A24 Buys Historic Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village

By Roger Paradiso

THE CHERRY LANE THEATRE, a former Brewery, is at 38 Commerce Street in the West Village. Photo by Anthony Paradiso.

If you watched or heard about the Academy Awards ceremony weeks ago, you will notice one movie won a lot of awards. Everything Everywhere All at Once is the film that won a lot of awards. It starred Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ke Huy Quan and a lot of Asian performers. It was distributed by A24 which happened to purchase the Cherry Lane Theatre on Commerce Street just prior to the awards. Here’s how this all makes sense.

While A24 has yet to explain what they want to do with the theater, I will speculate what they could do with all the cash they will make on this movie. They have moved closer to a studio with their operations than they were a few years back producing films like Moonlight and they need collateral just like Netflix did when they bought the Paris Theater a few years back.

A24 has recently secured a $225 million investment to expand operations as reported by Zachary Stewart, Theater Mania.

“A24…is not the first film studio to make such a move: the Walt Disney Company has been presenting stage productions at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theater, which it leases from the state and city, since 1997…

A more comparable move, perhaps, was that by Audible, an Amazon audio subsidiary that since 2018 has been leasing the Minetta Lane Theater, in Greenwich Village, for live productions which it then records and offers on its digital platform.” —DNYUZ

It might be plausible for A24 to do both stage and screen. The Cherry Lane has two theaters. One could be set up for film and standup or musical performers. The other could do plays and other theatrical presentations. This would make sense in developing and marketing of their future films. It is to be noted that the Cherry Lane in recent years has been doing standup, music and theater.

What it does bring up is the impossible situation of doing Off Broadway plays and paying the rent in these gentrified days. A24 is rumored to have purchased the Cherry Lane for around ten million dollars.

Yes, the Cherry Lane had a great history of doing Off Broadway plays starting in the 1920s when Eugene O’Neill, America’s greatest playwright, was doing his early plays at The Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street in the heart of the Village.

The Cherry Lane, located on a curving street of beautiful trees and homes, was founded by artists like Edna St. Vincent Millay of Village fame. They were doing plays written by artists like “F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Elmer Rice in the ’20s to O’Neill, O’Casey, Odets, Auden, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and William Saroyan in the ‘30s and ’40s In the ’50s when theater of the absurd exploded in the Village they had artists like Beckett, Albee, Pinter and Ionesco. (In the politically hot ‘60s to ‘70s) they had artists like “LeRoi Jones … Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Joe Orton, and David Mamet.” —Broadway World

During the 1950s and 1960s, it was a hub for avant-garde works by various playwrights associated with the Theater of the Absurd. The theater also became a showcase for young and old artists. Pablo Picasso directed a play. Folk singers like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger had solo shows there. The theater has always been a home for artists from many disciplines.

The Cherry Lane Theatre is one of the oldest off-Broadway venues, and the one that has remained a theater for the longest amount of time. It celebrates one hundred years of continuous operation this year. The theater has debuted new plays by Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Amiri Baraka, and Sam Shepard. (The Cherry Lane) fueled some of the most experimental artists of the American Stage. The Downtown Theater movement, The Living Theatre (with artists like Judith Malina and Julian Beck), and Theatre of the Absurd (like Albee and Beckett) all took root at the lively Playhouse, and it proved fertile ground for the 20th century.” —Zachary Stewart Theater Mania.

Larry Hagman, Gene Hackman, Harvey Keitel, Frank Langella, Dennis Quaid and many more all played at the theater. And later became well-known to the world.

All this took place when a group of local artists took over a building on Commerce Street that had been a farm silo, a tobacco warehouse and a brewery, and then turned it into the Cherry Lane Playhouse.

Their first production, in March 1924, was entitled Saturday Night, and written by Robert Presnell, a former journalist who became a screenwriter. He was nominated for an Oscar for the 1941 movie Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Frank Capra.

A24 and the Cherry Lane may be a good match. The film company is known for the Oscar winning best picture Moonlight. And now Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Cherry Lane marked the debut of Dutchman by LeRoi Jones (later Amira Baraka) in 1964—and a few years later a play, Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black. This historic play featured two young actresses, Cicely Tyson and Micki Grant.

In fact, A24 did a show at the Cherry Lane a few years back. Ramy Youssef, the star of the series Ramy on Hulu (which A24 produces) was in a solo show called Ramy Youssef Live at the Cherry Lane.

A24 bought more than a theater. Legend has it that there is a ghost who walks the stage of The Cherry Lane Theatre. It is believed to be the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay who was one of the founders of the theater. And if you listen real hard you may hear her speak the words that are memorialized on a plaque on her house around the corner.

“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—It gives a lovely light!”