Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater Yiddish Art Theater/Yiddish Folks Theater, Village East City Cinemas
East Village, Manhattan
The Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater (Yiddish Art Theater/Yiddish Folks designed by the prolific theater architect Harrison G. Wiseman, was constructed in 1925-26 for Louis N. Jaffe, a Brooklyn lawyer and prominent Jewish civic leader, who intended it as a permanent home for the Yiddish Art Theater, one of the leading Yiddish "art theater" companies, under the direction of preeminent Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz.
Although the Yiddish Art Theater company performed in the Jaffe Art Theater for only four seasons, this theater remained a Yiddish playhouse (most often as the Yiddish Folks Theater) nearly the entire time between its opening in 1926 and 1945, and was also the site of Yiddish theater revival productions in the 1970s and '80s.
The Jaffe Art Theater Building is one of the most tangible reminders of the heyday of Yiddish theater in New York City in the early twentieth century, particularly along the "Yiddish Rialto" of lower Second Avenue, when this form of entertainment was a significant part of the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The Moorish Revival design of the cast-stone front portion of the theater building incorporates Alhambraic motifs and Judaic references, but also reflects contemporary architectural trends of the 1920s. These include the search for an appropriate stylistic expression for synagogues and other Jewish institutions, the interest in contrast between areas of b!ank wall surface and concentrated areas of flat decoration, and the use of "exotic" styles for theaters.
After its initial Yiddish heyday, the theater, under a variety of names, continued to have an incredibly rich cultural history, presenting many different forms of entertainment, including off-Broadway dramatic and musical productions (many of which moved to Broadway), burlesque, dance, concerts, and movies, and was particularly renowned as the off-Broadway Phoenix Theater from 1953 to 1961. In addition, the theater presented the work of many of the most important figures of the twentieth-century Yiddish and English-language stages, including actors, directors, writers, and designers.
The Lower East Side and Yiddish Theater in New York City'
Political events in Eastern Europe and in the so-called Pale of Settlement in western Russia, resulting in pogroms and repressive legislation, led to a massive exodus of Jews (by some estimates one-third of the Eastern European Jewish population) beginning in the ear!y 1880s. In a large wave of immigration to the United States which reached its peak just prior to World War I, nearly two million Jews arrived here; most settled in New York City, and the majority of these immigrants lived at least for a time on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — the area generally defined as that bordered by the East River, Catherine Street, the Bowery, and East 14th Street.
After the turn of the century, New York City had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world, and by 1920 it was estimated that between 23 and 30 percent of the city's population was Jewish. In effect, the Lower East Side was also one of the world's largest ghettos, due to the extremely crowded living conditions of the area's tenements.
The Jewish community's center was originally in the vicinity of Canal and Essex Streets, but after the turn of the century the population spread southward, eastward, and northward to Houston Street. After World War I, Second Avenue between Houston and East 14th Streets was considered the heart of the Jewish community in New York.
In contrast to earlier, more established Jewish immigrants, mostly from Central Europe (particularly Germany), these recent Eastern European immigrants assimilated less easily due to economic and social circumstances, customs, and language. Yiddish was the shared language of these Jewish immigrants; a spoken dialect related to middle-high German, with borrowings from other languages, Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet.
Once considered a jargon,* Yiddish began to achieve respectability with its usage by European intellectuals in the mid-nineteenth century. In New York City, Yiddish acquired a new status and vigor, especially as related to two of the Jewish community's most important cultural institutions outside the synagogues — the Yiddish press and the Yiddish theater. The influential Yiddish press, epitomized by the socialistic Daily Forward, played major roles not only in the politics and culture of the community, but also in the development of American Yiddish.
The origins of the modem Yiddish theater can be traced to Jassy, Rumania, around 1876, and slightly later to Odessa, Russia; a&er a ban by the czar in 1883, Yiddish theater companies accompanied Jewish emigration. By the end of the 1880s, most of the major figures within the Yiddish theater had immigrated to New York City which, by the turn of the century, was established as the world's center for Yiddish theater.
Most sources list the first Yiddish theatrical presentation in New York City as Koldunye ("The Witch"), a play by Avrom (Abraham) Goldfaden which featured a young Russian actor, Boris Thomashefsky, at the Tumverein at 66 East 4th Street on August 12, 1882. Goldfaden (1840-1908), considered the 'father of Yiddish theater," was a Russian poet, playwright, and composer who came to New York City in 1887.
Soon after Thomashefsky (1868-1939) formed his own Yiddish theater company, he was joined in competition with companies built around fellow Russian actors Jacob Adler (1855-1926) and David Kessler (1860-1920), Author Nahma Sandrow has stated that "the history of Yiddish theater in New York is the story of the crazy competition between companies";* over the years actors were to change companies, companies would often change theaters, and theaters frequently changed names.
New York's Yiddish theaters were first located around the Bowery and Canal, Grand, and Houston Streets, but from the 1920s into the 1940s the Yiddish theater flourished on Second Avenue (between Houston and East 14th Streets), which became known as the "Yiddish Rialto."
At its height in the late 1920s, there were some dozen Yiddish theaters in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, as well as several houses specializing in Yiddish vaudeville. Among the more prominent theaters were the National (111-117 East Houston Street, demolished); the People's (199 Bowery, demolished); the Grand (Grand and Chrystie Streets, demotished), said to be the first theater buitt as a Yiddish theater in New York (c. 1903), and soon after was the home of Jacob Ad!er's company; the Second Avenue (14-22 East !st Street, demolished), bui!t for David Kessler's company (c. 1909); and the Public (later the Phyliss Anderson, 66 Second Avenue).
The majority of Yiddish theater entertainment was geared to the vast audience of the Lower East Side. Particularly popular in the 1880s and 1890s were unsophisticated melodramas, comedies, and operettas with familiar Jewish character types in stones related to the immigrant experience, as well as vaudeville revues. Much of this theater was referred to as "shund" (roughly translated by Sandrow as "trash"), which was centered around star performers.
Periodic attempts were made, similar to those in theater in genera! elsewhere, to reform and elevate the Yiddish theater. Jacob Gordin (1853-1909), a Ukrainian writer/ playwright who arrived in New York in 1891, had an influence on those seeking a more realistic and educational theater.
The European "art theater* movement, which began in the 1880s, and particu!ar!y, the formation of the Moscow Art Theater in 1898, had a direct influence on both the Eng!ish-language and Yiddish theaters in the United States, and by the beginning of World War I.
American theater had "caught up* with the European theatrical avant-garde. Among the tenets of the 'art theater* were realism, ensemble acting, serious dramatic intent, and the crucial roles of the writer and director. The Yiddish theater produced many of the creative figures of the twentieth-century American stage, including actors, directors, writers, and designers, and had a major influence on theatrical form and content.
New York was, as well, the source of the majority of the most popu!ar and successful Yiddish p!ays in the wor!d during the heyday of the Yiddish theater.
Louis N. Jaffe and his Art Theater Building*
In April of 1923, Louis N. Jaffe purchased six lots on the southwest comer of Second Avenue and East 12th Street. Built up with mid-nineteenth-century town houses when this section of the avenue was particularly fashionable, this site had once been part of the estate of Peter Gerard Stuyvesant and had remained in the Stuyvesant/Rutherford family.
Stuyvesant's house (1845), located just to the south at No. 173 Second Avenue, was later home to Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, a lawyer and noted astronomer; Rutherfurd's son, Stuyvesant Rutherfurd, had inherited these lots after Stuyvesant's death and after changing his name to Rutherfurd Stuyvesant. Jaffe bought the houses intending their demolition and the construction of a theater building.'
Louis Nathaniel Jaffe (c. 1884-1944) was a Brooklyn lawyer and prominent Jewish civic leader. Bom in Russia, he immigrated to the United States around 1899, and received a law degree from New York University and was admitted to the bar in 1906. He represented or served on the boards of numerous Jewish organizations and institutions, including the American Jewish Congress administrative committee, Jewish Memorial Conservator of Jerusalem, Brooklyn Jewish Center, Center Academy of Brooklyn, Hebrew Free Loan Society of Bensonhurst, Zionist Organization of America, and Congregation of the Sons of Israel.
Jaffe organized the Jaffe Art Film Corporation, which made but one Yiddish film, Broken Hearts (released in March 1926); this film was directed by and featured Maurice Schwartz, a prominent Yiddish actor who was a founder and director of the Yiddish Art Theater company.
On May 28, 1923, Jaffe filed an application for the construction of a 1232-seat theater building, which also included stores and offices, to the designs of architect Harrison G. Wiseman at an estimated cost of $323,000.'" The theater was intended to be the home of Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theater. Jaffe was quoted as saying that he "had once watched a performance at the old Garden Theatre and was so impressed that he promised to bui!d a permanent home for Schwartz's company.*"
The Architect and Design of the Theater Building
Harrison G. Wiseman (1878-1943), architect of the Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater Building, was bom in Springfield, Ohio, and is known to have practiced in New York City from around 1910 to 1939. "Harry G." Wiseman (presumably the same person) bad designed Our Lady of Vilna R.C. Church, 568-570 Broome Street, in 1910. Wiseman worked in association with a number of other architects, including Arthur G. Carlson, from around 1915 to 1926, and Hugo Taussig, in the mid-1920s and early 1930s; original Buildings Department drawings and application for Jaffe's building also list the names of [Hugo E.] Magnuson & [Edward W.] Kleinert. Wiseman designed the William Fox Motion Picture Studios (c. 1919-20) at 800 Tenth Avenue. All of Wiseman's other known commissions, over two dozen, were for theaters, many of them neighborhood movie theaters in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, including a number for the Loew's chain.
His earliest known theater was the Penn (1910), a nickelodeon at 409 Eighth Avenue (demolished). Wiseman's other Manhattan theater commissions included the Union (1913), 505 West 42nd Street (demolished); the Bluebird (1920), 1763 Amsterdam Avenue; the Delancey (1922), 62 Delancey Street; the conversion of Oscar Hammers tcin's Manhattan Opera House (1906-07) into the Scottish Rite Temple (c. 1923), 311 West 34th Street; the Loew's Commodore (later the Fillmore East, 1925-26), 105 Second Avenue; the Hollywood (1926), 98 Avenue A; the first John Golden Theater (1926), 202 West 38th Street (demolished); and the Waverly (1937), 323 Sixth Avenue."
Wiseman's design for the exterior of the Jaffe Art Theater Building in a 1920s Moorish Revival style incorporating Alhambraic motifs and Judaic references, consists of a three-story block a!ong Second Avenue faced in cast stone and a taller brick auditorium block behind it to the west, along 12th Street.
The cast-stone portion features a two-story arcade incorporating storefronts, surmounted by an arcade of small pairs of windows above, interrupted near the north end by a taller entrance pavilion; the arcade continues around the comer onto 12th Street.
The entrance pavilion is dominated by an elaborate monumental arch which consists of a wide surround with panels of foliate and geometric ornament including motifs inspired by the Alhambra, and in the intrados, a cusped arch supported by large half-menorahs, with ornamental moldings suggesting curtains.
The auditorium block is fairly simple; the exit doors at the rear of the auditorium along 12th Street are surmounted by a large blind arch with patterned terra-cotta infill. Wiseman's original conception, as seen in his drawing included in the opening program, had shallow roof domes over the entrance pavilion and auditorium.
The Moorish motif was originally further carried out by the horizontal projecting marquee (no longer extant) which had ornamental comers. Flanking the main entrance are the carved inscription "Jaffe Art Theatre Bldg" and the cornerstone with the date May 23, 1926 (and the equivalent Hebrew date).
The design of the Jaffe Art Theater Building reflects several different architectural trends of the 1920s. The first of these was the search for an appropriate stylistic expression for synagogues and other Jewish institutions; this exploration turned away from the neo-classical, which had been employed at the turn of the century, and towards those styles that were considered to reflect Jewish origins, such as the Moorish, Byzantine, and Oriental.
Wiseman's design thus is related to such synagogues as the Congregation B'nai Jeshurun (1917-18, Walter S. Schneider & Henry B. Herts. 237-263 West 88 Street, in the Riverside-West End Historic District), and the Unity (later Mt. Neboh) Synagogue (1927-28, Walter S. Schneider, 130 West 79th Street, demolished). All three of these buildings also had colossal portals and shared the use of cast stone in their facades, in warm buff-colored tones which further evoked associations with the Near East. Both the Unity Synagogue and Jaffe Art Theater Building had very similar ornamental panels on these portals with motifs inspired by the Alhambra.
The Jaffe theater building and synagogues of this period also reflect the trend in the 1920s towards simplification of architectural forms, and the accompanying interest in the contrast of blank wall surface and concentrated areas of flat decoration. The final trend expressed in this theater was the interest in "exotic" styles for the design of theaters, as well as of clubs/ auditoriums for fraternal organizations.
Examples of the former include the numerous lavish movie palaces built across the United States, while an example of the latter is the Shriners' Mecca Temple (later City Center, 1922-24, H P. Knowles), at 131 West 33th Street, a designated New York City Landmark, which was built to a Moorish-inspired design.
Contemporary accounts of the Jaffe Art Theater Building included the Afrw KorJt 7vngy' comments that "the facade is fashioned after an old Jerusalem design; the architecture throughout is to be Oriental"'* and "it is of Palestinian and American architecture, having the appearance of an Oriental temple rather than that of a theatre."
Theater critic Brooks Atkinson called it "a pleasing and commodious playhouse, compact in architecture, and decorated inside with Oriental orders. Without being in the least ostentatious, it is strikingly beautiful in its design and realization.'*'
Maurice Schwartz and his Yiddish Art Theater"
Maurice Schwartz (1890-1960) was bom in the Ukraine, came to New York City in 1901, lived on the Lower East Side, and began his professional Yiddish acting career in Baltimore. After performing in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Philadelphia, he became a featured actor in David Kessler's Second Avenue Theater, in 1918 Schwartz joined a group of talented young Yiddish actors, including Jacob Ben-Ami, Celia Adler, and Ludwig Satz, in establishing the Yiddish Art Theater.
The Yiddish Art Theater company began at the Irving Place Theater, formerly Amberg's Theater (1888), a German-language theater located at Irving Place and East 15th Street (demolished). Its production of Peretz Hirschbein's A Favorn Vinkel.('The Forsaken Nook") in October of 1918 is considered the first performance in New York of a Yiddish 'art theater* piece.
Ben-Ami broke away from the company the following year and attempted to form another "art theater, * the Jewish Art Theater, though it was shortlived. And despite periodic attempts to form other Yiddish 'art theaters" over the years, Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theater company was the only one which had a lasting success; it was, as well, one of the longest surviving Yiddish theater companies in the world.
The Yiddish Art Theater performed up until 1950, with an additional attempted revival of the company in 1955. Author David Lifson considers Schwartz "the leading figure in the professional Yiddish theatre in New York from 1918 to 1950"
Schwartz remained devoted throughout his career to the Yiddish language and theater despite his occasional forays into film and Broadway. The Yiddish Art Theater, despite its name and original goals, actually steered a course between traditional Yiddish theater and 'art theater"; it was after all a company built around the figure of Maurice Schwartz, who not only remained the star actor of the company, but frequently produced and directed its productions.
The company staged more than 150 productions, many of them original Yiddish contemporary works, as well as adaptations and translations, and it was noted for its seriousness of purpose and variety of presentations.
The Yiddish Art Theater moved many times from theater to theater throughout its existence, and also toured around the world. The company performed in the Jaffe Art Theater, essentially built as its permanent home, during only four theater seasons: the inaugural two seasons of the new building from 1926 to 1928, and two later seasons in 1932-34. It is unclear exactly why Schwartz and his company left, but it appears that either Schwartz and Louis Jaffe had a disagreement, or that the company was not doing well enough financially to support this large new theater, or a combination of the two. The NYT noted in 1932 that "it had scarcely grown accustomed to its dressing rooms when a reversal of fortune and lean years followed. The company had to move out of its home and take up fugitive residences...
Jaffe conveyed his property to the 189 Second Avenue Realty company in May of 1928, after the end of the theater's second season.
Yiddish Theater at the Jaffe Art Theater 1926-45"
Yiddish theater was performed at the Jaffe Art Theater for nearly the entire period between its opening in 1926 (at the height of Yiddish theater in New York) and 1945 (at the end of the Yiddish theater heyday). The theater changed its name numerous times and housed as many different Yiddish theater companies. Many of the biggest stars and honorable veterans of the New York Yiddish stage, many of them once associated with the Yiddish Art Theater, appeared here: Joseph Bui off, Celia Adler, Bina Abramowitz, Lazar Freed, Bcrta Gersten, Isidor Cashier, Luba Kadison, Anna Appe!, Ludwig Satz, Molly Picon, Tillie Rabinowitz, Misha and Lucy German, Menasha Skulnick, Gustav Schacht, Anna Hollander, Jacob Mestel, Ola Lillith,
Edmund Zayenda, and Jacob Ben-Ami. Performances spanned the range of Yiddish theater, from serious dramas by some of the leading Yiddish playwrights, to musical comedies, operettas, and revues.
After the first two seasons of the Yiddish Art Theater's performances, the theater apparently remained vacant for a year. By May of 1929, the theater was known as the Yiddish Folks Theater, and in 1929-30 Ludwig Satz starred in and directed a number of musical plays. Satz (1891-1944) was bom in Polish Galicia, arrived in America around 1911, and was one of the original founders of the Yiddish Art Theater in 1918 with Maurice Schwartz.
In June of 1930 comedienne Molly Picon (1898-1992), one of the biggest stars of the Yiddish stage, leased the theater and changed the name to the Molly Picon's Folks Theater; she appeared there for the next season, despite the fact that in August of 1930 foreclosure proceedings were initiated on the building; in February, 1931, the property was conveyed to the Prosper Realty Corporation.
During the 1931-32 season the theater was leased by Misha and Lucy German, and was called the Germans' Folks Theater. Misha German (d. 1947) was a Russian-bom actor/producer who came to the U.S. during World War ! and later worked with the Yiddish Art Theater.
Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theater returned to their "home* during the two theater seasons from 1932 to 1934. Their first production, l.J. Singer's Yoshe Kalb became one of the greatest successes in the history of the Yiddish theater, playing some 300 performances over the course of the two seasons, and later traveled to Broadway in an English-language version.
When Schwartz's company vacated the theater in April of 1934, its name reverted back to the Yiddish Folks Theater (as Schwartz retained the sole rights to the name Yiddish Art Theater), and another group finished out the season here. In 1934 the 'New York Art Troupe at the Yiddish Polks Theater,' another attempt to establish a Yiddish "art theater,* was formed,
The New York Art Troupe, which lasted only one season, was directed by Joseph Buloff, along with fellow actors Lazar Freed and Jacob Mestel. Buloff (1899-1985) was bom in Lithuania, began acting with the famous Vilna Troupe, and was brought to New York by Schwartz to perform with the Yiddish Art Theater in 1926 in its new home; Buloff s career nearly spanned the entire history of Yiddish theater in this building, with his performances here as late as 1973.
The Yiddish Folks Theater was leased in April, 1933, by Menasha Skulnick and Joseph M. Rumshinsky for the following fall season, for musical comedies. Skulnick (1898-1970) was a very popular Yiddish comedian who had first appeared with the Yiddish Art Theater in 1919, and had performed with many companies across the country, including that of Misha and Lucy German in this theater in 1932; Rumshinsky (c. 1882-1956) was a popular and prolific Russian-bom composer who created over 100 Yiddish operettas, a number of which were performed in this theater by various companies.
A newspaper announcement in May of 1935 claimed that the theater was to become the first all-Yiddish motion picture theater in the world; it is not known whether or not this occurred, even for a short period, or whether this usage overlapped with Skulnick'* two seasons in the theater.
In April of 1937 the theater was leased to the Saulray Theatres Corporation; foreclosure proceedings wore initiated in September, the building being held by the Greater New York Savings Bank, and it became a movie theater known as the Century. Despite the effects of the Depression, this theater had been successful thus far in attracting Yiddish theater companies and patrons; the Yiddish theater was, however, going through a period of decline in the 1930s.
Commentators have variously attributed this decline to the end of the era of massive Jewish immigration to New York In 1924; the decline in usage of the Yiddish language; the association of Yiddish theater with oider generations of Jews and the assimilation of the younger generations into American culture; the move of many Jews from the Lower East Side to other areas such as Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx; and the influence of the movies, and the closings and subsequent conversions of Yiddish theaters into movie theaters (the Public and Second Avenue Theaters were converted around 1930).
During and at the end of its years as the Century Theater, two more seasons of Yiddish theater were produced here. In June of 1940 the theater was leased for the 1940-41 season, again as the Yiddish Folks Theater, under the direction of Jacob Wexler, a noted Yiddish actor and founder of the Hebrew Actors Union (who died soon after in January, 1941), and the management of actress Ola Lillith; they were joined by actors Edmund Zayenda and Ludwig Satz. Molly Picon returned to appear with them in Years of Yiddish Theater and Maurice Schwartz returned for a special performance of A Favorn Vinkel, as a tribute to Satz's career.
The Century Theater was "remodelled* and re-opened around April of 1941, with Gone With the Wind, as a first-run single-feature movie theater. In September of 1944 the theater was purchased by the M.H.R. Realty Corporation under Julius Raynes. Its final season as a Yiddish theater during this period was in 1944-45 as the New Jewish Folk Theater, under the direction of Jacob Ben-Ami (1890-1977), a prominent Russian-bom actor of both the Yiddish and English-language stages, who had been one of the original founders of the Yiddish Art Theater in 1918.
Ben-Ami, profoundly affected by the wartime destruction of the European Jewish peoples and their culture and theaters, decided to return to the Yiddish stage.
By March of 1946 the theater again became a movie theater, now known as the Stuyvesant Theater; it remained the Stuyvesant until 1953.
The Phoenix Theater 1953-61
In the fall of 1953 the Stuyvesant Theater (by then vacant) was leased by a newly created off-Broadway theater company which was to become one of the most important, prolific, and creative companies of the time; both the company and the theater were named the Phoenix Theater. The founders were Norris Houghton, who had experience in theater design and direction, and T. Edward Hambleton, descendant of a wealthy Maryland banking family who had theater management/production experience; Houghton became the artistic director and Hambleton the manager of the Phoenix.
Formed initially as a limited partnership company, its partners included such theatrical luminaries as Richard Rodgers, Elia Kazan, Mildred Dunnock, William Inge, and Peggy Wood.
The Phoenix Theater was planned as an 'art theater "/repertory company, modelled in part after the Lyric Hammersmith Theater in London, which would be freed from the restrictions, both artistic and economic, of the Broadway stage.
In their statement of purpose, the theater's founders expressed their desires 'to release actors, directors, playwrights, and designers from the pressures forced on them by the hit-or-flop patterns of Broadway,* and to give theater patrons *a playhouse where they can see top-flight productions of fine plays with professional casts within the limitations of their budgets.*"
The search for a theater away from the Times Square area led them to this vacant house; Houghton touted the attractiveness of the 1100-seat theater, which was newer than nearly all of the Broadway houses, and its advantages of location, in terms of transportation and proximity to the 30,000 residents of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. The goal of presenting serious theater with tickets costing only $1.20 to $3.00 was to be met through union concessions, a salary ceiling for performers at $100 a week, and a limited engagement schedule of four weeks per production.
The theater opened in December, 1953, with Sidney Howard's Madam Will You Walk , starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Over the course of eight full seasons in this house, the Phoenix Theater presented an impressive array of American and European theatrical talent, from both the stage and motion pictures; the credits are nearly a "who's who*
of 1950s theater. Directors of Phoenix productions included John Houseman, Howard da Silva, Sidney Lumet, Oscar Homolka, Tyrone Guthrie, Michael Redgrave, Eric Bentley, Tony Richardson, and George Abbott.
The numerous distinguished actors and actresses with the company included Robert Ryan, Mildred Natwick, Kaye Ballard, Montgomery CliR, Maureen Stapleton, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Nancy Walker, Farley Granger, Viveca Lindfors, Uta Hagen, Siobhan McKenrm, Eva LeGallienne, Irene Worth, Eli Wallach, Joan Plowright, June Havoc, Jacob Ben-Ami, Lillian Gish, and Mildred Dunnock.
Despite the company's emphasis on established actors, it also formed a reputation for assisting the careers of talented newcomers, some of whom included Tammy Grimes, Joe! Grey, Charlotte Rae, Larry Storch, Jerry Stiller, Peter Falk, and Fritz Weaver. The company tended toward classic dramas (by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, Ibsen, Brecht, Schiller, Eliot, O'Casey, etc.), but it became as well known for its innovative musicals.
The Phoenix Theater was never a profitable venture here after its first critically successful season, and it had periods of failure, success, and change. The second season saw its first major popular hit, the musical revue Phoenix '55 and the installation of air conditioning for the very first time so that the house could still be used during the warmest months.
Following the fourth season the company was reorganized both as a nonprofit organization and as a permanent repertory company under artistic director Stuart Vaughan. The theater's least successful season (1958-59) was followed by its greatest success, the musical comedy Once Upon a Mattress which launched the career of Carol Burnett. The company later was acclaimed for its productions of Shakespeare, one of the most successful American presentations of that play to date.
After years of deficits, the Phoenix Theater considered its large house to be a burden for its type of theater company, and it moved to a smaller house on East 74th Street in the fall of 1961. The company survived until 1982.
Later Incarnations of the Jaffe Art Theater 1961-present
Following the departure of the Phoenix Theater company in 1961, live theater performances, of widely differing types, were presented in the Jaffe Art Theater for over twenty-five more years, the name of the theater still changing frequently. As the Casino East Theater, it opened in December of 1961 with an Israeli Yiddish revue called Gezunt un Meshuga. Changing format, the theater presented the most popular show in its entire history:
Ann Corio in This Was Burlesque, which lasted here for a full three years and over 1500 performances between March, 1962, and March, 1965 (prior to its move to Broadway). The success of this show apparently inspired the theater's next incarnation as the Gayety Theater, which was Manhattan's only burlesque house at the time (1965-69). Burlesque was followed by nudity, with the opening in June of 1969 of the then-controversial musical Oh! Calcutta?; this played at the Eden Theater (again re-named) for over a year and a half, before traveling to Broadway and becoming one of the longest-running shows in New York theater history. Grease, the next successful musical production (which opened in February, 1972), also went on to Broadway.
For the next three years the Eden Theater was the home of a number of successful Yiddish theater productions, appropriately so given the origins of the theater (which by that time was one of the few extant Yiddish theater buildings in New York). Yoshe Kalb, which had been performed in this same theater to such acclaim in 1932-34 by the Yiddish Art Theater troupe, was revived in October, 1972, and featured Jacob Ben-Ami in his last stage appearance.
Jewish Nostalgic Productions, Inc., followed this with three more Yiddish plays (all successful). In March of 1975, the building's ownership was officially transferred to the Senyar [Raynes] Holding Company, under Martin Raynes; the Raynes family interests thus have held the property continuously since 19
After a brief interlude in 1977 as the 12th Street Cinema, the theater was renamed the Entermedia Theater. The Entermedia company was formed initially with the goal of producing dance, experimental theater, films, and other events. It opened in October of 1977 with Pearl Lang's dance version of The Dybbuk, called "The Possessed." Two musicals which had success on Broadway following their stay at the Entermedia were The Best M Square Productions leased the theater in 1985 and renamed it the Second Avenue Theater. One last Yiddish revival occurred with The Golden Land, performed 295 times beginning in November of 1985, and the musical, The Chosen, in November, 1987.
The theater was closed in 1988 and the interior subsequently was converted into a complex of seven movie theaters by John Averitt Associates, architects; it re-opened in 1991 as the Village East City Cinemas.
The Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater Building, aside from the theater, also originally contained six stores on the ground story with offices above these. The Russian Art Restaurant, one of the original tenants of the building for years, also presented musical entertainment. A number of cabarets were located here over the years.
Directories listed a number of organizations at this address in its earlier years, including the Jewish National Workers' Alliance, Jewish Folk Schools, and the Yiddisher Kultur Farband (YKUF), a communist-oriented organization which sought to advance secular Jewish culture in Yiddish.
In the 1960s the offices began to be converted into apartments; three notable gay residents were Jackie Curtis, a drag "superstar* in Andy Warhol films, photographer Peter Hujar (who lived here from 1975 to 1987), and artist David Wojnarowicz (who lived here from 1980 to 1992).
The exterior of the Jaffe Art Theater Building consists of a three-story "commercial block* along Second Avenue faced in cast stone with a taller auditorium block faced in brown brick behind it to the west, extending along 12th Street. The cast-stone portion features a two-story arcade, incorporating storefronts, of seven bays on the avenue, surmounted by an arcade of small pairs of windows on the third story;*^ this scheme is interrupted at the second-from-the-northemmost bay by a taller entrance pavilion.
The arcade continues around the comer onto 12th Street for two bays.* The arcade consists of semi-circular arches and panelled pilasters with capitals having intertwined birds amidst foliate and geometric decoration. There were originally six stores, each with an entrance alcove, on the ground floor in this portion of the building; today the southernmost three bays are storefronts, the next two bays are ticket counters, and the northernmost bay (and the 12th Street bays) corresponds to a new interior stairway.
Anodized aluminum storefronts and doors (nearly flush with the exterior wall), spandrel panels,** and windows* were installed during the building's conversion to a movie theater in 1990. The third-story pilasters have a simple guilloche pattern and foliate capitals.
The entrance pavilion is dominated by an elaborate monumental arch which consists of a wide surround with panels of foliate and geometric ornament including motifs inspired by the Alhambra, and in the intrados, a cusped arch supported by large half-menorahs, with ornamental moldings suggesting curtains;" the pavilion has a simple projecting cornice with rounded corbels.
The main entrance consists of four new glass and anodized aluminum doors, above which is the inscription "Village East Cinemas. Flanking the main entrance are the carved inscription 'Jaffe Art Theatre Bldg* to the south, below which is a small door leading to upper floors, and a signboard to the north, below which is the cornerstone with the date May 23,1926 (and the equivalent Hebrew date). The current marquee is V-shaped/'
A flagpole has been recently placed above the entrance arch. On the roof, south of the entrance pavilion is a terrace, while a small addition is located to the north.
The brick auditorium portion of the building, to the west of the cast-stone portion, has a wide facade on 12th Street consisting of the central section with the auditorium exit doors, which is flanked by taller, slightly projecting 'pavilions.'
The five pairs of new exit doors are surmounted by a wide, molded cast-stone band with corbels similar to the pilaster capitals on the cast-stone portion of the building, and a large blind arch with a patterned brick surround and pink quatrefoH-pattem terra-cotta infill. This facade is capped by a cast-stone band. Each flanking 'pavilion* has a ground-floor rectangular opening with a new wrought-iron gate. Each is surmounted by an arched opening, behind which is an exterior fire stairway.
At the west end of the facade is an exit alley with fire escapes covered by corrugated metal and a new wrought-iron gate.
- From the 1993 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report