July 11,  2003  A NEIGHBORHOOD COSTUME DRAMA

By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON
2003 by the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Company, All Rights Reserved
Updated July 11, 2003

New York

Come and meet those dancing feet 
On the avenue I am taking you to 37th Street

While Al Dublin's immortal song lyrics may not actually be getting this 21st century rewrite, there is no denying that the West 30s has become the city's newest theater district.

As a result, many New Yorkers are seeing a part of the borough they rarely visited. The area has long been an extension of the garment district, with buildings full of showrooms and manufacturing plants on the ground floor. But that industry has fallen on tough times, and many companies have closed or relocated.

"With so many businesses in this area leaving, from manufacturers to dot-coms, landlords are anxious to find different businesses that are willing to pay rent," says Jan Buttram, artistic director of the Abingdon Theater Company, which now resides at 312 W. 36th St. In fact, some landlords are even willing to make major improvements, from putting in elevators to creating better signs so theaters are visible from the darkened street.

The area's transformation began two years ago, when a group of investors turned a former zipper distribution factory at 336 West 37th St. into the 240-seat Zipper Theater. Since opening, it has hosted such prestigious attractions as Reno; Alan Cumming's group, The Art Party; and the all-girl rock group Betty. Earlier this year, a sister space, The Belt, debuted in the same location.

The Price Is Right

Emboldened in part by their success, other theaters have followed suit: In addition to Abingdon, The Barrow Group and The Workshop Theater Company are housed at 312 West 36th, a former electric-power substation; Revelation Theater, which includes former TV heartthrob Chad Allen among its founders, is this-close to completing its new 155-seat home at 344 West 39th St., a former garage; and John Chatterton is putting the finishing touches on his 40-seat Where Eagles Dare Theater at 347 West 36th St., where he also owns a floor of rehearsal studios.

Mr. Chatterton has great faith in the neighborhood. He has also booked his Annual Midtown International Theater Festival into the Abingdon's two theaters, a 98-seat proscenium stage (which will be formally named in November after actress June Havoc) and a 56-seat black box; it begins its 22-day run of 23 shows on Monday, July 14.

The reason for this confluence of construction? As with the gentrification of many residential neighborhoods, "it's money," says Virginia Louloudes, the executive director of ART/NY, which leased 32,000 square feet of office space at 575 Eighth Ave. earlier this year, and then subleased most of it to 25 needy theater groups.

Rents in the neighborhood average $16 to $18 per square foot, a considerable bargain. "I really wasn't planning to look below 42nd Street," says Dave McCracken, executive director of Dionysus Theater Company, which now leases 15,000 square feet of rehearsal/showroom space at 519 Eighth Avenue. "I had to literally be dragged here by my broker. But the spaces I was looking at in Times Square were $28 per square foot. Now, we're hoping to open a couple of theaters in this neighborhood."

"We couldn't afford to move back onto 42nd Street," says Riley Jones Cohen, executive director of the Workshop -- once known as the 42nd Street Workshop -- whose 65-seat and 30-seat theaters both have shows currently running. "It would have been too prohibitive for a company like ours, which doesn't make money renting out its theaters to others."

Convenience and Safety

Redistricting: The Zipper Theater, five blocks south of 42nd Street.

The other main factors theaters have used in choosing the West 30s are, not surprisingly, convenience and space. "I remember thinking 15 years ago how much sense it made for the theater district to expand in this direction," says Revelation's executive director Leslie Smith. "It's a very accessible part of town, just blocks away from both the Port Authority [Bus Terminal] and Penn Station, and near just about every subway. The last thing an audience needs is to stress about making the curtain on time."

"There is hardly a better possible neighborhood for theatergoers," says Zalmen Moltek, executive director of the Folksbeine Theater, the city's premier Yiddish-speaking company. Folksbeine was all set to purchase the PCMH Theater at 344 West 36th St., where it played in 2001-02, until the landlord took the building off the market. It is still considering moving into the neighborhood if an appropriate space becomes available.

Both the Workshop and Abingdon were looking not just for permanent homes, but spaces big enough to accommodate dual theaters, plus a lobby area. "We wanted something with high ceilings, expansive rooms and no columns," says Abingdon's Ms. Buttram. The theater's second-floor lobby is so large that the company is planning to use it as a cafe and for cabaret performances and readings.

The neighborhood is not without its problems, including street crime. However, theater owners point to major cooperation from the local police precinct, Midtown South, and from the Fashion Center Business Improvement District (BID), in helping the area shape up.

In fact, the BID recently hosted the premiere of the film "Garmento" at the Abingdon, and invited fashion companies so they'd consider using the theaters for fashion shows and other events.

"We're delighted by these new theaters, it's a nice mix with our remaining fashion businesses," says Barbara Randall, executive director of the BID. "We're even including the theaters in all our public information."

Mr. Lipton writes on the performing arts and fashion for Forbes, the New York Post, Encore/BAMBILL and other publications.


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