History of High Society: Origins of Entertainment in NYC

Histories of High Society Origins of Entertainment in NYC
Photo by Charlotte May

When it comes to upscale entertainment, there’s no place quite like New York City. In terms of North American cities, few other options deliver recreation with a gilded touch. The city has been known for its ‘commercial leisure’ since the mid-1800s.

Today, locals are known for skirting tourist-heavy areas to focus on the latest trending locations. These spots might have the best vintage in the neighborhood, an exciting new fusion menu, or be known as a celeb hangout haunt. But what makes these locations popular?

Many would argue that the best locations in New York City bridge the old and the new. As a longstanding mecca of entertainment in North America, the Big Apple has plenty of cultural history to draw inspiration from. Let’s explore what early recreation looked like for city dwellers, along with how these legacies have continued up until today.

Big Sports

New York City recently launched its sports betting market, while also expanding casino gaming laws. This has led to a new craze around this type of entertainment, as new sportsbooks and casinos open their doors online and in person. In reality, it’s nothing new for the city.

The historical journey of gambling stretches back to Ancient Mesopotamia, where six-sided dice have been uncovered and linked to old games. However, most New Yorkers would be more familiar with a popular form of gambling from Ancient Rome: sports betting.

Though the very first Madison Square Garden, built in 1879, was focused on circuses, future projects would instead steer toward sports. By then, the city was developing an interest in theater and concerts (more on this below). But the first two Madison Square Gardens failed—and only the third, finished in 1925, managed to stick around for more than two decades. It was known as the ‘House that Tex built’ thanks to owner and boxing promoter Tex Rickard’s work.

This ushered in the era of large sporting events in New York City. Though it still shares major fights with neighboring Atlantic City, this passion for sports can be felt in every single borough.

Concert Halls & Theatre

Along with sports betting and, more recently, casino gaming, New Yorkers are also known for their love of concerts and theater. The latter, in particular, has a robust association with Midtown and Broadway. Even off-Broadway plays welcome in tens of thousands of viewers each year. By the end of the 19th century, Broadway and its upscale theater productions were a known quantity around the world.

The city’s interest in music and entertainment stretches even farther back. By the 1840s and 50s, impromptu nightclubs had also set up shop in Manhattan. By 1886, decades before a more permanent Madison Square Garden was achieved by Tex Rickard, Webster Hall had opened its doors to the public. While not too many New Yorkers would still head to Webster Hall for a show, it’s considered the city’s oldest official nightclub.


Histories of High Society Origins of Entertainment in NYC
Photo by Kelly

Fine Dining

Along with sports events, concerts, and theater, New Yorkers today also spend a lot of time enjoying fine dining. Fine dining establishments can be found around most other major locations, including Broadway theaters and Madison Square Garden. But the concept of fine dining arrived in New York City decades before the first official club opened up and theater productions became world famous.

In 1837, two immigrants from Switzerland opened a restaurant designed to cater to the city’s upscale clients. Their goal was to offer a restaurant experience that was on par with those they’d enjoyed in France. This restaurant, Delmenico’s, actually reopened at its original location in the Financial District back in 1998—which means you can go and experience the same luxurious dining that locals did back in the mid-1800s.


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