Neighborhood Costume Drama
By Brian Scott Lipton
Come and meet those dancing feet on the avenue I am taking you 37th
While Al Dubin's
immortal soft lyrics may not actually be getting this 21st Century
rewrite, there is no denying that the West 30s has become the city's
newest theater district.
As a result
many New Yorkers, are seeing a part of the borough they rarely visited.
The area has long been an extension of the garment district, with
buildings full of showrooms and manufacturing plants on the ground
floor. But that industry has fallen on tough times, many companies
have closed or relocated.
many businesses in this area leaving, from manufacturers to dot-coms
landlords are anxious to find different businesses that are willing
top pay rent" says Jan Buttram, artistic director of the Abington
Theater Company, which now resides at 312 West 36th Street. In fact
some landlords are even willing to make major improvements, from
putting in elevators to creating better signs so theaters are visible
from the darkened street.
The areas transformation
began two years ago when a group of investors turned a former zipper
distribution factory at 336 west 37ths Street into the 240 seat
Zipper Theater. Since opening it has hosted such prestigious attractions
as Reno; Alan Cummings group, The Art Party; and the all girl rock
group Betty. Earlier this year a sister space, The Belt, debuted
in the same location.
The Price Is Right
Emboldened in part by their success, other theaters have followed
suit: in addition to Abington the Barrow Group and the Workshop
Theater company are housed at 312 West 36th Street, a former electric
tower sub station; revelation theater which includes former TV heartthrob
Chad Allen among its founders, is this close to completing its new
155 seat home at 344 West 39th Street, a former garage; and John
Chatterton is putting the finishing touches on his 40 seat Where
Eagles Dare Theater at 347 West 36th Street, where he also owns
a floor of rehearsal studios.
has great faith in the neighborhood. He has also booked his annual
midtown in our national theater festival into the Abingtons 2 theaters,
a 98 seat proscenium stage "which will be formerly named in
November after actress June Havoc) and a 56 seat black box; it begins
its 22 day run of 23 shows on Monday July 14th.
The reason for
this confluence of construction? As with the gentrification of many
residential neighborhoods, "It's money" says Virginia
Louloudes, the executive director of Art/NY which leased 32,000
square feet of office space of 575 8th avenue earlier this year,
and then subleased most of it to 25 needy theater groups.
Rents in the
neighborhood average $16 to $18 per square foot, a considerable
bargain. "I really wasn't planning to look below 42nd Street"
says Dave McCracken, Executive Director of Dionysus Theater Company,
which now leases 15,000 square feet of rehearsal/showroom space
at 519 8th Avenue. "I had to literally be dragged here by my
broker. But the spaces I was looking at in Times Square were $28
per square foot. Now we are planning to open a couple of theaters
in this neighborhood."
afford to move back onto 42nd Street," says Riley Jones Cohen,
Executive Director of the Workshop once known as the 42nd Street
Workshop, whose 65 seta and 30 seat theaters both have shows currently
running. "It would have been too prohibited for a company like
ours, which doesn’t make money renting out its theaters to
Convenience and Safety
The other main factors theaters have used in choosing the West 30s
are, not surprisingly, convenience and space. "I remember thinking
15 years ago how much sense it made for the theater district to
expand in this direction," says revelations Executive Director
Lesley Smith. "It's a very accessible part of town, just blocks
away from both he Port Authority and Penn Station, and near just
about every subway. The last thing an audience needs is to stress
about making the curtain on time."
is hardly a better possible neighborhood for theater goers,"
says Zalman Moltek, Executive Director of the Folksbeine Theater,
the city's premier Yiddish speaking company. Folksbeine was all
set to purchase the PCMH Theater at 344 West 36th Street, where
it played in 2001-2002, until the landlord took the building off
the market. It is still considering moving into the neighborhood
if an appropriate space becomes available.
Both the workshop
and Abington were looking not just for permanent homes, but spaces
big enough to accommodate dual theaters, plus a lobby area. "We
wanted something with high ceilings, expansive rooms and no columns,"
says Abington's Ms. Buttran. The theaters second floor lobby is
so large that the company is planning to use it as a cafe for cabaret
performances and readings.
is not without its problems, including street crime, however theater
owners point to major cooperation’s from the local police
precinct, Midtown South, and from the fashion center business improvement
district in helping the area shape up.