Sisters Irene and Alice Lewisohn were unmarried, wealthy and refined. The young Jewish women became involved with Lillian D. Wald’s Henry Street Settlement as volunteers in club activities. Wald, along with another nurse, Mary M. Brewster, had established the organization on the Lower East Side to provide social services and nursing to the impoverished residents. Their work, heavily funded by the generosity of banker Jacob Schiff who also donated a building, had branched out to include club activities like crafts, music, drama and painting.
The Lewisohn women were highly interested in the stage. Alice had been trained in acting and Irene had studied “expressive gesture.” They brought this focus to Henry Street and initially formed a dramatic dance group which performed in festivals. The New York Times noted in 1915 “During the last eight years, the festival groups of the Henry Street Settlement have presented seasonal festivals and pantomimes in the gymnasium.” They hoped to bring pride and self worth to the impoverished youngsters through creative expression.
In 1912 the women organized the Dramatic Club, presenting cutting edge plays such as The Sheperd, by Olive Tilford Dargan, and The Silver Box, by John Galsworthy at Clinton Hall. The Times noted “These productions reached a point where the development of the players, the interest of the audiences, and the response of the neighborhood seemed to demand the direction of [a] playhouse.”
On October 4, 1913 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that the Board of Examiners had approved plans for “Neighborhood Hall,” a 300-seat “auditorium” designed by Harry Creighton Ingalls and E. F. Burrall Hoffman, Jr.
The Lewisohn sisters paid for the $60,000 project, located at Nos. 466 through 470 Grand Street. Although construction did not begin until April 1914, it was nearly completed on January 25, 1915 when The New York Times described the structure.
“The architecture of the playhouse was determined largely by the character of the original buildings in its neighborhood. The exterior is distinctly Georgian and the interior, while based on Georgian principles, is not intended to represent any particular style or period. The façade is of light red brick with marble trimmings. The third story, which sets back from the street, is of stucco. The entrance doors are green and the shutters of the windows green.”
While it was nice to think that Ingalls & Hoffman were inspired in their neo-Georgian style by the “original buildings in the neighborhood,” it was more likely simply architectural fashion that directed them. Neo-Georgian structures had been appearing throughout the city for several years and, as a matter of fact, the architects had designed the similar Little Theater on West 44th Street in 1912. As a matter of fact, The Times admitted later “It is not unlike Winthrop Ames’s Little Theatre both as to the Colonial architecture of its facade and the size and shape o its auditorium.”
The Lewisohn sisters intended their theater to follow the “Little Theater” movement, which looked to experimental plays and intimate spaces—making the audience nearly a part of the drama. They also were highly involved in the design, introducing innovations that outshone even the Broadway theaters. Among these was the rear of the stage, constructed as a quarter-dome. This enabled realistic sky effects with no angles.
The Times was impressed with the multi-purpose third floor, which it deemed “distinctive.” “Across the front runs a large rehearsal room, which will be used for occasional dances as well as for regular class work. This room can be divided by sliding doors into two huge dressing rooms, one of which in turn can be further subdivide by movable screens into as many dressing rooms as area required. Besides these, there are two individual dressing rooms.”
The Neighborhood Playhouse would present “plays new to New York audiences.” The weekends were devoted to children’s programs, including the seasonal festivals, pantomime ballets and “fairy plays.” “On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays the offerings will consist of moving pictures, playlets, camera talks, folk songs and dances, illustrated fairy tales, marionettes and music, running continuously from 1:30 P.M. to 11 P.M. o’clock,” advised The Times.
The price of admission was set at 5 and 10 cents during the week, and 25 and 50 cents on weekends.
The theater opened on February 12, 1915 with Jephtha’s Daughter, written especially for the occasion. Temperance: A Monthly Journal of the Church Temperance Society, said the play was “woven out of the traditions of the neighborhood.” The journal pointed out that the neighborhood residents and children were highly involved. “For, while the tiny new theatre is complete in every detail of mechanical equipment, costumes, properties, music, orchestration, and acting are all attributable to the Henry street festival groups and dramatic clubs which from now on will be known as the Neighborhood Players.
“Tiny comrades pulled threads to make the fringe, costume designers and makers, fashioners of jewelry, painters and composers, musicians and seamstresses, producers and directors all contributed in varying degrees.” The Sun mentioned after opening night “One of the interesting features of the production lay in the fact that the costumes and properties, designed by Esther Peck, were made by classes of the Neighborhood Playhouse.”
|Neighborhood girls act in Jephtha's Daughter on opening night in costumes by Esther Peck -- The Survey, June 3 1916 (copyright expired)|
Critics were most impressed with the domed stage that evening. The Times reported the next morning “The use of the back wall of the stage, its white surface bathed in blue light, made a wrinkle-less sky far superior to scores of skies professional stages of Broadway have shown.”
Two weeks later George P. Baker, a drama professor at Harvard University, arrived in New York specifically to inspect the stage. The New York Times reported on February 28, 1915 “Mr. Baker was greatly interested in the modern stage with which the theatre is equipped, and particularly with its modification of the sky dome…As it stands, it is a more effective sky than any other than shimmers in a Broadway playhouse.”
|Neighborhood women with wicker baby carriages gather to chatter outside the playhouse in 1917 --from the collection of the Library of Congress|
The meager admission price and the cost of productions were highly out of balance. On June 3, 1916 The Survey noted “The Neighborhood Playhouse is, of course, not self-supporting…As a matter of information the Neighborhood Playhouse incurs a deficit of something like $10,000 a year.” But the magazine was optimistic, saying the shortfall “will be less with successive years.” The screening of motion pictures helped greatly in closing deficit.
The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger explained the financial dynamics in two sentences. “Financial worries, the festering sore of every dramatic or art center in the country, never developed in the case of the Playhouse. The Lewisohn girls endowed it.”
The building offered more to the neighborhood than the theater. Recreation reminded readers in 1916 “But the auditorium—even with such a roster of presentations—presents only a part of the Playhouse activities. On the roof is a playground, sunny and pure above the varied smells of Grand Street, where many happy days are spent by the children of the crowded neighborhood. A spacious room, which may be divided into two by the use of rolling partitions, is regularly used for the dancing classes and dramatic groups, working not only for production, but for the joy of the thing. Classes in designing, poster-drawing, stage sets and properties under skilled direction provide costumes, settings and properties for performances as a result of delightful hours spent in learning the craft.”
Additional funds came from leasing the auditorium. In February 1916 it was the scene of meetings of The Woman’s Peace Party, during which the members wrote a telegram to the Congressmen of the district that read “We urge you to vote against war preparations at this session of Congress. Such preparations are unnecessary, extravagant and dangerous to democracy. They will forever destroy America’s hope of starting a plan of world union which will end war.”
Later that year members of the Industrial New York Woman Suffrage Party held a nighttime garden party on the roof. The Times reported that “there were songs about labor and woman suffrage, led by Mrs. Laura Elliot. The entertainment closed with dancing and refreshments.”
|from the collection of the New York Public Library|
While these women’s groups attempted to change history, the Lewisohn sisters continued to search for new works. On November 14 that year the season opened with a new play by George Bernard Shaw, Great Catherine. Two other so-far unstaged plays, The Inca of Perusalem and Lord Dunsany’s The Queen’s Enemies were scheduled for later that season.
The success of the venue was such that in 1917 the Lewisohn sisters purchased the abutting No. 8 Pitt Street. The Record and Guide reported on March 10 that Ingalls & Hoffman had been brought back to design the “alteration and addition” to the Playhouse. The resulting expansion housed additional dressing rooms, classrooms, studios and rehearsal space.
By now the list of famous guest stars that had appeared with the local players was impressive. Among them were Ellen Terry, Gertrude Kingston, Ethel Barrymore, Emanuel and Hedwig Reicher, David Bispham and Eric Blind. Despite the fame of the headliners, the audiences in the packed house continued to be charged the same admission.
Cutting-edge playwrights also made their mark on the Neighborhood Playhouse. Several of Lord Dunsany’s plays premiered here. In 1917 Constance D’Arcy Mackay, in her The Little Theatre in the United States, noted that the Neighborhood Players had staged the first production of his A Night at the Inn, “termed by many critics the greatest one-act play written by any author in the last ten years.”
Earlier that year, in January, trouble came when police raided a Sunday performance and arrested Bessie Kaplan, the treasurer, for violating the Sabbath law. The law prohibited Sunday entertainments “which are serious interruptions of the repose and religious liberty of the community.” (The law did not take into account the fact that the Jewish Sabbath was on Saturday, not Sunday; and that the majority of the neighborhood residents were Jewish.) On January 30 Lillian Wald and one of the Lewisohn sisters appeared before Magistrate Breen in the Essex Market Court.
Lillian testified that the shows were solely charitable and philanthropic and told the judge that the theater was not for profit, “but shows a deficit of some $12000 to $16,000 a year.” The New York Times reported “Miss Lewisohn testified to the character of the play and the playhouse. Miss Lewisohn stated that she and her sister had in the past paid the deficit.”
It was not until March 2 that the magistrate made his decision. Breen announced that the Playhouse could continue to give performances on Sunday, saying “that neither the repose nor the religious liberty of the community in question was in any way interrupted.”
The year 1919 started out badly and ended well for the Neighborhood Playhouse. One of the students in Irene Lewisohn’s dance class was 13-year old Rose Batkin. That spring jewelry and purses began disappearing from the coat room. In an effort to trap the thief, Irene and another instructor, Mabel Moore, planted a purse in Mabel’s coat. Through amateur covert surveillance, they watched Rose handle the coat, after which the purse had disappeared.
Irene Lewisohn questioned Rose, and then visited her mother, “in the true interests of the child,” as Irene worded it. Irene soon found that apples do not fall far from trees.
Jennie Batkin sued Irene for $10,000 in damages for slanderous statements, saying “Miss Lewisohn called her daughter a thief and accused her of stealing the purse.” The case went to court on May 31. Jennie Batkin’s scheme to make quick money backfired. That afternoon The Evening World reported “Miss Irene Lewisohn, society woman and banker’s daughter…was to-day awarded a judgement [sic] of $108.45 against Mrs. Jennie Batkin.” The court found that Irene had not made public accusations and there was no slander. Mrs. Batkin was therefore forced to pay Irene’s legal bills.
Later that year Lord Dunsany sailed from England to see his work performed in the little theater. On October 17, 1919 The New York Times reported “Lord Dunsany last night visited the Neighborhood Playhouse in Grand Street the scene of the first presentation of a Dunsany play in American, and was the centre of an interested and excited audience which saw ‘The Queen’s Enemies” and “A Night at an Inn,’ played again in the playwright’s honor.”
|Alice Lewisohn (right) played the title role in Lord Dunsany's The Queen's Enemies --from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The newspaper reminded readers that the first Dunsany play ever produced in America, The Glittering Gate had been performed here nearly five years earlier. “Dunsany, who has seen his plays acted only upon rare occasions, was apparently vastly delighted by the experience, and paid tribute to the Neighborhood Players in speech in which he said that ‘A Night at an Inn,’ as acted by them was a far more powerful play than he had imagined it.”
On October 11, 1920 the auditorium was the scene of a far less joyful event. The memorial service for the Henry Settlement’s greatest benefactor, Jacob H. Schiff, was held here. More than 400 people crowded into the little theater. Among the speakers, of course, was Lillian Wald. She told “of the effort and expense to which he had gone in establishing the settlement and of the great amount of energy he expended in trying to broaden its scope so that the boys and girls of New York might be aided in learning and in having a proper place to study.”
In 1925 the Playhouse made a social and political statement about a hot topic—censorship—with its production of Grand Street Follies. New York Times critic Stark Young on June 21 described “A clean-up committee drawn from society, ex-choruses, plumbers and professional vice-hunters, looks into the dark evil that may lurk in Movies, Roadhouses, Restoration Drama, War Plays, Opera and all golden pleasure. The personnel of censoring committees comes in of satire, the whole scheme is laid open, blown into the air, danced from bright toes, laughed at, spanked and presented with its diploma of asininity.”
At the height of its popularity, the Neighborhood Playhouse stopped presenting plays. The New York Times deemed “It was, in a way, killed by its own success.” On September 21, 1938 the newspaper added, “Its successor, the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, still goes on, influencing our drama less directly but probably just as powerfully.”
Throughout the next decades the Neighborhood Playhouse building would continue to house the performing arts. In 1948 it became home to the dance company and school founded by Alwin Nikolais. It remained here until 1970. Later it became the New Federal Theatre. The Playhouse has come full circle and is today the Abrons Arts Center, the performing and visual arts program of the Henry Street Settlement.
photographs by the author
photographs by the author