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BY ERIC FERRARA | Called the “Old Village’s Most Famous Exhibit” by The New York Times when it closed in August of 1913, Britting’s was a popular dining spot known for its extensive display of playbills, portraits, autographs and theater memorabilia dating back to the 18th century.
Proprietor Charles H. Britting was only 23 years old when he opened his restaurant in 1870, paying a rent of $100 a month for a ground-floor storefront at the former 126-128 Greenwich Ave., overlooking Jackson Square.
He began collecting theater souvenirs as a child in Newark, N.J., where his father owned a restaurant that catered to the show business crowd. Every week he hoarded programs from touring theater troupes, developing relationships with many of the performers. Britting’s passion for theater memorabilia inspired friends in the industry to send him items from around the country, and he eventually acquired enough to fill two large rooms of his restaurant from ceiling to floor.
The unassuming mini-museum, which had the words “Britting’s Dining Room” painted on its window, quickly became a regular haunt for minstrel and theatrical icons of the day, such as Tony Pastor, Billy Birch and T.D. “Daddy” Rice of “Jumpin’ Jim Crow” fame.
By the end of the century Britting’s was listed as an attraction in city guidebooks. Tourists flocked to browse thousands of historical treasures, such as an original Nassau Street Theatre playbill from its opening night on Nov. 12, 1753, and a sword used onstage by the late actor and presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.
When Charles H. Britting first opened his restaurant, Greenwich Village was considered a quaint, out-of-the-way, largely residential vestige of Olde New York. However, by the early 1900s a new-found commercial interest in the quiet hamlet led to the disappearance of many established institutions and landmarks. Britting’s restaurant was a casualty of this early gentrification, closing its doors in the summer of 1913 after the building changed owners.
Britting became a recluse and his health deteriorated while he was shuttered inside his apartment, alone with his once-famous collection packed away in boxes. He died in March 1914, less than a year after the restaurant closed.
Before passing away, Britting sold off much of his collection to various private parties — including the 1753 Nassau Street Theatre program, which he unloaded in 1913 for a measly $100. Sadly, I can find no trace of where any of his items ended up after all these years.
Ferrara is director, Lower East Side History Project
Sources: “Greenwich Walls Lose Old Playbills,” The New York Times, Aug. 19, 1913; “Charles H. Britting Dead in Hospital,” The New York Times, March 9, 1914; “A Theatrical Hall of Fame,” Theatre magazine, Volumes 9-10, 1909.