Historic East Village off-Broadway theater at risk of closing without government aid

Theatre 80 has been an East Village staple for over five decades and has seen countless famous faces pass through its doors, but now it is at risk of shutting down forever—ending a historic monument to the arts and off-Broadway.

When pushing through the doors of Historic 80 Saint Marks Place, visitors are transported into a New York some have long forgotten and others were born too late to experience, a New York that saw Bob Dylan busking in dive bars and Allen Ginsberg reading poetry to throngs of listeners in Washington Square Park. It does this thanks to the architecture and atmosphere that still feels as intact as it did when it hosted stage shows in the East Village as Andy Warhol mingled with Luo Reed elsewhere in the same neighborhood.

The ghosts of the famous and celebrated can be felt reaching from the walls and ceilings, begging to be remembered. Yet this last bastion of 20th century East Village creativity is holding on by a thread thanks to a 21st century virus.

A dimly lit painting inside the theater. Photo by Dean Moses

“There are people who come to Manhattan from other countries, for theaters like ours, that then go and see the rest of New York and the rest of the country. So, the impact on losing our theaters, and we’ve lost so many during COVID, the impact of losing our theaters is felt throughout the country,” Lorcan Otway told amNewYork Metro as he sat beside his wife, Eugenie Otway, with tears welling in his eyes.

The Otways have literally spent their lives running and maintaining the off-Broadway theatre, the neighboring William Barnacle Tavern (a 1920s speakeasy from the prohibition era), and the overhead Museum of the American Gangster, especially Lorcan who says he has fond memories of helping his father renovate the building in 1964 when he was nine years old.

“I was nine.  I would come home after school and go to work. I thought that students that went home and did their homework were unemployed,” Otway joked.

Lorcan Otway and Eugenie Otway look back over their history running the business. Photo by Dean Moses

Lorcan Otway tells wild, sweeping stories of his father’s dealings with gangsters who allegedly wanted access to valuables hidden within the property and renowned Broadway legends who stepped foot on their stage, but more than the glitz and glamor it is clear to Otway the building is a safe of memories, a symbol of the arts, and, above all, a family business.

“As my father was dying, he and I planned to restore the theater as a legit house and restore the theatrical grid, which we did,” Otway explained, “As each family member dies, they take a chunk with them.”

Eighty Saint Mark’s place boasts a Broadway size stage in an intimate setting–with about 199 seats–that not only allows the audience to feel connected to the show but also lets plays flourish in ways they couldn’t hope to in larger arenas. But what was once the location’s greatest strength, became its greatest weakness during 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic reached New York City. The deadly virus forced a complete change to the venue, which saw many of the seats removed.

Small family-owned businesses have suffered immensely during the pandemic with about 3,000 forced to close, and with debts piling many of these locations may never open, according to the mayor’s office in a recent press conference.

Seats have been removed in an attempt to maintain social distancing. Photo by Dean Moses

Otway states that Broadway in itself is a small business that is in danger of forever closing its doors when they were forced to shutter during New York City’s shutdown. For months he was unable to open due to state mandates, causing him to rack up debt and default on his loan. He spent hundreds of thousands renovating the theater to meet COVID-19 safety protocols, removing six rows of seats and inserting wide platforms for social distancing, as well as increasing the amount of air purification and airflow from an archaic 1950s system to a modernized filtration.

“We upgraded the whole project to get it ready to reopen for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And what we had not expected was that the initial shutdown would last so long. So, we had a one-year bridge loan and when that became due in December there still had not yet been a vaccine introduced and it was impossible to refinance. And so, we defaulted by not being able to pay the loan after a year, but that default happened completely because of the state action that had we not been shut down,” Otway said.

Lorcan Otway showcases a remarkable history. Photo by Dean Moses

Unable to catch up to almost two years of debt, Otway fears without a small business loan from the state, he will be forced to shutter 80 St. Marks Place, forever.  He shared that he has been in contact with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Senator Brad Holyman, and Assembly member Harvey Epstein not to ask for a handout or a grant, but a long-term loan.

“We are asking the state through the governor’s office to give us a low interest long-term loan because in that way, we’ll be able to both pay the state back and it returns us to the position we were before the state shutdown. The legal argument behind it is that when the state shuts down a business, it’s a taking and it’s justifiable taking it was without a doubt for the public good. In fact, we closed several days before we were told to out of concern for our staff and our audiences,” Otway stressed.

“But when the state takes your property, for example, in eminent domain, after they reimburse you and we’re not asking to be reimbursed, but being given a loan so that we could continue to serve as we’ve done for the past 57 years, the cultural needs of the city, the community, and the state,” he added.

Otway also shared that the public can do their part by writing to their local elected leaders and urging them to advocate for the loan and for the business that has accepted generations of patrons.

William Barnacle Tavern bar was originally a 1920s speakeasy from the prohibition era. Photo by Dean Moses