The Otway Family Theater, Theatre 80

Theatre 80 is located at historic 80 St. Marks Place, which sits on the foundation of a Dutch wilderness cabin north of the original New Amsterdam settlement. In 1922, shortly after the start of Prohibition, big-time bootlegger Frank Hoffman built a speakeasy on the site. The front was sealed and patrons entered through the basement of a butcher shop around the corner. It became the favorite watering hole of many members of the New York City Council. Hoffman brought in illegal alcohol from ships offshore, partnering with famous lawbreakers such as Al Capone. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Hoffman’s front man, Walter Scheib, opened a cabaret and jazz club at 80 St. Marks Place. Jazz greats like John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Mingus, along with pop stars like Frank Sinatra, played Scheib’s “Jazz Gallery.”

In 1964, Scheib sold the club to actor Howard Otway. Howard and his young son Lorcan ripped out the nightclub dance floor and excavated by hand to a depth of ten feet below floor level to create a unique theater space based on German Opera and Greek amphitheater design. Noted New York Times theater and dance critic Clive Barnes called the classic 199-seat house “the jewel of the Off-Broadway stages.” Its wide stage has hosted ballet, opera, musical comedy, and traditional theater as well as a popular vintage film program. It launched the careers of Bob Balaban and Gary Burghoff in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” and performers from Austin Pendleton to Sir Patrick Stewart have graced its stage.

When the 1969 Actor’s Equity Off Broadway strike closed the long-running “Charlie Brown” Otway introduced a film revival series “The Movie Musical” at Theatre 80 where audiences could see vintage films in a live audience setting. It was during this time that many greats of theater and film, friends of the Otways, visited the theater. Some left their names, foot and hand prints in the sidewalk cement outside where they can still be seen today: Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Kitty Carlisle, and Allan Jones. More recently, Joan Rivers, Joyce Randolph and Alan Cumming added their names to the list of sidewalk luminaries.

Theatre 80 presents performances from traditional Shakespearean theater and flamenco dance, to cutting edge avant-garde and works from new authors. It welcomes young audiences by inviting public and private school groups for matinees and theater tours. The theater has often offered space free of charge or at reduced rates for community meetings, local film-makers, playwrights, 12-step meetings, and memorials for community members–in 2015 Theatre 80 held a benefit, headlined by Patti Smith, for the victims of the 2nd Avenue explosion that killed two, injured 19 and reduced three nearby buildings to rubble. Theatre 80 preserves community and theatrical values by making performing arts accessible. Although rising costs that threaten small businesses in Manhattan have made this more difficult, the Otway family tradition of charitable work goes on through the Howard Otway and Florence Otway Opportunity Project (HOFOPRO).