Saturday, March 08, 2008

we can't let this happen without a fight

I'm breaking my "week-ends off" clause here, because some things are too important.

This has nothing to do with politics, my career or Mike Daisey.

I went in and saw the old Liberty Theater Thursday night with Nancy and John Pinckard. Built in 1904, it was a legitimate theater up until the 30s, when it became a movie palace and then of course in the bad old Midnight Cowboy days of New York it became a porn cinema. They tore down the incredibly beautiful facade in 1996 and the lobby is now gone as well.

But the theater is still there.

I want everyone to remember that it was built as a theater. It became a movie house and served as one for most of its life. But it was built as a theater.

It was ours before it was theirs and it was never Applebees' or McDonalds' or Madame Tussaud's, is my point.

Current plans for the place, according to the newspapers, is for Ecko Unlimited to come in and create a massive retail/entertainment thing. Just what the city needs. Ecko is self-described as "the high-flying hip-hop clothing and lifestyle company". Now, I'm on record saying that everyone has a right to make money in this country and I'm no foe of progress, but sometimes you have to say:

Build your shit somewhere else. This little plot of land belongs to us and it is important to us. Sorry. Good luck with the clothing and the lifestyle. Now move on, please.

Let me give you some names, and remember that I stood on the stage. Stood there and breathed in the ghosts.

It was built in 1904 so it's a reasonable bet that the inaugural performance in the building was a little show called Little Johnny Jones. Never heard of it? Me neither, but it starred a guy you might know, George M. Cohan. The show featured a song you might have heard once or twice, "Give My Regards to Broadway".

So, the first time people paid to hear someone sing that song, the first time that song was sung professionally, it was in that house.

I think they built a little statue of Cohan, somewhere around, no, I'm sorry, in the heart of Times Square. And they want to put another store where he first sang that song.

In 1924, 20 years later, a couple of guys named George and Ira Gershwin opened their latest, Lady Be Good. I wasn't familiar with that one either, but it starred a young man named Fred Astaire.

Him, I know. He sang, danced and worked on that stage in that house.

The critics must not have been that good to Lady Be Good, because the following year, 1925, the Gershwin boys opened up another show in that house, something called Tip-Toes. Jeanette Macdonald showed up for work every night for Tip-Toes, put on her makeup and stared into her mirror down in the dressing rooms, climbed up the stairs every night at 7:50 and went out and worked on that stage.

But I guess it's all the same that 83 years later that same house is going to be a place where you can buy over-sized pants and wool caps. Because where else are you going to be able get those things in Manhattan?

1928 is my favorite year in the history of the house. There was a show called Blackbirds of 1928. Back then you didn't have to resort to gimmick casting and do Tennessee Williams to justify hiring a whole lot of African-Americans to work on Broadway. You just called it and sold it as "a black show" and people came. Weird how it seems we sometimes move sideways in this country and only accidentally get ahead.

But that's another post.

Blackbirds of 1928 featured Bill Robinson. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Mr. Bojangles.

Bill Fucking Robinson.

Bill Robinson danced on that stage. The American dancer that ranks up there or above Nureyev and certainly Astaire, Gene Kelly and Savion Glover. Ask them and they'll all tell you so themselves.

Bill Robinson worked in that house.

This is holy ground, folks.

Blackbirds of 1928 was also the Broadway debut of a young lyricist named Dorothy Fields. You may not know her name. You know her songs.

The Way You Look Tonight.

I Can't Give You Anything But Love.

and,

I'm in the Mood for Love.

Yeah. Those songs.

Dorothy was the daughter of Lew Fields, for those hardcore theater buffs. Lew was half of Webber and Fields, the prototyptical double-act of American entertainment. In their day, (and their day lasted many, many years), they were bigger than anyone you want to name. Much bigger than Laurel and Hardy. They are reputed to have invented

"That was no lady, that was my wife."

Seriously.

So, probably, one of the main reasons Dorothy was debuting on Broadway that night back in 1928 is because she had learned the business from a young age by sitting on Papa's knee.

Now those are the big names that played that house and those aren't all of them, of course. But think about everyone else.

The house opened in 1904 and stayed open into the 30s. So that's at least 26, 27 years if not more. Twenty-six years. Think of the ensemble players, the musicians, the choreographers, all of those people walking in and out of those doors, playing Broadway, goddamnit, writing home to their loved ones out in the Dust Bowl or back in California or down home on the farm.

Think of the dressers and the makeup artists and the ticket-takers and the ushers. Twenty-six years.

All of those ghosts are still in that house, friends. I met them on Thursday. They seem a little lonely, with the place being boarded up for the last 12 years or so, with only Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner coming in for a few months to do The Wasteland.

That house is no wasteland.

It's a consecrated graveyard. It's an historic national landmark for our craft. And most of all, it's a theater.

It's a theater, sitting there, kind of dirty and silent, a little apologetic and old-fashioned, like a great man grown old and poor and forgotten by his friends and family.

Sitting there in the middle of Times Square, unsure what to make of the Applebees and the McDonalds that have elbowed him out of the way.

Some things are right and some things are wrong. It's almost never that clear, but sometimes it is.

That house belongs to us. It doesn't belong to Ecko Unlimited or Howard Johnson's or Ben and Jerry's or any other corporation or group of businessmen, honorable or otherwise.

It belongs to the American theater. It belongs to the people of New York City. It belongs to the memory of George M. Cohan and Dorothy Fields and Fred Astaire and Jeanette MacDonald and Bill Robinson.

Legally, it belongs to Forrest City Realty, who leased it from the State of New York for the next 89 years or so, along with the rest of the block. But they seem to be having some trouble moving it and what with the Recession rolling in, the Big Money might go underground for a little while, leaving the rest of us to weather it out.

We need to figure this one out and get that house back. We can figure out what we're going to do with it once we get it, but we first need to get it back.

It's ours. It was handed down to us by our ancestors, by our grandparents and great-grandparents, by George and Dorothy and Fred and Bill and all the rest of them.

Some things are right and some things are wrong and this one's wrong.

16 comments:

Nan said...

I was there. I stood on that stage. I felt the power of the history. I photographed John in that place.

Colin Young said...

Sounds like a wonderful place - I'd like to check it out.

Forrest City Ratner - why does that not suprise me? The same folks who want to cram the Nets Arena and a Rockefeller Center sized development over the Atlantic rail yards in the midst of two great thriving residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn, while kicking lots of people out of their homes and businesses and taking $2 billion with a 'B' of your and my tax dollars. Of course, they also built the butt ugly new NY Times building, so there's been precious little press about the huge anti-Ratner movement in Brooklyn. Wonder why.

Time for a little street action?

Ken said...

You've sold me.
What's our next move?

zmannheimer said...

Street action indeed - right on Colin!

Whatever can be done from Des Moines will be done.

Perhaps its time to really protest our theatres dying - those on Broadway, those in Brooklyn, those on the LES.

But protest not as in fist waving and shouting. Get out on that sidewalk and recreate what went on in that space so the motherfuckers understand.

Ann said...

History

It’s like this, the king marries
a commoner, and the populace cheers.
She doesn’t even know how to curtsy,
but he loves her manners in bed.
Why doesn’t the king do what his father did,
the king’s mother wonders—
those peasant girls brought in
through that secret entrance, that’s how
a kingdom works best. But marriage!
The king’s mother won’t come out
of her room, and a strange democracy
radiates throughout the land,
which causes widespread dreaming,
a general hopefulness. This is,
of course, how people get hurt,
how history gets its ziggy shape.
The king locks his wife in the tower
because she’s begun to ride
her horse far into the woods.
How unqueenly to come back
to the castle like that,
so sweaty and flushed. The only answer,
his mother decides, is stricter rules—
no whispering in the corridors,
no gaiety in the fields.
The king announces his wife is very tired
and has decided to lie down,
and issues an edict that all things yours
are once again his.
This is the kind of law
history loves, which contains
its own demise. The villagers conspire
for years, waiting for the right time,
which never arrives. There’s only
that one person, not exactly brave,
but too unhappy to be reasonable,
who crosses the moat, scales the walls.
~Stephen Dunn

Do we know anyone at the mayor's office, John? I've an idea how to do this in a small town (we'll need politicians, and people with money, a few members of the press and a historical preservation society) but I don't know the rules in Rat City. Stick this poem up somewhere you can see it, though - at bottom, it really *is* just a matter of scaling walls.

John said...

Wow. Dead-on, Ann.

Yeah, actually we do know some politicos and Mayor Mike himself is an enormous patron and supporter of us commoners.

RLewis said...

I loved Wasteland there, so I'm sold with Ken - add me to the "next move" list.

John said...

Details on the theater on the internet Broadway database:

http://ibdb.com/venue.aspx?id=1235

It just gets better. Ziegfield Follies, a Clyde Fitch play, a Booth Tarkington play, all in that house.

Tim Errickson said...

Hey John!
I'm in agreement, whatever you need done just let me know.
Tim

sharonrich said...

Thanks for drawing attention to this. I posted it on our site so other Jeanette MacDonald fans will know about it. Sharon Rich, www.jeanettemacdonald.com

John said...

Didn't even know there was a Jeanete MacDonald society. So there must be Fred Astaire, George M. Cohan, Berlin Boys, Bill Robinson, etc. clubs.

We get them to come out and support it, we get the theater folks on 42nd Street Development Project onboard, we get the city to lease it back from FCR for us and we're done by Thursday.

Friday, anyway.

This could work, folks. Seriously.

Ann said...

John, don't all the arts publications (hell, *all* the papers!)have blogs now where you could post what you've written? We need to get this in front of people, stat. How about the city council folk? Might not want to reach out to Spitzer just now, though - man's a little busy...

JohnPinckard said...

People. It was like standing inside the musical "Follies."

At a cocktail party that same night, not an hour later, I met a lady who said, "my friend is looking to buy a theatre. Do you know any he could buy?"

This freaking city sometimes, I tell ya.

I told her all about the Liberty.

She said, "Oh no, he wouldn't want to lease it. Just buy the building."

I begged her to put us in touch. I am hoping the old producer charm might come to bear on him.

Past that, let me echo all the other posts. Mayor, Real Estaters, Quinn, Newspapers....we have to throw every trick we have at the wall here people. Something's gotta stick.

In the meantime, I'm envisioning a hunger strike that will get the theatre into the news and get me into these new pants I just bought.

John said...

All right. I'm whipped from a long day, and have nine things scheduled for tomorrow, but we need to move fast and clean on this. Can anyone reading suggest the best mechanism for putting together a plan? Massive conference call, meeting at the Museum, separate internet site/communication post/whatever.

Going to need some help from the smart people. Ann. Tim. John. Everyone except Zach, I guess.

Ann said...

Here's what I'm going to do today:
research blogs to get out the word and see what kind of historical societies y'all have down there. Here's what I suggest you do: figure out a time for a meeting or a conference call, and (though I am loathe to suggest this, Mr. As Pinter is to Pauses) take the poetic profanity out of your post so any suits we send it to won't recoil.

John said...

Ann,

Great. Leonard Jacobs suggested we contact www.thetheatremuseum.org. Apparently they have lots of stuff but don't have a permanent exhibit space.

And yeah, I can clean up my act.
I don't have to work blue, I just prefer it.