I was around during the Mercer Arts Center
period. In fact, that was how Sy and I met. I was manager of
an off-Broadway show called "The Proposition" which
was playing at the Mercer Arts Center in 1971. I was sent to
tell the President of the Center, Sy, that we could not pay the
rent. Sy has been paying the rent ever since!
During the late 1960's and early 1970's
there was a shortage of theatre space for off-Broadway. Art D'lugoff
(who founded and owned the Village Gate) discovered the first
and second floor of the old Broadway Central Hotel were for rent
and had the idea of converting them into off-Broadway theaters.
He knew Sy as Sy had air-conditioned the Village Gate. (Sy used
to get friendly with customers like D'lugoff while trying to
collect on work he had done.) D'lugoff talked him into co-signing
on a substantial loan to create the Mercer Arts Center (located
on Mercer Street near W. 3rd.)
The original project wasn't financially
successful and Sy was faced with a complete loss on the loan
or with taking it over. He then got other contractors he knew
to put in additional money and completely refurbished the place.
When complete it held 5 off-Broadway theaters (with between 199
and 299 seats); a bar and restaurant, a boutique as well as studios
(for Gene Frankel and Viveca Lindfors); and an experimental video
theatre called "The Kitchen" [aptly named as it was
housed in what was the kitchen of the old Hotel] .
It lasted from 1971 to 1973 when the entire
building collapsed due to long term neglect by the owners of
the Broadway Central Hotel. That was the tragic finish to the
project, but during its time the Center was a well known place.
The theaters housed a number of interesting productions: a major
revival of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", "The
Proposition", "El Coca-cola Grande", etc. And
after hours it was the home to the punk rock, glam rock scene.
Their most famous rockers were The New York Dolls (lead singer
was David Johansen who was later famous under the name Buster
Pointdexter for "Hot-Hot-Hot").
We were in the building when it collapsed.
We had been hearing weird noises all day. We called the 24 hour
building department hot line to try to get an inspector to come
out and tell us if it was safe to open all the shows that night
(there were five theaters) and were told to call back Monday.
Sy was debating what to do. The situation
made him uneasy, but if he closed the shows for the weekend and
nothing was wrong he would be sued by all the show's producers.
Things kept getting weirder and weirder and Sy told me to call
the fire department. He just wanted some kind of official agency
to back him up for closing the shows on the weekend. I was on
the phone to the fire department when the building went down.
I kept asking them to come and they kept asking me what was wrong.
I kept saying, "The walls are making very strange noises."
And they kept saying, "Have you been drinking?" Then
bam we were disconnected and I flew up in the air from the impact.
Everyone in the office went out the fire escape in the dark holding
hands. When we reached the street the fire department were there
and they said, "Don't go back into that building!"
We said, "Yeah, no kidding." No one from the Mercer
Arts Center was hurt, but four people in the welfare hotel above
it were killed. They had an entrance on Broadway and it was called
the Broadway Central Hotel.
Lindsay was mayor then and he called Sy
and said the building department could rule to save the building
or tear it down. Even though Sy wasn't the building owner, he
felt that the Mercer Arts Center was enough of a resource for
the city that its future was his main consideration. Sy told
him to tear it down. He felt that people would be so afraid of
entering the building after the collapse that he would have a
public relations nightmare.
The Village Voice did a detailed reporting
job on the whole affair -- an outstanding job -- and absolutely
nothing happened to the building owner even though the collapse
was proved to be the result of long term neglect and payoffs
to building inspectors by the building owner.
A new building, an NYU dorm, now satands
in the middle of the block at Mercer St. and W. 3rd St. Entrance
Never a dull moment with Sy Kaback!
During Sy's career he had a number of side
businesses or projects none of which ever made money, alas. But
fortunately the air conditioning business kept being the goose
that laid the golden egg.