Greenwich Village: Birthplace of Modern American Drama part 4 in a series
Believe it or not, the Soho Playhouse is actually within the Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District, which was designated 50 years ago this week, a district which is part of the larger South Village. At 15 Vandam, it might have continued as another in the row of 1820s Federal style houses. However in the late 19th century, the Tammany Democrats founded the Huron Club there as a clubhouse for their dealings. Prominent clubmen included “Battery” Dan Finn and the infamous Jimmy “Beau James” Walker, mayor of New York City from 1925-1932, known as “The Night Mayor” due to his predilection for jazz clubs and chorus girls. A theater was founded in the building in the 1920’s, and has been known by various and sundry names ever since.
Renamed the South Village Theatre in 1962, the theater reopened with the original production of Jean Erdman’s musical play The Coach with the Six Insides, based upon the James Joyce novel, Finnegans Wake. In 1963 the theater was taken over by playwright Edward Albee. Albee realized that the future of theater was in jeopardy without incubator space for emerging writers to experiment with form, style, and content. His first full length play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, opened on Broadway in 1962 to mixed reviews. Nonetheless, it became a huge commercial hit beyond anyone’s wildest dreams or expectations. He used his own funds from the profits to produce the plays of other young writers. The philosophy of his production company, The Playwrights’ Unit, centered on the notion that American playwrights deserved a forum in which to learn and take risks in full public view. And so, through the mission of his company, the world was introduced to the brilliance of young playwrights Sam Shepard, LeRoi Jones, Adrienne Kennedy, Terrence McNally, John Guare, Frank Gagliano, Lanford Wilson, Lee Kalcheim, Megan Terry, and others. The theater and its Village location were key to their ability to produce at lower costs than uptown venues, and with more of a free hand without the watchful eye of investors.
15 Vandam is now know as The Soho Playhouse. Dorothy Ames who was at one time the manager of 15 Vandam, was once a playwright and was married to Allen Boretz, also a playwright. Boretz is best known for his 1937 Marx Brothers comedy Room Service. Interestingly, Allen Boretz was also renowned because of his Communist Party connections which resulted in his blacklisting by Hollywood during the Joe McCarthy era in the 1950s.
The theater is currently operating under Artistic Director Darren Lee Cole and continues to serve the downtown theater community. The building contains a 199 seat off-Broadway theater and a smaller, more intimate 55 seat cabaret space, appropriately named the Huron Club.