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.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Eviction From Manhattan Punch Line Theatre on 41st Street


Wherein a young non-profit theatre company finds itself in court facing eviction from one of New York City’s wealthiest developer’s who fashioned himself a patron of the arts.

We should have known better than to fall in love with a space we turned into a theatre, offices, (2) a lobby; with one single bathroom and two other floors in that same building serving as our scene shop and an alternative rehearsal space, all with the approval of the building management of Sheldon Solow Inc. But we forgot to get it in writing…the rehearsal space and the scene shop I mean. Not that Solow Inc. would have put it in writing; no. It was a favor, granted, I later realized, to enable them to kick us out whenever they felt like it. After the city and state of NY decided to turn 42nd Street, Times Square into a Disney-like extravaganza, Solow and company suddenly felt like it:

We might have thought it likely too if we’d thought about why they never billed us for all those building expenses that our lease mentioned on like the 24th page somewhere. I remember Steve coming into my office, (we built separate offices after we realized we had, shall we say, different ways of doing things.), with as big smile on his face, and saying conspiratorially, “They forgot!”

“What?” said I innocently?

“They forgot to send us a bill at the end of the year for all the buildings taxes and stuff”! he exclaimed.

“Oh come on, they didn’t forget!  So we need to put aside the money”

“Why?”, says Steve.

“Because”, says I patiently, “they might one day send us the bill and we won’t have the money we need to have when that bill arrives.”

Steve looked at me like I was crazy, a look I had become accustomed to seeing on his face while talking to me.

We had a board meeting where this was all discussed and we all agreed that it was a good idea to put aside some funds for that day when or if Solow sent us a bill for the unbilled but nevertheless owed amount of dough, which we figured was about $5,000.  We never seemed to have any money to put aside for this likely occurrence, but ultimately, it didn’t matter. Our math was way off anyway, plus when the Solow Corp decides to get rid of you or break your lease, you’d best start packing.

Sitting in that board meeting was the very man with whom we had consulted when we negotiated the lease, Ralph Kreitzman. Ralph was one of the many lawyers who advised us for free; pro bono, through the wonderful non-profit service group called VLA, Volunteer Lawyers For The Arts. We hooked up with the Wall Street firm Hughes Hubbard and Reed, through VLA. Each of our lawyers were specialists and so Ralph was the real estate guy. Ralph and a few other lawyers came to all our board meetings which pretty much happened monthly. He looked like our logo; the face with the big comedy nose and glasses. He enjoyed looking like our logo and enjoyed working for us and we enjoyed him and his free services.

But this forgotten bill that Solow sent us was at the end of our first year of MPL’s existence. We squandered our chance to save money for that inevitable day when the big bill would arrive. It did arrive, of course, about the fourth year of our existence in the form of a legal document pasted to our elevator door on the 7th floor at 260 W. 41st St., our home and theatre; in a building whose most famous graffiti phrase was in the dreary, dirty grey hallway you could only see if you dared walk up from the ground floor lobby, said lobby itself being a study in old rancid tile smelling of urine, which pooled every morning and night on a regular basis. We took turns going down and mopping it up each morning and before every show. Why? The drunks who were the pee-ers would take advantage of the recessed doorway to our lobby, and step into the recessed area near the hinges, and discreetly urinate the liquor they conveniently bought right next door in the liquor store.

Over the years their liquids had rusted the door so badly that the urine had free flow under the rusted ramshackle metal door. But at least the winos were able to hide their penises from the passersby, thanks to the architect’s creation of the recessed door.  Oh, I forgot to tell you the phrase that was graffiti-ed in the 3rd floor hallway: Vincent Sucks.

But let us backtrack a bit to bring you up on some necessary facts. Faith left after the first year or two, I am not clear on when exactly. We were not surprised, but we were upset. I liked Faith and wanted her to stick around to be part of this effort. She had some fame in those days, and she was a buffer between me and Steve in meetings, but she wanted out and what could be done to stop her?  She also donated some significant money and brought in her mother on the board and her cousin with whom she was close and they all contributed funds to our effort. So she left.

Steve and I met and discussed what to do to replace her…not for the creative part so much as the financial part….we decided we like the triumvirate structure, so we spread the word that we were looking for someone to join us who is a creative theatre person, but who also can “buy” into the group. We had a pretty good sense of  our theatre’s growing influence and we were not disappointed when we were approached by Jerry HeymanDoctor Jerry Heyman. He had a doctorate in drama and wrote his dissertation on comedy, so what more could we ask. Well, there was the money….he told us that we could count on him…and his friend, to come up with the 25g’s. His friend was Richard Ericksen, an actor who Jerry worked with. Richard and I got along famously, but Steve didn’t care for him, a fact that would later come to a bad ending, and I, on the other hand, did not care for Jerry so much... Part of what bugged me about Jerry was all the money we received seemed to come only from Richard, not from Jerry. Richard was generous to a fault. Jerry was not generous.
So by the time we got this 42nd Street inspired eviction notice, actually it wasn’t that, it was just a bill for thousands of dollars for rent on the 6th and 8th floors which we were using for the aforementioned uses, and for all those years of expenses that Solow had “forgotten” to send us, but was now due in 30 days along with all the other dough….somewhere in the 40 thousand dollar area. So we called HHR, Hughes Hubbard and Reed and sent them the paperwork and they confirmed that we were in some trouble here. They said they would send a guy to handle us in housing court when our date came up.

We discussed all of this with Jerry and Richard and we decided to have a meeting with the Solow group, and I set it up. Solow of course, was not there, high atop 9 West 57th Street, but some large gent who looked like he’d grown up eating his way to the top. He was rough acting and slightly disparaging to our crowd, Me, Steve, Jerry and Richard. This guy looked at Jerry’s Gucci Loafers and chided them on being able to help us out by paying this bill. Jerry and Richard offered to buy the building for 300 thou which this guy laughed off. I thought it was decent for Jerry and Richard to offer to buy the building….it would certainly have been a good investment given that the New York Times now sits on that same plot amongst other parcels. Ironic that the N. Y. Times, who discovered us and literally put MPL on the map, should, in the end, live atop our grave. Like a parent burying their child.  

So we three left the meeting with Solow without any resolution, so we knew now that we were destined to go to court. Housing Court is downtown and on our appointed time Steve and I showed up. HHR told us one of their attorneys would represent us. I was not aware of his name then or now, nor do I remember him talking to me before the trial. When we saw him we were scared. He looked young and scared. The atmosphere in Housing Court was brusque to say the least. Everyone seemed to be going about their business without acknowledging that we were clueless. 

Finally our case was called, The Solow Corporation vs Manhattan Punch Line Theatre Company, Inc. Our green attorney, whose hands were trembling, started to say, “Your Honor….”when he was cut off by Your Honor. “What are you doing?! I’m not ready for you! He shouted. Our guy looked shocked. After a while the judge said, “Go ahead.”

“Your honor our client….” The stenographer, a large woman, screamed at him, “I can’t hear you!” Nonplussed the attorney started over. He was interrupted a number of times by both the stenographer and the judge, who asked questions in the middle of  green attorney’s statements.

 Finally we were called up separately and I and Steve testified to what terrible landlords Solow was and how they let winos pee in the lobby and we had to paint the lobby and clean up the building because they wouldn’t and….it was useless. None of what we testified to was accepted on any level as a legal argument by anyone in the court. It really came down to; do you owe this money or don’t you? We did and so if we don’t pay it we get kicked out and have a judgment against our corporation and that would be the end of that.
Just then the green attorney came up with some previous case law that stumped Mr Judge, so he had to take it under advisement, which gave us time. The trial ended until a later date and our butts were saved temporarily.

In desperation I called a board meeting and one of our directors, Alice Burns, an assistant manager of Citibank told us that she had a connection with the West Side Democratic Club and she would find us a better attorney. Soon we were in the office of said attorney, Bernie Cohen of Santangello, Santangello and Cohen. He was a dese dem and dose guy for sure. He knew his way around Housing Court. In fact he told us that when Solow’s attorney saw him the attorney would say, “What da fuck are you doin’ heah?!!

Bernie was impressed that we talked HHR into being our attorney. He had trouble understanding though why we couldn’t just let the judgment sit there and then close MPL Inc and start another theater company with a different corporate name. We explained that we were now old enough to get government funding and a new corporation would not be for two more years. Then he got it. So he agreed to have a sit-down with the Solow team and work something out.

A couple of days later we all went downtown for said meeting and Bernie exited the meeting and told us he got our deal: If we leave the building we owe nothing. So we agreed and started the process of leaving.  Oy.

The last show we did on 42st Street, was the Henry Aldrich play, What A Life, by ? and I was in it as well as Anne Gartlan who later became my pal at AFTRA NY, where we are both officers. Jerry Heyman directed and it was pretty good, but one of those old comedies that gets its charm from the time it was written, having an innocence that we no longer have or even understand. A nostalgia piece for some and an antique trinket for others.

But the call was for all hands on deck and we started throwing stuff out, finding spaces to store costumes and other equipment, a place to build sets, etc. Our benefactor was good old Fred Papert of 42nd Street Development Corp and a board member of ours. He told me to call Jack Garfein of the then Actors and Directors Theatre Lab and have him rent out one of his floors he had the Fred. I did and Jack wanted us to pay him rent of 2500 a month, which was way more than I was ready to pay. I called Fred back and told him and Fred got angry and cursed and said, “Oh for Christ’s sake, I’ll rent the floor to you for the same thing he is paying, $1200 a month!”  And he did.

While that sounds great, especially these days, it wasn’t a theatre. It was an empty floor with a carve out for the buildings heating and air-conditioning unit and so it could only be used for an office and rehearsal space. At least we had a place to move into. Fred also gave us some temporary space on the Row for storing our costumes and set equipment. That turned out to be a short term favor as this was space he needed back for development a short time later and we ended up donating all our costumes to the The Costume Collection.

But we spent many days and nights carrying stuff out of 41st street and driving over to 42nd street and 9th Avenue. I remember that our guy Henry was part of that effort, and he worked alongside us with great energy and dedication.

Henry was a guy we got through a program run by the city called ? It called upon able bodied men and women who were on welfare to work for free at charitable non-profit’s. We had a series of bad apples through this program until good old Henry. He was an older man, in his 50’s I’d say, and showed up every morning and cleaned and did just about anything we asked of him and never complained. We supplied him with lunch money, which to city reimbursed us for later. He’d worked for us for a couple of years and was there when we got evicted and stood with us to move us out. Later…about two years later, Jack Garfein our neighboring theatre guy whose office now was across the hall, came to me and said, “I can’t find anybody dependable to clean my studios I use for my school. I hire these guys and they work for awhile and then disappear. Do you know anyone who yu think can do this job for me? I’m paying $250 a week”

“$250 a week”, I thought? “That’s more than our Artistic Director makes! “ What to do? I knew that I could not let this opportunity for Henry slip away. I/we owed it to him for years of hard and loyal services for practically no money from us. I told Jack about Henry and he was hired.

To say that Henry was delighted was an understatement. He was off Welfare for the first time in years and whenever he saw me he thanked me profusely. I swear he would have done anything for me if I’d asked him, but I was glad to do it for such a kind and sweet guy. Garfein was grateful too. For the first time he had a dependable employee.

For sometime after we got to Theatre Row, I was still looking around for theatre space. By being evicted we had quadrupled our budget and in order to rent a theatre we had to shell our at least $2500 a week! So we went from having a loft with 5000 square feet for $800 a month to 1200 square feet of office and a small rehearsal space! So I continued to get calls about various spaces around the city that could have a theatre built into them. But when I returned from looking at them and told Steve, he would feign interest…but would never go look at them. After this went on for some time, I finally gave up. He was in love with Theatre Row. Well so was I, I mean other than the money aspect, what’s not to love? It only offered a friendly landlord, and beautiful theatres and a ready audience.

Our offices were spacious enough with rooms even for some of our classes we taught through our theatre school we founded. I taught my voice-over class there, but eventually moved to the board room of Fred Papert’s office. For free as was Fred’s wont.  What a guy.

That first year the Theatre Row theatres were all rented out so we produced our season in a few other theatres around town. But the Row was home from that day forward to when MPL went out of business, 13 years after it started. I left about 8 or 9 years before that happened…

but that is another story.  

Looking back on this eviction I had the thought that maybe we could have reached a deal with Solow to stay longer if we came to them with more rent and to allow a 30 day kick-out clause to be part of the new lease? The building sat mostly vacant for many months if not years after we left. We would have still had a theatre and would still have saved money over what we ended up having to pay to be on the Row and renting theatres there and elsewhere.

Solow eventually leased the building to a religious group who set up hotel like facilities for the homeless. Much later they sold it to the NY Times as part of the footprint of their beautiful building on 40th and 41st Street on 8th Avenue. Just a thought.

3 Comments:

Blogger Doug said...

Mitch,

Thanks for posting such a detailed account. The memories come flooding back.

I particularly remember those sad days when we dismantled the 41st facility. I was struck then, as I am struck now, by an irony: Steve had (as I recall) roped me into helping you CONSTRUCT the damn thing. I felt a big part of MPL in those early days, between acting in shows and cranking out press releases. All the great friendships I made, many of which continue to this day. Then to have to rip it all apart... well, it was something no one wanted to do, physically, professionally or emotionally.

- Doug Baldwin
Portland, OR

3:34 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

And BTW, whatever happened to that strange,strange guy who ran the elevator? Yes, there was the urine and the pimps and the constant threat of physical danger. But he was the icing on the cake, wasn't he?

3:37 PM  
Blogger Larry Slade said...

Thanks for taking the time to record all this history. It's an interesting story. I like the Henry part that was lovely.

You sure have lots of good stories. Maybe you should do a one man show, "My Life in Showbiz".

I often wish that people could learn to pee between the cars into the street. "Curb your drunks."

4:15 PM  

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