The price tag for the renovation of the dilapidated Biltmore Theatre on Broadway is $10 million more than estimated a year ago, the Manhattan Theatre Club announced at a Dec. 12 press conference heralding the beginning of construction that will make the historic house a new home for MTC.
MTC board chairman Peter J. Solomon formally announced the beginning of the fundraising drive of $35 million. Of that amount, $27 million will go to renovating the scarred, scorched and water-damaged 1925 theatre, which hasn't housed a show since 1987. In November 2000, the cost of renovation was estimated at $18 million, but damage to the theatre was more extensive than previously thought, Solomon told Playbill On Line. Another $8 million will go to create an MTC endowment. So far, $20 million has been raised, including $10 million from the MTC board, $5 million from the City of New York, $4.65 million from Biltmore 47 Associates and $500,000 from individuals.
Standing on a temporary wooden apron in front of the existing stage, MTC executive producer Barry Grove, artistic director Lynne Meadow, New York City council member Christine Quinn, Manhattan borough president Virginia Fields, New York City commissioner of cultural affairs Schuyler Chapin, playwright David Auburn and actors Tony Roberts, Valerie Harper and Michele Lee reflected about this new chapter in the history of MTC, the Hell's Kitchen/Clinton neighborhood and Broadway, respectively.
The Biltmore is expected to be operational in the 2003 season, which means on or around fall 2003.
Grove reiterated MTC's commitment to continuing operating its two Off-Broadway spaces, Stage I and Stage II at City Center. He said the new 650-seat MTC Biltmore was not meant to be a transfer house for product that originates Off-Broadway at City Center, but rather "a house of origination, the same way City Center is," he told Playbill On-Line. The programming of the spaces will be dictated by the material. "Some of the work needs to begin in small and intimate ways," Grove said.
Solomon and Grove told Playbill On-Line MTC is seeking individuals and/or corporations for donations in exchange for what's come to be known as "naming opportunities" — the theatre, or areas within the theatre, can be named for a donor. The Roundabout Theatre Company operates at the former Selwyn Theatre on Broadway, renamed The American Airlines Theatre for the large AA donation. For now, the campaign is called MTC Biltmore Theatre: The Next Stage.
"You give me $10 million, you have the name, the lobby and the first fives rows," Solomon said with a grin. "The biggest hurdle of fundraiding is calling people. There's no question it's more difficult in times like this — it's just a tighter time in the economy. The stock market's lost trillions of dollars."
The complex near the northeast corner of 47th and Eighth Avenue will have an adjacent building expected to be about 50 stories for retail and residential use with 20 percent tagged for low to moderate income people. Neighborhood groups have expressed concern that the planned building is too high and will box-in the low-rise neighborhood along Eighth Avenue.
Half the theatregoing population has this question about the new Biltmore: What about more ladies rooms?
"It's an important issue," Solomon said. "When you ask, 'What will distinguish this theatre?,' among other things, the quality of the facilities. At City Center, we put in another bathroom upstairs, which had been loved by people who go to our shows. This theatre is being built to accommodate people with a little more leg room, a little more rear-end room, a little easier raking of the balcony, and make it what you expect...a more comfortable house."
Also present at the ceremonial groundbreaking (involved parties dug into a crate of glitter with shovels) were architects from Polshek Partnership Architects (who will oversee the changes at the historic house), city and state government representatives and more.
The Biltmore, which has been closed since 1987 and damaged over the years by fire, flood and water leakage, will be owned by Biltmore 47 Associates LLC, which is creating a "mixed-use property" at the site. The company was formed by the developer The Jack Parker Corporation and its affiliates and the developer The Moinian Group and its affiliates. MTC will operate the Biltmore.
Manhattan Theatre Club is one of New York City's leading nonprofit, Off Broadway theatres, operating out of two spaces in City Center. The company premiered Proof and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, in 1999-2000, and both went on to Broadway runs that continue today. Proof snagged the Best Play Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Catching up with its nonprofit rival, the Roundabout Theatre Company, which renovated the Selwyn Theatre as the American Airlines Theatre, MTC will, with the Biltmore renovation, have a Broadway presence and be eligible for Tony Awards. Since being founded in 1970, MTC works have earned 11 Tony Awards, three Pulitzer Prizes and many Obies, Drama Critics Circle Awards and more.
MTC and involved parties announced the Biltmore plan Nov. 22, 2000. The Biltmore is the 75-year-old Broadway house where Hair played. Polshek Partnership Architects — with Carnegie Hall, The Public Theater and The Rose Center for Earth and Science to its credit — will design the rehabilitation. The 1,000-seat theatre will be reconfigured for 650 seats.
Following a fire in 1987, the theatre was closed, and the building suffered damage from rain coming through holes in the ceiling and abuse from vandals.
The Biltmore was home to such productions as Hair, Butterflies Are Free, Take Her, She's Mine, Barefoot in the Park and Deathtrap. It opened Dec. 7, 1925, with a play called Easy Come, Easy Go, a farce by Owen Davis that moved from the Cohan Theatre. The house was built by the Chanin brothers and designed by Herbert J. Krapp. The Federal Theatre Project presented works there in the 1930 and the theatre was later run by Warner Bros. as a home for theatre director George Abbott's productions. My Sister Eileen had a healthy run there, as did The Heiress. From 1952-61, the theatre was leased to CBS. there. Other works over the years included Lily Tomlin in Appearing Nitely, To Grandmother's House We Go, The Robber Bridegroom, Knock, Knock, Nuts, The American Clock and Stardust.
— By Kenneth Jones