Monday, October 29, 2018

The Lost Greenwich Village Theatre - 7th Avenue and Christopher Streets

The towering section above the stage provided space for an electric sign announcing the theater's name.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
When the Commissioners' Plan laid out the grid of streets and avenues above Greenwich Village in 1811, Seventh Avenue began at 11th Street and ran northward.  In 1913 the city began a massive project to connect it to Varick Street to the south.  The herculean undertaking not only obliterated 194 buildings, but created oddly-shaped triangular and trapezoidal plots.

Among the latter was the lot at Christopher Street, Seventh Avenue and West Fourth Street.  In November 1916, two years after the dust had settled, the Greenwich Village Players issued a press release that announced a coming 500-seat theater for the neighborhood.   The New York Times reported "It will be situated in historic Greenwich Village and will bear the name of that centre of Bohemian and artistic life.  The building will be at Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue." The article added "The building itself will be in the Dutch Colonial style of architecture from plans by Herman Lee Meader."

The Greenwich Village Players had been incorporated only months previously.  It was the brainchild of English-born Frank Conroy, described by The Times as "one of the most talented actors with the Washington Square Players."   When Conroy left London for New York, actor Harold Meltzer joined him; both becoming members of the Washington Square Players.

Conroy envisioned his own theatrical company and discussed his dream with other actors at Boni's bookstore, just off Washington Square, one evening.  (Boni's was a regular gathering spot for Village artists and actors.)  Restaurateur Barney Gallant, a long-time neighborhood resident, was there.  He joined in on the discussion, offered to be the group's business manager and to provide significant financial backing to the venture.

Frank Conroy founded and directed the theater.  Pearson's Magazine, December 1917 (copyright expired)

Several months later the Seventh Avenue site was decided upon, and ground was broken in April 1917.  The style was now described by The New York Times as Georgian, "a style that is harmonious with the old brick houses of the neighborhood."

On November 18 the newspaper reported "Conroy declares that his theatre is to be handicapped in no way by traditions or customs, that it will be free to produce plays of any length and of any sort."  The number of seats, by now, had been reduced to 425 and the construction costs were estimated at $100,000 (around $1.9 million today).

A month earlier The Real Estate Record & Guide had said "there is probably no more important feature, tending toward the fostering of community interest and spirit, than the new theatre...During the last two years this part of the city has undergone a decided metamorphosis in its character."  It was an opinion echoed by The Quill a few years later when, in September 1923 it credited the theater for "saving the Village."

Meader's office released this rendering in 1917.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, September 1, 1917 (copyright expired)
"The erection of this magnificent new theatre with upholstered seats mollified to an extent the fumes of malice that were brewing among the traditional enemies of Bohemia.  In fact, the chances are that the whole of Bohemian Greenwich Village would have been burned, massacred, and pillaged in the name of law and order had not the unenlightened been placated by this obviously decent structure that in a way offsetted the affronts on the respectability typified by the flamboyant signs of cake and coffee parlors, with their cigarettes, squeaky phonographs and Don's Jazz band."

Meader's completed structure was an Edwardian melding of several styles.  The diapering of the variegated brickwork produced a diamond pattern on the three-sided front.  Ionic columns flanked the three entrances and stone quoins contrasted with the brick.  The shallow stone hood above the main entrance was emphasized by brick voisseurs, which were in turn outlined in stone.  Classical stone urns sat upon a brick parapet.

In December 1917 Pearson's Magazine called it "a real honest-to-goodness show house" and said its stage was "second to none in New York."  Not everyone was impressed.  Guldo Bruno, in his Fragments From Greenwich Village, wrote "What did the Greenwich Village Theatre people do?  On the most picturesque of all New York's squares they erected a Greek structure in the architectural style of a small-town savings bank."

The exterior of the theater was completed when Jessie Tarbox Beals snapped this photograph.  Seventh Avenue is not yet paved and what appear to be wooden crosswalks stretch across Christopher Streets.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Frank Conroy's intimate friend, Harold Meltzer, took on the job of director, and Barney Gallant took on the additional title of "press representative."   They had promised to focus on one-act plays, while "not neglecting" longer plays.   The short plays were highly successful; but then Theatre Arts Magazine was disappointed in the theater's first full-length play in May 1918.

"In Karen...Frank Conroy's players and staff do not completely fulfill the promise of their earlier bill of one-act plays.  The acting acting and staging failed somewhat of that unity and distinction which should characterize art-theatre production."  The critic called Fania Marinoff, who played the title role, "temperamentally unfitted for the part" and said the acting ranged "from the quietly effective work of Mr. Conroy to the painful antics of a cub-actor."

A charming charcoal sketch in this 1921 postcard depicted the theater from the park across Seventh Avenue.
The reviews of the theater's offerings were, of course, good and bad.  But rave reviews poured in after the opening night of the Greenwich Village Follies on July 15, 1919.  The production had been delayed several times, prompting The Times' critic to begin this review, "Someone said recently: 'Well, when the Greenwich Village Follies does open, it had better be good.'  It opened last night.  And it is good."

A vaudeville-type variety show, the Greenwich Village Follies staged comedy skits, singing and dancing.  The Times raved it "has melody and beauty pre-eminently, and where it does not win outright on these points it scores on novelty, burlesque, and comedy."  The Follies would be an eagerly-anticipated annual show for years.

The man responsible for releasing good publicity for the theater, drew some rather negative attention on November 2, 1919 when The Times reported "Bernard manager of the Greenwich Village Inn in Sheridan Square, is the first man in New York to go to jail on a charge of selling intoxicants."

Gallant had acquired a house guest earlier in playwright Eugene O'Neill, who was briefly staying in New York.  It was most likely that arrangement which resulted in the Greenwich Village Theatre's introducing several of O'Neill's works.

Like other off-Broadway theaters, The Greenwich Village Theatre was the starting point for several stage and screen stars.  On November 17, 1920 press attention was focused on Yiddish actor Jacob Ben-Ami who starred in Sven Lange's Samson and Delilah.   Critic Alexander Woollcott deemed the production "arresting and potentially significant" and far down in his column he mentioned an unknown player, saying that Edward G. Robinson had delivered "a fine performance."   Among other famous actors who performed here early in their careers were William Harrigan and Walter Huston.

As moving pictures gained popularity, the theater's management embarked on a bold move.  On May 29, 1921  The New York Times reported "The Greenwich Village Theatre is to become a Summer motion picture house next Wednesday evening when 'Heedless Moths' will open for a run.  The star of the production is Audrey Munson, an artist's model, and its story is said to deal with life in an artists' colony."

Andrey Munson had posed for dozens of sculptures across the country, around 20 of them in New York City alone.  She is immortalized as Civic Fame atop the Municipal Building, the three female figures on the USS Maine Memorial, and the two widows depicted on the Firemen's Memorial, among others.  She was popular among artists not only for her lovely figure but for her willingness to remove all her clothing--a relative rare trait among Edwardian women.  Heedless Moths had been written expressly for Audrey and its plot was essentially a vehicle for her to disrobe again.

The priggish Villagers who had years earlier protested against tearooms and cigarettes now set their sites on the scandalous movie poster at the Greenwich Village Theatre.  A member of the Washington Square Association and the pastor of St. Joseph's Church went to Chief Magistrate William G. McAdoo on June 6, 1921 to complain that the theater refused to remove the offending poster.  McAdoo went to see for himself, and although someone had pasted a ballerina skirt over Audrey Munson's anatomy, it was not enough.

"There is no doubt that the poster was palpably indecent," he said.  "There were a number of men and women staring at it and also little children, schoolgirls, with books under their arms."  He ordered the police to remove the poster.

Despite a resultant outcry from artists, poets and writers, the poster remained down.  Although Heedless Moths went on, it appears to be the last attempt at the movies for the Greenwich Village Theatre.

The season of 1925 was notable.  It opened with Maxwell Anderson's Outside Looking In; and would include his When in Rome and Eugene O'Neill's The Fountain, The Great God Brown, and Desire Under the Elms.

A scene from O'Neill's The Fountain.  The set designs were, apparently, not always elaborate. from the collection of the New York Public Library
In May 1926 the theater management announced that it had merged with the Actors' Theatre.  The name Actors' Theatre was retained and, while its permanent home had not been decided upon, the announcement made one thing clear: "It will not be the Greenwich Village."

In January 1928 N. Brewster Morse signed a five-year lease with owner Marguerite A. Barker for the vacant building.  The New York Times reported on January 5, "The theatre will be renovated and will reopen about the middle of next month.  According to the announcement, the new policy will be 'unique and revolutionary.'"

That policy included "musical, dramatic and motion picture features, with a change of program every two weeks."  In the lounge area art exhibitions were to be held, "where tea, coffee and cigarettes will be served during the intermissions."  Among the first films screened was Paul Fejos's The Last Moment, described by one critic as an "impressionistic picture."  The Times called it "a weird, startling and brilliant achievement."

It seems that even Greenwich Villagers were not ready for the weird and startling, and two months into his five-year lease Morse returned control of the theater to Marguerite Barker who told reporters she intended to show "unusual films at popular prices" beginning on April 9, 1928.

That idea did not go well, either.  The Irish Theatre, Inc. took over for the 1929 season, opening with Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie.  But despite its successful beginnings, the end of the line for the Greenwich Village Theatre. was on the near horizon.

Five months later, on February 4, 1930, The New York Times announced "Demolition of the Greenwich Village Theatre on the northwest corner of Christopher and Fourth Streets...will begin early in March."  The article explained that developers George and Edward Blum had filed plans for a 19-story apartment building, the tallest in Greenwich Village.

It may have been the Great Depression that overturned the grandiose plans.  But for whatever reason, the demolished theater was replaced with the two-story Art Deco style Stewarts Cafeteria building.  It survives, significantly altered at street level.

from the collection of the New York Public Library


  1. You may already know this, but out of curiosity I looked up Audrey Munson at imdb, where I found this melancholy biography:

    "She had a promising career as a model and budding film actress when she was in her early 20s, but her career was destroyed by a murder scandal of which she was involuntarily a part but in which she shared no guilt. Abandoned and forgotten by her family, she spent the last 60 of her 105 years in a mental institution.

    She was committed to the Ogdensburg Psychiatric Institution for depression and schizophrenia - generally treatable mental disorders, today. She was abandoned and forgotten there for decades until a niece discovered her there."

    On a different, happier note, allow me to say how much I love your site. It's one of the pleasures of my day to discover what new entry has been added. Thank you so much for all the work it must take to give us this building-by-building history of Manhattan.

    Bill Wolfe

    1. Thanks for adding that. Audrey Munson is one of my favorite figures in Manhattan's architecture and art history. A friend once called her "the most famous person no body knows." So glad to hear you enjoy the posts.