Off B’way gets a realty check

Smaller theaters lose grasp on space as building owners court moneymakers

When anyone in the Off Broadway community hears that the Perry Street Theater in the Village will be closing in late July to make way for condos, none of them seems surprised.

Why? It’s the real estate.

In a booming Gotham market, Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theaters — never exactly money-magnets — are finding it increasingly difficult to hold on to their spaces when far more money could be made with a boutique, a restaurant or a residence in its place.

Both the Perry Street and the empty Sullivan Street Playhouse, the former 40-year home of “The Fantasticks,” look likely to turn residential. Uptown, two demolished 42nd Street venues, the Houseman and the Fairbanks, also appear set to become the site of future condos. Rumors persist that the Century Center off Union Square will be turned into a church, while perceived wisdom holds that the Promenade on the Upper West Side won’t be around much longer (despite the public refutations of the theater’s operator). And let’s not forget all those questions about the new, chronically empty Little Shubert.

“Off Broadway theaters are dropping like flies,” says Perry Street co-director Martin Platt.

Well, yes and no.

Recent losses are balanced by the construction of multistage Off Broadway complexes: New World Stages (formerly Dodger Stages), 37 Arts, 59E59 Theaters. So it’s not as if there are no boards left to tread Off Broadway.

But it’s fair to argue that many of New York’s older, more intimate theaters, boasting plenty of character and history, are becoming rarer by the minute. And the newer spaces are mainly migrating to the midtown Broadway area.

“It would be really bad for New York if all theater got consolidated into the Broadway box,” says Scott Morfee, who operates the Barrow Street Theater, part of a six-story Georgian building in the Village. The space has had a strong record over the past few years, with yearlong runs of “Bug” and “Orson’s Shadow” followed by current occupant “Red Light Winter,” which opened in February.

“You lose the charm, the difference of the experience,” he says of the disappearing theaters. “Different neighborhoods have different architecture, different vibes.”

The neighborhood also loses the ancillary biz created by theatergoers who come to see a show and then stay for dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Still, even Morfee acknowledges, “It’s very difficult to make money at this level.”

“There are older properties that are getting incredible offers that you have to pay attention to,” says Beverley D. Mac Keen, exec director of New World Stages and the organizer of a brainstorming thinktank for Off Broadway industry types. “Retail storefront property is of the essence for most people. It’s a hard thing not to be tantalized.”

“We have been approached many, many times about the Union Square Theater,” says Margaret Cotter, prexy of Liberty Theaters, which owns the Orpheum, the Minetta Lane and the Union Square, the former home of “Wit” that now houses “Slava’s Snowshow.”

“I’m constantly approached by people who recognize the value of my spaces,” echoes Daryl Roth, owner of two Off Broadway theaters right on Union Square. “I can understand the allure.”

“Real estate in New York is becoming extraordinarily expensive, and theater has always been a poor cousin,” says Eric Krebs, who operated the Houseman and the Fairbanks for 18 years and 23 years, respectively, before their leases were up and they vacated the spaces a year ago. (The land is in development limbo right now, but Krebs says the intention is to put in a high rise.)

While denizens of Off Broadway may lament the loss of venues with ambience, many still don’t see the situation as dire. Instead, they consider it a process of equalization in the wake of the Off Broadway building boom of recent years.

“The smaller Off Broadway theaters are more subject to the tide of real estate,” says Marc Routh, prexy of the Off Broadway League of Theaters & Producers. “But with all the new building, probably the net effect is somewhere around status quo.”

Besides, these days there aren’t enough shows for all those venues. That situation stands in sharp contrast to Broadway, where vacancies in desirable houses this season have been scarce.

“I hate to see theaters go dark, but we can’t fill them right now,” says Ken Davenport, producer of “Altar Boyz” and “The Awesome 80s Prom.” “We’re not providing enough strong product to keep people coming to them, and there is not enough demand for the supply on the street.”

“The last five years, I’ve always had a backup,” Cotter says of the Minetta Lane, whose most recent tenant was “Five Course Love.” (Cotter’s other theaters are booked with long-runners “Stomp” and “Slava’s Snowshow.”) “Since last year, there haven’t been as many shows circling the theater.”

Legiters mostly offer the same reasons for the situation: Broadway is bountiful these days, which drains biz from Off and Off Off Broadway; many shows that used to be candidates for long Off Broadway runs are finding they can make a go of it on the Rialto (“Avenue Q,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Bridge & Tunnel”); and the current economic model for Off Broadway is in desperate need of a makeover.

“Off Broadway simply can’t afford itself anymore,” Krebs says. “It just can’t.”

Old-timers have seen Off Broadway go through cycles, and some feel the current downturn will reverse eventually. One reason for hope: If Broadway theaters remain packed to the gills, the overflow of new productions will spill into Off Broadway.

Meanwhile, the Perry Street Theater may be gone after July, but Platt and David Elliott’s producing org will continue without a regular home — possibly, Platt says, under the name Perry Street Theater in Exile.

And what of the Promenade, the Little Shubert and the Century Center, venues that insiders predict won’t be around much longer? Theater owners and operators did not return calls requesting comment.

“These are private enterprises, so what can anybody do other than lament the loss of the fabric of New York neighborhoods?” Morfee says.

“We are short on charm,” Routh concedes about the surviving Off Broadway venues. “But at the end of the day, it’s what happens when the lights go down. And maybe 20 years from now, we’ll be talking about how quaint New World Stages are.”

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