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The buildings at 78 and 80 St. Marks Place in the East Village is deeply rooted in New York’s past Prohibition era, a time of organized crime, fancy jazz clubs, and spacewalkers smuggling alcohol through underground tunnels.

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The buildings now house Theater 80, an off-Broadway theater established in the early 1960s, as well as the William Barnacle Tavern next door and the Museum of the American Gangster upstairs — and all three are currently embroiled in a two-year battle to stay open. . The theater may soon become the latest victim of a pandemic, along with many other New York theaters and bars.

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Lorcan and Genie Otway, owners of Theater 80 as well as the pub and museum, have struggled to recover from the COVID-19 closures and were unable to make payments in November 2020 on a mortgage against the property that was more than $6 million before the pandemic. to nearly $12 million, including legal penalties.

They are far from alone in their struggle to recover from the pandemic. According to a report from the State Comptroller, employment in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector peaked in the summer of 2019. But pandemic-related shutdowns in 2020 caused a 55% drop in employment, and the sector has yet to recover.

Now, with a court ruling threatening immediate eviction, the Otways are desperately trying to save an establishment steeped in heritage. The theater’s entrance and bar are filled with historical memorabilia: paintings, signed photos of famous actors and artists who have visited the building, and other prohibition-era relics.

“It’s really important to us that when you come to see a play or have a drink, you come to an authentic environment,” said Lorcan Otway.

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Lorcan (left) and Genie Otway inside Theater 80 in Manhattan. The theater is part of a two-year struggle to stay open amid financial problems related to the pandemic.

The inn is half of what was once the bar area of ​​the original speakeasy, Scheibs Plads. The bar is equipped with models of the ships used by space runners to smuggle alcohol from the Bahamas. Black and white film from the 20s plays on the back wall. The menu features a number of green milk absinthe cocktails that would have been served when the place was run by Frank Hoffman, Al Capone’s known collaborator and manager.

At first glance, one might think it’s a light-themed bar, a notion Otway tried to dispel. “The issue is reality,” he said. “They are artifacts about the culture that created this place and the history of the place.”

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After Prohibition ended, Scheib’s Place became a jazz club for the likes of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Frank Sinatra performed there early in his career in the late 1930s.

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An image of the Jazz Gallery, which was before the Teater 80 in St. Marks Place, hanging from the theatre.

Many actors and playwrights got their start in this theater, including actress, writer and producer Jessica Sherr. Around 2015, Sherr was working on a one-man show called Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies and was able to give and receive feedback thanks to a stand-up theater workshop at Theater 80 called Naked Angels.

Sherr has now performed the show over 400 times across the country and around the world. “I think a lot of it was because I had a space to practice, and that was going to be Theater 80,” he said.

Renting theater space in the city has become so expensive that he has to move his show out of town, he added – a very different situation he found when he arrived in New York in 2003.

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“This city had a pulse, it was full of artists and sweat, and I had to go to Avenue D to do shows,” he said. “It had a lot of character. And I feel like a lot of those spaces are gone, and Theater 80 would be in that world of historic places, I hope it doesn’t get torn down.”

Karen Johnson, Reva Rose, Skip Hinnant and Gary Burghoff in ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ in 1967 at Theater 80.

Otway’s family history also permeates the walls of the building. After his father bought the building in 1964, Otway helped him excavate the old dance floor by hand and poured concrete to create an intimate 199-seat theater in the back of the building. There Clark Gesner’s musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown opened in 1967 and ran until 1971, when it moved to Broadway for a brief engagement. The theater also hosted the Manhattan Festival Ballet and regular Monday night shows.

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On the sidewalk outside the theater are handprints and signatures of some 30 stars, including Joan Crawford, Joan Rivers and Alan Cumming. Otway calls it the off-Broadway “walk of fame.” When you raise the curtains backstage, you can see the outline of the speakeasy’s original entrance, where patrons could enter from a butcher shop on First Avenue.

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Over the years, the venue became known for hosting diverse and experimental cuisine: theatergoers could see opera and Shakespeare, as well as drag shows written by Provincetown theater artist Ryan Landry. The Pearl Theater Company was in residence there for 15 years, until 2009. The venue was also one of the oldest revival houses in the city, showing vintage Hollywood and foreign films until the mid-1990s.

Lorcan on stage at Otway Theater 80 with ballet dancers in 1967. “We would lose our future and our past,” Otway said of the possibility of closing the theater.

After Otway’s father died in 1994, the properties went into a family trust managed by his mother, who died in 2014. Otway inherited part of the property—now worth $7,845,000, according to New York tax records—and then took over the entire property. After settling a long legal battle with his brother, Thomas Otway in 2016. In December 2019, Otway took out a $6 million one-year loan against the properties to cover the legal fees of the lawsuit and to buy out his brother.

When the March 2020 pandemic shut down the entertainment and hospitality industry everywhere, Otway was unable to pay off the loans. In November 2020, he tried to negotiate a loan extension. He learned that his debt had been sold to Maverick Real Estate Partners. His interest rate increased from 10% to 24%. Maverick did not respond to requests for comment.

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Last December, Otway filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would allow it to reorganize its finances and pay off its debt with future earnings. But a bankruptcy court administrator said they didn’t think the theater, museum and bar had enough revenue to make that plan work. Now the court has ordered the houses to be sold.

For Otway, this solution is not feasible. They live in an upper flat in the building with other tenants. “We would lose our future and our past,” Otway said. “You can imagine the nightmare before us: it’s Kafkaesque.”

“Fifty-seven years of service in the arts should not be viewed as a crime where the court is talking about sending in federal marshals to throw me out on the street with nothing but the clothes on my back, no home, no job,” Otway. he said “I think the municipality owes me more than that.”

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During the summer, the owners held fundraisers and showcased small theater performances and experimental music. Otway said they were fine until the administrator ordered them to hire more theater. “Every concert we did was sold out with young local musicians,” he said.

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Theater 80, which opened in the early 1960s, has been mired in a two-year struggle to stay open amid pandemic-related financial problems.

City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who told the New York Post she saw a production of Romeo and Juliet at Theater 80 in high school, has been working since December to connect the Otways with city and state resources. His office said he has received support from other elected officials and has turned to mission-driven finance and real estate for help. “These small theaters, like Theater 80, are very important to the larger fabric of New York City’s creative economy, and especially important for people who live in the area, who may not be able to go to Broadway, to connect with theater and the arts,” Rivera said in a statement.

Crystal Field, who founded the nearby Theater for the New City in 1971, has experienced the vicissitudes of small theaters firsthand. He says such organizations have been a lifeline and an artistic outlet for the East Village community. And he is worried about what might happen if the Otways buildings are sold.

“They’re going to put something in that market that we don’t care about, and we care about Theater 80,” Field said. “Theater 80 is one of them

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