overview

The Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater, a former Yiddish theater, was the location of the Mafia-controlled 181 Club (1945-53), known for its lavish shows of female impersonators (a term used at the time), and the pioneering Off-Broadway Phoenix Theater (1953-61).

See Peter Hujar Residence & Studio / David Wojnarowicz Residence & Studio for more information on this site’s LGBT history.

Header Photo
Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

History

The Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater is the single most tangible reminder of the heyday of Yiddish theater in 20th-century New York, when venues of this kind lined lower Second Avenue. Except for a few years when it operated as a movie theater, the building was used continuously as a Yiddish theater from its opening in 1926 until 1945.

From 1945 to 1953, the building’s downstairs was the location of the popular Mafia-controlled 181 Club, called “the homosexual Copacabana” as it was one of the most luxurious clubs in the U.S. that featured lavish shows of female impersonators (a term used at the time). It was called “the most famous fag joint in town” by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer in their homophobic book U.S.A. Confidential in 1952.

The building was particularly renowned from 1953 to 1961 as the pioneering Off-Broadway Phoenix Theater. One of the most important, prolific, and creative companies of the time (also named the Phoenix Theater), it was founded by Norris Houghton, who had experience in theater design and direction, and T. Edward Hambleton, descendant of a wealthy Maryland banking family who had theater management/production experience. Houghton became the artistic director and Hambleton the manager. Formed initially as a limited partnership company, its partners included such theatrical luminaries as playwright William Inge. The Phoenix was planned as an “art theater”/repertory company that would be freed from the restrictions, both artistic and economic, of the Broadway stage.

The theater opened in December 1953. Over the course of eight full seasons in this house, the Phoenix Theater presented an impressive array of American and European theatrical talent, from both the stage and motion pictures. Despite the company’s emphasis on established actors, it also formed a reputation for assisting the careers of talented newcomers.

Productions by LGBT creators and with LGBT performers at the Phoenix included: Coriolanus (1954), with actor Will GeerThe Seagull (1954), adapted by Montgomery Clift and others, directed by Norris Houghton, and with actors Clift and Will GeerSandhog (1954), with actor Jack CassidyThe Doctor’s Dilemma (1955), with actor Roddy McDowallThe Carefree Tree (1955), with actor Farley GrangerA Month in the Country (1956), book adapted by Emlyn Williams and directed by Michael RedgraveThe Littlest Revue (1956), conceived by Ben Bagley, with actor Joel GreyDiary of a Scoundrel (1956), with actor Roddy McDowallMeasure for Measure (1957), with scenic and costume design by Rouben Ter-Arutunian and production and lighting design by Jean Rosenthal, and with actor Richard EastonTaming of the Shrew (1957), with scenic design by Rouben Ter-Arutunian and additional decor and lighting design by Jean Rosenthal, and with actor Richard EastonThe Duchess of Malfi (1957), with music by Lee Hoiby, festival staging by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, and production and lighting design by Jean Rosenthal, and with actors Hurd Hatfield and Richard EastonMary Stuart (1957), with actor Eva Le GallienneMakropoulos Secret (1957), with scenic design by Norris Houghton and lighting design by Tharon MusserThe Chairs and The Lesson (1958), directed by Tony Richardson, with lighting design by Tharon MusserThe Infernal Machine (1958), by Jean Cocteau, with lighting design by Tharon MusserTwo Gentlemen of Verona (1958), with actor Roberta MaxwellThe Family Reunion (1958), with scenic design by Norris HoughtonThe Beaux Stratagem (1959), Once Upon a Mattress (1959), and Peer Gynt (1960), all with lighting design by Tharon MusserHenry IV (1960), with lighting design by Jean Rosenthal; and She Stoops to Conquer (1960), with music and songs composed by Lee Hoiby.

Later in this building, as the Entermedia Theater, was the original production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978; transferred to the 46th Street Theater), directed by Peter Masterson and Tommy Tune, with musical numbers staged by Tune, and Thommie Walsh as associate choreographer.

See Peter Hujar Residence & Studio / David Wojnarowicz Residence & Studio for more information on this site’s LGBT history.

[The 181 Club had] waiters who were butch lesbians in tuxedos. … Like the bars of the 1920s, it drew many heterosexuals who came to gawk or to dabble, but many more men and women who were committed to homosexuality and who came to be with other homosexuals.

Lillian Faderman , Lillian Faderman, author

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: Harrison G. Wiseman
  • Year Built: 1925-26

Sources

  1. Christopher D. Brazee, Gale Harris, and Jay Shockley, “150 Years of LGBT History,” New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (June 2014).

  2. Daniel Hurewitz, Stepping Out: Nine Walks Through New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Past (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).

  3. Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, U.S.A. Confidential (New York: Crown Publishers, 1952).

  4. Jay Shockley, Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater Designation Report (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1993).

  5. Internet Broadway Database.

  6. Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). [source of pull quote]

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