“Boys” Church Is Disappearing
BY EILEEN STUKANE | With so much change coming to the Hell’s Kitchen area, many development projects that involve conversions or demolitions of buildings come before Community Board 4, the advisory group with jurisdiction over much of the West Side from 14th Street to 59th Street.
Rarely, however, does a building receive the special farewell that CB4 member Jean-Daniel Noland gave 424 West 55th Street, located on the block between Ninth and 10th Avenues, a one-time church that became a groundbreaking theater.
“The building is going to be torn down for affordable housing,” said Noland. “Before it is gone, let us take a moment to remember its history.”
Home of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play makes way for affordable housing
Built in 1898 as the First Evangelical United Brethren Church, the building was originally a refuge for German immigrants. In 1962, the interior was converted into Theater Four — and on April 14, 1968, Mart Crowley’s “The Boys In The Band” opened there.
“This was the first play to portray a group of gay male characters on stage,” said Noland. “It was controversial, shocking, and it ran for over a thousand performances. ‘Boys In The Band’ has been called one of the few plays that can claim to have helped start a social revolution. A year after it opened, the Stonewall Riot erupted.”
The theater also became home to the Negro Ensemble Company, “and in that space on West 55th Street in 1981, Charles Fuller’s ‘A Soldier’s Play’ won a Pulitzer Prize. Laurence Fishburne, Moses Gunn, Phylicia Rashad, and Denzel Washington performed there,” Noland said.
The Manhattan Theater Club resided there for a while until finally, it became the Julia Miles Theater of the Women’s Project — the only women’s theater company to have its own stage.
Noland distributed photos of the building and encouraged everyone to celebrate and remember that for over half a century, it provided “a space where men and women could create plays which played an important part in the struggle for acceptance, dignity, and empowerment for all men and women in this country.”