Saturday, August 31, 2013

Remarkable History in an Unremarkable Building -- No. 105 2nd Avenue




photo by Alice Lum
At the turn of the last century police were carefully watching the five-story building at No. 105 Second Avenue.  John Mikolaus had operated his restaurant, The Crystal Palace Café, from the ground floor since around 1895, renting the modest apartments upstairs.  But rumors of an illegal “gambling house” in the building keep detectives on alert. 

Traveling salesman Abraham Ginsberg gave credence to the allegations when he lodged a complaint in April 1903.  “He said he had made an engagement to meet a man in the café Thursay, and that while there he was induced to play stuss, a German card game.  His money, he said, was soon gone, and then he discovered that the cards had been marked.”

Despite the questionable goings-on, Mikolaus was a fair employer and when waiters across the city went on strike in 1915, his staff stood by him.  On December 14 a mob of several hundred strikers gathered outside the restaurant.  They pushed their way into the establishment, telling diners not to eat there and intimidating the waiters to join them.  Neither happened.

Angry, the rabble broke mirrors, overturned tables and hurled bricks through the windows.  The New York Times reported “Mikolaus was dragged onto the sidewalk, where the crowd fell upon and beat him.  In the scuffle his diamond pin worth $275 was removed from his tie and $40 was taken from a pocket.  In another pocket $900 escaped unnoticed.”

Apparently convinced that the best way to achieve fair working conditions was through violence and theft, the mob turned on John Mikolaus, Jr., a muscular, athletic young man whom The Times called “more than a match for all who could reach him.”

The younger Mikolaus “knocked down man after man until someone struck him on the head with a blackjack.  Although the wound required five stitches later to sew it up, it did not stop Mikolaus and he was still fighting when Policeman Doyle of the Fifth Street Station ran up, saw the mob now numbering nearly 1,000, and sent in a call for the reserves.”

The mob “slunk away” with the arrival of police back-up; but eight were arrested on charges of grand larceny.  There were, strangely enough, no arrests for assault or destruction of property.

The restaurant sat squarely in what was by now the epicenter of Jewish life.  New York City had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world.  Second Avenue around Mikolaus’ building became known as The Jewish Rialto--named for the string of Yiddish-language theaters that opened between Houston Street and 14th Streets.  By the early 1920s an entire star system had developed among the Yiddish actors.

After three decades of doing business here, John Mikolaus sold his building in October 1924.  The New York Times reported that the buyer would “improve the property.”   “Improving property” in the early decades of the last century translated into demolishing and replacing whatever stood on the site.  And, indeed, the M. & S. Circuit Company did just that.

The new owners commissioned architect Harrison G. Wiseman to design a five-story vaudeville theater-and-office building.  Completed within the year, it was a rather bland red brick structure trimmed in stone with tepid Moorish influence.  Any focus to ornamentation was reserved for the interiors.  Here Art Deco joined with classic, dramatic theater architecture—vaulted arches, gilded and polychrome pilasters and medallions, and chandeliers.

The 2,830-seat Commodore Theatre did not last long as a Yiddish playhouse, though.  Quickly it was taken over by the Loews motion picture chain.  Loews gently moved from live acts to movies, offering both during the first years of operation.  In a brilliant marketing move, the chain hired professional baseball players on the off-season of 1928 to lure customers.  The Times reported on October 5 “Andrew (Andy) Cohen and J. Francis (Shanty) Hogan, who during the baseball season are members of the New York Giants, have been engaged by the Loew Circuit, it is announced.  They will make their first appearances on Oct. 15 at Loew’s Commodore Theatre, Second Avenue and Sixth Street.”

Wiseman used Flemish-bond brick with charred ends and limited white limestone trim to distinguish the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
One year later the Great Depression hit and began a dismal period of unemployment.  Among the hardest hit were the already impoverished residents of the Lower East Side.  On November 26, 1931 the Commodore was the scene of a moving rally.

“More than 4,000 east side children attended a meeting and movie show at the Commodore Theatre,” said The Times.  The event signaled the end of a children-run campaign for unemployment relief.  “The pennies of all these children and many thousands more, pupils of Jewish schools and Jewish parochial schools, have gone to swell the unemployment relief fund, it was reported at the meeting.  In addition, the children visited 12,000 stores and 6,000 homes for contributions, as part of the block-to-block canvass being conducted by the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee.”

In 1936 the double-feature included Mae Clarke in "Hearts in Bondage" and Robert Young in "The Longest Night." photo NYPL Collection

In 1956 New York City police were confounded by a “Mad Bomber,” who kept the bomb squad rushing from one crowded building to another.  The bomber called in the locations of his devices—most just harmless facsimiles; others far too real.  A live pipe bomb was found in a telephone booth in the main New York Public Library and another in the Paramount Theatre on Broadway and 43rd Street.  They were detonated by the squad.

As reports were published in newspapers, hoaxers got in to the act.  The number of calls became so great that, in frustration, Chief of Detectives James B. Leggett ordered the bomb squad to cease responding to alarms unless a device was actually discovered.  It was, as described by The Times, “a field day for cranks, holiday-season pranksters, lunatic fringers and youths with a perverted sense of humor.”

On December 18, 1956 alone, telephoned threats were directed at “a church, a hospital, the new Coliseum, the new forty-five story Socony-Mobil Building, Grand Central Terminal, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Carnegie Hall Studios, a department store in Brooklyn, hotels, subway stations, and trains, bank buildings, newspaper offices, neighborhood movie theatres, and just plain buildings.”  The Commodore was not immune.  “Another dud that sent the police racing to the scene was found at the Commodore Theatre on Second Avenue near Sixth Street,” said The Times.

In October 1963 the Commodore became the Village Theatre when a syndicate run by Joseph R. Burstin, Milt Warner and Bernard Waltzer purchased the building.  The new owners told reporters it would be renovated into an off-Broadway live theater, stressing it “would not be burlesque,” according to The Times.  The renovated space opened in November 1964 and, despite the promise, offered burlesque. 

The venture failed.  On December 24 the following year The Times noted that the theater was “recently the scene of two ill-fated attempts to revive burlesque.”  Roger Euster purchased the Village Theater, hoping to develop it into “a prime showcase for Broadway productions.”

Theater would give way to concerts when in 1967 WOR-FM radio station staged a live music event here to celebrate its first anniversary.   The audience heard performances by Janis Ian, The Doors, Richie Havens, The Blue Project and other popular groups.  It was the beginning of a new period for the venue and musical history in America.

Bill Graham Presents purchased the building shortly afterwards.  On March 8, 1968 it reopened as the Fillmore East, the New York bookend to Graham’s San Francisco Fillmore West.  It quickly became the mecca of East Coast popular music lovers, staging several concerts a week.  The first year alone Big Brother & the Holding Company, The Doors; Richie Havens, The Who, Mothers of Invention, the James Cotton Band, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, the Byrds, Ravi Shankar, Moby Grape. The Grateful Dead, Steppenwolf, Joan Baez, Blood Sweat and Tears, the Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Moody Blues, and Fleetwood Mac played here.

Then, citing “changes in music” and saying “this is an industry we can no longer work in with integrity,” Graham closed down the Fillmore East on June 27, 1971.  The iconic venue which George Gent of The New York Times called “the best showplace for rock music in New York” sat dark for over three years; until Barry Stuart reopened it as the NFE Theatre with a concert by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.  The acronym stood for New Fillmore East and, reportedly, Bill Graham objected to the name, resulting in its being changed to Village East.

Stuart’s concert venue would survive for only four years.  After its 1975 closing, the building again sat dark until 1980 when entrepreneur Bruce Mailman and his partner, architectural designer Charles Terrell converted it to the country’s ultimate gay club—The Saint.  The $4.5 million renovation set the standard for disco-period nightclubs nationwide.  Thousands crowded onto a 5,000 square-foot circular dance floor below a domed planetarium ceiling.  The rotating, dual Spitz Space System hemisphere star projector was ten times more powerful than those used in planetariums.  Celebrity performers like Helen Reddy, Chita Rivera, the Weather Girls, Maureen McGovern and Melba Moore entertained the audiences.

But the lavish club that kept ahead of competition by annually remodeling itself had opened at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.  By the end of its second year, New York’s gay population was being decimated.  In 1987 the Saint, as iconic in its own sense as the Fillmore East, closed its doors for good.  A former patron said “The Saint was killed by AIDS.  Its clients were literally dying.”


photo by Alice Lum
Today the ground floor space is a disappointing denouement to a remarkable story.  Where Yiddish theater was followed by motion pictures, where burlesque was followed by Off-Broadway plays, where Janis Joplin entertained thousands before gay men danced below a gigantic planetarium is now a bland bank office.  The generations who remember No. 105 Second Avenue as the Village Theatre, the Fillmore East, or the Saint are fading and the history that played out inside the unremarkable building is mostly forgotten.

7 comments:

  1. I love your blog! It's so thorough, but i have a question. I often wondered where the facilties were in this building as it appears rather small. Below ground level or was the auditorium actually part of the building to the right?

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    1. I was never inside during the auditorium/disco days, but I'm sure that the space never spread into adjoining buildings, per Dept of Bldgs records. Perhaps a reader can shed some light.

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    2. I was only there once in the early 80's and my memory of it was that it was huge (and overwhelming for a boy from the provinces). The 4th comment caused me to look at a satellite view on Apple maps and there's no place for an auditorium. I then learned from Wikipedia that it's been torn down and replaced with an apartment building on 6th! Here's a link to another site that has a picture of the auditorium exterior:
      http://www.ledzeppelin-database.com/geekbaseweb/venuepage.aspx?venueid=35

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  2. LOVE that I found this blog! I've never been to NYC yet always fascinated with it's history.

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  3. Like the Amsterdam Theater on 42nd St, often the entrance lobby and ticket area was narrow with the auditorium space built in the rear, the street frontage was then reserved for commercial businesses. What you have then is a narrow theatre facade and with everything else in back. Sometimes the rear theatre facade would be visible from the street around the corner. NY

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  4. I love history and his is one of My favorite place in NYC. GREAT blog!
    pain management Manhattan

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  5. Barbara Joy Plattner-MullenApril 3, 2015 at 5:22 AM

    I remember attending many great shows as a teenager at that glorious rock palace, the Fillmore East, including the MC5 (my first concert in that hallowed hall, and it was wild!), the Allman Brothers, Ten Years After, Traffic, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the J. Geils Band, BB King, Taj Mahal, the Greatful Dead, John Mayall, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Shuggie Otis Show, and more, not necessarily in that order... There were always 3 bands per night, each headliner-quality (though usually of disparate styles), for an amazingly low admission price of about $5. The venue retained the grandeur of an earlier time, though in a faded, rumpled rock n roll kind of way; an impressive palatial staircase to the
    2nd floor balcony, the ornate proscenium, red velvet seats (or were they leather?). It amazes me that I had witnessed so many great performances there in only 2 short years.
    In the movie, "August Rush", actor Robin Williams' character runs a secret, makeshift shelter for homeless children out of the abandoned, decrepit and crumbling former Fillmore East. It looked as I remembered it, but in a sad way. There was no trace of the glitzy gay club that followed. Was this filmed on location or was that just a movie set built to resemble the old Fillmore East? It is a tragedy that places such as these are torn down and replaced with such nondescript, functionary structures. They should be maintained, if not just for their grand structure and architecture, but for the history contained within.

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