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The New 42nd Street
Cora Cahan talks with New York TheatreWire
About The Recovery of New York's Premiere Theatrical Center
One day in late autumn 1995, commuters on their way through lower Times Square were stopped in their tracks by a stunning vision. The Victory Theater, a once-grand playhouse that for nearly a century had been a bellwether of changing times--from old Broadway to burlesque to triple-X movies--stood alone on a nearly abandoned block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues with a gleaming façade restored to a condition that no one had seen since Herbert Hoover was president. The re-christened New Victory Theater opened in December 1995. Five years later, what seemed like a mirage has led to the legendary revitalization of 42nd Street and the greater Times Square area.
Facade of the New Victory Theater at night (Addison Thompson photo)
Spearheading this transformation has been Cora Cahan, whose nonprofit group, The New 42nd Street, runs The New Victory, plus a brand new rehearsal studio complex a few doors down. The organization is also the landlord for five other theaters on the block: on the south, the historic Liberty and Empire; on the north, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (made up of restored parts of the old Lyric and Apollo theaters), the Selwyn (currently called the American Airlines Theater by Roundabout Theater Company), and the still empty Times Square Theater. (Disney's New Amsterdam Theater on the south side of the street is owned by the City and State of New York.)
Cahan recently discussed her organization's preservation effort and future plans with Andy Buck.
Andy Buck: The number of historic playhouses that your group has been charged to restore has slightly shifted over the years, hasn't it?
Cora Cahan, posed before the New Victory Theater. Photo by Susan Cook
Cora Cahan: Yes, originally we would have been responsible for all nine theaters on the block. Before Disney came to the street, the New Amsterdam was intended to go on our lease. But Disney wanted a rather large loan and a rather low interest rate, so we chose to have the city and state be its landlords. They were in a position to lend Disney the--I think it was 28 million. We couldn't compete with that. The only other theater that was not on our lease was known as the Harris and it is no longer a theater. It had no historic preservation requirements except, I think, for part of its façade. When it became clear that it would be completely demolished for Madame Tussaud's, the city and state added the Empire to our lease. It hadn't been originally because it hadn't been condemned yet.
Andy Buck: Why do you suppose the Harris had no more preservation requirements?
Cora Cahan: I never understood it. It was a perfectly good one-balcony house. Those historic preservation requirements were written by some architects in about 1981 and I don't think they were ever revisited. I was surprised, but I guess they looked at the Harris and decided there was nothing really distinguished in its interior--just as the Lyric across 42nd Street didn't have anything left from its original interior although it had this beautiful façade on 43rd Street. And so it was written that the Harris and Lyric interiors did not have to be preserved, whereas the Liberty had a very high preservation requirement, the Victory was really a 100% preservation project, the Apollo had a fair amount of preservation requirement, and the Selwyn had a fairly high one.
Andy Buck: Let me ask about some of those. The only time I've been inside the Liberty was in 1996 to see a stage adaptation of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, an appropriate setting since the state of the interior was horrific. But it was intact.
Cora Cahan: It doesn't look the same today.
Andy Buck: What does it look like?
Cora Cahan: We leased the Liberty to Forest City Ratner who has shifted the egress to that theater and modified the fly gallery. And it no longer has the original lobby entrance. But the auditorium is still intact. All of the original architects' décor in the auditorium exists. It's the support space that has been incorporated into other activities.
Andy Buck: Is it possible that some day it will be a live theater again?
Cora Cahan: I hope so. I'm not absolutely sure.
Andy Buck: I have been inside the Empire. Of course the shell of that building was literally picked up and rolled 168 feet west a few years ago. And the auditorium has been squeezed down and restored as the lobby entrance to the AMC 25 cineplex. But the proscenium and the balconies are still there. You can see that it could someday be almost completely restored, not unlike The New Victory.
Cora Cahan: Perhaps. It's not required. The developers actually preserved more of that theater than the historic preservation laws required them to.
Andy Buck: All that was preserved of the Lyric, as you've said, was the 43rd Street entrance, which is now the entrance to the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. How was the Apollo next door incorporated into the Ford?
Cora Cahan: The proscenium arch of the former Apollo makes up about75% of the Ford's current proscenium, which is larger. It had to be stretched by adding new fabric to the historic fabric. In addition, the dome is original and a new dome was added around the original one. The boxes from the original Apollo are there.
Andy Buck: Oh, those are the original boxes?
Cora Cahan: I'm not sure that all of them are, but there are certainly original boxes in there. Garth Drabinsky and Livent Inc. had redone the Pantages in Toronto and were very, very experienced in the way they approached the preservation requirements for the Lyric and the Apollo. Garth and his architects had to interpret those historic preservation requirements and get the theater that they could get out of it. There's a group made up of representatives from the city and the state, as well as landlords, who oversee these historic preservation requirements on a theater-by-theater basis. They're very strict.
Andy Buck: Last but not least: the Times Square Theater. What's the outlook on that?
Cora Cahan: It's still available. I can't say whether it's going to end up being a theater. It doesn't have to be. It could be retail space or a restaurant or a nightclub or a theater or a combination.
Andy Buck: So the auditorium may not be preserved?
Cora Cahan: There are many parts of the auditorium that have to be--the proscenium arch, the dome, and I think the boxes. But the primary uses can be anything incorporating that preservation. It could be a bookstore with a dome, for instance. I'm not sure, given all the different kinds of interest in the theater, how it's going to end up.
Andy Buck: I'm curious when I read about shows like Martin Guerre that don't come to Broadway because at that time there's a theater shortage. Meanwhile, the Times Square just sits there unused.
Cora Cahan: Well, you know, it's a wonderful theater. It's got a hundred-foot frontage on 42nd Street. But it is landlocked. There's no easy way to load in except from 42nd Street. It's difficult. All the other theaters on the block, other than the Empire, go through to 41st or 43rd. Also, because the whole Times Square Theater is on 42nd Street, you have acoustic issues. This is the year 2000 and it was built in 1920. It's very different now. There are building codes and disabled access requirements.
Andy Buck: The New Victory Theater led the way for some theater restoration projects that many New Yorkers had been wanting for years. Of course, an integral part of the spruced up 42nd Street is the influx of non-theater related corporations that some critics claim are not necessarily improvements on what was there before. How do you respond to some who say that 42nd Street has turned into a tourist mall?
Cora Cahan: Well, some of those people weren't walking down the street twice a day from 1990 to 1995 to and from work. Jimmy Breslin, I understand, is one of those critics and I have such regard for him. But there was not much to really wish for here: people selling drugs, green cards, telephone cards-all illegally. The tourists came and stared but they didn't walk down the street. Many commuters chose 41st Street-which was far more desolate-to get to Port Authority rather than walk across that DMZ Zone. You know, there are always going to be people who will find something wrong with everything. There are certainly things on 42nd Street that people might criticize. There are businesses here that people might not be attracted to. But those same people might want to go see Betrayal by Harold Pinter at the Roundabout Theatre, or Kwaidan by Ping Chong at The New Victory. And they're going to come to the street. There's something here for everybody. [Andy Buck]
Andy Buck is an editor for Stagebill magazine.
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