A research request by a New York Times writer regarding the Cherry Lane Theatre at 38 Commerce Street unearthed a rich history of entertainment in the West Village. (For a view into the upper apartments and to read more from the theater owner, refer to this article in the Times.)
Designated as part of 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 running Off-Broadway theatre. The building itself was originally constructed in 1836 to house a brewery for one Alexander McLachlan and later served as a tobacco warehouse and box factory.
Tucked away from the bustle of the city along tree-lined Commerce Street between Barrow and Bedford Streets, the three-story brick theatre features 6-over-1 wood windows and an arched double-door entryway covered by an awning. In 1924, the Provincetown Players, which included the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, founded the Cherry Lane Theatre here, which opened on May 24 of that year. They hired scenic designer, Cleon Throckmorton, to convert the building to 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!” Small as it was, the theatre hosted three plays in its inaugural season: Saturday Night, The Man Who Ate Popomack, and The Way of the World. For a complete list of plays that have shown at the Cherry Lane, visit the timeline page on the theatre organization’s website.
Over the years, the theatre became known for its avant-garde offerings. An eclectic array of theatre companies have operated there, including the New Playwrights (who moved there in 1927 in only their second season), the Savoy Opera, The Living Theatre, and the Theatre of the Absurd. The Cherry Lane has long given aspiring playwrights opportunities to share their work with a wide audience. 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.
Even still, the theatre 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 for the theatre, a group of residents lead by a Kenneth Carroad gained ownership of the building. It appears that Carroad was also responsible for saving a number of theatres outside the city.
For close to a century, the Cherry Lane has served as an Off-Broadway theatre and has seen the likes of 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.
Click here to see what’s currently playing at the theatre and studio; help support this long-standing theatre in the West Village by taking in a show this season.
(More historic photos available at the NYPL Digital Gallery)