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).

It was also the residence of several LGBT artists from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Header Photo

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

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(left) Norris Houghton, co-founder of the Phoenix Theater. Source: Guggenheim Foundation. (right) Phoenix Theater Playbill cover, 1953.

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 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, author

The building was particularly renowned from 1953 to 1961 as the pioneering Off-Broadway Phoenix Theater. Founded by Norris Houghton and T. Edward Hambleton, it featured the work of directors including Tony Richardson and such LGBT performers as Montgomery Clift, Will Geer, Farley Granger, Eva Le Gallienne, and Roddy McDowall.

After the front portion of the theater was converted into apartments, residents included performer Jackie Curtis (“superstar” in Andy Warhol films), photographer Peter Hujar (who lived there from 1975 to 1987), and artist David Wojnarowicz (who lived there from 1980 to 1992).

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