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.
As soon as Michelangelo Alasa heard that the theater on the second floor of 62 East 4th Street was up for rent, he grabbed a crowbar and moved toward the stairs. He swung open wooden doors on his way; his feet hit cracked, uneven white tile that on other occasions he’d stopped to admire. He made it to the stairs and began a slow, certain descent to the next floor. The marble stairway walls had been painted over since before his time, a murky indefinite color offensive mainly due to what it covered. It was 1996, and the time had come to liberate the remnants of the storied century-old theater and reclaim its striking heritage.
At the bottom of the stairs Alasa stopped. He stood before a door he had walked past every day on the way to his office upstairs, and usually ignored: it was tall, wooden and thick, perched on the edge of the stairwell, just a flight above the lobby. There were two wide holes where the doorknobs should have been, a heavy chain draped through them and padlocked by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Alasa set his crowbar against the lock. It broke off on the first try. The weight of the chain pulled the lock down to the marble landing. He pulled open the door and stepped into the dark.
The door swung back on him, slammed him from behind and knocked him to the ground. The flashlight flew out of his hand. Alasa scrambled to his feet, found the flashlight, and moved it around. It was like entering an ancient tomb. Cherubs, goddesses and weightless billowed clouds loomed out from vast faded murals; three enormous regal chandelier canopies dripped down from the ceiling into futile, empty hooks; a gilded proscenium arch yawned over an abandoned stage. As Alasa moved around the room, he stumbled over chairs, boxes and lamps. Like the rest of the theater, the stage was full of trash. It was gritty, musty, and disused.
But this was where it had happened. The significance overwhelmed him. Hadn’t Emma Goldman stood in this room, days before she was deported to Finland in 1919? Andy Warhol in 1969 rented out this theater to show silent gay porn; Alasa remembered feeling as if he had stepped into a circus, Warhol standing as the ringleader, right there. Lingering in this room were the specters of army posts, meeting to remind themselves of the time they spent shoulder-to-shoulder and reliant on one another for their own lives.
Now this place was littered with old theatrical sets, costumes and upholstered chairs affixed to rotting floors. In the back there sat a grimy couch. Alasa couldn’t see clearly with his flashlight, and the light switches were useless. He ran back upstairs and strung together a set of extension cords from his office, running them down the painted-over marble stairs and through the tall doors to hook up as many lights as he could find.
The effect was incredible: Now you could see it! Francis Coppola shooting The Godfather II, Chevy Chase running around the theater with Laraine Newman, Divine practicing for Women Behind Bars, minor Manhattan socialites toasting at their wedding receptions, the formation and meetings of the Musical Mutual Protective Union, J. I. Rodale running play after play after play off-Broadway.
At the time, Alasa was the artistic director for the Duo Multicultural Arts Center, producing shows on the third floor in the only legally used space in the building, which Duo shared with the Rod Rodgers Dance Company. From his office above the theater, Alasa had heard squatters coming in and out, presumably breaking in through the windows, holding raucous raves and raising plywood bunks to make a warren of lofted love nests.
Alasa was hungry for a larger canvas. Expanding downstairs was the logical next move but the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which had claim on the space, was seeking a major theater venture to rent it, not a modest outfit like Duo. Alasa knew that if he didn’t make an audacious move, he wouldn’t stand a chance of securing the space.
The room that eventually became a theater was built in 1889, when a German immigrant named Victor Eckstein bought the lot next door to his house at 64 East 4th Street. He had been renting out his own house for meetings, which he found a lucrative enough endeavor to want to expand. Like Alasa a century later, Eckstein wanted more room. He hired Max Schroff to design a new building on the property, and on May 29, 1889, work began on 62 East 4th Street. Eckstein spent $35,000 on construction. Schroff used hand-burned brick, blue stone-covered walls, spruce floor beams and yellow pine girders. The floor and ceiling were arched with brick, and the roof laid flat with tin. It took a day under seven months to finish, and in less than a fortnight, the five-story meetinghouse was up and running.
Eckstein called it the Metropolitan Assembly Rooms, and layered each floor according to its purpose. The basement was a restaurant, which served a dining room on the first floor. The second and third stories were meeting rooms. Eckstein, whose youngest daughter Bertha was born in the same year his building went up, moved into the top two floors with his family of seven. Almost everyone called it Eckstein’s Metropolitan Assembly Rooms, and it quickly became a favorite rallying point for labor unions, volunteer organizations, anarchists, musicians and Army posts.
One group of former Union soldiers made the Metropolitan Assembly Rooms its headquarters, and met regularly under the name of John Lafayette Riker, their colonel who fell at the Battle of Fair Oaks in Virginia. Riker, a firefighter and lawyer, had an accidental – if successful – military career. The only stain on his record was a court-martial for having a woman, dressed as a male soldier, in his regiment. Although Riker died in 1882, the last surviving members of his post met at Eckstein’s Metropolitan Assembly Rooms to remember their time in the Civil War together. At their gatherings they elected officers for their club, socialized with their wives, and on a hot day in August in 1898, presented two deeply moved veterans with gold badges.
It was also around this time that workers were fighting for better wages and fewer hours. In 1897, the building witnessed union history. Engineers around New York City were agitated over a proposed new bill, which would make it easier for amateurs to enter the trade. Easier licensing meant that “incompetent” or “unworthy” men could become their peers, a hazard not just to their current jobs, but to the public’s safety. On March 21, delegates representing over 20,000 steam engineers from all boroughs met at Eckstein’s building and made the decision to stand ground en masse. They formed the Greater New York Central Association of Steam Engineers, a massive conglomeration comprising various already established unions. They then met bimonthly, and used the Metropolitan Assembly Rooms as basecamp to oppose the dreaded Bill 462.
Eckstein sold his building in 1903 when he was 60, but his son Victor Eckstein, Jr. carried on his legacy of hospitality. Eckstein the younger became a famous restaurateur as the owner and operator of Lüchow’s Restaurant, which was located near Union Square. The Metropolitan Assembly Rooms, meanwhile, was sold to George Ehret, a ruddy-faced, sharp-chinned German brewer 20 years older than Eckstein. Ehret didn’t move into the building as Eckstein had, despite his need to house six servants; instead, he leased the whole space out as offices, restaurant space, meeting spaces, dwellings and, on the first floor, a dance hall.
Walter Rosenberg bought the building after Ehret in 1920, and in came its new era as Astoria Mansion. It became a place for celebrations. Couples from the rising middle class booked it for weddings: Women who were stenographers, bookkeepers, socialites and secretaries married drug clerks, , stationary salesmen, attorneys, manufacturers and poultry farmers. The number of guests at a given event ranged from 50 to 150. They came from nearby and out of town. Maids of Honor were made to wear royal blue taffeta or pale green chiffon; carry African daisies, pink roses, white gardenias; suffer summer heat alongside fellow bridesmaids in pastel hues clutching bouquets of seasonal June flowers. And the brides! The brides favored white satin, buttoned bodices, and long tulle veils laced with orange blossoms or violets. They carried white streamer-trailed Bibles against bouquets of sweet peas, gardenias, white roses. And after the festivities, after the cuffed dolman sleeves and lace trains, the couples honeymooned in New England or Europe or Canada before settling down. Some moved to St. Louis, but most began married life in Brooklyn.
Throughout the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, golden anniversary celebrations and honorary confirmation dinners added to the weddings and receptions. Labor unions continued to meet and strategize within the building’s walls. Ben Grodsky bought the building and opened a strictly Kosher catering company on the first floor in 1946, and reinstated the tradition of inhabiting the upper floors. Throughout the late ‘40s, Grodsky held New Year’s Eve galas and other themed soirees at the Astoria Mansion, filled with dancing, music and lively entertainment.
In the 1950s, the Lower East Side was home to increasing numbers of newcomers from Albania. In her article for Illyria, Feruze Zeko describes how they formed the Albanian Center of New York as an offshoot from their larger cultural organization, Koshere, or “Beehive.” Members of the Albanian community chipped in funding and as a result, they bought the 62 East 4th Street building as a headquarters for their organization in 1952. The Albanian Center became a cultural community center for Albanian immigrants: a place for them to hold meetings, social events, and an Albanian school.
As Albanian families left the Lower East Side, the Albanian Center went in search of a new headquarters, and in 1960, playwright J. I. Rodale entered the picture. Rodale had a penchant for unusual, moral-driven plays and a strong hatred of sugar. He spent over $100,000 turning the building into not only a theater, but a theater workshop and an acting school. He intended for the old-world space to be “intimate,” and renamed the building the Rodale Theater.
In 1963, artist Ronnie Landfield was a precocious New York teenager when Rodale offered the Rodale theater to a group of his friends for a production. They put on a show called “If I Grow Up.” Roscoe Orman, who went on to play the role of Gordon on Sesame Street, was a senior at the time and acted in the show; Landfield painted half of the forty-foot backdrop in black and white, Franz Kline-style. During the production, Rodale allowed Landfield to hold his first gallery show in the basement. “I think he wanted people like us,” Landfield recalls of Rodale. He remembers Rodale as welcoming. “I think he was trying to benefit us.” Rodale eventually sold the building in 1967.
Two years after Rodale left, Michelangelo Alasa saw the second-floor theater for the first time. He was 19 in a summer infused with Woodstock and the death of Judy Garland. He saw an ad in the East Village Other advertising a “Male Parade” at 62 East 4th Street, what Andy Warhol had rented and renamed “Fortune Theater” as a side-business to help pay the bills by showing hardcore male porn. “You see it all,” the ad promised, “A good show, sensual, groping. Genuine anti-art statements.” Alasa showed up hoping to see Warhol, even though the shows were in the name of Warhol’s associate, Gerard Malanga.
The cost of entry to Andy Warhol Theater: Boys To Adore Galore was $5, significantly more than any other venue that offered gay male pornography (the closest thing at that time were 25-cent peep shows, brief as they were disappointing). The outside of the building was run-down when Alasa walked through the doors that first time 45 years ago, but the theater was an utter spectacle, a bazaar of old men drenched in a haze of smoke. Alasa was easily the youngest person there. The smell of weed was overpowering in the room. Jonas Mekas later wrote that watching the audiences’ “grim” faces left him depressed and heartbroken “to see all that loneliness and sadness in their faces, at 3 in the afternoon.”
Almost everyone involved in Warhol’s side-project had found a way of profiting from Boys To Adore Galore, whether by pocketing a share of the proceeds or upcharging ignorant customers on their way in. Warhol Superstar Joe Dallesandro supposedly built his own side-side business “in a small sofa-filled room beside the projection booth,” where he charged outrageous prices for sex.
After the summer of Warhol’s films, Francis Ford Coppola used the second-floor theater as the set for the opera scene in The Godfather Part II. Coppola painted the corners of the proscenium arches with olive trees and bucolic Italian scenery. In 1978, Divine rehearsed in the theater for Women Behind Bars before it opened across the street.
Later, when Alasa broke into the second-floor theater and started cleaning up the heaps of trash inside, he hired a carting company to help him throw everything out. The trash inside the theater took seven dumpsters and several days to jettison from the building. Out went old rusting spotlights and two enormous, antique projectors the squatters had pillaged for parts. Dallesandro’s supposedly famous couch survived this purge but went years later, sold on eBay or put outside with the trash. Alasa tore down the squatter’s lofted beds. Finally, although he didn’t have a formal rental agreement for the second floor, Alasa convinced ConEdison to turn on the power and bring light into the theater.
Even with light, the theater at this point had seen so many variations on itself – had worn so many casings, so many different uniforms – that its very bones were tired and weak. Alasa began producing shows in the second-floor theater. He moved his Greta Garbo show there from the third floor. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development never called. He continued producing shows, presuming the city had decided to allow this theatrical appropriation. Eventually, however, the city did step in to renovate and required everyone using the building to vacate for 12 months. Alasa struck a deal with the agency: he would vacate the building for one year if, in return, he could officially lease the second-floor theater. The city agreed – one has to imagine they shrugged – and raised Alasa’s rent from $27 for one floor to $600 for both. After the work was completed, Duo moved back in.
In 2009, the building still sorely needed attention. Most painful to see was the front of the building, where an enormous, half-cylinder grate surrounds a spiral staircase that went from the fourth to second floors. Eckstein had allegedly built it for his family in case of an emergency, although later owners eventually built a traditional fire escape in the back of the building. Between 2009 and 2012, public funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Design and Construction paid to restore the building’s façade. The external staircase remains a favorite of local blogs, including Forgotten New York, Gothamist, Lost City, and Daytonian in Manhattan. In 2012, the entire block became part of the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District.
Currently, the Rod Rogers Dance Company, whose Artistic Director is Kim Grier-Martinez,occupies the basement, first and fifth floor of 62 East 4th Street. The dance company runs classes in dance, martial arts and yoga, as well as youth programs. Duo has held its ground on the second, third and fourth floors. Alasa runs a weekly autobiographical show, which was free for the first 211 showings; he is opening a new show, “All About Sex,” in May. And, with dancers and choreographers using the fourth floor for rehearsal, the building is seeing artists and audiences again.
Alasa says the building is full of ghosts. Anyone who’s been there at night will agree, and share stories of mysterious flitting lights in the second floor theater. Spirits slip through the floors and haunt with a faint, warm kind of hum. A few years ago at a cocktail party on the third floor, guests saw a pair of specters dancing in the corner, garbed in turn-of-the-century waistcoats and floor-length dresses. They were plainly, vividly there in green, brown and grey – and then they weren’t.
You have to wonder what stories the ghosts would tell in this building. Perhaps they would tell of the Olde Tyme Beer and Pretzel Session, when the Astoria Mansion was packed with 150 fraternity members playing bridge, singing rally songs, and above all celebrating pretzels and beer. The ghosts might whisper “Chicago,” hoping the password would still gain them entry to the fifth-floor gambling hall, to squander money quickly and illegally until a 1921 police raid. Hugh Black, an elderly man of some misfortune, would recall the night he swallowed his artificial teeth, and had to be rushed off to Bellevue, long before 62 East 4th Street was a theater, before Warhol and Colonel Riker and weddings, and before Victor Eckstein razed Black’s house to make room for his hall. The building has seen drastic makeovers, could spin tales of being skinned then renewed, of bleak fame and disrepair. Alasa believes that the theater was waiting for him. He wonders where it will go when he’s gone.