The Manhattan Theatre Club
from its simple beginnings as an off-off Broadway theater to its home at
City Center in 1984, and already by the early 1990s there was a clear
need for a larger venue because the 300-seat and 150 seat-houses were
selling out regularly.
As we began to consider our options, we quickly realized we needed to
move to or add a space that would make our productions eligible for Tony
awards, for the artists' recognition first and foremost but for the
audiences as well. Those theaters must be located in the "Broadway box,"
essentially between 42nd and 59th streets and between Sixth and Eighth
avenues, with 500 or more seats. As you can imagine, that real estate
isn't easy to come by.
It took almost 10 years and a number of attempts before we finally
focused our attention on the historic Biltmore Theater. We’d looked at
it earlier and dismissed it as a ludicrous proposition. While it was
built in 1925, and was home to such hits as "The Heiress," "Barefoot in
the Park" and "Hair" and served as one of Broadway's favorite playhouses
until it closed its doors on December 11, 1987 (ironically the same year
as its landmarking), sadly it had become the victim of fire, theft,
vandalism, and extensive water damage. Indeed, virtually anything that
could happen with a theater happened to this poor little theater. And
given the damage, it seemed an unlikely prospect.
By the time we began reconsidering it, almost out of desperation, the
site had been taken over by developers Jack Parker and Joseph Moinian
who were planning for a high-rise apartment complex next door.
Coincidentally, during the same period I was working with Duncan Hazard
of Polshek Partnership architects to identify sites and Duncan had been
attending a performance of "The Iceman Cometh" at the Brooks Atkinson
across the street. Well, that is a rather long play. And so, a couple
of intermissions required extensive time on the street, staring and
wondering perhaps why we didn’t go back and look at the Biltmore
Theater. It was really Duncan’s asking, "why not the Biltmore?" that
allowed us to come back and take a second look.
We needed to reconfigure the space from 1,000 seats to a more intimate
650 seats -- essentially business class for everyone â€“- with ancillary
spaces critical to a nonprofit home: meeting space, improved sight
lines, audience gathering space, etc. We quickly determined that this
endeavor would require a $35 million capital campaign, which was quite
an undertaking for an institution that, while it was raising $6 million
annually, never before raised more than $3 million in special funds.
However, the board of directors, equally committed to the project, along
with their colleagues, pledged the first $10 million, which was matched
by the developers and the extraordinary leadership of the City of New
York soon joined by the state.
So with $20 million in pledges, we were happily ready to kick off our
campaign in the late summer of 2001 just as the tragedy of 9/11
unfolded. In the wake of that terrible tragedy -- and soon the economic
turmoil that followed -- it would have been very easy to put this
project on hold. But our developer partners were determined to go ahead,
and fortunately we were blessed with the extraordinary leadership of
Manhattan Theatre Club’s chair Peter Solomon and his colleagues who
quickly determined that we would go forward despite the difficulties.
And so we officially launched the campaign and broke ground just three
months later, in December of that year. Ultimately, by last year, we had
raised the full $35 million and opened the building on schedule.
Meanwhile, this was an extraordinary expansion of our audience as well.
And so having worked together on extended productions of plays --
"Proof" by David Auburn, and "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, by
Charles Bush -- we assembled combined efforts of an in-house staff with
some people from outside agencies and partnerships that allowed us to
launch a successful branding campaign called "I Want My MTC" to coincide
with the completion of the building.
By the time we began our first season, we had 22,000 subscribers up
almost 6,000 from the prior year and were selling a hugely expanded
number of single tickets. Over the same period of time, we began two
years of dialogue with some 14 theatrical unions â€“ we had been dealing
with three previous to that point in time -- to reach special operating
The building opened last fall, acclaimed by audiences and press alike.
Over the last 12 months, it was the recipient of several awards,
including the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York
Landmarks Conservancy, thanks in major part to Polshek Partnership.
In a special testimony about the theater before the New York Landmarks
Committee in 1987, Ruth Goetz, who co-wrote "The Heiress," said it best:
"If you are ever discouraged or disappointed with your life I advise you
to go to the backstage door to the Biltmore Theater and enter quietly.
Don’t trip over the cables on the floor. Somewhere in there will be the
broken remains of a chair. Carry it to the left corner and sit down
quietly and listen. You will hear 60 years of laughter and tears and
bravos and catcalls, and you will know why playwrights say â€old theaters
are the best.’"
So the building is now open and celebrating its first birthday. We
continue to face several challenges including the need for an endowment
campaign, additional annual fundraising for the increased activity as
our annual budget has risen from $12 million to $18 million and a host
of other things.
But nonetheless I am happy to report that a year later we are thrilled
to be producing Craig Lucas' play "Reckless" starring Mary-Louise
Parker, which is running to great acclaim through December 19. And we
found our smaller spaces at City Center to be as important as ever in
bringing new works to New York audiences, including "Five By Tenn," a
compilation of newly discovered Tennessee Williams' work and John
Patrick Shanley's world premiere production of "Doubt" which opens next
month. We doubled our education programs and are already at work on the
newest play by Pulitzer Prize Winner Donald Margulies, "Brooklyn Boy"
starring Adam Arkin, which we look forward to welcoming to the Biltmore
stage in January as one of the first new American plays on Broadway this
Barry Grove is executive producer of the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Grove: The Manhattan Theater Club Revamps a Legendary Theater
Kellogg: Seeking a New Space for the New York City Opera
Lowry: The Museum of Modern Arts' New Home
Shelton: Creating a Center for Dance in Lower Manhattan
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