This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
A heavy metal marquee juts over pedestrians at 126 Second Avenue, the word “STOMP” making clear that the address is home to the off-Broadway show whose performers dance, clap, and generally bang on anything in sight. Stomp has been playing at the Orpheum Theater since 1994, making it one of the longest running shows in the city. The current playhouse front may lure customers in, but it obscures most of the building’s original architectural details, as well as its bumpy journey through history. With a court order now lingering, it’s unclear how much longer that iconic marquee will remain as is.
A New York magazine review the year of Stomp’s debut tempts theater-hungry city dwellers with a show that is “far more engaging than you might expect.” Alan Schuster booked Stomp for the Orpheum, which he owned for some time. On his commute to New Jersey one day, he saw a for sale sign hovering over the venue. As he recalled in a guide to theater production, “I assumed the marquee and the theater were proportional (they were not – large marquee; small theater).” At 28 years old he took a risk on that ragged shoebox with its seats, officially igniting his career as a theater landlord.
Today, come 8 p.m. almost every night of the week, each of the 347 seats is filled for the price of $50 or more for a better view. But in a court case brought by lawyer Glen Spiegel, Stomp’s producers argued that the theater doesn’t look, or smell, like it earns over $15,000 a night, claiming that in the lobby, a once-plush carpet is scuffed and worn beyond repair and audience members crease their noses at the slight smell of sewage as they head into the theater to take their seats. Spiegel said that there were signs in the rest rooms asking people to dispose of soiled toilet paper in the waste basket, not the toilets.
In April, producers of Stomp informed their landlord that they were leaving the building for a Times Square theater. They claimed that demands to fix the air conditioning, upgrade the rest rooms, and improve the carpets were never met. In a lawsuit, the owners countered that they had been in the process of making repairs, and argued that Stomp should allow the theater some more time before leaving. They further argued that Stomp was trying to breach its contract with the theater on fabricated grounds.
That month, Stomp won the right to leave the Orpheum, but for a price. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Oing ruled that if the production moved, it would have to pay the owners $5,000 a week, or more, for every week it is open at a new off-Broadway theater.
But in December, an arbitrator ruled that Stomp’s attempt to terminate their license agreement with Liberty Theaters, the owner of the Orpheum, was “invalid, null, and void.”
So Stomp hasn’t budged. With the success the production has brought to the Orpheum, it’s no secret why the theater’s owners fought for the production to stay put. That’s because leaving would mean Stomp breaking its contract with the theater. This present day struggle between owner and occupant seems like a right of passage for all who pass through 126 Second Avenue. Even before the digging of foundations and the laying of bricks, in the days before the grid system and precise addresses, people were fighting over the land where today’s Orpheum stands.
The Stuyvesant family legacy in Manhattan is no secret: Peter Stuyvesant was the last governor of New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement in what is now downtown Manhattan. Looking up at Orpheum theater today, with Second Avenue traffic whooshing past and the bells of neighboring deli doors clattering in the background, it’s hard to imagine instead hearing the gentle rustle of leaves from the hundreds of trees that formed the orchard of Governor Stuyvesant’s 62-acre Bowery estate.
The first scuffle over the land occurred right around the time that New Amsterdam become New York, and it was of a national scale. Governor Stuyvesant was an unpopular ruler. The governor had failed to rally his Dutch subjects, ceded to the British in 1664 and returned to his homeland, the Netherlands. It wouldn’t be long before he came back, however, bitter and on a mission. The Cultivator, a monthly publication devoted to agriculture, wrote in its July 1864 issue:
“On being driven out of the city by the ‘guessing, pumpkin-eating gentry,’ and their English allies, [Stuyvesant] retreated to his country residence at this place, and being brimful of wrath and cabbage, he cut down every English tree he could find on his grounds.”
Stuyvesant not only tore down an entire avenue of English Cherry trees, but in a final act of defiance, he planted a pear tree native to his homeland. It stood not too far from the site of the Orpheum, at what is now the corner of 13th Street and Third Avenue.
After Peter Stuyvesant’s death in 1672, local children spent their weekends digging for imaginary gold on his estate. Rumor had it “that the old governor buried a great deal of his money at the time of the Dutch troubles, when the English red-coats seized on the province,” or so wrote New York City native and 19th-century author Washington Irving.
But while the locals were tearing up Stuyvesant’s land, his descendants expanded his estate. One of his sons had died in the Caribbean in 1675, but Nicholas William was alive and well in New York, and continued to buy land, including the plot at today’s 126 Second Avenue. In fact, the site remained in Stuyvesant hands until 1953, the year Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant, Jr., the last direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, died.
Nicholas granted the land to one of his heirs, Gerard Stuyvesant. It was on this land in a handsome private residence that he lived with his wife Susan, and eventually their three children, Robert, Amelia, and Augustus Van Horne. Augustus would later have a child of the same name, born on the property on June 20, 1870.
It was Augustus Jr. who sold the leasehold of the building in 1898 to the Bloch family. Five years later, Nathan E. Bloch subleased the space to Aaron Ligety, who is the man responsible for initiating the building into the world of spectacle. Ligety’s Orpheum opened on October 1, 1904, and was known by its clientele as “Tinkle Tankle,” which would have aroused pleasant memories for those who had visited Vienna. The decor was utterly unassuming — no velvet drapes or pristine tablecloths — with lively music played by an authentic Hungarian gypsy orchestra to match.
In fact, the theater’s first patrons were largely Europeans from Germany and eastward, and it remained largely unknown to Americans until the New York Times published an article about this new bohemian hub:
“The real fun of the evening does not begin until 8 o’clock. At this hour the stage at the end of the room is lit up; diners push back their chairs and take seats at tables as close to the footlights as they can crowd, and for three hours enjoy a show that has no duplicate in this country.”
A troop of Viennese artists came specially to the Orpheum to bring a slice of home to those who had settled in Manhattan. Even the name Orpheum was imported from Vienna, denoting a place of energetic entertainment. But the word is derived from Orpheus, a great Greek mythological poet and musician whose skills could charm animals, plants, and even rocks. In legend, when Orpheus’s wife died his song was enough to charm Hades into giving her back from the underworld.
The performance was not the only delight to be devoured by patrons; in the early 1900s, Ligety’s Orpheum housed a restaurant, often touted in Brooklyn Daily Eagle as the place to dine. It became so popular in those first months that reserving a table in advance was the only way to eat, drink, and smoke in congenial company.
The building may have been the least American place on Second Avenue during the first half of the 20th century. Owned by a Dutchman, leased by a Czechoslovakian, home to European performers and guests; it’s fitting that the man responsible for designing the interior of the theater was Polish.
Alexander Pindikowsky arrived in Canada in 1879 at the invitation of the Anglo-American telegraph company. He lived in a small town called Heart’s Content where he gave painting lessons to the wives and children of company employees. He was an aspiring and talented young artist and painter, but he soon found himself before the court, charged with default of payment for purchases. His painting job must not have paid well, for in March 1880, he was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for forging two checks in the name of Heart’s Content cable company’s superintendent, E. Weedon. But even this stint in prison couldn’t stop Pindikowsky from pursuing his craft. He got out a month early for working on the gold leaf ceilings of the Colonial Building in St. John’s. If it weren’t for this misdemeanor, however, Pindikowsky would have never made it to Manhattan to work on alterations to the theater that opened there in 1904: he was ordered to quit Newfoundland for life five days after his release, or else face more prison time.
The building at 126 Second Avenue underwent numerous alterations in the early 1900s. It was first a theater and restaurant, then a theater and concert garden. In July 1913, it opened as a motion picture theater run by Bloch, and screened movies until at least 1915.
At this time, the issues at the Orpheum are reminiscent of the current predicament at the theater. Stomp’s dissatisfaction with the building’s upkeep mirrors the conflict between Bloch and his tenants in the early 1900s.
In a 1914 affidavit, Bloch expresses his dismay at the poor conditions of the building and his concern over the high rental price. “The said moving picture theater has been patronized by people under very poor circumstances, and the price of admission has been only five cents,” Bloch wrote. He had to pay for many alterations out of his own pocket, including the fee for installing a stove that heated the large theater hall.
Another problem was that original plans for the construction of the lobby were not followed through: initially envisioned at 14-feet wide, the lobby ended up half that width, only partially tiled and the rest finished in poorly laid cement. It seems today’s entrance to the Orpheum isn’t so far from Bloch’s description of it in 1914: “narrow, inadequate, and unattractive.” He later added that he had been prevented from selling the theater for several years, because prospective buyers felt the premises were too expensive given their poor condition.
Despite sources indicating the Orpheum as a prominent Yiddish theater from the 1920s to the 1940s, no discernible trace of the building is left of this period. In the early 1900s, Yiddish theater moved from the Bowery to the more desirable Second Avenue, a wide street without a train fuming and sputtering cinders down from above. German immigrants flocking uptown opened the floodgates to an influx of Jewish businesses and residents, and by the 1920s, there were four large theaters along the Avenue, including the Orpheum. And yet, a detailed historiography of the Yiddish Broadway along Second Avenue, omits the Orpheum from its research.
In the Yiddish daily newspaper, Der morgen-zshurnal, an ad published on May 21, 1919 for the “New Yiddish Theatre” (also called the Jewish Art Theatre) listed their offices as having this address, although the performances at this time were at the Madison Garden Theatre at 27th and Madison. The director was Emmanuel Reicher and the general manager was Samuel S. Grossman, but these names are absent from the vast number of conveyances that have been collected for the property during this period.
What is clear is that the property at 126 Second Avenue changed hands repeatedly, even after the theater became the off-Broadway hotspot it is today. “Little Mary Sunshine” made its debut in the theater in 1959. But more successful shows later found a home here, including the popular musical “Your Own Thing,” which ran for 933 performances, and “Little Shop of Horrors,” another success story with a five-year run.
But in the lead-up to the Orpheum’s latest cycle of life is an all too familiar tale, one involving yet numerous court orders. The New York Investor’s Group Mutual Inc. purchased the Second Avenue theater in 1854, along with other Stuyvesant estate properties as part of a package deal. But troubles brewed when on September 19 or 20, Robert Morman, president of the Investor’s Group, disappeared. He was later arrested in London. But just two weeks after Morman’s disappearance, his group filed for involuntary bankruptcy. By the end of October, Morman had been indicted for stealing almost $150,000 and forging $32,000 worth of stock certificates. In the following years, the group was taken to court several times, by investors, business partners and lessors; even the attorney who handled the group’s Stuyvesant transaction, William Reichman.
The building’s twisted and derelict past explains why Alan Schuster, who brought Stomp to the Orpheum, was able to purchase the shell of a building dirt cheap. That first contract of his in 1978 was three pages long. Twenty eight years later, Schuster revealed his latest contract which was twenty pages longer, a necessity in the dog-eat-dog world theater landlords find themselves in.
The Orpheum has seen highs and lows, and is most definitely not devoid of success stories. But if its history proves anything, it’s that landlord-tenant disagreements form the bedrock of New York City.
Update and correction, Jan. 14: The original version of this post was revised to attribute allegations about a sewage smell to Stomp’s lawyers. The post was also updated to include news of an arbitrator’s ruling in December.