While at the present moment the fur continues to fly over a small plot of Manhattan real estate, 45 West 53rd Street, on which the inscrutable, but oddly appealing former home of the American Folk Art Museum stands, few people remember a former occupant of the land, the Rehearsal Club, which, as it prepares to celebrate its centennial in June, is undergoing an energetic—and most welcome—rebirth as an organization which may do some substantial good for young theatrical people in our city.
The Rehearsal Club was founded in 1913 to provide suitable lodging, board, and society for respectable young women as they embarked upon stage careers. It moved from its original location on West 46th Street to the fateful plot on West 53rd in 1926, and in that form it inspired Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman to write the play, Stage Door, in which the name of the club and its members were changed, thereby failing to contribute to its fame and posterity. The play in turn became an RKO movie, in which it was as unrecognizable as the old brownstones of the Rehearsal Club in that 2001 building by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
This kind of oblivion has descended on not a few other New York institutions. I had never heard about it before meeting members of the club, and neither had Charlie Leipart, the distinguished librettist/playwright, befor he was approached to write the lyrics for the catchy little tune you will hear in our podcast. Now, the centennial of the Rehearsal Club’s founding has inspired some members to turn all that around. In June the Rehearsal Club will make itself heard—at least to members and friends—and will embark on a new endeavor, providing affordable housing for young female performing artists. To allude to Mr. Leipart’s lyrics, I am neither a pastor, a priest, a rabbi, nor a grandmother, and I can’t help thinking that this new mission is more important than the original one. Young artists of strong talent belong in New York, and that’s still true, as much as financial pressures have elevated other American cities in the performing arts.
As you will learn in this interview, the Rehearsal Club rented their property from the Rockefellers. A recent New York Times article explains how they and other wealthy families colonized West 53rd and 54th. moving off the traditionally prestigious Fifth Avenue. After fifty-three years at that location, the Rehearsal Club fell prey to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s passion for American folk art and her desire to have a public home for her collection. (She was equally forceful in establishing the American Folk Art Museum’s now voracious neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art. While I lament the demise of the Rehearsal Club, I can only commend her interest in American Folk Art and regret that her initiative has not enjoyed the financial backing it deserves.) In any case, the club conveniently lost its tax exemption in 1979, when membership was as low as the reputation of respectablity and the building sorely in need of repair. It remained empty for a decade before its demolition.
I invite you to listen to Charles Leipart’s reflections on the conception and birth of “Good Girls Only,” and you will learn more about the saga of that much-debated property. The Rehearsal Club will be back, at least as a funding organization in aid of the theatrical profession. Follow it closely and support it the best you can. Without theater, we can’t be fully human or even fully alive.