Theater Underground

By Webber, Rebecca | Stage Directions, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Theater Underground


Webber, Rebecca, Stage Directions


A new, multistage off-Broadway complex-formerly a second-run cinema-adds to the revitalization of a New York neighborhood.

On the western edge of the theater district in New York City, residents and real estate agents in Hell's Kitchen have been trying for years to change the neighborhood's gritty image-and its name.

The area that would be "Clinton" has evolved in recent years, from a slightly scary haven for the down-and-out to an enclave of ethnic restaurants and affordable housing. Since September, a new theater complex has been drawing the kinds of artists and audiences that could help the area shed its satanic label once and for all.

The new Dodger Stages houses five new theaters that will welcome off-Broadway shows, such as its current inhabitants, Symphonie Fantastique and Bare: A Pop Opera (which opens October 13), as well as dance, music, performance art, even the circus.

"We wanted to create a small community of theaters in the heart of the city, for anything that would love to be in the Broadway vicinity but can't find the right-sized venue to do so." says Michael David, president of Dodger Stage Holding (US), which conceived, built and operates the complex. [Editor's note: Dodger Stages is a result of a partnership between Dodger Stage Holding (US) and Stage Holding (Europe). In addition to David, Edward Strong is secretary/treasurer of DSH and Robin de Levita is executive producer of SH. All are on the SD cover this month.]

The theaters are nestled in a building that began its life in the late '80s as a movie theater but had trouble attracting audiences. It turned to second-run movies, selling tickets for about $2, at a time when movies cost about $7. The theater went out of business in spring 2001.

At the same time, a team led by Dodger Stage Holding was searching the city for a location to launch a big idea. "We had this desire to create a place that could accommodate attractions that are too small for Broadway and too large for most off-Broadway theaters," says David. And they wanted to bring multiple productions-their artists and audiences-under one roof.

The team had checked out garages, abandoned food courts and brownstones before discovering the vacant movie theater. Still, the scouting team's first walk-through required a little imagination.

"I remember the theaters were very grimy. Their floors were sticky with Coke syrup and the décor was very outdated," says Roger Morgan, a theater design consultant with the New York City-based Sachs Morgan Studio. But Morgan saw great potential in the space. Soon, Dodger Stage Holding acquired a lease, drew up plans and began a gut renovation of the building.

The construction project, which left only the outer walls, the envelopes of the theaters and the escalators untouched, had a price tag of $20 million. After more than two years of work, Dodger Stages at Worldwide Plaza celebrated its grand opening on September 9, 2004.

In the Beginning

Worldwide Plaza occupies a full city block bounded by 8th and 9th avenues and 49th and 50th streets. The block was once the site of Madison Square Garden (the third arena by that name). After the current version of the Garden opened on February 11, 1968, the previous site was converted into a large open lot used for parking and productions of the Big Apple Circus.

The 1980s brought the development of the Worldwide Plaza, a mixed-use complex that includes a 50-story office tower on the east end of the block (it's the 87th tallest building in the world) and a 35-story residential building on the west end. Currently, its one-bedroom condos start at $3,700 per month. Between the two buildings stretches a 27,000-square-foot public plaza with a fountain, outdoor seating and landscaping. Beneath the plaza, dipping underground, the builders added a movie theater. The complex was completed in 1989 and its construction is the subject of the documentary "Skyscraper," which aired on PBS in the early '90s. …

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