The Gayety Theater at 508 9th St. NW dropped out of the porn ranks and into the art world when the 400-seat theater quietly changed hands this week. It was another significant step in the downtown arts revival. The Gayety was purchased by District Curators Inc., a 4-year-old nonprofit arts organization that will spend the summer remodeling and rehabilitating the former porn burlesque house, reopening it on Oct. 1 as a permanent multimedia performance space. The prestigious Washington Performing Arts Society has already scheduled a festival of avant-garde performers for October, while Joseph Papp's production of the Mabou Mimes' "Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power" is another strong possibility.
The Gayety joins a number of other downtown art conversions in the last five years, including the La Droit, Atlantic and Lansburgh's buildings, d.c. space and the 406 Gallery Complex on F Street. The theater's five-year lease was purchased for around $60,000 from Herb Cole, who continues to own several 14th Street properties, including the Casino Royale and This Is It? The property is owned by Central Liquors. Included in the lease purchase was an order for new seats placed by the previous management. The Gayety, which had stopped live performances and was operating on a strict policy of X-rated films, had apparently been losing money for some time.
District Curators' executive director, Bill Warrell, tired of spreading his organization's efforts in too many locations, had been watching the Gayety for some time. The takeover was first talked about last year, with negotiations under the direction of John Bowers starting about six months ago. The Lansburgh's complex has theater plans for a smaller facility sometime in the future. District Curators hopes to raise $150,000 to pay off the lease purchase (which includes projectors and screens), to pay for remodeling ("we'll install a sound system, light system, video system, and build a stage") and to carry the theater's programs through its first year. The Gayety is expected to be self-sustaining after that time.
Previously, District Curators had presented such innovative artists as Phillip Glass, Laurie Anderson and the World Saxophone Quartet in a variety of locations, including the Corcoran Gallery and the Pension Building. The organization's thrust is toward jazz and avant-garde classical performers, many of whom first appeared locally at d.c. space. (The upstairs loft at d.c. space will close in mid-July, to be replaced by the Olshonski Gallery.)
There had been talks with the WPAS involving cooperative production this fall. The Gayety provided a "perfect marriage," particularly when the WPAS decided to present most of its avant-garde series at the Gayety to give it a focal point. Such adventurous programming is a new direction for WPAS, says spokesperson Deborah Hanzlik. "It equivocates us marching into modern dance 10 years ago. Mr. Hayes and the board are very excited."
The New Gayety Theatre will open with performances by a special jazz orchestra made up of Washington musicians and led by the legendary composer/trumpeter Don Cherry. WPAS will occupy the next four weekends with composer Phillip Glass (oct. 9-10), David Bierman (oct. 16), performance artist Laurie Anderson (Oct. 17-18), video/composer Robert Ashley (Oct. 23-24) and dancer Lucinda Childs (at Lisner Oct. 29-30). Maida Withers is also tentatively scheduled, and Hanzlik expects other artists to be added to the list. The Gayety will also be available for film, video, poetry, theater, dance, music and performance arts. The two upstairs lofts will serve as offices and graphics and rehearsal spaces.
The size of the Gayety will serve as an effective bridge between the small performance spaces and the large concert halls that have been the only recourse for small companies and innovative artists with limited audiences. The theater itself dates back to a time when Washington had a clear-cut "theater-district" downtown. The original Gayety was a 1,500-seat vaudeville and burlesque theater that featured such stars as Al Jolson, Bert Lahr, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Gypsy Rose Lee. It changed its name to the Sam S. Schubert Theater in an attempt at respectability, but a major fire in 1960 led to the original theater's being torn down; its site is now the parking lot on the corner of 9th and E. The Gayety took over the Central Theater (which also became a parking lot in 1973) before finally moving to its present location in what used to be the Roosevelt Theatre.
The October opening will mark three fall additions to the downtown art scene; the others are TICKET place on F Street and the new space for the Washington Project for the Arts at 7th and D streets. On Monday, District Curators will make the official announcement about acquiring the Gayety at the Nightclub 9:30: Mayor Marion Barry will speak, and there will also be a panel discussion with the Gayety steering committee; which includes Patrick Hayes (WPAS), developer Oliver T. Carr, Al Nodal of WPA, Millie Bautista of the D.C. Arts Commission and Peter Jablow of the Cultural Alliance.