The New Victory Theater Ushers In a 42nd Street Revival

New York's infamous district is being cleared of sex shops, making way for restoration of its grand theaters - and for children's arts programs

Beyond its importance as the first completed landmark renovation on New York's historic 42nd Street, the New Victory Theater promises to bring new visibility to arts programming for children. On Dec. 11, the 500-seat theater will open its doors, and on Dec. 19 it will begin its premiere season.

"Children are often thought of as second-class citizens in this country in terms of theater," says the theater's program director, Yvonne Joyner Levette. "In other countries there are extensive art programs for young people that we [in America] simply have not developed.

"We want to offer young people the same consistent high quality of artistic achievement that adults have come to expect for themselves," she adds.

Ms. Levette points out that fine American children's companies do exist, but the quality is not consistent, perhaps because they do not receive the funding and respect they deserve. That is why, in designing the New Victory's first season, Levette brought together a range of performers to challenge the expectation that theater for young people must "pander." "We want to make a statement that strong theater companies should more often consider doing work for children," she says.

Levette has chosen an unusual combination of styles and subjects to initiate the theater's first season. Under the New Victory's umbrella, Theatre for a New Audience will adapt Carlo Gozzi's 18th-century tale, "The Green Bird." Filmmakers Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola will curate a film series. Theaterworks/USA, the prestigious company in which Henry Winkler and F. Murray Abraham began their careers, will present a new play about either the life of Paul Robeson or the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education. Actor-writer Bill Irwin, currently appearing in "Fool Moon" on Broadway, will oversee a series of shows dealing with vaudeville traditions.

Audience diversity is a priority for Warrington Hudlin, curator of a film series to be presented at the New Victory by the Black Filmmakers Foundation. "The old 42nd Street, for all its antisocial character, was patronized by many poor blacks and Latinos because of the inexpensive family films, especially kung-fu films, available there," Mr. Hudlin says. "In cleaning up 42nd Street, we want to change the programming but not necessarily the complexion of the patrons."

Hudlin says that Cora Cahan, president of the New 42nd Street development consortium, has devised "a programming strategy of inclusion."

To help audiences who might not otherwise attend theater, the New Victory will provide free matinees during its first weekend, establish a weekday education program for New York City's public- and private-school students, and offer apprentice programs to high school and college students from the five boroughs of New York. To encourage new audiences, the New Victory is offering a $25 annual family membership. For a family of four, this would reduce the per ticket price to $8.57 from an average of $15 to $25.

The Metropolitan Opera Guild will present "Different Fields," a new opera that tells the story of a football player and provokes questions about honesty and heroism. The Opera Guild's work has always been geared toward children, but it, like the other groups, got involved with the New Victory to expand future audiences.

"Parents tell me 'I wish we had had something like this when we were little,'" says family-programs coordinator Gretchen Weerheim.

The New Victory is in good company on 42nd Street. The Disney Company has made headlines with its ongoing restoration of the New Amsterdam Theater, whose Art Deco interior was designated a national landmark. In order to ensure Disney's interest in the street, the Empire State Development Corporation had to demonstrate that the neighborhood would be rid of pornography. "We showed them a plan of [the structures to be condemned], and the results of condemnation and vacancies that made them more comfortable," says Charles Gargano, chairman for the state agency.

Michael Johnson, manager of communications for Disney Development Company, says that his company wanted to be sure that other entertainment groups would join the street. "The city and state already had their own vision of cleaning up the street when we became involved," he says.

The investment should pay off in tourist dollars for Disney. According to a marketing study produced by Philips Norwalk for retail merchants, a conservative estimate of the enhanced sales potential for the area would be $650 million a year, rising to $760 million annually by 2000. Times Square Center Associates, a partnership between Park Tower Realty and the Prudential Insurance Company of America, in 1990 posted a $241 million letter-of-credit with the state to make the project possible.

Most corporate developers aim to provide unapologetically high-tech entertainment. The Harris, Empire, and Liberty theaters will be included in a complex that combines a Madame Tussaud's wax museum and an American Multi-Cinema 25-screen movieplex that will be one of the largest in the world. MTV has begun discussions about The Disney-Tishman Hotel along Eighth Avenue. The hotel will include at least two levels of what is referred to as "a Disney entertainment component." Furthermore, Cinema Ride Inc. plans to build an amusement ride complete with state-of-the-art virtual reality technology.

Fourteen years after the New 42nd Street project's inception, public and private interests have begun to reclaim an area that for decades has suffered from infamy and decay. Says Gargano, "It will be what 42nd Street and Broadway always used to be - glitter, lights, entertainment."

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