Theatre 80 Hopes for a Miracle to Save It from Bankruptcy Auction now set for May 9th

Fifty eight year old Theatre 80 has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since December 2020 and its second generation owner, Lorcan Otway, is frantically trying to prevent a real estate investor from forcing its two building at #78 and #80 St. Mark’s Place from being sold in a Chapter 7 auction now set for May 9th. Seventy year old Otway and his wife Genie were evicted from the adjoining brownstone home on April 5th. A Go Fund Me page has been started, but donations so far have been slow to arrive.

| 18 Apr 2023 | 02:19

All that Lorcan Otway, the owner of the embattled Theatre 80 wants, is a little more time.

The off beat East Village theater–where You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown had its world debut in 1967 and which has been an East Village icon for 58 years–has been shut down and is imminent danger of being sold off to satisfy a $12 million loan that is in default. A real estate firm Maverick Real Estate Partners, now holds the debt and bankruptcy judge has set May 9th as the date for an auction to satisfy the debt and allow its sale to a new owner.

In recent weeks, a city agency helped cut through some red tape to establish the embattled theater as a not-for-profit corporation which second generation owner Otway hopes will allow a deep pocketed angel to come forward to save the theater.

Barring a miracle, Otway who may soon have nothing but memories for the theater he helped build with his father and the home he has live in since he was nine years old.

The history runs deeper than its days as a theater. It had once been a speakeasy where Al Capone drank. It was one of the first places Frank Sinatra performed, in 1939, while renting a room around the corner. Harry Belafonte was a regular in the 1950s, when it was the Jazz Gallery.

It was Otway’s father Howard, who moved the family into an adjoining brownstone when he bought the venue in 1964, by paying $64,000 to a manager who ran it for a lower east side mobster. The Otway family converted it to a performing art theater and Otway recalls helping his father dig out the foundation for the stage as a young lad and discovering the back door that led to a butcher shop on First Ave, where patrons entered the speakeasy that was known as “Schieb’s Place” after the manager Walter Schieb who ran it for the mobsters.

Lorcan, 70 and is wife Genie, who is in her 60s both lived where they worked in a brownstone adjoining the theater and are hoping they can keep alive the theater, the William Barnacle Tavern and the quirky Museum of the American Gangster. The theater holds a treasure trove of memories, not to mention serving as a stepping stone for generations of aspiring and established stars. And until the Otway’s forced eviction by US Marshalls and the bankruptcy trustee Maryanne O’Toole on April 5th, it was their home.

The memories run deep. Otway recalls a young Billy Crystal, then an aspiring actor and NYU drama student working as an usher when You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown was making its debut in 1967. Crystal was a little overzealous with the flashlight one show and ended up ticking off Walter Cronkite, the veteran newscaster who made the trek of the East Village badlands to see the off off Broadway play that was already capturing the city’s heart.

Otway has continued the tradition started by his father of having famous stars of Broadway and Hollywood placing their handprints in cement in the sidewalk outside the theater on St. Mark’s Place. One of the last to do so was the actor, author Malachy McCourt, who once owned a bar on St. Mark’s Place and was a longtime family friend.

“I’ll be planting my hand in the cement,” McCourt told the New York Post shortly before the ceremony began last August. “I wish we could cut the hands off the money grubbers who are trying to steal the place. It’s terrible what is happening to Lorcan.”

Posters from past shows, as well as photos of the stars who were in them or were pals with his family line walls. One poster of a play that his father helped produce was called “One Night Stands of a Noisy Neighbor” in one of Robert DiNiro’s first starring rolls. The play was not at the theater, but Howard Otway was a producer of the Broadway production and a poster from the show is on display.

There is a signed photo from Katharine Hepburn and according to Otway, it shows her climbing up the ladder onto a yacht owned by Spencer Tracy. They starred in nine movies together and were said to be blindingly in love with one another for decades. Tracy, who was married and never acknowledge his long running romance, had the photo squashed from public distribution but a copy signed by Hepburn to Otway’s father hangs on the theater wall. Other signed photos came from Jimmy Stewart, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis. Another picture shows Howard holding up Maureen Stapleton, who after being a star on Broadway achieved a new round of fame in later years as Edith on the long running CBS hit “The Archie Bunker Show.” Howard Otway had to visibly hold her up as the tipsy Stapleton was photographed leaving her handprint in wet cement for the Walk of Fame.

Others whose handprints and signatures made it onto the sidewalk include Joan Rivers, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson and Alan Cumming. The actor who played Radar O’Reilly in “MASH,” Gary Burghoff, also left his mark in a cement block that has yet to be set into the sidewalk.

Otway hopes that the recent granting of an expedited not-for profit status by the IRS thanks to a push from the NYC Office of Cultural Affairs will prompt the Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn who is hearing the Chapter 11 bankruptcy case a little more time and to avoid converting it into a chapter 7 liquidation. But so far, he has failed to halt the bankruptcy auction plans set for May 9th and donations to a Go Fund Me page have been slow.

The original $6.1 million loan has now ballooned to $12 million, because Maverick was permitted to jack up the interest rate to 25 percent once it fell into default. “We could not operate during the pandemic, but that did not stop the bank,” Otway laments.

“If we get some time, we can begin soliciting foundations to come to our aide as a not for profit,” he says.

“Maverick and all creditors will be paid 100 percent on the dollar,” vows Otway. He claims he already has one deep pocketed Hollywood legend ready to step in, but only if they are successful in raising half the money separately.

The original debt was incurred when a nasty family feud broke out between Otway and his brother after his mother, who had inherited it from Otway’s father, passed away. After nearly a decade of legal wrangling, he took out a $6 million to buyout his brother’s share. But once COVID hit, he was unable to generate income to pay off the loan.

The original lender then sold the mortgage to Maverick Real Estate Partners, which Otway calls a “vulture developer” who are seizing the property and kicking he and his wife Genie onto the street.

”We had to stop doing business to protect the public good but the banks kept on operating,” he points out.

Now he is finding refugee with another East Village denizen.

”We’re staying with Father Pat,” he said, referring to his East Village friend, Father Patrick Moloney, who runs Lazarus House for the homeless and immigrants in the East Village.

A lawyer for Maverick declined to comment. Maverick’s web site says it has 126 loans valued at $663 million on 223 properties. Maryanne O’Toole, who was appointed a bankruptcy trustee also did not return a call.

“The gangsters who sold it to my father were better for the neighborhood than the current real estate predators,” says Otway.

Otway says he and his wife Genie are now effectively homeless.

The City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs requested that the IRS expedite the request granting it a tax exempt status.

“They granted it on [March 31st],” Otway said. Now he needs a last minute reprieve from the bankruptcy judge and a deep pocketed angel.

“Last year, the city lost 55 percent of the jobs in the theater industry,” said Otway, citing NYC Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. “Why wouldn’t the court at least give the government agencies the respect they deserve and the confidence that they have the city’s and the nation’s best interests at heart?” asks Otway. “All we want is a chance.”