If you're a showbiz professional, you think of your first New York apartment as something like landing at Normandy. It's the beachhead that provides shelter while you struggle to survive and conquer, and no matter how far you go in the industry, it's a place that never leaves you.
Recently, Playbill polled Tony winners about their first New York pad. The question, almost without fail, brought a smile to their lips, an address on the tips of their tongues and, wistfully, the paltry sum paid for rent.
Fred Ebb, the lyricist who wrote the quintessential New York City line, "If I can make it there /I'll make it anywhere," landed in what to his wide and impressionable eyes looked like the lap of luxury, The Whitby, then and now a residential hotel for theatrical types on West 45th Street. "I thought it was so elegant," Ebb recalls warmly. "They had a switchboard, and they would answer the phone for me, and I just loved it there. I did."
Ebb's Tony-winning Velma Kelly in the Chicago revival, Bebe Neuwirth, was less lucky: "The first place I lived when I was in my first and only year at Juilliard was, essentially, a cell at the West Side YMCA on West 63rd. I measured it once, and it really was eight feet by eight feet."
Another Chicago alum, Karen Ziemba, was meanwhile East Siding-it across the street from the 92nd Street Y. "It was sorta wonderful," she remembers, "because I got to see some performances at the Kaufman Concert Hall there. Gimbel's was still at 86th and Lexington Avenue, and that's where I took the subway all the time." Dorothy Loudon docked in New York at two different girls' clubs not unlike the actress dormitory depicted in Stage Door — The Fergusson Residence for Girls and The Colquit Club — and when she went out on her own, a little walk-up on 59th Street. "It was practically under the 59th Street Bridge, and it was over a cheese deli. All I remember was the smell of cheese and the constant screaming of sirens and fire engines. I lasted a year. I think what kept me there was the proximity to Bloomingdale's."
A milestone is how John Lithgow remembers his first apartment: "It was a nice little place up at 100th and West End. That was where I lived when my actor son, Ian, was born. While I was in that apartment, I had a baby and drove a cab."
Costume designer William Ivey Long came to New York, from Yale, very much a man with a mission: "I checked into the Chelsea Hotel so I could stalk Charles James, the great Anglo-American couturier. I wanted to work with him, and I heard the only way was to sorta bump into him, so I moved there so I could bump into him in the hallway. It took me six months. I did a lot of bumping, but it worked. I worked with him for the next three years." On a less happy note, Long lived next door to a rock star called Neon Leon, who had "two different girlfriends, and they alternately would burn down his room. I was busy sketching, so I would just duct tape around the door so that the smoke wouldn't come in and keep on working."
Debra Monk was not exactly out of harm's way either when she dropped anchor on Carmine Street in the Village. "There was a mob hit in front of my building," she recalls, "and there was, for the longest time, a bullet hole where you take out the garbage. Scary."
Mel Brooks's first home-away-from-home was in the Village, too. "It cost me $55 a month," he says. "It was near the river, way down on Horatio Street. My mother used to come there once a week to clean and leave enough pot roast to last the whole week."
Of all improbable people, British-born Rosemary Harris counts herself "a Village person" as well: "84 Grove Street," she remembers, "a lovely little apartment that looked down on Sheridan Square." That's where she spotted future husband and director, Ellis Raab, walking a dachshund not unlike the one she left behind in England.
Less fortunate was lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who settled in the same area (95 Christopher): "It was a studio. It was $110 a month. I could afford it on a secretary's salary. I remember moving in there and telling my mother I'd lucked out because there were so many beautiful men in the neighborhood. It took me a couple of weeks to figure it out."
Even the Shubert Organization's Gerald Schoenfeld started small — in a one-bedroom apartment at Peter Cooper Village. "All told, my Peter Cooper tenure lasted 13 years," he recalls. "I was pleased to be there because I could take the crosstown bus for a nickel and buy a transfer for two cents, so it fit very well within my plan. I also hoped that one day I would be able to make enough money to be able to take a cab once in a while."
In terms of New York housing, manipulative moms have been known to negotiate their daughters into the exact situation they were hoping to avoid. Cady Huffman's mother, for case in point: "When I first moved here to do La Cage aux Folles, my mother somehow got together with another mother from my hometown and put me into a small, small studio apartment with a boy from my hometown who was studying at Juilliard." Cady's hometown — Santa Barbara, CA — is not renowned for eunuchs. "It's famous for horny cello players. I stayed there for three weeks and then had to get out. It was just too tiny for two kids who were 20 years old and heterosexual to be sharing an apartment."
Love entered the picture for writer Peter Stone when he was sharing his first apartment with actor-director Ted Flicker. "It was on East 34th, between Park and Lexington — a walkup over a convertible sofa shop that was going out of business the entire nine years I was there. We paid $69.50 a month. And when I met my wife and we moved into a place that cost $211, I was panic-stricken. I thought I'd never ever make the freight on that."
Edward Albee landed in New York in a cluster of six or seven composer friends in a tiny three-room pad at 60 West 10th — and almost immediately was off to the playwriting races. "I 'borrowed' a big typewriter from Western Union — 'liberated,' rather — and they had very terrible, low-grade yellow paper, and I'd take a ream or two of that and write."
Similarly, John Guare remembers his first apartment — at 10th Street and Fourth — in writing terms. "Terrence McNally lived down there, and Lanford Wilson lived over there. We could hear each other typing."
"I was in my first New York apartment for 15 years," beams director-choreographer Susan Stroman. "It was on 81st Street between Amsterdam and Columbus. That apartment has good vibes. A lot of shows were created there: the Flora, the Red Menace revival, And the World Goes 'Round, Crazy for You, Steel Pier. It's a special apartment."
Producer-director Hal Prince, a.k.a. "The Tony King," spent his first four Broadway musicals in an East Side brownstone on 75th Street. "It was the living room of a beautiful house, and everything was in the one room, but the scale was really extraordinary — high ceilings, bay windows, the whole thing. I stayed there right through West Side Story. I moved before Fiorello! It's hard to walk away from 125 bucks a month, you know."
Director Mike Nichols, likewise, started small when he set out on his own. "A furnished room was my first apartment — I can't remember anything funny about that," he sheepishly concedes — then he post-scripts instinctually: "There were podiatrists on the first floor."
Now an artistic chieftain at Lincoln Center, Bernard Gersten hails from a similar one-room situation. "It wasn't an apartment," Gersten insists. "It was a room on West 57th Street: 357 West 57th. A rooming house. It was one room, and we had a little hot plate. I don't remember where the bathtub was, but it was probably in the wrong room."
Paul Libin, a seven-time Tony-winning producer, came to New York to major in acting at Columbia University — and, when his roomie skipped out on him, he couldn't manage the rent of their tiny apartment on his own so he quietly moved into the projection booth of the university's Brander Matthews Theatre. He was there three or four months before the Dean of the School of Dramatic Arts had him on the carpet. "He said, 'Mr. Libin, it has been brought to my attention that you are residing in the projection booth at my theatre. Is that true?' I said, 'Yes, it is.' He said, 'Well, it will have to come to an end, immediately.' I said, 'How immediately?' He said, 'Today.' He gave me $20 and said, 'I'll cover your rent for the first night somewhere until you can get someplace to sleep.'"
Of all transplanted New Yorkers, Jim Dale seems to have had the best beginner's luck. "I lived in a castle," he declares straightfaced. "It was above the penthouse on the flat roof at First Avenue and, I think, 55th Street — and it's still there. You got to it by going up on the flat roof, then walking upstairs because it was the water tower that had been disguised to look like a castle. I lived under the water tower. It was a circular room, and it had suits of armor there, and the whole wall was beautiful, big gold corduroy material. You lean against one section of the wall, and it would open up into a kitchen. You lean against the kitchen wall, it would open up into a bedroom. It was one of the most fascinating places, ever. I lived there during Scapino. In fact, I actually went home after a matinee to go to sleep, and there was a blizzard. They had to dig me out so I could get to the theatre."
—By Harry Haun