Village Preservation is excited to share our oral history collection with the public, and hope they will shed more light on what makes Greenwich Village and the East Village such unique and vibrant areas. Each of these histories highlights the experiences and insights of long-time residents, usually active in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life of the neighborhood. Recently we launched new collections focusing on the East and South Villages, and have been highlighting some of the featured individuals on Off the Grid; these posts can be read here.
Theatre 80 St. Marks is an East Village and a New York institution with a history reflective of the kind of life that once embodied the area. Lorcan Otway is the current owner of the theater, which had been started by his father, as well as the adjoining Museum of the American Gangster. Son of novelist, playwright, producer, and owner of Theatre 80 Howard Otway, Lorcan grew up around St. Mark’s and the off-off-Broadway theater scene that congregated around there in the 1960’s. Recently, he gave an oral history as part of the GVSHP Oral History Collection focused on the East Village. In it, he discusses the very lively character of the neighborhood he knew growing up, the theater, and the strong mafia connections that are a part of Theatre 80’s history, the founding of the museum, and the character of NYC.
Lorcan first describes his early life and what brought his father to the village:
“I was born in New Rochelle in 1955, and we had one of the last sandlot farms in the woods between Pelham and New Rochelle. Dad would say we were somewhere between light farming and heavy gardening. [Zapol laughs] Dad was a playwright and a novelist, and so by necessity, we grew most of the food that we used. At the time, Dad was writing a play called This Here Nice Place and looking for a place to buy to build a theater to stage it. He was looking for something unique, which was an off-Broadway theater with a huge stage, and back in the 60s, you could actually support what my dad used to refer to as ‘gloriously wasted space,’ a large lobby where you could have your entire audience inside before the show if it was raining or cold.
So he came down to Saint Mark’s Place in 1964 and walked into the Jazz Gallery, and Walter Scheib, the owner, met him. It had been up for sale, as I now know, since 1958. My father said the words that Scheib had been waiting to hear from 1968—1958—which is, ‘I would love to build a theater here, but I don’t have enough financing to even borrow the $65,000 it will take to buy the building.’ Scheib immediately said, ‘Oh, no problem at all. Give me a small down payment, and I’ll hold the mortgage.’” (Otway p.1)
He then goes on to discuss the building’s history with gangsters and how his father had stumbled onto a situation during the building’s renovation:
“Scheib believed there to be $12 million dollars in two safes in the basement that were the property of his boss, who was the real owner of the speakeasy back during Prohibition. Scheib was the front man for a Bavarian gangster by the name of Frank Hoffman. Sometime after Prohibition and before 1945—probably right when Roosevelt passed an executive order not allowing for the stockpiling of gold certificates—Hoffman left, probably back to Bavaria, with the bulk of his money. Being a friend of Al Capone’s, he left the tax money here, so that if he was ever caught Hoffman could pay the taxes on the tens of millions that he made in this place during Prohibition….
My father and I began to build Theatre 80…Dad comes across the two safes, and he calls up Walter Scheib and says, “I’m too curious to leave these safes closed, but I’m too cautious to open them without you,” which probably saved all of our lives. Scheib showed up with a safecracker and, in the middle of the night, we spent hours opening the first safe. It was, as I say in the book I’m writing, a complete Geraldo Rivera moment—it was absolutely empty. Scheib presumed that Hoffman had been back and emptied the safes, and he was half right.
Just to make sure, he told us to turn the other safe over on its side, and he had the safecracker peel the bottom, where you cold chisel the thin underside of the safe, peel it back, and you chop through the concrete inner lining. As soon as we got into the inner safe, the smell knocked us all back. It was this horrific smell. Scheib reaches in, and he pulls out a blackened mildewed packet of newspaper, rips it open. It’s hundred dollar gold certificates. He finds $2 million. Didn’t give us a dime of it; used it to build the Promenade Hotel in Miami Beach.” (Otway p. 1-3)
Otway even offers some insight into how the East Village really started being known by that moniker, as opposed to just an extension of the Lower East Side:
“…there was a diner on Saint Mark’s and Third Avenue called the Village East, which you might have heard about, run by a fellow named Tony. He thought that by using the term ‘Village East’ he could bring people into what was in many ways an extension of the Bowery…As the jazz clubs started to die, and the neighborhood became more seedy, Tony was kind of a progressive thinker in realizing that by changing the name of the community, you’d be able to change the impression and very soon the East Village began to kind of emerge as a term for the place as the art revolution happened here.”(Otway p. 6-7)
Finally, Otway goes on to discuss organized crime and how its presence, and absence, has effected New York City:
“…In many, many ways, New York worked when organized crime filled the power vacuum. One of the things we promote in the museum upstairs [is] an understanding that we live in America, which is divided between two concepts that define us: moral certainty and liberty. Whoever comes to power, they outlaw what the other half does instead of having pluralism as the modality that hold a diverse community together. In many ways organized crime has always held the diverse communities together, because it’s facilitated everything from smoking marijuana to alcohol to prostitution to all those things which we, acting on our moral certainty, outlaw; wherein kinder, gentler cultures, you have pluralism that makes people, helps people live next to people with different moral codes.
What we’re now seeing is a total breakdown of the way New York does business. because the bottom line is neither pluralism or organized crime. It’s mass-market. We’re actually seeing that a political community that is this out of balance can’t exist. All the nationwide chains that Giuliani opened the doors for, we’re beginning to see nationwide chains pull out of the neighborhood, because of the fact that you cannot have a single-concept society.”(Otway p. 16-17)
The full transcription and audio for Lorcan’s interview can be read here. To learn more about our oral history project, listen to some interviews, and read the interview transcripts, be sure to visit our website’s Oral History Collection page. Also, be sure to stay tuned as we interview more village individuals and upload more oral histories to our website.