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The Village Presbyterian Church Helps Gives Birth to an Off-Broadway Spanish Revolution

The Village Presbyterian Church at 141 West 13th Street, ca. 1903.

Our neighborhoods are filled with incredibly rich stories, each door and window a portal into the hidden history of New York City. It is always a surprise to find that, when you dig even deeper, you can find amazing stories hidden in nooks and corners. The stately Village Presbyterian Church once located at 141-145 West 13th Street in the West Village is no different. Highlighted previously in our Beyond the Village and Back series, the elegant Greek Revival structure, built in 1846-47, survived several rebuildings, after decimating fires in 1855 and 1902; a strange turn in politics that helped Grover Cleveland secure the Presidency in the 1884 election; was once the home of one of New York’s most storied synagogues; and, as we will explore today, was the birthplace of a Repertorio Español, a theater company aimed at introducing the best of Latin American, Spanish, and Hispanic American theater to broad-ranging audiences in New York City and around the country.

In 1846, Greenwich Village was steadily transforming from suburban refuge to an extension of New York City. Attached rowhouses were filling up its streets, as were houses of worship to accommodate its expanding population. Three lots on the north side of 13th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues were joined for construction of what was originally known as the Thirteenth Street Presbyterian Church, an offshoot of the old Third Free Presbyterian Church located at Houston and Thompson Streets. In spite of its noble and dignified appearance, the 13th Street church traveled a rocky path from the beginning. Barely seven years after it opened, it burned down in 1855. It was quickly rebuilt, but by April 1902 it burned down again, both times faithfully recreating the original 1840s design. In the subsequent years, as immigration changed the neighborhood’s demographics, the church merged with other Presbyterian congregations to remain afloat. Inviting different faiths to rent out space, as well as offering it to various organizations, became one of its main sources of income.

Robert Federico, left, one of Repertorio Español‘s executive producers, with Rene Buch, center, and Juan Gilberto Zaldívar, the company’s other founder in their current home at Gramercy Arts Theater on 138 East 27th Street

Juan Gilberto Zaldívar (March 28, 1934 – October 6, 2009) was born in 1934 in the town of Deleyte in Cuba’s eastern Holguín Province with theatre in his blood. After attending the University of Havana, in his spare time he established the Teatro Arlequín, a theatre group focusing on then-contemporary works. Zaldívar was hired by the local affiliate of B.F. Goodrich Tire Company, a position that lasted until 1961, when his personal disagreements with the direction of the government of Fidel Castro led him to emigrate to the United States. There an accounting job with the Diners Club sustained him for several years. Building on his experience in Cuba, Zaldívar decided to focus his full-time efforts on theater in 1965, and began his journey by joining the off-Broadway Greenwich Mews Theater troupe.

(l.) A surviving photograph of the interior of Greenwich Mews Playhouse offices. (r.) An alleyway between the stage door entrance and the adjacent building. Date unknown.

The theater and its troupe had been operating out the 200 seat theater within Village Presbyterian Church since the 1940s (founded as the Greenwich Mews Playhouse). It was led by Stella Holt from 1952 to 1967, a tenacious manager who insisted on following the author’s word in a very straightforward way, and encouraged the production of works written by people of color. She would produce the work of many leading Black writers including Langston Hughes, Loften Mitchell, and William Branch. At the time the Greenwich Mews Theater was one of the only theaters producing shows with integrated casts, and in 1955 she even produced Alice Childress’s first full-length play, Trouble In Mind, a critique of the experiences of Black artists in the white-dominated theater industry

A playbill for Alice Childress’ Trouble In Mind.

After joining Holt’s theater as an associate producer, Zaldívar quickly established himself as a mentor with an eye for talent. From 1965 until 1967, he and Holt would grow closer, their work on Langston Hughes’ Prodigal Son even earning them a change to tour Europe with the show. Though they were off-Broadway, their bright future seemed to be making an impact. On August 28, 1967, at the age of 50, Holt suffered a heart attack and passed away. Her life partner, Frances Drucker, who co-managed the Greenwich Mews Theater, offered Zaldívar a chance to help run the troupe and maintain their integral work.

René Buch, a prolific Cuban director and playwright, was one of the founding members of Repertorio Español.

Since 1966, Zaldívar had been providing a workshop for Spanish-speaking actors and directors, even producing a number of small shows entirely in Spanish, using the Theater between official productions. In early 1968, with encouragement from Drucker, he realized one of his dreams and expanded his workshop, creating his own theater troupe, Repertorio Español. Formed in conjunction with René Buch, a former Spanish-language copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, Zaldívar recognized an opportunity to widely involve the hundreds of Spanish actors in New York working in restaurants and offices who were highly desirous of working again in the theater. Producing shows in both English and Spanish, Repertorio Español gave audiences a chance to experience plays in their native language and in a form easier to digest.

A newspaper advertisement for La Celestina in May 1967, one of the many shows produced by Repertorio Español in both English and Spanish.

From 1966 to 1972, Repertorio Español enjoyed a somewhat modest success, continuing to occupy Village Presbyterian while producing three plays a year simultaneously in both English and Spanish, which included original works such as La Difunta (“The Dead Wife”), by Miguel Una Muno; Cruce de Vias (“The Railroad Crossing”), by Carlos Solorzano; and Las Pericas (“The Parrots”), by Nicholas Dorr. The Greenwich Mews Theater troupe would use the space as well until the building was converted to residential use in the 1980s, eventually disbanding. By Zaldívar’s own admission, their audiences were largely high school and college Spanish classes who would come to study performances to better learn the language. By 1972, however, Zaldívar had raised enough funds to occupy his own theater: the140-seat Gramercy Arts Theater at 138 East 27th Street.

The current home of Repertorio Español on 138 East 27th Street.

Although they would never return to Village Presbyterian, Repertorio Español thrives today, having produced plays ranging from Spanish works of the 17th century such as those by Pedro Calderón de la Barca and new works from Hispanic playwrights, totaling more than 250 plays in 40 years, with appearances from renowned actors including Raúl Juliá. The company produced Spanish-language works by Federico García Lorca and Miguel de Unamuno. Translations of English-language plays such as The Fantasticks and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as well as novel adaptions of works from Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, were staged. The production of The Fantasticks even toured Central and South America under the sponsorship of the United States Information Agency. In 1988, the company was finally allowed to tour Zaldivar’s native Cuba. Zaldivar would step down from his leading role in Repertorio Español in 2005 due to health complications, ultimately passing away on October 6th, 2009. Rene Buch, one of its founders, would continue to work with the troupe until his passing on April 19th, 2020.

Juan Gilberto Zaldívar, ca. 1990s.

History hides behind many corners, underneath dusty curtains, inside old trunks and boxes, and we are always excited to uncover another chapter in the life of our neighborhoods. Repertorio Español is just one of the many stories of the gorgeous landmarked building at 141 West 13th Street.

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