A Very, Very Late Farewell to the Union Square Theatre
There is so much to pay attention to in New York City that sometimes even the most important things can go completely unnoticed. I don’t walk through Union Square too terribly often, since I live 90 blocks north of it, but when I do, I have always tried to stop and look at the Union Square Theatre on East 17th Street, the first New York theatre I ever saw a show in. Apparently, I haven’t been paying as close attention to it as I thought, because walking past it the other day I noticed it’s not there anymore. Oh, the classic marble and red brick Tammany Hall façade remains, being a historic landmark and immune to demolition, but the building has been gutted, it is a hole in the ground. The theatre is gone and it is not coming back. What’s more, the process of its disappearance and the building’s reinvention has been going on for nearly two years. So I want to apologize to the Union Square Theatre for allowing this all to slip my notice and pay tribute to a building that was a key part of my theatre education.
Tammany Hall was an extremely influential political machine that played an outsized role in politics in New York State and New York City for nearly two hundred years. What became the Union Square Theatre started out as Tammany Hall’s headquarters in 1929, built in neo-Georgian colonial style. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of New York, who later played a key role in the Tammany Hall institution’s downfall, was present at the dedication of the building. As a result of that soon-commencing downfall, the headquarters was sold in 1943 to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, who turned it into a meeting place for organized labor, when Tammany Hall could no longer afford to maintain it. Half a century later, it became the second theatre in the area to go by the name Union Square Theatre, the first having closed on East 14thStreet in 1936. For ten years before that, though, it went by another name: The Roundabout Theatre.
Fast forward to 2001. My attention had been lured to Broadway by a quirky full-page New York Times ad for Seussical, and the headlines that season had been dominated by The Producers, but it is unlikely I would have made my first trip to New York City that summer if it weren’t for a Broadway.com video compilation of production footage from Bat Boy: The Musical, footage taken when the title character, typically portrayed with a shaved head, still had a full head of hair. My first thoughts were that it was a dumb title of a musical about Batman’s childhood, but then I investigated. The musical numbers looked so good, and the creators and cast spoke so convincingly about the existence of the real Bat Boy (a creation of the Weekly World News, but they insisted they were saving a seat for him, and I believed them), that, out of all the musicals I learned about that season, my first time really paying close attention to what was newly on offer in musical theatre, this was the one I had to see, and it wasn’t on Broadway.
Fourteen-year-old me did not know what to expect as I approached the Union Square Theatre with my dad that July. It was a grand and beautiful old building, with a classic cloth marquee extending from one of its entrances. The walls of the lobby were decorated with editions of the Weekly World News that featured stories about Bat Boy, one of which I bought as a souvenir. The 499-seat auditorium where FDR had once spoken was smaller than I expected, and the production lacked the seamlessness I had seen in videos of Broadway shows. That’s not a knock on the production, which was amazing fun, just something that came back to me years later as I started taking part in Off-Broadway productions, the rough edges of which were part of the charm. Another lesson I took away but did not fully appreciate until years later was just how sparse the audience was. My dad and I were in the second row of the balcony, the only occupied row of the balcony at that matinee, and I think we were the only ones who did not move down to the front row. Selling tickets on Broadway is hard, but it’s harder Off-Broadway, and selling tickets is how shows survive. But no matter how many people are in the crowd, the show must go on, and at least with that cast, the show was as exciting as though it were being played to a full house.
After the show, not knowing the protocol for such things, I wanted to meet Bat Boy himself, and we found our way to the stage door not far from the main entrance. Richard Pruitt, who played the Sheriff, and Kerry Butler, who played Shelley, came out and were very nice to me, signing my playbill and talking for a while. Butler even went back inside to tell Deven May (Bat Boy) that he had a fan outside waiting. May came out, talked, signed my playbill, and posed for pictures with the Union Square Theatre as the background. It could not have been a better formative experience for a young theatre enthusiast, even if it had been at one of the glitzier shows uptown.
Especially since I moved to the city, I always wanted to return to the Union Square Theatre to see a production or, ideally, to work. Murder Ballad, another rock musical that had a run there, was of particular interest to me. But all I ever did was walk by when I happened to be in the neighborhood. I should mention, as I myself took my time noticing, that the building was also the home of the New York Film Academy, which never held as much interest for me, but served as a reminder that in New York City the arts have to share confined spaces. The new insides of 100 East 17th Street, when they are ready, will be retail and office space, just like the insides of so many classic façades in New York City that once held much more interesting secrets. A large glass dome on top of the renovated building will surely look spectacular, but, if the artist renderings are any indication, it will also look very out of place. I can’t stop the march of progress, especially where New York City real estate is concerned, but when I realized that this piece of my personal history, to say nothing of New York political history and Off-Broadway theatre history, was experiencing such a dramatic change, and that I had been ignorant of it for so long, I had to pay tribute somehow.
I am sorry, Union Square Theatre, that I never came back for a true visit, but we’ll always have Bat Boy. Thank you for welcoming me to New York City.
Aaron Netsky’s writing has appeared on AtlasObscura.com, Slate.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, Medium.com, and all over his personal blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Days/366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). He is also a novelist, actor, and singer who has performed and worked in a variety of capacities off and off-off Broadway. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.