In advance of the debut of the documentary film Against All Odds: Transforming 42nd Street, we spoke with Cora Cahan, Founding President of The New 42nd Street, a nonprofit created by New York State and New York City to restore seven historic theaters.
Cora Cahan, a former dancer and ballet company executive director, co-founded The Joyce Theater for dance in Chelsea. After she was recruited in 1990 to lead The New 42nd Street, one of her first major accomplishments was to lead the transformation of the Victory theater from one of the seediest theaters in New York City into the city's first theater for kids, the New Victory Theater.
When did you join the 42nd Street Development Project?
I was first brought onto the project in the late ’80s when I was running a ballet company and theater for dance in New York. I was asked to come because the theater for dance—today it’s known as the Joyce Theater—had previously been a porn house on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street. So, maybe the people from the City and the State thought I knew something about turning a former porn house into an active live performing arts space.
In 1988, I was asked to look at several New York City theaters and say whether any of them could be a dance theater. I came and looked. I told them how one of the theaters could make a dance theater, and I went away. And that was 1988. Two years later I was invited to lead the 42nd Street Entertainment Corporation, the nonprofit in charge of historic theaters and some of the mid-block properties.
When I came to work it was 1990. The real estate market had been booming. Everybody thought that the office buildings would be the driving force of the project—that those buildings would go up and we, The New 42nd Street, would benefit from that development: The corner office building goes up, this theater gets leased and renovated, that building goes up, these two theaters get leased and renovated. Well, the office market fell apart, real estate in the city fell apart, and there we were stuck with seven theaters in the middle of 42nd Street.
What was the mission of the organization?
I came to work here as the first employee for the brand new board in the fall of 1990. The first thing we did was change the name of the 42nd Street Entertainment Corporation to The New 42nd Street; we said, "If we do our job reasonably well and are fortunate, maybe it will be a new 42nd Street one day." And of course, that has come to pass in a great many ways.
None of us knew what we could do or what might happen. There was no big vision. There was no big strategic plan. There was just a bunch of blighted theaters lost to New Yorkers and visitors to the city. It was our job to look at the theaters and say, how can we bring them back to life? What kinds of uses? What's our responsibility here?
What were the first projects you undertook?
We were required to have two nonprofits on the street. Originally, we imagined that we would simply find nonprofit cultural groups to take these theaters, and they would be responsible. But again, the real estate market had fallen apart, and, therefore, to ask anybody to take on responsibility for yet another place on a block that was blighted and bleak would have been irresponsible on our part. So we said, "We'll take on the responsibility. Where's the void? What can we do and not step on anybody else's toes?" We came up with three or four possibilities. The most dynamic, and the boldest, and the riskiest was creating a theater that would cultivate love for the performing arts amongst young people in the city.
We named it The New Victory; we referred to it as the New Vic, because in London, they have the Old Vic and the Young Vic. So we have the New Vic right here on 42nd Street. And, as most people who have kids in the city know, it presents high-quality, good stuff from a range of dance, theater, new vaudeville, music, circus, and arts from around the world and locally.
Then we decided to establish a state-of-the-art rehearsal building with offices for nonprofits and beautiful studios that are light and bright; warm when they need to be warm, and cool when they need to be cool; clean; and welcoming, so that performing artists—theater, dance, and music folks—can come in, cry, bleed, sweat, and make new work that's compelling and beautiful and magical.
So, we built the New 42nd Street Studios. It has a 200-seat theater; a black box theater, known as The Duke on 42nd Street; and 14 rehearsal studios. It is the preeminent rehearsal studio building in the city.
Which other theaters were restored?
Next door is a theater known as the Lyric, which has been combined with the Apollo. In the mid-’90s the Canadian organization Livent understood that by putting together the Lyric and the Apollo they’d create a big, beautiful, opera house–sized theater, with 1,900 seats and a very large stage.
Next to that is the American Airlines Theatre run by Roundabout, which was historically known as the Selwyn Theatre. Across the street, we're the landlord of both the Empire and the Liberty. The Empire used to sit right next door to the Liberty on the south side of 42nd Street, but back in the late ’90s it was moved 180 feet to the west. The pigeons roosting in the windows didn't move as the theater was moved! The theater, in its new location, became the entry point for AMC Movie Theaters. The Liberty Theatre was renovated as both an event space and a restaurant, and above it is the Hilton hotel.
In 1993, you gave Michael Eisner of the Walt Disney Company and the architect Robert Stern a tour of the New Amsterdam Theatre. What did they see?
I think the New Amsterdam was in the worst condition of any of these historic theaters on this block. It had been left open, maybe by accident, to the elements. Anywhere there was plaster, it was peeling off and cascading down the stairs. There was fungi—that's mushrooms—honestly, growing third-row center.
That tour was Bob Stern; Michael Eisner; Michael Eisner's wife, Jane; one of Michael Eisner's sons; and a friend of that son. And Wendy Leventer from the 42nd Street Development Project.
It was a cold, nasty March morning. It was 9 am. The two young boys were so uninterested in this wreck of a theater. I cannot tell you how terribly nearly destroyed it appeared to be. Of course, all the bones were there, and enough was there so you could see what it once was.
We went through the theater; we went up the stairs. We pulled ourselves up, because the plaster made it impossible to find the treads. At the top—at the rooftop theater where Ziegfeld's Midnight Follies used to be—there was a dead cat right there on the landing. The two boys woke up. They were really interested in the dead cat. And there were dead pigeons. It was a pretty miserable thing.
I will always credit Michael with having the ability to see what was possible in that theater. I also remember him saying "Well, Cora, we don't want to be the first theater open on this street." And I said, "You see that theater directly across the street? I promise it will open as a theater for kids before the end of 1995." I made sure I was true to my word. We probably weren't quite ready to open on December 11, 1995, but we did, and 18 months later, the New Amsterdam opened.
Why was it important to restore the theaters?
Certainly, you could have taken down these historic theaters and had 42nd Street look like a corridor of Avenue of the Americas or parts of 57th Street today. Instead, there was a real belief that what made 42nd Street, 42nd Street at the turn of the century should be given the chance to be reinvented, rethought, restored, and brought into 20th- and 21st-century life.
The resiliency of these theaters drove the redevelopment of the block. The office buildings that were supposed to drive the development did not go up until after most of these theaters were fully restored or restoration was well underway. So the theaters that made 42nd Street, 42nd Street at the turn of the 20th century made 42nd Street, 42nd Street at the turn of the 21st century. People were pushing drugs on this street, and now they're pushing strollers.
What do you see as your most significant accomplishment?
What I am proud of is the New 42nd Street Youth Corps, particularly the Usher Corps here at the New Victory Theater. The front of house ushers, ticket takers, and concessionaires in this theater have been New York City public school kids aged 16, 17, 18, and 19. They have jobs. They are paid. They are trained in a host of other things beside customer service, beside first aid, beside how to open a bank account. Beside how to write a college application, beside learning how to get financial aid, beside learning how to manage their money and do their finances. They get a whole education here.
What one word would you use to describe 42nd Street today?
It's busy. The overriding public goal for the street—to activate it, to make it spirited, to have a mix of retail and entertainment so compelling that people would want to come here over the long term—has been satisfied extremely well. It's a very busy block.
Editor’s note: Q&A has been edited for length and readability.