50 Years of Theater

By Ann Levenson
On March 11, 2012

As the cast takes its final bow and the house lights come up, the Stern College Dramatics Society (SCDS) closes its production of the Madwoman of Chaillot, and bids farewell to the Schottenstein Cultural Center (SCC), its home for the past 13 years. This stage has been home to productions from Little Women to The Odd Couple to Hamlet, but the SCC's history stretches back long before YU acquired the building. 

On July 16, 1963, Walter Reade- Sterling, one of New York's largest independent film companies, opened a new 410 seat art house theatre on 34th St. in a converted power sub-station.   The first picture shown was a British import entitled This Sporting Life. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to tremendous reviews and earned its stars Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts a Nation Film Critics' Award and nomination respectively, as well as Academy Award nominations.  The company leased and remodeled the former power substation for upwards of $1 million and moved their offices to the top floors of the four-story structure. Saul J. Turell, then president of Walter Reade-Sterling, and Walter Reade, chairman of the board, said that with offices centralized, they intended to focus on film production, with an emphasis on American Features. 

Described as "luxurious" by a 1963 New York Daily News article, the 34th St. E Theatre was intended to show foreign films distributed by Walter Reade Corporation's foreign distribution wing, Continental Distributing, as well as art house films and other independent pictures. One such case of the art house aspect was a three-month series beginning in January 1965. The series was "Films in Repertory" consisting of eighteen award-winning pictures such as Point of Order, Lord of the Flies, and The Ladykillers. In a February 1964 piece for The New York Times lamenting the general lack of interest in the honorable art form of the short film, Bosley Crowther, columnist for The New York Times, described "an enterprising theatre, the 34th Street East" which "put on an all-shorts program."  Reception was so good that the series, originally presented on one day, would be extended for at least three weeks.

Over the years, Walter Reade-Sterling, renamed the Walter Reade Organization, had a hand in many notable films. One which they released shortly after the 34th St. E opened was entitled The Love Goddesses. The picture was an exploration of the portrayal of women and sex on screen from the beginning of the art form until the years leading up to its release in 1964.  Another controversial release was 1964's Black Like Me, coproduced by Walter Reade Jr., a cinematic adaptation of John Howard Griffin's 1961 novel of the same name. 

Throughout the years, the Walter Reade Organization has distributed films such as Ulysses (1967), based on the James Joyce novel, Night of the Living Dead (1968) now a considered to be a horror classic, and War and Peace (1968), the Academy Award-winning Russian film.

For local residents, the theatre was part of the home town scene. Marvin Levine has lived in the area since 1969. He mentioned a multiplex that was located across the street and then notes that 34th St. East was one of the only single-screen theatres in the area. Back in the ‘70s, he participated in a promotion the theatre was running. 

"Anyone who stood in the lobby and told jokes for a minute or two minutes… would win a free ticket," says Levine.  The movie was about to start, but "I told my jokes and got a free ticket."

Perel, a woman also from the neighborhood, remembers the theater as "a comfortable, relaxing, mellow theater… like a beautiful living room." In her late 20's she would come out of the 34th St. East or the Murray Hill Theater up the street, and stop into the Haagen Daas shop across the street. "There was a video parlor next door.  I would come out, play a video game, and have an ice cream. I miss it," she says nostalgically.

In 1981, Columbia pictures bought the Walter Reade Organization, and Coca-Cola, Columbia's parent company, sold it to Cineplex Odeon.  It was from Cineplex Odeon that Yeshiva University bought the property at 237-241 E 34th St. 

"At the time, we were in the process of building up Beren for Stern," says Jeffrey Rosengarten, Vice President of Administrative Affairs.  One criticism of the college was that it consisted of only one building aside from the dormitories. The 34th St. Theatre was up for sale at a good price and Yeshiva purchased it. In a December 1997 interview with an Observer reporter, the doorman at the still-functioning theatre said that he thought the building had been bought by "NYU or some university like that in the area."

Renovation began after the university gained access to the building in the summer of 1998. The plan was for the building to open in January 1999 as "a 300 seat auditorium and … state of the art lecture hall with multi-media capability." Again stressing the local importance of the theater, a worker at the construction site wanted the university "to maintain the marquis outside the building since it would continue to add to the ambience of the historical landmark."

The renovation process took far longer than was anticipated at the outset. A caved-in retaining wall at the back of the theater halted construction for over a month. Construction slowed to the point that, in May '99, a petition to hasten the project was sent to Rabbi Dr. Lamm, then president of Yeshiva, with over 400 student signatures. The theater officially opened in the spring of 2000, a full year after its originally scheduled date.  

The Geraldine Schottenstein Cultural Center was donated by the Schottenstein family and named for wife, mother, and grandmother, Geraldine Schottenstein.  Over the years many speakers, concerts, and shows have taken place in the cultural center. Acclaimed poet Maya Anjelou was the first speaker in a Scholar-in-Residence program in November '01, and years before his release, Gilad Shalit's mother spoke to an audience so large that people stood out in the lobby for lack space. The SCC has also housed So You think Stern Can Dance, comedy nights, concerts, and speeches from many other visitors. 

A large part of the SCC's function has been to serve as a synagogue for the weekly shabbatonim on the Beren Campus.  Before the space was available, davening was spread out over multiple locations including Koch Auditorium and the shul (Ivry lounge) of Schottenstein Residence Hall (SRH). Rosengarten mentions that the Ivry room in SRH was even built with this function in mind; an aron kodesh is built into the east wall of the lounge. The ability to hold davening in one room adds greatly to shabbatonim, particularly the large ones when the theater fills with people. One such shabbaton was in March 2010 when Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spent Shabbat on the Beren Campus with his wife Lady Sacks, and President and Dr. Joel. "Many a happy Shabbat has begun there," says Gaby Elkaim, a Junior who is also a member of SCDS.

Rahel Bayar and Tuvia Lwowski, the campus couple of the Beren Campus, lend a sense of regularity as well as their life experience, Torah, and children to the Stern community. They too have fond memories of the Cultural Center. "One of my most memorable moments was being tipped off during Kabbalat Shabbat that the eruv was down, the result of a brief, yet strong Friday snowstorm," says Lwowski. "Unfortunately for us, we had brought Maayan (two at the time) and her stroller to shul. The stress was perhaps only offset by the irony that this particular Shabbat happened to be Rav Moshe Feinstein's yahrtzeit. Rav Moshe was never a supporter of the Manhattan Eruv

Every Shabbat Tuvia has the job of coordinating davening for anywhere between 100 and 350 SCW and YC students.  Those students have the added benefit of entertainment by Lwowski and Bayar's four-year-old daughter, Maayan. "I can't forget the first time that Maayan realized her Thomas Trains could travel on their own all the way to the bottom of the room when let go from the tops of the ramps on either side of the mechitza – a practice which has been revisited with fervor these past few weeks. I doubt that the engineers and architects who built this great structure were cognizant of this residual benefit when calculating the angle of the ramps." Lwowski adds, "The diversity of the people who have davened and performed in the Cultural Center gives the building its charm. Many people look around the room and see a relatively unexciting space.  I see our shul, the center of our Shabbat community and a place that I feel privileged to have frequented these past few years."

While the SCC has five floors, most students have only seen the ground level. As the members of the Dramatics Society know all too well from their productions, running below the auditorium is a long hallway with several rooms branching off. Most are used for storing SCDS supplies, props, and sets, one is used as a makeup room, and one corner contains spare seats and cushions for the auditorium. Many students are also familiar with the fourth floor, home to the Counseling Center. There are, however, two other floors which are not technically open to students. Originally, when Yeshiva was renovating the building, the third and fourth floors were to be converted into office space. While working on the fourth floor, Rosengarten says,  they realized how expensive it would be to continue. Since no department ever identified it as an ideal space, the third floor was never renovated. 

Undeterred, and admittedly without permission, this reporter decided to explore. Directly across from the elevator is an office carpeted in blue and rainbow ribbons containing a desk, boxes, and a thick layer of dust. The rooms on the floor are filled with everything from a shopping cart to office furniture to floor-polishing machines. The real payday is in the large room at the back of the building. Bed frames, mattresses, dressers, desks, and chairs are stacked nearly to the ceiling; boxes of Einstein pamphlets and wrapped mattresses sealed with kashrut tape sit in yet another room. When asked what would be done with all these items, Rosengarten responded, "Some things will be stored in other locations… there are plans for a storage shed next to Schottenstein." Other things will simply be thrown out. 

When it was announced that Yeshiva had purchased a theater, few were more excited than SCDS. Until that point, productions had been put on in Koch Auditorium and the young thespians had to compete with the sounds of students eating their lunches (Koch at the time was being used as an overflow cafeteria) and with the hum of the refrigerators. Students were excited at the prospect of a theater all their own, but the converted movie theater was not quite what they had imagined. SCDS at the time deemed it "The Million Dollar Mess" for its sound-absorbing walls, rented stage, and movie theater-style lighting, among other things. Another great point of contention was the conspicuous lack of dressing rooms and bathroom facilities, two features which Koch did include.

While proper theater lights have been installed, no proper backstage was ever constructed. In April, 2000, when the theater hosted its first SCDS production, Dean Bacon acknowledged the Dramatics Society's frustrations, but told the Observer, "We do have plans down the road to make more of what the Dramatics Society wants, such as a backstage and dressing rooms." Unfortunately, those plans never came to fruition.

 "We've had to be very creative … when situations arose that the theater just wasn't equipped for," says SCDS veteran Leah Gutstein. And anecdotes abound. One night during a performance of The Pirates of Penzance, a cast member needed to use the bathroom, but it would be unprofessional, the cast decided, to send a girl out in full costume and make-up in the middle of intermission. The solution? "We created a diversion," says Gutstein. "We got all the pirates together and we charged out into the lobby with our foils [swords] and we had a whole full-on fencing scene with dialogue like ‘you will never win' and ‘I will kill you, ah ha ha!'  Everybody in the lobby was watching and cheering, and in the meantime the characters that needed to go to the bathroom slipped behind and went in… and then we went back stage after they got out … and no one really knew."

Sonia Shafner, president of SCDS, described the creativity necessary for dealing with the abnormal stage. "There are also no curtains, which I think is not a terrible thing – it simply forced us to adapt to a different type of theater than most modern stages allow for; it demands a dynamic stage. There are no pauses [to allow] for set changes …behind the curtains, and, except for any changes made during intermission, anything moved on and off stage has to brought on or off by the actors themselves, in character, or by stagehands who look like they belong. For instance, in Hamlet the stagehands were given similar (but simpler) costumes as the rest of the male characters (a long, tzenuah, tunic), and they seemed to be servants in the palace."  

Some other SCDS members have also shared cherished memories of the theater. Dina Wecker, vice president of SCDS, recalls "turning Stern girls into princes and Disney characters for Into the Woods, sitting onstage with 3 girls who were learning how to simultaneously spit water they were drinking all over the stage in Sandbag, Stage Left, [and] throwing dirt on the audience and talking to a skull called Yorick in Hamlet." In all seriousness, Wecker adds, "There is a unique emotional bond that forms in a theater group. The friends you make in that theater remain friends for life."

Elkaim, like all of SCDS, recognizes the limitations of the SCC. "The seating is a bit awkward, the backstage is a nightmare… emergency alarms go off every other time you open a door. But despite all that, or maybe because of it, I've really grown to love the theater for its wacky charm, uniqueness, mystery, and versatility." Hannah Rozenblat, a junior with SCDS, adds, "The theater felt like home. During the last week before the show… we almost lived there."

Due to a need to balance the budget, Yeshiva announced this past fall that it would be selling the SCC. The building is currently listed with a broker at an asking price of $16.5 million. Rosengarten says that offers have been made, but as of right now the building is still on the market.Though they understand the need, students are sad to see the building go. 

SDCS has not yet found a new location. Shafner says, "As a producer and president of the society, it is unnerving, and I do not intend us to remain in that state until it is too late."  When asked about possible new venues, she replied, "When we thought we might not have the theater even for this semester, we looked into the YU Museum's stage. It was not ideal – the stage is also quite small, there is hardly any backstage to speak of, and there's a grand piano that lives on the stage. The acoustics were lovely, though." Further complications due to scheduling conflicts are inevitable because of several other organizations making use of the YU Museum. 

Still, plans are moving forward. "We are working with Student Life to find a space we can use for our performances," concludes Shafner.

 No matter the student, no matter the story, most students have some kind of connection to the SCC and are sad to see it go.  Elkaim put it simply, "I'm really going to miss the Schottenstein Cultural Center."

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