New Hotel Threatens Lovely Lambs Theater

The Lambs Club, a legendary Times Square theatrical social club, once resounded with the mirth and song of Milton Berle, Fred Astaire and Richard Rodgers. But now the building on West 44th Street that housed the venerable watering hole is facing a fate all too common in the new Times Square: it may soon be gutted to make way for yet another hotel.

The Hampshire Hotel and Resort chain is days away from signing a deal with the Manhattan Church of the Nazarene, which has owned the building since the Lambs Club itself left in 1975, people familiar with the talks have told The Observer .

The new proprietors would gut the interior while preserving the landmarked facade, according to the sources. They also would demolish the building’s jewel-like, 349-seat Lambs Theater, which in recent years has hosted hits like Smoke on the Mountain and A Room of One’s Own . The plight of the theater-as well as the building’s second-floor ballroom, where the likes of Bing Crosby and Mr. Berle were roasted to a crisp-has touched off an uproar among high-profile producers and musicians with long ties to the building. They are preparing a campaign to rescue the storied club’s interior, where Edward G. Robinson and John Wayne talked shop and George Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein plunked out ideas on the house piano.

“I’m heartbroken,” said Carolyn Rossi Copeland, who helped renovate the building’s interior in 1982 and has produced shows in the Lambs Theater for 17 years, including hits like Cotton Patch Gospel and The Gifts of the Magi . “We sewed the cushions ourselves. We used toothbrushes to take off the years of paint in the theater and in the lobby.”

“It’s an honor to perform at the Lambs Club … [given] the prestigious atmosphere and the people that have appeared there,” added percussionist Tito Puente, who has performed in the Lambs Theater and remembers seeing Mr. Berle there when he was a young musician. “It should be preserved.”

Dave Brubeck, the jazz composer and pianist, was so upset about the interior’s impending destruction that he sent The Observer a statement from Dusseldorf, where he is on tour with his quartet. “[It] would be dishonoring most of the talented men and women who have helped New York survive by tearing down this place of their assembly,” it read.

The building is between Sixth and Seventh avenues, a few doors down from another relic, Jimmy’s Corner, a well-known gin mill. The Lambs Club is where crippled World War I veterans hobnobbed with the great stars of the day; where John Philip Sousa and Irving Berlin and others founded the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; where Hal Holbrook premiered Mark Twain Tonight . The building is among the most historically significant structures in Times Square.

The struggle between defenders of endangered theaters and real estate developers has become a familiar plot line in the new Times Square. Actress Colleen Dewhurst and producer Joseph Papp were jailed trying to save the old Morosco and Helen Hayes theaters in the early 1980′s. During that fight, actor Christopher Reeve publicly declared that if he were Superman, he would “stand there and catch the wrecking ball and tear it apart.”

A similar fight may be looming over the Lambs Theater. The 349-seat theater is among the last left in New York City in the 350-seat range-a size beloved by actors and producers because it hosts substantial audiences while retaining intimacy. (Most Off-Broadway theaters have fewer than 300 seats, while Broadway productions play to audiences of 500 or more.)

Warm and Intimate

“It’s something very special: an intimate, small theater in the heart of Broadway,” Daryl Roth, producer of hits like How I Learned to Drive , Three Tall Women and Wit , said of the theater. “It’s a very warm and lovely space.”

“It’s heartbreakingly beautiful,” added Helen Sneed, the executive and artistic director of the National Alliance for Musical Theater, an organization that represents 115 theaters in the United States and Britain. “These are the very theaters that are becoming so precious. Shows trying to get in [to small theaters] are like planes stacked up over La Guardia [Airport].”

A spokesman for Hampshire Hotels declined to comment for this story. Officials at the Nazarene church couldn’t be reached for comment. But The Observer obtained a copy of the proposed hotel’s preliminary floor plan. The building’s facade, a fine neo-Georgian style clubhouse of brick and marble with terra-cotta ornamentation designed by Stanford White, was designated a landmark in 1974, and would thus remain standing. But floors two through six would be replaced by 60 hotel suites-leaving no apparent alternative but to gut the theater and the ballroom, which occupy the second, third and fourth floors. The proposal also calls for using the church’s air rights to build four floors atop the existing structure.

According to people familiar with talks, which are continuing, Hampshire Hotels and the church would enter into a joint partnership that would run the hotel. The church would receive a share of revenues generated by the hotel. Church officials have said the deal is essential to its financial health.

Because the facade has been declared a landmark by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the developer’s plan will need the agency’s approval. Opponents are hoping to force the commission-which declined to landmark the building’s interior in 1974, and again when preservationists made the case last year-to take another look at the building’s interior.

They may have a tough fight on their hands. In many ways, the interior’s true resonance may be more cultural than architectural. The story of the building mirrors the rich and varied history of its Times Square environs.

When the Lambs Club moved into the building in the early 20th century, its members-George M. Cohan, Al Jolson and Gene Autry, among many others-swelled the ranks of the entertainers who helped turn Times Square into the premiere factory of American popular culture. The club’s dazzle dimmed in the 1930′s and 40′s, when less exclusive haunts like the Friar’s Club cut into dwindling membership. The aging club was evicted by foreclosure amid the fiscal crisis of the 1970′s. (It is now on West 51st Street.)

Saints and Sinners

The building was bought in 1975 by the Church of the Nazarene, then a tiny, arts-oriented sect of young missionaries drawn to a seedy Times Square swarming with sinners and would-be saints of all stripes. The church made the theater available to a long list of Off-Broadway productions and musicals.

Now history’s cycles are working against the building. Just as Times Square was a hotel district in the 20′s and 30′s, it is again becoming primarily a nesting place for tourists who spend their days checking out local curiosities like the Gap and J. Crew. The neighborhood now is home to an astounding 13,000 hotel rooms-one-fifth of the city’s hotel rooms, according to Brendan Sexton, president of the Times Square Business Improvement District. Two new hotels are planned for the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. At least two others are in development.

Defenders of the theater still hope to fend off the hotel juggernaut. They point to recently built hotels that went out of their way to save theaters in their path. The nearby Millennium hotel, for instance, incorporated the old Hudson Theater into its structure, rather than knock it down.

“So many of the small theaters have been torn down to make way for hotels or theaters that can house megamusicals for megabucks,” said Anne Phillips, the writer and producer of a jazz musical starring Mr. Puente and Lionel Hampton that has performed in the Lambs Theater. “If the Lambs goes, a little more of the soul of Broadway will be gone.”