vaudeville began to fade and Henderson’s closed, the building continued to showcase the popular tastes of day, when it became the home of another legendary Coney Island establishment, the World of Wax Musee, which occupied the spot from 1926 to 1984. By the 1970s the building also housed the Melody Bar and the disreputable Surf Hotel.
The Henderson’s building has proven to be a highly adaptable space, with a history of showcasing the most popular forms of entertainment – from the spectacular vaudeville acts at the turn of the century – to the less refined wax museum. In planning for the return of popular amusements to Coney Island, it is imperative that this irreplaceable relic be preserved and reactivated as a future showcase.