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Old Theaters Are the Best

by Barry Grove, Nov 22, 2004
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The Manhattan Theatre Club moved 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.

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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.

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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 –- 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 – we had been dealing with three previous to that point in time -- to reach special operating agreements.

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 ‘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 season.

Barry Grove is executive producer of the Manhattan Theatre Club.

Related Stories:

Barry Grove: The Manhattan Theater Club Revamps a Legendary Theater
Paul Kellogg: Seeking a New Space for the New York City Opera
Glenn Lowry: The Museum of Modern Arts' New Home
Linda Shelton: Creating a Center for Dance in Lower Manhattan


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