People Who Make NY Special

Transforming Times Square With Cora Cahan and Fiona Rudin

Nonprofit New 42nd Street can be credited for changing the Times Square stretch into a cultural mecca for all ages.

The Migration at The New Victory Theater. Photo by William Perrigen.

Although two multiplexes—AMC Empire and Regal Cinemas—currently sit at the end of the block, Cora Cahan says it was movie theaters that brought West 42nd Street to its knees in the late ’70s. The venues in question weren’t showing first-run Hollywood flicks; they were triple-X porn palaces that lined the seedy block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Times Square and the Theater District had become a wasteland of prostitution, crime, and drugs.

Nearly 30 years ago, a nonprofit organization emerged to find new uses for seven historic theaters that lived on the debased street: the Apollo, Empire, Liberty, Lyric, Selwyn, Times Square, and Victory. That organization was dubbed New 42nd Street. It founded the New Victory Theater in the renovated Victory (Broadway’s oldest house) and leased valuable lots on the block. Today, New 42nd Street can claim responsibility for the commercial and artistic mecca the block represents, a mix of high art and popular food and entertainment.

What Should We Do?! sat down with Cora Cahan, president of New 42nd Street (and its very first employee), and board chair Fiona Rudin to hear how the fascinating transformation happened.

New 42nd Street
L-R: Fiona Rudin, Cora Cahan and newest board member John Lithgow. Photo by Alexis Buatti-Ramos.

What Should We Do?!: The mandate for the New 42nd Street organization was announced by then-Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins—
Cora Cahan: On September 19, 1990, on the stage of a dilapidated theater called the Victory.

WSWD: Which you reopened five years later as the New Victory.
Cahan: It’s the city’s first theater for kids and families. But that day we had no idea that was going to happen. Dinkins and Cuomo appointed a startup comprised of very committed New York City citizens who had no clue what they were getting into: “You’re gonna be responsible for seven or eight run-down, sad, stark theaters that cannot come down.” The public got so riled up in 1986 when the Helen Hayes and other theaters came down on 44th and 45th Streets, it was not going to permit anymore. So we were given responsibility for finding new uses and new life, reinventing these ghosts of theaters for the future.

WSWD: What was the economic outlook at the time?
Cahan: The real-estate market had burgeoned over the ’80s, but began to slip down a very icy slope just as we came to work in late 1990. It was in sad shape, and there we were, a nonprofit, with these dilapidated, blighted theaters on a dismal landscape on 42nd Street. Along with the eight theaters that we were responsible for—as the landlord for 99 years—came the requirement that two of them be used for nonprofit activity. We had no idea how we would bring them [nonprofit cultural institutions] to a street with 87 adult uses.

WSWD: Adult uses?
Cahan: Sex shops. So we said, “Well, maybe we can prove that change is possible on this block. What could we do?” One thing we presented to the board was a theater for kids and families, in the theater that nobody else would want, the Victory. Economically at that time, it made absolutely no sense—except for a nonprofit, which could subsidize it heavily no matter what the activity on the stage was. We said why don’t we take the risk and fill a void in the cultural fabric of the city: a theater for kids.

WSWD: Did people scoff at the idea of bringing kids to a street like that?
Cahan: We had one quite well-known member, somebody I adored, who said to the board, “Who would bring their kids to 42nd Street?” And two board members stood up and said, “I would, if there was something good to see.” And then the board voted on whether or not to go forward with those plans for the Victory, and even the person who wondered who would bring their kids there voted yes, so it was unanimous.

WSWD: You must meet adults who were kids when they saw their first New Victory show.
Fiona Rudin: I was at my radiologist and somehow it came up in conversation: “Oh, you’re with the New Victory Theater! I went there with my son, who’s now in his 20s. I vividly remember the show with the umbrellas spinning; it was so beautiful.” And she also said, “My son and I still go to the theater every month, and that tradition started with the New Victory.” I have two sons myself, and it gave me such chills to think that, as they age and have their own lives, we can still have this touchstone of enjoying the theater together.

WSWD: In the early days, before the New Victory opened in 1995, did you face resistance from people who romanticized the old 42nd Street?
Cahan: I think Jimmy Breslin liked the block kind of tacky and down at the heels, so he would write about it. I don’t think I ever encountered him face-to-face.

WSWD: Fiona, how did you get involved?
Rudin: I joined the board in 2004. My husband’s family were donors and had been involved with part of the redevelopment. They built the Reuters Building right here on the corner. Anyway, I came for a benefit. I’d never heard of the New Victory or the New 42nd Street, and was completely charmed and wanted to know more. I had very young sons, and I approached Cora through our family foundation to learn more about what they do. I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of this place that was doing such incredible work artistically and going into public schools throughout the five boroughs, bringing kids to see performances, and sending teaching artists out.
Cahan:  In fact, we have one program in which we invite students from Title I schools, where they probably are not speaking English at home, to bring their families to Times Square to a theater to see a show. The student comes for free and brings his family for $5 a person, and then we give materials to families in translated brochures.

WSWD: Fiona, what was your first New Vic show?
Rudin: Frog and Toad. My husband and I and my son Sam—who’s going to college next year—were blown away. It was one of the most beautiful things we’d seen, and I paid nothing for our tickets! So I ended up joining the board. Cut to: Now I’m the chair, and I’m still in awe of all the things that they’re doing and creating, and always heartbroken that more New Yorkers don’t know about this treasure.

WSWD: What do kids get out of theater?
Cahan: Learning about others, understanding differences and embracing them. Part of what I say about the theater is, I was hoping that people from different neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds would sit next to each other and cry at the same things, and laugh at the same things, and gasp at the same things, almost touching the skin of the person next to them—which might not be the same color, but the responses were absolutely the same.
Rudin: I grew up in Miami, and there’s lots of beautiful water all around; I can’t imagine if my parents didn’t teach me how to swim. How I would be missing out on a huge part of my life in that city! I feel like if you don’t learn about the arts in New York City, if you don’t become culturally literate as a young person, you’re missing an enormous dimension of living here, and that’s really vital.

Help the New Victory Theater and its important mission by purchasing a ticket to the New 42nd Street benefit performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on May 12. Not only can you see both parts 1 and 2 for $500, but also support the New Victory’s education programs, serving 40,000 children in New York City schools.

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