For the past two years, producers have been frustrated by the lack of big Broadway houses in which to bring new shows. Long runs of mega musicals, combined with the popularity of big-scale touring musicals have often flummoxed Broadway's money men, who would (apparently) bring more shows to Broadway if only they had the open theatres to do so. Meanwhile, one big Broadway house has been sitting empty since 1987. And, as reported by the New York Times, that isn't going to change anytime soon.
The Biltmore Theatre, on West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue, hasn't seen a tenant since 1987's Stardust. Officially granted landmark status in 1978, the Biltmore was due for major renovations soon thereafter, but the expense of bringing the theatre back into use -- and the union costs doing shows there -- convinced the Nederlander Organization to sell the building rather than keep running it. They found a buyer in 1997, but he has allegedly stepped back from closing the deal.
Joseph Moinian, the sole owner of J General Real Estate in the Theatre District, announced plans to purchase the Biltmore and five adjacent buildings in March 1997. Putting down a $1 million deposit, he proposed a 700-plus room hotel equipped for extended business stays, with a restored Biltmore part of the deal. At the time, Moinian told Playbill On Line that once the Biltmore's roof had been properly re-sealed to prevent further fire and weather damage, he'd have a better idea of the theatre's chances for resuscitation. Even then, his allegiance to the project had its limitations. Moinian said he was approaching the project realistically from a business standpoint. "I am certainly committed to giving the Biltmore a full chance to be used for theatrical purposes," he said. "But unfortunately, due to the size of the theatre, it may not just make it. In that case, I would still restore it and then use it as a first entrance lobby to our building."
Construction was to have begun in late 1998 but did not. Then, in April, Moinian was to have met with the Nederlanders to seal the deal. Nederlander spokesperson Howard Rubenstein told the New York Times Moinian never showed up, thus defaulting on his $1 million deposit. As such, according to the Nederlanders, the Moinian contract is dead, and the Biltmore and its surrounding buildings are once again up for sale.
Moinian sees things differently, however, and is suing the Nederlanders for improperly terminating the contract. According to the Times, the suit asks for both $35 million in damages and restoration of the contract. Moinian's attorney, Menachem J. Kastner (of Fischbein, Badillo, Wagner & Harding), told Playbill On-Line his client disputed the impression that the Nederlander-Moinian contract included a "time of the essence clause." Kastner could not discuss specific issues involving meetings or how much money Moinian was expected to offer to close the deal, since those are "among the issues to be litigated." He did say, "the contract speaks for itself" regarding the time frame of the project.
Nederlander spokesperson Rubenstein confirmed the Nederlanders' version of events Times story and told Playbill On-Line (June 11) he couldn't disclose whether any new potential buyers have stepped in to purchase the Biltmore, though he did say, "It's valuable property." Interested buyers will be confronted with a "lispen dens" notice, cautioned Moinian's attorney -- basically a notification that the property is part of litigation.
Stephen Rourke, who heads the non-profit "Friends of The Biltmore" campaign, told Playbill On-Line (June 11) he hadn't heard about the conflict until the Times story, but he'd been speaking with Moinian for months about FOB leasing the Biltmore for commercial and/or not-for profit theatrical use, likely requiring "an eight-figure" budget. "At this point we're still moving forward," said Rourke, "whether with Moinian or James Nederlander or [co-owner] Stewart Lane. We're in the process of hiring a fundraiser and advisory board of theatre professionals... Still, there are concerns regarding the expansion of backstage and lobby space, and those need to be addressed. Basically, I'm hoping to speak to all the parties this week."
-- By David Lefkowitz and Ellis Nassour