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Sullivan Street Playhouse: Gone But Not Forgotten

Sullivan Street Playhouse
The Sullivan Street Playhouse before (left) and after (right)

The final performance of the off-Broadway hit The Fantasticks took place at the Sullivan Street Playhouse at 181 Sullivan Street in the South Village on January 13, 2002.  That marked the end of a remarkable 42-year run of the show – making it the longest-running musical ever. Unfortunately, the closing of the show and playhouse would also mark the beginning of the end for the building that housed the theater — a fate that would befall many other historic theaters and structures in the vulnerable South Village neighborhood. In 2005, an extreme alteration of 181 Sullivan Street converted it from a 19th century Greek Revival rowhouse into a glass-fronted luxury condo building. Though The Fantasticks was eventually revived in 2006, 181 Sullivan Street cannot so easily be brought back to life.

Jiimy Kelly's
Jimmy Kelly’s restaurant/club at 181 Sullivan Street, 1933. Image via NYPL.

In the 1830s, the east side of Sullivan Street Street (known as Varick Place until the 20th Century) between Bleecker and West Houston Streets was developed as a row of handsome Greek Revival rowhouses. Number 181 saw use as a blacksmith shop with apartments above by the turn of the twentieth century. And by the time Prohibition rolled around in the 1920s the blacksmith was out and a speakeasy was in.

Jimmy Kelly — born John De Salvio on the Lower East Side — had a career as a boxer and manager before he turned to night clubs in the 1910s.  Kelly was also an important captain in the Village Tammany Democratic machine. He opened his eponymous venue at 181 Sullivan Street in 1921.  The Times noted, it was his “Blue Ribbon 100-minute Floor Show”… through which Mr. Kelly’s boys and girls (but chiefly girls) stamp, tap, croon, harmonize and contortion-dance their way without pausing for a long breath” that had the customers packing in to small space.

By the 1950s Kelly had passed away and by 1958 the building was re-purposed as a theater space. When Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (no relation to the Tom Jones of It’s Not Unusual fame) were looking for an off-Broadway space to produce their new musical The Fantasticks, they were connected to the new owners of 181 Sullivan Street. They premiered their first show on May 3, 1960, and though originally booked for a six-week run at $350 a week (thankfully with an option to renew), the musical ended up going strong for 42 years. Such notable actors as Jerry Orbach, Liza Minnelli, Elliott Gould, F. Murray Abraham, Glenn Close, and Kristin Chenoweth all had roles in The Fantasticks over the years.

When original run of The Fantasticks ended and the Sullivan Street Playhouse went dark, GVSHP and others opposed plans that would radically alter the building by replacing its historic facade and interior with glass-clad condo units. 181 Sullivan Street was part of GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District — the historic area south of Washington Square Park that contains remarkably intact tenements, rowhouses, and institutional buildings that tell the story of the last great wave of immigration to New York and the United States at the turn of the last century.

Though it was too late for the Sullivan Street Playhouse, we were able to finally get the City to landmark our proposed South Village Historic District in phases — in 2010, in 2013, and in 2016 — protecting more than 650 buildings on several dozen blocks south and southwest of Washington Square.  Of course we still have much more work to do, so if you want to help with one of our current preservation campaigns, click here, or support our work here.

20 responses to “Sullivan Street Playhouse: Gone But Not Forgotten

  1. Unfortunately never got to catch fantastiks on Sullivan st but recently saw a local production in Sydney Australia st the Hayes theatre.

  2. I saw it there when Jerry Orbach was El Gallo, probably ‘65 or ‘66. We ate dinner at The Top of the Village Gate of which I can find no reference at all on Google, sadly. The performance was magical, well worth the drive from Philly. I first saw the production at Canisius College but have seen it at least 10 additional times after Sullivan Street. A run of 42 years is pretty amazing and it would be just as lovely a play today. So glad I got there to see it.

  3. Just played the phonograph of the Jerry Orbach version of “The Fantasticks”. My wife and just celebrated our 50th anniversary. The play was one of our first dates in the ’60s. Have seen it many times since, but no fonder memories than that first time.

    1. My late brother Bill Shuttleworth was the box office manager at the Sullivan St. Playhouse in the early 1980s. I saw the show there several times. Very sad to know that it’s gone.

      1. Do you know how many seats the Sullivan Street Playhouse held?! I saw the Fantastics there in 1970, and it was my very first real play in New York I’d ever seen! Fond, almost painful memories.

  4. Saw Betsy Joslyn as ‘Girl’ in 1978(?) on a high school trip. Her mom was our English teacher. Major crush on Betsy ! And I couldn’t believe theater could be in such a small space. Mrs L and I frequent small(and large) theaters regularly, but will never forget the Sullivan Street Playhouse.

  5. A friend from Darien, CT in the summer school musical theater program in the late 60s-early 70s played Matt the boy at the Sullivan Street theater, 1979-81 (link at the end of this post to his acting bio online). He was cast only a couple years after graduating high school. In his last summer in the program, Chris played the male lead in “Kiss Me Kate” but the moments I enjoyed most were breaks during rehearsal when he played classic musicals on piano backstage in the high school music room–amazing! I’m posting this hoping that someone who knew him will see this. http://www.filmreference.com/film/67/Christopher-Seppe.html

    1. Lucky you. Christopher was such a light. He has been gone since 1989, and I still miss him. His run as Matt was magical and Tom and Harvey loved him. I hope you got to see him in that role.

      1. Hey Suzanne! Stephen McMaster here, I think of Chris daily and it’s only been 60+ years. We met in 1st grade at Baker. I trust you and the family are well.

      2. Loved Chris as Matt! I lived on Sullivan so I got to know the cast well. World definitely got a lot dimmer when he passed.

  6. Jimmy Kelly’s nightclub was a strip joint, according to one of its star performers Buddy/Bubbles Kent (aka Malvina Schwartz) with an affluent clientele. Only fair that it should have become a theater. Disgraceful, without regard for the history and architecture of the city, that it should have blossomed into a lifeless glass square. Please save the Village!

  7. In 1967 having just graduated from Montclair State Teachers College in NJ we saw this great play. I remember seeing the sign out front “now and it’s seventh year”. It was great with the limited scenery and intimacy with seating for about 100. I remember them stopping the play to seat a group after the play had started.

  8. I moved to NYC in ‘94 and this was one of the first shows I saw. I loved walking down the street and seeing the classic sign. I’m sad it’s gone as it made The Village have a cozy and welcoming feel.

  9. “Try to remember…” seeing The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Playhouse and living next door at 169 Sullivan Street. It was our constant pleasure, while attending NYU’s Washington Square College at night and working as an analyst in a famous Wall Street firm during the days. A delight to walk south from Washington Square and drop my books — in my $115/month 2BR apartment at 169 Sullivan Street, an unrenovated walkup tenement — and then return to the Playhouse where the ushers knew us well and always showed us to an empty seat or let us stand on the side aisle near the back to watch the whole show — perhaps 100 or more times. It still brings tears to my eyes now, 60 years later.
    And I feel as young, as fresh and callow now as then, thanks to The Fantasticks being one of my first show experiences.
    Eternal gratitude to the authors and players in this, including Jerry Orbach and the original cast whom we had the pleasure to experience these six decades ago!

    1. I lived at 173 Sullivan and did the same thing. Lost count of how many times I saw it. Knew everyone there well. Even attended a cast party or 2. lol I can still recite it from beginning to end over 40 years later. My 1st Matt was Christopher Seppe. One of my prized possessions is still my Fantasticks shirt signed by every cast member I saw through the years.

  10. My wife and I saw the Fantastiks at Sullivan St in June of 1969, on the occasion of our 1st anniversary. Still brings back wonderful memories. We ate dinner around the corner at a very cute ( and seemed so romantic back then !) Italian restaurant, the name of which escapes me today. Wish I could recall it!

  11. This is the first play I ever saw in New York in 1966. I was 10 years old. I was mesmerized. I made a promise to myself that one day I would direct it as I knew theatre was in my future some day. In 1984, my promise came true. I had vivid memories of that the theatre was like inside and was set out to not only produce and direct it, but I wanted audiences to experience it as I did as a kid. In 1980, I went one more time with my wife on our honeymoon in NY to see the show. So…we replicated the theatre on our huge stage where I was a teacher at theatre performing arts school in Flint, Michigan. The show, the experience and the sold out audiences of 153 patrons for 10 performance were all SOLD OUT!!!! Last summer we were in NY again, and we walked over to the Playhouse. It was a sad moment to see the building had been replaced, but I was both haunted and grateful to be able to stand there and recall the moment when my future theatre work was born. We even sat in the same seats I sat in when there in 1966….right next to the stage right dressing rooms/entrance area to the perfect stage for the perfect play “The Fantasticks.” After the show in ’84, I wrote Lore Noto (director/producer of the show) a letter and included a picture of what we had just produced in Michigan. To my surprise, he responded with a wonderful letter of kindness and appreciation for one more place that was keeping the show alive. The letter is framed in my home. The show, the way we produced the show and the response from Mr. Noto will always be very, very special to me.

  12. Such great memories for me. Sad, it’s gone, and really sad it’s a boring condo.
    I moved to NYC from Oregon, 1977 to go to American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
    Didn’t know a soul. Except some friends of my parents gave me their daughters name who lived in NYC. Knowing no one, I called her up my second day there. She asked if I’d like to be usher/stage manager for a show The Fantasticks. Had no idea about the show at that point. But I said yes. Two days in NYC and had a job with a well known musical.
    I had been there about 6,7 months when they had a 25th anniversary, with all/or most of the past actors. Like Jerry Orbach.
    It was a great experience , and great memories.

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