I’ve never been much of a protestor. For someone who has very strong opinions and feelings you wouldn’t think this would necessarily be the case. I’m always thought that words have much more power and impact than screaming yourself hoarse.
A few months ago I found myself at The Theatre On Film And Tape archives at Lincoln Center. This beautiful resource has recorded and preserved almost every major theatrical production in New York in the past thirty years in addition to many other theatre-centric events. The best part of this collection? Anyone can request to view almost anything in the collection if they have a legitimate reason for doing so. What does this have to do with protesting, you ask? Great question!
While doing research for our ACT II Tour and our upcoming ACT III Tour I had heard about a protest in Times Square called the “Save The Theaters” Rally. In the mid 1980’s Times Square was the antithesis of its current state. Crime. Prostitution. Drugs. And amid all of this decay stood these beacons of hope that housed some of the world’s best entertainment each night at 8pm: our Broadway Theaters. When the clean-up process began, the city’s leaders were looking for anything that would take hold and rub away the grime to restore this iconic Square to its former glory. Enter The Portman Hotel. This was to be the next in line of luxury buildings that was going to reinvigorate the area. There was just one problem: the site for the hotel was then home to two historic Broadway Theaters, The Morosco and the original Helen Hayes. That didn’t seem to be an issue with the powers that be. Simply knock ‘em down and build anew was their motto.
Which brings us back to the “Save The Theaters” Rally. Joe Papp, Christopher Reeve and a slew of other important theater luminaries joined forces to camp out in the cold, driving rain to protest the demolition of these beautiful buildings. They had a stage assembled and began to read passages from plays that had first been spoken aloud just steps behind them inside those theater walls many years prior. For days and days they passed out pamphlets, performed and created enough buzz to get a stay from the Mayor’s office. The protest had won...kind of. For one week the wrecking balls and bulldozers sat inactive. But unfortunately government wasn’t siding with the theatre history gods the week following and the stay was removed. Bulldozers roared to life. The wrecking ball began its pendulum-like swing getting ever closer to the exterior walls of these two beautiful buildings with each arc. And then the demolition began. Within ten minutes there was a gaping hole in the east side of the Morosco. Just two days later both theaters were a pile of rubble that had been aged with applause, laughter, performance and tears from so many shows over so many years.
Being only 29 years old I wasn’t even born when this all took place. How do I have such a detailed idea of the wreckage? That TOFT archive provided all the footage I needed to see it all happen first-hand. I watched news stories, interviews, performance footage and ultimately the actual first impact of the wrecking ball as it hit the side of the Morosco. It was the closest I was ever going to get to stepping foot in the theater where the original Death of A Salesman roared to life.
Which brings me to last week: News broke that the Café Edison, one of the old actor hangouts for decades, was going to be shut down and renovated into a white-tablecloth dining space. The theatre community jumped to action. A protest was almost instantly planned for the following Saturday. Signs were made. Hashtags were created(#SaveCafeEdison). And while I did have a quick Matzoh Ball soup there prior to seeing Hugh Jackman over at the Circle In The Square in The River last Saturday, I didn’t feel like I should be out on the sidewalk with a sign in hand shouting witty catchphrases. At BUC we always deal in oral histories and stories and so it only feels appropriate to share my first Café Edison experience as my own personal protest.