All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
It’s been five years since the Smallest Grand Opera in the World performed on top of a 20-foot-wide stage in downtown Manhattan. The tiny theater seated 107 people in total. But it had everything an opera house ought to have – a balcony, a trap door, and two beautiful chandeliers.
Because of the limited space, singers used a secret route to enter and exit the stage. They would pop outside through the backstage door and run around the building alongside the lot that used to be a gas station. Towering over them would be a huge mural painted on the theater’s outer brick wall that proclaimed: “AMATO OPERA.” The singers would quickly primp up their costumes and then pass the occasional vagrant shuffling along the Bowery. The dramatic re-entrance would come through the front door.
Today, a few homeless men still wander past 319 Bowery. But what used to be a gas station next door has become an NYU dorm and all that remains of the once charming little opera house is its shell. Uniforms and safety helmets have replaced the colorful costumes and hats. Construction workers pop in and out of the doors now, not opera singers.
In 2011, when The Local East Village got a glimpse inside of the abandoned theater, it looked like a corpse: the flesh of the place was gone, except for a few scraps of old props and sets, the floors ruined and the walls decayed.
In September of 2014, the Department of Buildings finally granted new owner Steve Croman permission to turn the dead space into an apartment building, so I decided to check out the transformation myself (and meet a few ghosts, too). On a dark, rainy December afternoon—the perfect setting for a spooky outing—I knocked on the maroon door, bracing myself for rotten smells and dying pianos. A “No Smoking” sign stared back at me as I waited for the din to die down on the other side. A construction worker answered the door. His name was Daniel and he told me to “come on in.” As I crossed over the threshold into history, a little tingle went down my spine.
The building seemed to be in much better shape than it was in The Local East Village’s photos. No phantom of the opera lurked in the corners, much to my disappointment. Casur, the company in charge of the construction, has been clearing out debris and tearing down the interior for the past few months. In fact, all that was left of the place when I visited were its wooden beams, the bare-bone structure of the 115-year-old building.
The space was hollow, but with every step I took I found myself imagining all the people who had walked the floors before me. Like many old homes in New York, this skinny building had touched the lives of many characters.
The history of 319 Bowery began in 1899 as a cigar factory. Architects Julius Boekell & Son built the four-story building on the corner of East 2nd Street and Bowery. It was 22.4 feet wide and one side slanted inwards because the plot of land was so irregular. In the New York Corporation Directory from 1910, the building is listed under the name “Egyptian Tobacco Works.” Jonas Whitelaw, a tobacco manufacturer, owned and operated the factory.
Jonas was the son of Ignatz Whitelaw, a Hungarian immigrant who used to run a prosperous leaf tobacco business in Cuba. A 1910 New York Times article announced a huge family gathering for the golden wedding celebration of Ignatz Whitelaw and his wife. Four generations of Whitelaws would attend, the article said, and a Bar Mitzvah for 13-year-old Jonas Jr. would take place on the side.
In 1906, the building became home to the Holy Name Mission, which served the homeless and the jobless for nearly four decades. A descriptive article in Our Young People shows us what 319 Bowery looked like as a mission house. The first floor held a reading room, which was open to the public until late at night. There was no attendant, so anyone could come read and rest in quiet. The floor above held the “plainly furnished office” of Reverend Father William J. Rafter, an ambitious leader who headed the mission. The third floor featured a clubroom with card tables, pool and billiard boards, books, and magazines. A quaint chapel occupied the top floor.
This was, of course, the Bowery’s “Skid Row” period. The Times reported that there were around 20,000 homeless and unemployed men floating in and around the district in 1914. Most descriptions of the Bowery in this period go something along the lines of “the very synonym of human depravity and wretchedness.”
Although many similar institutions around the Bowery cared for the displaced at the time, Father Rafter’s feisty leadership set the Holy Name Mission apart. Father Rafter believed that the mission should reach beyond charity. In a 1911 Literary Digest article titled “Practical Christianity in the Bowery,” he said a meal ticket and a night’s lodging weren’t ultimate solutions to rejuvenation. In exchange for providing food and shelter, Father Rafter demanded that a man make an earnest effort to get back on his feet. It could start with something as simple as coffee. “There’s nothing like a cup of good coffee on a cold night,” Father Rafter said. “But the men are going to make it themselves and provide it themselves.”
At the back of his office, Father Rafter even created what he amusingly referred to as the “Gent’s Outfitting Store,” a veritable prototype for Dress for Success, only for men. On average, he dressed six men a day for job interviews, picking out outfits from racks and shelves of “every description of wearing apparel and haberdashery.” In an interview with Our Young People in 1916, Father Rafter said of his special collection, “Maybe ‘tis fine feathers won’t make fine birds. But they’re a mighty fine aid in getting a job.” Even before all the ritzy opera costumes, this building flaunted some dashing wardrobes.
In addition to sprucing up his clientele, Father Rafter would supply the men “with an address that did not have a Bowery flavor,” or even send them to business college to “brush up” on their “shorthand.” He said that in most cases, the men came back to the mission to repay their debts and to support the mission’s work. The Holy Name Mission also hosted fundraising events to pay for its operations. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported regular meetings of the mission’s Ladies Auxiliary, which gathered for dancing and bridge parties. Sometimes, donations came from individuals inspired by Father Rafter’s work. In 1914, a man named Patrick Francis O’Brien wrote to the editor of the New York Tribune, “I send herewith $5, which will you kindly see reaches the Holy Name Mission on the Bowery.”
The mission house years came to a close in the 1940s. For the next two decades, 319 Bowery became a storage facility and then retail space until the Amato Opera purchased the building in 1963. But the special bond between the Amato Opera and the building began long before.
In his memoir, The Smallest Grand Opera in the World, Anthony Amato remembers the years that led up to settling into the theater. He and his beloved wife, Sally, founded the Amato Opera company in 1948. But before that, the young couple started out small, with private music lessons in their own home. They would teach opera, build makeshift sets and perform in tiny walk-up apartments. Naturally, their neighbors frequently complained about the singing.
One day, when the Amatos were living in a studio on 43rd Street and 6th Avenue, they got a visit from their downstairs neighbor, a Mr. Cohen. He had come up to investigate the “strange noises” that filled the halls. After meeting the Amatos, however, Cohen ended up becoming an opera enthusiast. He even offered the couple the upper two floors of his restaurant supply store at 319 Bowery – for free. The Amatos had needed a space to store their costumes and props, so they took the offer gladly. Little did they know they would one day call the building home.
After founding their company, the Amatos expanded the number of private lessons they taught and began to put on full productions. For a while, they performed here and there, whenever there was a space available. After stints in Our Lady of Pompeii Church in the East Village, Washington Irving High School and an old theater at 159 Bleecker Street, Amato decided it was time to settle into their own theater. He thought Cohen’s free storage building in the Bowery the perfect choice, since the company was already making costumes and building sets there. But his wife, appalled, responded, “Tony, you’re crazy! It’s small, and derelicts are always sleeping out in front!”
She was right—in their first few seasons, patrons feared coming down to the district. There would be times when the number of patrons was less than the number of performers on stage. But despite the Bowery’s infamous reputation, Amato bought 319 Bowery from his old neighbor in 1963.
Once again, the four-story building underwent an overhaul to fit the needs of its new owners. Amato was an admirer of the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Connecticut, so he “copied (stole) some of their stage constructions for our miniature house.” His plan called for the upper two floors to remain a storage space for sets, costumes, and props. The second floor would be divided into several rooms used for rehearsal, sewing, and dressing. It would also hold a private office. Part of the first floor and the cellar would become the cozy 107-seat theater. The cellar level also held the stage, the concession, and the lounge. By cutting out much of the first floor, Mr. Amato made the theater 23 feet high so that the singers’ voices would ring out unrestrained. Below the stage, a four-foot-wide “fun-house tunnel” would take singers and actors backstage.
On September 11, 1964, after a year of construction, Amato anxiously waited for approval from the Department of Buildings. The company was set for a grand opening night of La Boheme, its first production at their new home. When the inspector finally showed up for the final check-up, he turned to Amato and said, “Tony, you’re trying to run the Metropolitan Opera in this small building!” Amato grinned. It was the beginning of an opera so small but, oh so grand.
Amato Opera had a good run for 61 glorious seasons. In one section of his memoir, Amato recalls some amusing accidents at the Bowery theater. One happened because of the cramped backstage space. During Act III of Aida, just as the music was reaching its climax, Radames would make a dramatic entrance and rush to meet his beloved. But because of the close quarters, when the tenor who played Radames stepped out on stage, his costume caught a wire that held the set together and he jerked back offstage like a spring. But he was a professional. He kept calm and continued to sing until a staff member untangled the wire.
Anthony and Sally Amato’s extraordinary love and partnership made the theater a neighborhood treasure for many years. Nicknamed the “Mom and Pop opera,” it was run “on sheer charm,” as Nathan Hull puts it. Hull was a baritone who joined the company in the late 1990s. He remembers Amato coming to join the singers backstage during the intermission. Standing just over five feet tall, the small Italian impresario would pull out a five-dollar bill with great finesse. “A little something for you,” he would say, pressing the bill into Hull’s hands. The five bucks would be just enough for a cab ride home, but that didn’t matter much. There was something more to take away from the opera. Hull ended up singing 10 more years for the theater.
Throughout their lifetime, the Amatos wanted their theater to become a place where young artists could come and find their true callings in the world of music. The company served as the perfect training ground for young artists. A passionate teacher, Amato would often act out each and every one of the parts of any given opera. He believed in learning by observation, the way he had observed countless opera productions.
“It was a privilege to work with Tony because he knew every opera upside down,” said Hull. “If you were to take tapes of all the rehearsals of, say, The Barber of Seville, and piece it together, you’ll have Tony Amato singing all the parts—male, female, young, old, everything. It was a labor of love.”
Despite many happy years, the last decade of the Amato Opera House was blotted with acrimony. After his wife died in 2000, Amato had to think of new ways to manage the company. Without any children to pass on his legacy, Amato hoped his nephew, Richard Leighton, and niece, Irene Frydel Kim, would fill his shoes. The arrangement fell through because the two did not get along and did not carry out the ways of the warm and friendly “Mom and Pop opera.” Matters only worsened when Irene Frydel Kim and her husband, John Kim, sued Mr. Amato. The Kims claimed that Amato owed them more than 10 years worth of back wages and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Amato’s estates. The legal battle continued on even after Amato died in 2011. This past October, the Bronx Supreme Court settled financial disputes over the sale of Amato’s City Island home.
Although the 319 Bowery will leave no trace as an opera house, the spirit of the Amatos lives on. Shortly before his death, Amato set up a legacy endowment called The Sally and Anthony Amato Program Fund: Preparing for the Opera World with the Manhattan School of Music. The fund continues the theater’s lifelong effort to train young artists through the “Amato system” and go on to perform Operas-in-Brief at elementary and secondary schools in New York City.
In addition, Hull and several other former company members established the Amore Opera in 2009, in homage to the Amato Opera. Under the blessings of Amato, they took the same set pieces and costumes created during the Amato Opera days and developed their own productions. Their next season will begin in May 2015.
As I stood there amidst the “ghosts” who had come and gone at 319 Bowery, I wondered who would become its new tenants. No one from the Croman crew responded to my numerous calls and emails, so I don’t know what plans were envisioned for the new apartment. But at the least, its new residents should remember that this building had a lot of flair. And a lot of love, too – the love of a priest, the love of a neighbor, and the love of two singers who loved the opera.