The Cherry Lane Theatre is the oldest continuously operating off-Broadway theater in New York City. Almost as interesting and drama-filled as the incredible plays produced here is rich and varied history of the theater itself — a history that includes gay discos, Barbra Streisand, and thousands of turtles. Let’s dive in!:
The Cherry Lane Theatre, located at 38 Commerce Street, a charming two block-long street in the heart of Greenwich Village, was the brainchild of poet, playwright, actress, and Villager Edna St. Vincent Millay. While most famous as a poet, Millay was originally a member of the Provincetown Players, the group which began the Provincetown Playhouse. Millay moved away from that group in 1924 to form her own experimental theater at the Cherry Lane with a group of local artists. The space they chose was a former brewery and box factory which dated to 1836. The plot of land had belonged to the Gomez family farm, and on that particular parcel stood a silo prior to the construction of the brewery. In its current incarnation, the Cherry Lane has been home to some of America’s most innovative movements in theater. Among other distinctions, the Cherry Lane claims to be where “Off-Broadway” was born.
Despite the groundbreaking history of the theater, the building has come under continual threat throughout the years, as is the case with many artistic spaces in New York City. In fact, the Cherry Lane faced demolition 17 years before the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District which has protected the building since 1969. In 1952 plans were made to erect an apartment house on the site. At that time, a group of Village residents rallied and gained ownership of the building, and saved it from destruction.
In 1996, stage actress Angelina Fiordellisi saw potential in the historic landmark and raised funds to purchase and renovate the building. She additionally bought space in a neighboring rowhouse where she opened a 60-seat black box theater now known as the Cherry Lane Studio, which serves as a creative space for emerging playwrights to test and nurture their works, carrying on the traditions set by St. Vincent Millay and her group of creative idealists. Many A-list celebrities have graced the stage of the Cherry Lane Theatre, such as Barbra Streisand, Bea Arthur, Kevin Bacon, and Dennis Quaid.
Before the current set up of the Cherry Lane, in the 1950s the 1,200-square-foot space housed a restaurant that was managed and built by the Carroad family, who once owned buildings across the block. The garden behind their building at 44 Commerce Street served as an outdoor dining area for the restaurant during warm days in spring and summer, and the Cherry Lane boiler once served all the properties on the stretch of Commerce Street. The Cherry Lane restaurant, which had a floor dotted with gold-plated fleurs-de-lis, also served as a late-night gay club in the 60s and 70s.
Arnold Warwick, a tenant who lived at 40 Commerce Street in the 1950s, claims that the Carroad family evicted an old sea captain in order to create a public entry room where the current lobby is located. Actress Kim Hunter’s children, who grew up in the building, told the story of an excavation next door at 36 Commerce Street in the late 1950s that revealed a underground river below the building with thousands of turtles living in it.
The theater is moving full speed ahead for COUNTDOWN TO CHERRY LANE THEATRE’S 100th birthday! As they approach their centennial celebration, plans are in the works to rekindle the plays from Cherry Lane’s illustrious past. They will kick off the reading series once New York City theaters are back in business by selecting plays from its last 97 years to honor the artists who contributed to its rich tradition in Greenwich Village. You can check out more about Cherry Lane Theatre here.