Robert Prichard hopes to illuminate Long Island City with some emphatic Times Square-style signage.
“I’d like it to be visible from the 59th Street Bridge,” he said. “First, it flashes ‘Queens,’ then ‘Bridge,’ then ‘Theater,’ and then ‘Queensbridge Theater.’ And then maybe an arrow that lights up and points down to our loading dock.”
Mr. Prichard, 52, has long had a flair for the dramatic. This is the same guy, after all, who nearly a decade ago led a conga line up Avenue A in protest of the city’s antiquated cabaret laws.
Nowadays, he’s participating in a perhaps farther-reaching kind of procession—the ongoing exodus of artists, musicians and other creative types abandoning Manhattan in droves.
Adopting the slogan “Downtown Has Moved to Queens,” the former Lower East Side stalwart is partnering with developer Michael Waldman to open what he called a “rock ’n’ roll supper club, similar to a Bowery Ballroom or a Mercury Lounge with a restaurant—a first for Long Island City, a first for Queens.”
Scheduled to open this summer, the 5,000-square-foot Queensbridge Theater, located at 37-31 10th Street, may be somewhat unique in concept. (After the nighttime entertainment ends at 4 a.m., the proprietors intend to open back up just three hours later for breakfast, with homemade bread baked fresh on the premises.)
But it isn’t exactly the neighborhood’s first nightclub.
A large “EXILE” sign still remains on the site of an old discotheque by that name, located just a few blocks away on 11th Street, which, during its brief stint in business nearly three decades ago, reportedly chartered buses to transport patrons from Manhattan.
These days, Mr. Prichard and Mr. Waldman don’t think they’ll need shuttle buses, as patrons and performers will probably be driving in from elsewhere.
“That person who spends 30 hours a week sewing their own costume or creating some weird panorama—those people can’t afford to live in Manhattan anymore,” Mr. Prichard said. “A lot of them live in Queens or Brooklyn or the Bronx or even Jersey. As Manhattan gets richer and richer and the real estate gets more and more expensive, fewer and fewer artists can afford to stay there. Then the places that want to support the artists, it doesn’t make sense for us to be there, either.
“We want to bring in artists and performers on all levels,” added Mr. Prichard, who plans to book the space not only for concerts, but also for Off Broadway plays, art exhibits—even after-school programs: “We want to offer the community the facilities we have during the day,” he said. “Bring in musicians and teach the kids how to play music and then put ’em up onstage.”
It sounds like a bit of a stretch in a part of New York City where nightclubs tend to veer toward more adult-oriented entertainment. Particularly around Queens Plaza—nicknamed “the new Times Square”—Long Island City is busting with strip clubs.
“At one end of the 59th Street Bridge, you’ve got Scandals, and at the other end, there’s Scores,” noted Mr. Prichard, laughing. “I know that from riding my bike—no ex-girlfriends there. Not yet anyway.”
But there’s also a public school just a few blocks up 10th Street from the forthcoming theater, he pointed out. “And there’s another one two blocks away,” he added. “I think there’s plenty of opportunities to engage the community.”
IT IS A neighborhood in transition—albeit a different one from the place that Mr. Prichard used to call home. “This is more of a real estate frontier,” he said. “The Lower East Side, circa 1993, was more of a cultural frontier.”
An Army brat who attended high school in Alexandria, Va., Mr. Prichard got his first taste of the live-music business working at the seminal Washington, D.C., rock venue the 9:30 Club before moving to New York in 1983 with the hopes of becoming an actor.
He landed a minor role in the 1985 cult film The Toxic Avenger (and also appeared in a few of its sequels) but ultimately found his calling on the other side of the camera, videotaping other people’s performances.
In 1993, Mr. Prichard opened his own venue for variety shows, sketch comedy and live music on Allen Street called Surf Reality—a riff on the sort of improvised videos he had become known for. At that time, rent on the Lower East Side came cheap: “I got 2,600 square feet for $2,500. In 1998, it went up to $3,500, which I thought was a lot.”
The performance space was located above a sort of Old New York-style storefront, which Mr. Prichard somewhat nostalgically referred to as a “crack deli.”
“It fronted as a deli,” he explained. “It had like Joy detergent bottles in the window with layers of dust maybe six years old. … They were busted, I think, six times in the first three years of our existence, usually while we were doing a show.”
Mr. Prichard’s venue was one of six Off Off Broadway theaters to take root in the neighborhood—none of which would survive the looming forces of gentrification.
“They’re all gone,” he said. “Instead, you have lounges and boutiques.”
Mr. Prichard had tried to fight back against the forces of change. When the city shuttered a nearby bar for violating the city’s ancient cabaret laws, which forbid dancing in unlicensed spots, Mr. Prichard helped organize a series of demonstrations as part of the so-called Dance Liberation Front.
But, while the harsh regulatory climate couldn’t dampen his activism, the changing real estate market inevitably took a toll on his wallet.
“In 2003, my landlord asked for a rent increase from $3,500 to $8,000 [per month],” he said. “And that was untenable. For me to try to sell a performance space to artists, where I was charging $200 for a show slot, I’d have to then charge $450. There are places in Times Square that are charging that.”
After shuttering Surf Reality in 2003, Mr. Prichard went on to produce various shows at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction in the East Village. When that eclectic stage closed last year, he turned to a friend from the old rock scene, Mr. Waldman. The duo began scouting for a place to open their own performance space.
“Michael was producing music in the Lower East Side, working with people like the Brooklyn Bums,” Mr. Prichard said of how the pair first met. “I knew he was also in real estate. I never had a correct [certificate of occupancy] at Surf Reality. When the neighborhood started changing, I started getting legal pressure. I called him up and asked him for some advice.”
A proverbial wearer of many hats, Mr. Waldman, 48, is president of North Manhattan Construction Company, developer of several residential buildings in East Harlem. He is also the owner of Ducati New York, the largest distributor of European motorcycles in North America, based in Soho.
The partners looked at various sites in Brooklyn, including one space in Williamsburg that would have required about $1 million worth of construction work but offered only a 25-year lease, Mr. Waldman said.
Then, one of Mr. Waldman’s masonry contractors tipped them off to a recently constructed five-story warehouse building in Long Island City, which could serve multiple purposes: a basement suitable for motorcycle repair (Mr. Waldman was looking for additional service space, anyway); a ground floor and mezzanine ideal for staging bands and other performers; and additional floors for commercial uses.
“We got lucky—this building found us,” said Mr. Waldman, who purchased the property for $6 million last November with visions of catering to a more “meat-and-potatoes” crowd than the traditional Manhattan rock club. “Hopefully, B touring bands who don’t stop in Manhattan because they’re not esoteric enough will make this a second destination.”
Mr. Prichard, for one, is confident in the concept. “Thankfully, we have a patron who’s into the same things, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is,” he said of his partner, Mr. Waldman. “He bought the place—so we’re not gonna be evicted.”
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