A theater treasure of St. Marks place faces closure

The lobby walls at Theatre 80, with autographed photos from dozens of famous actors, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy, in New York, October 6, 2020. (Photo: NYTimes)
NEW YORK — There are fewer and fewer places left in New York City where you can walk through a door and feel transported back in time. Among them is 80 St. Marks Place, a Prohibition-era speak-easy converted into an off-Broadway theater in the early 1960s.اضافة اعلان

Inside the front door there are still hooks embedded in the brick where steel plates were once hung to buy time during police raids. The lobby walls are covered with framed, autographed photos from dozens of famous actors, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy.

A narrow hallway connects the theater lobby with William Barnacle Tavern, where you can still get absinthe from a bar that has been in place since the 1920s. The performance space itself, Theater 80, is intimate, with a 199-seat capacity. You can hear someone speaking at a normal volume from anywhere in the room.

But like so many of the city’s treasures, the theater, the tavern and the Museum of the American Gangster, on the second floor, are all facing extinction because of the pandemic.

Lorcan and Genie Otway, who own the connected buildings at 78 and 80 St. Marks Place and live in an apartment upstairs, are now scrambling to prevent a mortgage investor from auctioning them off.

“The shutdown offered us no protection from creditors, which I think is unconscionable,” Lorcan Otway said during a recent tour of the building and its underground tunnels, through which contraband was smuggled during the 1920s and ’30s.

Otway, whose father bought the buildings in 1964, said that the theater, museum and tavern were in good financial health until March 2020, when they were shuttered by a state mandate that affected virtually all corners of the performance and service industries. Shortly before then, he had taken out a $6.1 million mortgage against the properties to settle an inheritance dispute, pay legal fees and finance needed renovations.

With the pandemic lockdown and a precipitous decline in revenue, that loan went into default and was purchased by Maverick Real Estate Partners about a year ago. The firm, according to court documents, has closed more than 130 distressed debt transactions, with a total value of more than $300 million.

Otway, who dug out the theater space with his father when he was 9 and had turned down numerous offers by developers over the years, said that he had hired an attorney to renegotiate the payment terms, but the original lender stopped returning his phone calls and sold the debt to Maverick without his knowledge.

Maverick, Otway said, then raised the interest rate to 24%, from 10%, bringing the roughly $6 million debt to about $8 million. The company did not respond to messages asking for a comment.

Joe John Battista, artistic director of the 13th Street Repertory Theater, is familiar with a conflict like this. His company was recently evicted from the space it has called home since 1972 after a majority of the building’s shareholders locked it out.

“Real estate is real estate, but this is the arts,” Battista said. “There ought to be some special attention paid when the city stands to lose a piece of cultural history like this.”

Theater 80 hosted plays throughout the 1960s, including the pre-Broadway run of the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” From 1970 until Otway’s father died in 1994, the space was used to screen movies; for a time, it was New York City’s longest continuously running house devoted exclusively to revival films.

City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and remembered seeing Shakespeare at Theater 80 when she was a teenager. “This is a heartbreaking story,” she said, adding that the complexities of running even the smallest business in New York now require a team of experts.

“This is a huge advantage to the larger developers, the real estate companies, the financial institutions that can both take on this cost and hire a team to manage it,” Rivera said. “And the detriment is, not just to the small landlords and the deterioration of assets to people of otherwise moderate means, but also to the community at large who lose the landlords who are interested in providing beneficial things.”

Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer with a reputation for representing underdog clients, said that there needs to be some type of legislative change to rein in distressed mortgage purchasing.

“Beside the fact that you have a predatory lender who set this up so there was basically no way he would ever be able to make the payments, then shift it from being a mortgage to being some kind of commercial paper,” Schwartz said. “That lets you get around a lot of the stuff we have these days protecting mortgagees because of COVID.”

John McDonagh, an old friend of Otway’s, has scheduled a benefit performance of his show “Off the Meter,” a comedic monologue about his decades of driving a yellow cab in New York, with all the profits benefiting Theater 80.

“I’m just trying to help save a theater that COVID, gentrification and big bankers are trying to take,” said McDonagh, whose show runs Jan. 21-23 as part of Origin Theatre Company’s 1st Irish Festival.

“St. Marks Place without Theater 80 would be like Houston Street without Katz’s Deli,” McDonagh said. “It would always feel like something was missing from the East Village.”

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