Developer Joseph Moinian, who purchased Manhattan's Biltmore Theatre and a large adjacent tract in March 1997 from the Nederlander Organization, plans restoration of the fire and weather-damaged theatre, which was given landmark status in 1978, and to build a 43-story hotel adjancent to it.
The 998-seat theatre officially opened in December, 1925, is 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. The Biltmore has a single and comparatively large balcony.
The tract Moinian purchased from the Nederlanders extends up Eighth Avenue and includes a former 1920s apartment building and a structure with three separate entrances, which contained walk-up apartments. In the 1980s, several of the sidewalk storefronts contained adult book and video stores.
The Nederlanders had planned an extensive restoration of the Biltmore, which had been an independently-owned Broadway house, to add to their Manhattan- based chain, which includes eight other Broadway theatres. The company, which also for a time planned the restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre, lost interest, as did other producers and theatrical interests, when they failed to win union concessions for future theatrical use.
According to Moinian, the sole owner of J General Real Estate, located at 120 West 44th Street in the Theatre District, the proposed hotel will have 700-plus rooms equipped for extended business stay, and the restoration of the Biltmore will cost an estimated $100 million. In mid April 1997, costs were estimated at $8 million. Moinian said he expects construction to begin in mid to late 1998. In an exclusive interview with Playbill On-Line, Moinian, who owns a number of Manhattan buildings and has constructed and owns hotels in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Paradise Island, the Bahamas, said, "Work has begun on estimating the extent of damage from the 1978 fire and further damage due to roof leakage. Architects and restoration specialists are attempting to give me a full picture of the cosmetic and structural damage."
He reported that all work on the retrofitting of the roof to seal the structure from further damage has been completed. That was a major condition of sale, according to the New York City Landmarks Commission.
Jack Goldstein, special assistant to the president of Actors Equity, has been meeting with Moinian since the sale was announced. "We have been working for some time to have that building restored for theatrical purposes and to find a theatrical tenant that would be involved as a partner in its restoration."
Goldstein, who has been with Equity off and on for 10 years and whose background is in urban and government relations, told Playbill On-Line, "I found it encouraging that Mr. Moinian recognized he had in the Biltmore a jewel in the crown space for any future hotel. I found him open and interested in listening to our point of view about prospects for theatrical use. He seems committed to fulfilling his responsibilities under the landmarks law to restore the theatre."
How committed is Moinian to a theatrical use for the Biltmore? Not as committed as Actors Equity may want. 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," Moinian told Playbill On-Line, "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."
Moinian, who said he was an avid theatregoer and loved having offices in the Theatre District amid "such beautiful theatrical palaces," couldn't think of a better use.
"Whatever the outcome," concluded Moinian, "the Biltmore, restored to its former glory, will be used for theatrical or entertainment purposes. As soon as I know for certain, I'll be bragging up and down the streets. I am thrilled about this exciting project and take great pride in owning a New York City theatrical landmark."
He noted that his hopes for the future of the Biltmore is in part due to the incredible response from the public and theatrical community on the restoration by Disney of the New Amsterdam.
As for the fate of the other buildings on the site for the hotel, especially the red brick 1920s apartment house, Moinian said they would be demolished "but carefully. I own a company which buys historic exterior and interior artifacts and markets them."
His preliminary plans called for less of a ceremonial lobby entrance usage for the Biltmore than a palm court-type space, where there would be a destination venue for an environment that would include cocktails, food and music.
Goldstein said that although they didn't go into details, "I shared with him Equity's preference that the Biltmore be restored for theatrical use. If it could not be, we asked that the restoration not be carried out in such a way that precluded theatrical use at some future date."
Among the issues Goldstein raised at meetings with Moinian was the retention of the stage house (the stage and backstage area), which, as applies to all landmarked theatres, is not part of the landmark designation.
"Mr. Moinian assured me he was interested in maintaining the stage house and would. He was also committed to restoring the exterior of the theatre, which is not a designated landmark. because he felt he wanted an entrance that was aware of and exploited its theatrical character."
As Goldstein understands current plans for the hotel, it will not be built over the Biltmore but next to it. Major lobby functions would be on an upper level. However, there will be a connection to the Biltmore. These plans would require approval from the Landmarks Commission.
Moinian told Playbill On-Line that he has been meeting with theatrical interests who might take over the operation of a theatre. He wouldn't disclose their names.
Goldstein noted that in his meetings with Moinian, "I discussed the positive advantages for a hotel to have a theatre, in terms of the generation of patrons for the restaurants and bars. I noted the regularity of audiences that a strong subscription-based theatre would bring. A subscription theatre would be a different kind of tenant than one operating on a purely commercial basis where you have a long-run hit or a dark theatre."
Preliminary drawings for use of the interior space show that it is consistent with Landmarks Commission guidelines. Moinian said that in a restored Biltmore, seating could run from 500 to 1000 seats.
"It would, of course, depend on a number of factors," said Moinian, "such as which organization is found to occupy the space. The number of seats and configuration is not only an economic decision but also and esthetic one."
In the Biltmore's present design, there is no deep lobby space. Goldstein noted that this came up in the meetings. "The theatre lobby might be expanded by removing back rows of orchestra seats and taking better advantage of the balcony," he said.
Goldstein added that "especially subscription-based theatre organizations look for a venue where part of the environment is a public space where patrons can feel comfortable. And this is a damn good one."
Actors Equity has offered and begun to play a helpful role in facilitating conversations with Moinian and potential users. Goldstein said it was too premature to give details on who or what or when. "But it's moving in a positive direction," he noted. "Discussions are ongoing."
In other words, they're interested? "Yes, of course," said Goldstein. "Who wouldn't be?"
Although Goldstein said Moinian's attitude was positive, "I don't wish to be overly optimistic, but we are headed in the right direction. We're deeply committed to trying to make this work. The city, which has been a true ally of the theatre industry, would applaud the use of the Biltmore in that fashion. It would be wonderful for Eighth Avenue, the Theatre District, the hotel and wonderful for the theatre."
Moinian's thinking on future theatrical use will please the loosely-knit group, calling itself Fans of the Biltmore Theatre, which has been lobbying to return the restored Biltmore to theatrical use.
More About The Biltmore Theatre
The Biltmore was built (along with five other theatres) by a construction firm smitten by show business. The New York Times reported it was the first theatre to be built on the north side of 47th Street. The Ethel Barrymore Theatre is a few doors east. In the 1930s, Warner Bros. Studios took the Biltmore over as a showcase for the stage productions of George Abbott.
Among the many stars who appeared in hits there were Shirley Booth in the comedy My Sister Eileen (1940); Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in Neil Simon's smash Barefoot in the Park (1963); Rex.Harrison, Claudette Colbert and George Rose in The Kingfisher (1978). The most famous production, undoubtedly, was 1968's controversial Hair produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival (where it originally debuted). The last show to play the Biltmore was the 1987 revue Stardust, which featured Betty Buckley and Andre DeShields.
-- By Ellis Nassour