As theatre lore tells it, when Playwrights Horizons first moved to Theatre Row in 1974, setting up shop in a vacant burlesque house, their neighbors consisted of porn shops and massage parlors. That soon changed when then-artistic-director-and- founder Bob Moss met Fred Papert, president of the 42nd Street Development Corporation, on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th avenues. Unused to seeing suit-and-tie clad people in the area, Moss asked Papert what he was doing on that street. When Papert mentioned his corporation wanted to develop tenements into viable buildings, Moss, who dreamed of changing the neighborhood into a theatrical community, immediately said, "Why don’t you make theatres?"
Papert’s company did, working with theatre companies such as Intar and the Acting Company and helping develop the Harold Clurman, Samuel Beckett and Judith Anderson theatres, and, Theater Row, the stretch of blocks along 42nd Street from Ninth Avenue to Dyer Avenue, began to flourish. Now, more than 25 years later, the 42nd Street Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization, and Playwrights Horizons, among other groups, are revitalizing Theater Row once more.
The 42nd Street Development Corporation recently opened the Theatre Row complex at 410-412 West 42nd Street, consisting of four 99-seat theatres, one 199-seat theatre, and rehearsal and office spaces for rent to theatre groups. The new 499-seat commercial Off-Broadway Shubert theatre (the Little Shubert) housed in Dyer Avenue Associates’ residential tower just produced the Tommy Tune show, White Tie and Tails. Playwrights Horizons’ recently opened their rebuilt theatre and offices at 416 West 42nd Street. Lastly, Dodger Stage Holding Theatricals, Inc. leased 55,361 square feet of space at Worldwide Plaza, a mixed-use, 50-story office, residential and retail complex in the Off-Broadway theatre district of Midtown West and will build more theatres.
All of these new constructions will make Theater Row—once home to only the smallest theatre companies—one of the biggest Off Broadway theatre centers in New York City. "All this starts on the belief that when you have cultural arts collectives there is some synergy that takes place—that’s better for the actors, better for the audience and better for the neighborhood," said Fred Papert. Strangely enough, there wasn’t any master plan to revitalize the area. "It wasn’t planned deliberately," said Leslie Marcus, managing director of Playwrights Horizons. "It was in many ways a happy coincidence of timing. All of these organizations had the same idea at the same time."
Theatre Row Theatres and Studios opened first in 2002. The new complex contains five Off-Broadway theatres that share a common entrance and an upper level concession stand, but separate box offices and stages. The Acorn (199-seats), for more commercial productions; the Kirk, the Clurman and the Beckett (each with 99 seats); and on the main level The Lion (88 seats), for more low budget showcase work, all feature large stages, comfortable stadium seating, state-of-the-art technical facilities, and dressing rooms. "The theatres that we built 25 years ago to replace a whole row of derelict buildings were themselves getting shabby and needed to be replaced," said Fred Papert. "For instance, if there was a window, we’d stick in an air conditioner so the theatres were sometimes noisy and you couldn’t hear the play." There’s no more of that since the new facility opened. The $15 million project started construction in the spring of 2000 and built the complex over the previous theatres and on a piece of adjacent property purchased from Port Authority. The new compound also has a large number of rehearsal/audition studios, each with sprung floors and mirrors, for rental as well as office space. Down the street from the complex, at 422 West 42nd Street, the Little Shubert has already housed the Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails, which closed in January. A $12 million facility built by the Shubert Organization, the theatre features perfect sight lines, a close to Broadway-sized stage and a fly tower to drop scenery—something few Off-Broadway theatres have. Over it is a new 40-story apartment building, whose purchase of air rights helped fund the theatres’ construction.
For Playwrights, rebuilding was vital; they had outgrown the 75 year-old building with its long and narrow bowling-alley-sized theatre. "We were at a point in our growth and development where we needed to expand the size of our two theatres, and we were limited in how we could do that by certain structures in our building," said Marcus. That meant razing the old one, which they had occupied since 1976, and creating a new building with two bigger theatres, and office and rehearsal space. Planning for their project began in the late nineties, and by 2000, a vigorous $32 million fundraising campaign started to create the $27 million building, provide interim operating costs and build a $3 million endowment. As of today, all but $1.8 million of that money has been raised.
Playwrights’ former two-story building was demolished in September 2001 with the ground breaking for the new facility taking place a month later — on board was architect Mitchell Kurtz, who had redesigned various parts of their old building for more than a decade. The space he created featured bigger theatres equipped with state-of-the-art production technology, in house rehearsal studios, heating and air-conditioning zoned on each floor, more spacious lobbies, restrooms for the audiences (a novel concept, since previously actors and the audience shared one facility) and an elevator that made all their theatres handicap accessible. "So much was added," said Marcus. "The new studio theatre actually has a backstage now. Our former lobby was a reception area, and we always had to put away things like the reception desk before a performance."
Each theatre, the 198-seat Mainstage and the 96-seat (expandable to 128-seats) Peter Jay Sharp Studio, now has its own dedicated lobby space with the ground-floor lobby also containing a small bookstore and concessions bar.
One last addition to all the refurbishing comes from Dodger Theatricals. The producer of such Broadway shows as Urinetown and 42nd Street will open five new Off Broadway theatres and a rehearsal space, named Dodger Stages, in the space formerly occupied by Cineplex Odeon in the Worldwide Plaza office and residential complex on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, by early 2004. "The Worldwide Plaza location is perfect for our plans for a range of theatrical activities," said Dodger Stage Holding's Michael David in a statement. "In addition to being able to create versatile performance spaces, with practical and comfortable backstage areas, we hope to make Dodger Stages a full service facility that will be a destination in itself for theatre lovers."
A former Playbill Magazine program editor, Sandra Mardenfeld is a professor of Communications and a freelance writer for numerous publications.