Mitch's Muszings

Actor/writer/director Mitch McGuire shares his thoughts so the public will get to know him. He hopes to please you most of the time, and never be boring. Also some history on his old theatre company, Manhattan Punch Line Theatre, Inc.

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Location: New York, NY, United States

actor, writer, producer, director, father, grandfather, husband.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Manhattan Punch Line Theatre Is Born.

MPL Is Born

Almost 32 years ago, on December 11th, 1978 at the Curtain Up Restaurant, then located just West of the entrance of the Ninth Avenue building of Manhattan Plaza, a meeting was held over dinner. Attending were Faith Catlin, actress, Mitchell McGuire, actor, and Steve Kaplan, director. At that meeting we discussed starting a non-profit theater company, something all three of us had always dreamt of, and here we were, trying to put reality to work on our dream.

I brought Faith and Steve together since they did not know each other. I think they would agree that they did not exactly hit it off, but they did learn to work together. We were able to move forward with some sketchy plans.

We agreed to the idea of a non-profit theater. We discussed what kind of theater and Steve had done his homework. He proposed the idea of a theater dedicated to comedy; Serious comedy. I recognized it as an excellent idea. Comedy was in the air at the time. Comedy clubs were booming and new ones opening every day, it seemed. Not very long after MPL was born that December evening, Playwrights Horizons and Manhattan Theatre Club both changed their artistic aims to ones very similar to MPL’s.

But Faith had her doubts. She stated that she wanted a theater that was open to any production by friends or by us, with no particular theme or predictable schedule for that matter. She wanted to rehearse until everyone agreed the play was ready and then open it. I thought that her idea was impractical and said so, and Steve agreed.

Since I agreed to Steve’s comedy idea, and since we had previously agreed to a triumvirate structure where two votes carried the day, Faith agreed to the comedy concept. So we then tossed around names for the company. I recall it was Faith who came up with Manhattan Punch Line Theatre Company. We all loved it and latched on to it as: The One. I later called upon my late lamented friend, artist, filmmaker and cartoonist, Mike Siporin, to do the logo and typeface for MPL.

At the Curtain Up dinner, we then talked about money. In the end, Faith and I each promised to put up $10,000.00 each. Faith was, at the time, appearing on the soap, Ryan’s Hope (as Faith) and she was from a family who had financial resources. Her mother later served on our board as did Faiths’ friend and original member of the Group Theatre, Margaret “Beany” Barker.

I was doing lots of voice-overs and wanted to keep my theater chops, so I was anxious to get this venture going. I promised my ten G’s from my residuals. Steve was living at Manhattan Plaza with his new bride, Kathrin King Segal, but had no real money to speak of, so he merely gave his life over to the new company. Faith and I ended up contributing much more money as time went on. I gave more than I remembered giving. Recently I was shredding my old tax records from the past numbers of years and found all the checks I wrote as donations to MPL and I was shocked as how much it added up to. But one doesn’t withhold money for your children, and one doesn’t regret doing so either.

But how did I meet Faith and Steve, you ask? I knew Kathrin, Steve’s wife, because we were both in Oh Calcutta. Some years later, I, and my then gal friend, Karen Kleeger, were dining at Joe Allen Restaurant, and I saw Kathrin sitting with a guy, Steve. I waved and called out to her. We joined them briefly at their table and we chatted. We were introduced to Steve who was ‘On’, and quite funny, I thought. I like funny. I too try to be funny, at times, so what’s not to like?

A week later we got the call from Kathrin saying Steve and she were getting married and would we join them again at Joe Allen for what they wanted to call their reception? We did, and over the next weeks the four of us started hanging out together.

Steve got a job directing a play at the No Smoking Playhouse and cast Karen in a part. The production, though cheaply done, was not bad and kind of funny, I thought. Not long after that, Steve cast me in an Agatha Christie play called Towards Zero. I played the murderer. It was done at a small theatre in the Sutton Hotel on East 56th Street and Second Avenue. The theatre was filthy and one had to climb over hangers, hundreds of them, to get into the dressing room. But the show was well attended (Want an audience? Do a murder mystery!) and Steve did a good job with the play, I thought.

Faith was an actress I’d met when we were both cast in plays at newly formed Syracuse Stage, under Arthur Storch’s artistic direction. We were in two plays during their first season of existence: La Ronde and Butterfingers Angel, etc. In the latter play, Faith played Mary, mother of Jesus and I played one of her cave-man brothers as well as Balthazar, one of the three Kings.

Faith and I hit it off and started hanging out together. When Faith and I returned to Manhattan, we continued to be friends and saw each other often.

So you see, Steve and Faith were my friends, but they did not know each other, but they had separately expressed to me their desire to start a theater company in New York City.

The Curtain Up meeting ended and as we were walking out I ran into a gal I knew and after I excitedly told her of our plans to start a non-profit theatre company, she said, “I have one word of advice: profit!” I laughed and ignored her advice, but always wondered if I should have listened.

The day after our fateful meeting at Curtain Up, December 12th, I made an appointment with the founder of Playwrights Horizon’s, Bob Moss, with whom I was acquainted due to his having directed me in a play there, New York, New York. I was a fan of his abilities as a man who ran a successful theater and I wanted to pick his brain.

Since my appointment was in the afternoon, I took the morning off to look for space in which to build a theater. I remember I was standing at the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, and I looked South and saw a small manufacturing style eight story building a block away on 41st Street. I walked over there and saw that it was a wino hangout, with a liquor store neighbor and the so-called, Toughest Bar In New York (New Yorker Magazine) and I thought, “perfect!”

I went inside and met the union elevator man who told me to call the realtor listed on a sign outside. I did and the man told me almost everything I wanted to hear. I found out later that this was his M.O. Tell them what they want to hear and then, after they sign a lease, the real deal smacks you in the face!. But I saw an empty 5000 square foot loft with thin enough posts to make me want to build this new theatre, right here in Times Square.

I then hiked up the block to see Bob Moss. When I asked him what his advice would be about how to start a theatre, he said, “Don’t!” But then he retracted that statement; said he was kidding, and opened up to me about how to do it. And we pretty much followed his game plan, with some improvements along the way. He mentioned Fred Papert who was a non-profit real estate developer who, along with Bob, had founded Theatre Row. He also put together the deal to turn Manhattan Plaza into housing for performers. Here was someone I had to know, and I got his number from Bob and called and got an appointment.

Fred had been a successful advertising man who decided to get out of the biz and got involved, with Jackie O, in successfully saving Grand Central Station from being razed. When I met him in his office in the old McGraw Hill building at 330 W. 42nd Street, where he is still housed, he greeted me warmly and wanted to see the building I was telling him about on 41st Street. We walked out into the hallway so he could see it from the window looking west. He never noticed the building, but encouraged me to go on with my quest and later he agreed to serve on the MPL Board of Directors. For some years we would meet in his board room, though later we met in the Port Authority Bus Terminal board room.

The next day I called my two new partners and told them of my find. They came down and agreed with me that this was it. I called Mr. Realtor who told us we could move in immediately and negotiate the deal while occupying the space. It seemed too good to be true, and it was too good, but we moved in anyway. Later, when our pro-bono lawyer from Hughes Hubbard and Reed downtown (thanks to Faith Catlin’s connections) called us in our new office on our new phone, to tell us that the deal included a clause that meant that at the end of the first year of occupancy, suckers, that all the real estate taxes would be due and payable by us, in addition to our $800 rent. He meant ALL the taxes…for the whole building! This was a deal breaker as far as I was concerned.

Steve disagreed, and we could not get him to budge from this space.. We had found a home and he would worry later about the taxes.

I loved the space too, and reluctantly agreed to stay, although I recall I did look unsuccessfully for another space, but soon I through up my hands and joined Steve in putting on my blinders to any future troubles. The troubles, of course, did eventually arrive, but we were able to push them back a significant amount of time, staying at 260 West 41st Street, 7th floor, for over 4 years before we were kicked out. It was the announcement of the new plan for THE NEW 42ND STREET PROJECT that resulted in an eviction notice due to unpaid taxes for four years and they threw in four years of rent on the 8th floor a space they allowed us to use, but now wanted rent, even though we were told we could use it.

Someday I will write about how all this came about plus our court appearance, but not now. Suffice to say we had to get out of there so, I then I called Fred Papert who enabled us to move our offices and rehearsal room to Theatre Row. While our budget doubled and we had no theatre of our own anymore, we were saved from extinction by Fred. He is still my friend, and he is now in his 80’s.

Today the 41st Street site is occupied by the New York Times brand new building. It seems to be a nice synergy that the newspaper that was once so influential in making Manhattan Punch Line Theatre Company famous, should sometime later, rest on the grave of MPL. In today’s harsh world, the NY Times and all newspapers are in trouble, so let us hope that they too, don’t someday get evicted.

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