Mysterious Disappearance of The 13th Street Theater
By Roger Paradiso
When I moved to Manhattan around 1978, one of my first gigs was at this quirky Brownstone that housed a theater on 50 West 13th. The 13th Street Theater was run by a tough Irish woman whose name was Edith O’Hara.
My agent, who worked out of a Blimpie Sub Shop on 6th Avenue, called me one day and said “to go ovah and see her. She liked the thing ya wrote” which was called “Sex, Death and TV.”
I met Edith and within minutes she thrust a contract in front of me. With all the skill of a novice theater director and writer, I looked at it for about a minute. I said what’s “Fun City Lampoon”?
“That’s your show,” she said. “It will play better that way for my people.”
I didn’t know who her people were, and I told her I would have to show it to my agent, Bennett. I went down 6th Avenue and there he was sitting near the pay phone in his Blimpie office. I gave him the contract and he brushed me off saying “I already read it. Sign it. Do your show. Edith will take care of you.”
The rest is history. We opened before Brother Theodore, a comedian who pretended he was a monk and did stand up or sit-down tragedy or something like that. We had a good time there. But when the run was over, we all moved on. And then I sort of forgot about the theater and moved on to film which paid you.
One day, about a month ago I noticed the theater was closed. I checked in with Andrew Berman, Executive Director at the Village Preservation Society. He told me, “The hotel next door bought it. My understanding is that when they built the hotel, they used some or all of the air rights. There is no nothing being done at the moment.”
He said he hadn’t heard anything from the Landmarks Preservation people despite the hundreds of names who signed his petition or wrote letters to the Mayor and commission.
I did some research on the Theater and found out that actors like Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Chazz Palminteri, Richard Dreyfus, Christopher Meloni, and many others got their break according to the press release issued by the theater. It was also the home of the longest running play in Off-Off Broadway Theater history. Israel Horovitz’s “Line” ran for almost two decades. Israel was a playwright who lived in the Village and wrote many plays. He died one month after Edith died.
So, what is happening with this building? I checked in with a few journalists and real estate people. They didn’t know much either.
When Edith died in October of 2020, the theater continued until sometime in 2022 according to its Facebook site. And then it disappeared.
Further research revealed that it was home to Joseph Day who did much to elevate his fellow Black Americans.
In fact, Day purchased the building in 1858 and ran his catering business on the basement level.
Day also helped enslaved people fleeing north before the Civil War. Day was part of the Underground Railroad and maybe 50 West 13th was one of the stops? That is a mystery for now.
It is clear that this property is an historical site for two reasons. It was a home to Joseph Day and a home/business to Edith O’Hara. For about 60 years, she ran one of the only nurturing theaters where young artists could go to free their imaginations. Why wouldn’t we protect this building?
When I think of all the young people coming to NYC to get a start in the arts, I think of nurturing places like the one Edith ran on West 13th Street. She gave you a chance and gave the young people something to dream about. Too many of these places, especially in the Village, are disappearing behind a developer’s plywood walls and scaffolding.
We surely need more performance spaces for our younger artists. We desperately need affordable housing for these young artists too.
I am asking the Mayor and City Council to think of creating more places like Manhattan Plaza which is in the Broadway district. It’s subsidized housing for young (and senior) artists who pay a percentage of their income to rent. Otherwise, there will be no young people running around the Village. These young people could work and perform in all the remaining clubs and theaters. Or soon, there will be nothing left but ghosts of Greenwich Village which was, at one time, the epicenter for the worldwide cultural revolution in the sixties.
The 13th Street Theater site is both a landmark theater and a historical site that once was Day’s House.
Following the death of Edith O’Hara in 2020, The 13th Street Repertory Theater and Day’s house are on death row awaiting a decision.
“The Landmark’s preservation hasn’t said yes or no so the building continues to be unprotected.” —Andrew Berman
In the meantime, we wait for the Landmark Commission and the Mayor and his council to do the right thing.
Andrew Berman started a petition to save the historical theater and building which you can reach here: https://p2a.co/xedy2hy