When A24 bought the Cherry Lane Theater last week for $10 million, the indie film company acquired a two hundred year old building, with an illustrious hundred year theater history, and not just of world-changing theater ( premieres by Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Sam Shephard; the list is long) — but even some connections to Hollywood, albeit oblique.
It’s at the Cherry Lane where 23-year-old Tony Curtis, starring in Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy” in 1948, came to the notice of a scout from Universal Pictures, which put him under contract.
At the age of 14, Barbra Streisand got a job at the Cherry Lane, moving sets and painting scenery, working her way up to understudy and assistant stage manager for “Purple Dust” by Sean O’Casey.
Over the years, the theater has been associated with any number of people who became familiar faces on screen: Larry Hagman, Gene Hackman, Harvey Keitel, Frank Langella, Dennis Quaid,.. The Hollywood connection dates back to the very first production at the theater.
A group of local artists took over a building on Commerce Street that had been a farm silo, a tobacco warehouse and a brewery,and turned it into the Cherry Lane Playhouse. One of the founders was the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay who lived around the corner on what is now billed as the narrowest house in the Village – 9 ½ feet wide – which has a plaque that features one of her best-known quotes: “My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light!”
Their first production, in March, 1924, was entitled “Saturday Night,” and written by Robert Presnell, a former journalist – who became a screenwriter. He was nominated for an Oscar for the 1941 movie “Meet John Doe” starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Frank Capra. (His son, Robert Presnell Jr., wrote for TV series like The Twilight Zone and McCloud.) Leo Lieberman, who produced and directed Clifford Odets’ ‘Awake And Sing” in 1946, went on to write the screenplay for Bonzo Goes to College (which was not nominated for an Oscar.)
Ok, a stretch.
Still, I find it easy to argue that A24 and the Cherry Lane are a good match. Both produced pioneering work (although truth be told, The Cherry Lane was most fertile, febrile and influential in the 1950s and 1960s) The film company is known for the Oscar winning best picture “Moonlight.” The Cherry Lane marked the debut of “Dutchman” by LeRoi Jones (later Amira Baraka) in 1964 , and Lorraine Hansberry’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in 1969, presented by Harry Belafonte and featuring in the cast Cicely Tyson and Micki Grant.
Nobody at A24 has publicly declared what its plans are for the Cherry Lane. A24 has produced six films up for Oscar Awards this year, including “Everything Everywhere All at Once” nominated for best picture Oscar. But it has also produced HBO’s “Euphoria,” and Netflix’s “John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch,”and made deals with Amazon Prime, Apple and Showtime. All of this suggests a company interested in cutting-edge work, and open (eager?) to expand the reach of the stage shows at the Cherry Lane to digital or hybrid theater, as well as some full film adaptations..
And there is one clear connection already. Ramy Youssef, the star of the series “Ramy” on Hulu (which A24 produces) presented a solo show “Ramy Youssef Live” in 2021 at the Cherry Lane.
Top row: Edna St. Vincent Millay; sketch of Cherry Lane during its first production, “Saturday Night,” 1924; F Scott Fitzgerald, playwright of “The Vegetable, or From President to Postman,” directed by Lee Strasburg, 1929, Jerry Stiller in “The Dog Beneath the Skin” by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, 1947
Tony Curtis, star of “Golden Boy” by Clifford Odets, 1949. Barbra Streisand, understudy and assistant stage manager, “Purple Dust” by Sean O’Casey. Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater, artists in residents at the Cherry Lane in the early 1950s. “End Game” by Samuel Beckett, 1958,
The Sandbox by Edward Albee, 1962, James Coco, Gene Hackman, ain “Fragments” by Murray Schisgal, 1967, Cicely Tyson, James Baldwin, Arthur Mitchell, and Harry Belafonte, backstage in Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, 1969 poster for Godspell at the Cherry Lane, 1971,
Judd Hirsch in “Mystery Play” by Jean-Claude van Itallie,1973,;Gary Sinise & John Malkovich in “True West” by Sam Shepard, 1985. revival of Dutchman by Amiri Baraka, 2007 with Jennifer Mudge and Dale Hill, “Ramy Youssef Live, “2021