← Back

Looking Back on The Cherry Lane Theatre’s Long History

The Cherry Lane Theatre opened as the Cherry Lane Playhouse in 1923, and is located within what was designated as the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Cherry Lane has the distinction of being New York City’s oldest, continuously operating Off-Broadway theatre. Tucked away from the bustle of the city along tree-lined Commerce Street between Barrow and Bedford Streets, the three-story brick theatre is one of New York’s greatest treasures.

The Cherry Lane Theatre, photo courtesy of The Cherry Lane Theatre archives

The building was originally constructed in 1836 to house a brewery for a man by the name of Alexander McLachlan. It later served as a tobacco warehouse and box factory. In 1924, the Provincetown Players, which included the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, founded the Cherry Lane Theatre here. They hired scenic designer Cleon Throckmorton to convert the building into a 200-seat auditorium and a small stage, to which renowned entertainer George M. Cohan amusingly remarked, “Might as well act in a telephone booth!”

As small as it may be, the theater hosted three plays in its inaugural season: Saturday Night, by Robert Presnell with Marie Chambers,The Man Who Ate the Popomack, by W. J. Turner, and The Way of the World by William Congreve.

The theater continued to fuel some of the most ground-breaking experiments in the chronicles of the American stage. The Downtown Theater movement, The Living Theatre, and Theatre of the Absurd all took root at the Playhouse, and it proved fertile ground for 20th-century dramaturgy’s seminal voices.

From this Village jewel streamed a large succession of plays by nascent writers, whose names have lent distinction to American and international literary and dramatic treasures; from 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 ’40s and ’50s, to Beckett, Albee, Pinter, Ionesco, and LeRoi Jones in the ’60s, and Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Joe Orton, and David Mamet in the ’70s and ’80s.

Given the Village’s worldwide reputation as a haven for artists in the 20th century, the Cherry Lane is an integral part of that history. Despite its reputation as a leading force as the creator and home of new and exciting work, the theater was threatened with demolition some 17 years before historic district designation when plans were made to erect an apartment house on the site in 1952; luckily, a group of residents, led by Kenneth Carroad, gained ownership of the building. It appears that Carroad was also responsible for saving a number of theaters outside the city.

For nearly a century, the Cherry Lane has served as an Off-Broadway theater and has seen the likes of Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Gary Sinise, Tony Curtis, Cicely Tyson, John Malkovich, Gene Hackman, Barbra Streisand, Kevin Bacon, and Bea Arthur perform on its stage. In 1996, stage actress Angelina Fiordellisi saw potential in the historic landmark and raised funds to purchase and renovate the Cherry Lane. She also bought space in a neighboring brownstone and opened a 60-seat black box theatre now known as the Cherry Lane Studio.

A24, the independent film and television studio whose films include the Oscar winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” made an unexpected move into live performance, purchasing The Cherry Lane Theatre in early 2023. The studio, which until now has focused on making movies, television shows, and podcasts, plans to present plays as well as other forms of live entertainment there, in addition to the occasional film screening.

Those of us who love both the theater and the Cherry Lane are waiting in great anticipation to see what A24 has in store.

2 responses to “Looking Back on The Cherry Lane Theatre’s Long History

  1. Hi Lannyl,

    I was excited to read your article and recognize the language that I created for our Playbill. Thanks for referring to Cherry Lane so lovingly. She is, after all, the heart of Greenwich Village.

  2. I would call their statement that the Provincetown Players founded the Cherry Lane Theater technically and legalistically accurate, perhaps, but not valid, or true in the largest, real-world sense, so to put it, because the entity we know as “The Provincetown Players” – born on Cape Cod, run by Jig Cook, showcasing the writing and acting of O’Neill and Millay and Susan Glaspell and Ida Rauh – existed in the Village from 1917 to 1922/1923 but was considered defunct as of 1922 by all of the original members except, possibly, Millay herself. The attached blog asserts that the new group c. 1924 took the name “The Experimental Theatre Company” when the old-timers protested their using the earlier name, even though they did use the old playhouse. A tempest in a teapot now.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *