The Hidden Theater

When the list was completed, Peggy had found over forty theaters built
since 1890 and not currently listed as theaters in the classified phone
book. Now there was nothing to do except visit each one to see if it was
still there at all, and if there, to see what it was being used for.
Checking the addresses against her city map and street-number guide,
Peggy listed those that she would visit first.

“I’ve started out with a group I think we can cover in one afternoon,”
she explained to Amy. “And the district I’ve picked is not too far away
from most of the off-Broadway theaters in Greenwich Village. I’d like it
best if we could find a theater near where people are used to going, or
at least in districts that are easy to get to by bus or subway.”

“Don’t worry too much about that,” Greta commented from the depths of an
easy chair. “If you can just find a place to put on the play, and if the
play is good, people will come. Even if they have to walk, or pay
tremendous cab fares. That’s one wonderful thing about New York. People
love the theater, and they’re willing to go through all kinds of
hardships to see a good play.”

“The proof of that is the prices people pay to see a Broadway show,” Amy
agreed. “Six and eight dollars a seat for some of them!”

“And that’s at box-office prices,” Irene commented. “They pay
twenty-five dollars to a ticket broker sometimes to see a really popular
show. I think that the thing to be in this business is a broker, not an
actress. That’s where the big money is!”

“We’ll remember that when we get our theater,” Peggy said, laughing.
“I’ll put aside a whole lot of seats in my name, and if the show’s a hit
I’ll make a fortune on them!”

“No theater, no tickets,” Amy said dryly. “And no show either. We’d
better get going now.”

The area that Peggy had decided to cover first was a section south of
Fourteenth Street, and somewhat farther east than where they had been.
This was an old part of town, in which the theater had once been
centered even before it had moved “uptown” to Fourteenth Street.
(Fourteenth Street itself is now very much downtown from the present
theater district in the west Forties and Fifties.)

This old district had seen wave after wave of immigrants come from
various lands. Each nation had left its mark. There were Russian stores,
Rumanian restaurants, Irish bars, Jewish delicatessens, Italian grocery
stores, and Spanish shops of all sorts.

“It’s like looking at a cross section of certain kinds of rocks,” Peggy
said. “You know, the kinds that give you a million-year history of the
earth and the kinds of life that have come and gone. Finding all these
traces of different languages and peoples is sort of like geology.”

“Yes,” Amy agreed, “and you can tell pretty well which groups came to
the neighborhood first and which ones followed, and which are the
latest. I’d say the Irish were first, and then the Rumanians and the
Russians, a lot of whom were Jewish, and finally the Puerto Ricans. Look
at that store!”

She pointed to an old building with store windows lettered
“_Carnecería_,” which is Spanish for “butcher shop.” Over the windows
was a faded old signboard which the present tenants had neglected to
remove. Its gilt letters, nearly illegible, read, “A. Y. Ravotsky,
Inc.,” and on either side of the lettering, carved into the wood, was an
Irish shamrock and harp.

“It’s like a one-stop history of New York!” Peggy said. “I’ll bet if you
dug underneath it you’d find Dutch shoes and Indian arrowheads!”

A few blocks’ walk brought them to their first address. There was no
sign of a theater at all. In its place was a large, squat hospital; on
its cornerstone appeared the date it was built—1912.

“Well, that takes care of Hewett’s Theater,” Peggy said sadly, crossing
off the name on her list. “Now let’s try the Emperor. It’s only two
blocks away.”

The Emperor Theater was now effectively disguised as a Greek Orthodox
church, complete with a turnip-shaped steeple and a Russian signboard
outside. The next theater on the list was a large and gaudy caterer’s
hall, used for weddings, parties, lodge meetings, and dances, according
to its poster. The next two on the list had also totally disappeared,
giving way to a garage and an apartment house.

“This is hardly encouraging,” Amy said. “I somehow feel already that
we’re on a wild-goose chase.”

“Amy, this is no time to get discouraged!” Peggy said. “Why, we’ve only
gone to five places, and we’ve got nearly forty more on the list! And,
after all, it’s not as if we were looking for a dozen theaters. All we
want is one, so I don’t care if all but one prove to be shut or
converted. And we have to see them all, just in case it’s the last one
that turns out to be for us!”

“That makes sense,” Amy agreed, “and I certainly don’t want to quit.
It’s just that I wish we had hit it right the first time!”

“You’re a lazy girl,” Peggy reproached her. “Do you know the way I feel
about it? Even if we had found a good theater on our first call, I’d
still want to see everything else on the list, just to make sure that we
had the best one!”

After some more walking, in which they found two more missing theaters
and one that had been converted to a funeral parlor, they decided to
stop for lunch in a delicatessen where sausages of every shape and size
hung like decorations from the ceiling. They sat at a small table near
open barrels of pickles, pickled tomatoes, and sauerkraut and stuffed
themselves with corned-beef sandwiches on fresh, fragrant rye bread
dotted with caraway seeds, homemade potato salad, cole slaw, and
pickles. Afterward, they felt much better, and more heartened for the
rest of the day’s search.

As they worked their way downtown, the neighborhood began to change once
more, and the girls were unable to guess what might be the nationality
of the dark, strong-faced people they now saw about them. The signs on
the windows didn’t help either, being in a language they could not
identify.

It might have remained a mystery, had they not been stopped by a
policeman who said, “What are a couple of nice-looking girls like you
doing in the Gypsy section? This is no place to sight-see, you know. I’d
advise you to take a guided tour.”

“We’re not sight-seeing,” Peggy said. “We’re looking for an
address—actually for an old theater. Maybe you can help us. We want to
find the Burke Theater, if it still exists.”

The policeman was puzzled until Peggy showed him the address, and then
he smiled broadly. “Well, you might just as well forget it,” he said.
“It might have been a theater once, but not any longer. The Settlement
House has it now, and it’s the local boys’ club, complete with a
gymnasium equipped for every sport. It’s done a lot of good in this
neighborhood, I can tell you.”

Peggy and Amy thanked him, and then asked him about the Gypsies. They
hadn’t realized there were any in the city—or at least not enough to
make up a whole district.

“It’s not a large district,” he said. “No more than a thousand or so, at
the most. At least that’s what they say, but it’s not easy getting them
to hold still to be counted. They’re good people, once you get to know
them. Only they speak a language nobody can understand, and their ways
are different. If I were you, I wouldn’t hang around here much.”

Thanking him, the girls left, not without casting a few glances back
over their shoulders until they were sure they were clear of the area.

The remaining theaters on their first day’s list were to the west of the
Gypsy district, and these too proved to offer nothing. The district they
now found themselves in was on the outskirts of Chinatown, and was half
Chinese and half mixed-New-York. Of the theaters on the list for this
part of town, one had been at one time a Chinese movie house, and was
now a Rescue Mission. Signboards in rusty black with large white
lettering warned sinners to repent, and offered soup and bread to anyone
who attended the services. From inside, the girls heard some wheezy
voices and an even wheezier organ sounding the plaintive notes of a
hymn.

Peggy realized with a start that this was the Bowery, the sinister,
pathetic district inhabited by the poorest examples of humanity—those
who had almost resigned from the human race. Looking about her, she saw
tattered men in doorways, sleeping figures huddled under stairs, groups
of tough-looking tramps standing idly on street corners. She was
suddenly aware that she and Amy were the only women in sight.

“Amy,” she said in a shaky voice, “I’m afraid we shouldn’t have come
here! This is the Bowery, and you remember what the guide said about it
when we took that bus trip. He called it the worst district of the
city!”

“Oh dear!” Amy whispered, looking nervously about her. “What should we
do now?”

“I think we’d better go,” Peggy said. “Chinatown starts right across the
street, and I remember what the guide said about that, too. He said not
to believe all the old mystery stories; Chinatown is just about the
safest place in the city. The Chinese have practically no criminals
among them, and any tourist is safe there. Let’s go!”

Trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, and doing all they could to
avoid the appearance of hurrying, Peggy and Amy crossed the street and
turned into a narrow alley between two Chinese food shops whose windows
were filled with things that neither girl could identify.

Once more they were made aware of the sudden changeability of the city.
In no time at all, they were out of the frightening streets of the
Bowery and in the crowded, noisy, bright-colored center of Chinatown.
The streets, so narrow that in some places the sidewalks were scarcely a
foot wide, were lined with restaurants, gift shops, importing houses
that specialized in tea and spices, and more of the oddly stocked
Oriental groceries and markets. Somewhat shaken by their fear on the
Bowery, they stopped for tea and rice cookies in a large Chinese
restaurant, where they sat at a small table on a balcony overhanging the
main street of the district.

“I think we’d better stop looking for theaters today,” Peggy suggested.
“Besides, it’s after five-thirty now, and almost time for dinner. Why
don’t we look around some of the shops here, and then come back to this
restaurant for dinner? We can look for theaters again tomorrow.”

Amy agreed, but looked pained at the suggestion that they do more
searching the next day. “I don’t know how you can stand it,” she said.
“My feet are killing me from today’s walk. Why don’t we wait awhile?”

“Because tomorrow’s Sunday,” Peggy replied firmly, “and it’s our last
chance to get in a full day’s looking before next week. After-school
hours just aren’t enough. If we really want to check out this whole
list, we have to work weekends.”

Amy sighed. “My worst habit isn’t laziness,” she said, “it’s picking the
wrong kind of friends. If I had known, when we first met, how much
energy you have, I would have refused to know you!”

Sunday, like Saturday, produced one blank after another.

Peggy and Amy saw theaters that had been turned into television studios,
union halls, social clubs, and lodges; theaters converted to restaurants
and supermarkets; sites of theaters long vanished and forgotten now
occupied by office buildings, apartment houses or the blank-faced,
featureless warehouses that fill much of lower Manhattan.

On Monday, when their last class was over at two-thirty, Peggy once more
took up her list and her bundle of city maps and guides. “Let’s go,
Amy,” she said in tones of mixed determination and resignation. “We’ve
got a couple of hours this afternoon, and we might as well use them.”

“Why don’t we take the afternoon off?” Amy asked. “My feet are just
killing me, and I’m sure if I walk for another two hours I’ll come down
with an awful blister. We can look again tomorrow, after a day’s rest.”

Peggy considered the suggestion for a moment. It would be a relief to
take an afternoon off and just loaf about the house. But then she shook
her head. “No. If we don’t have any luck, we can take tomorrow off, but
I’d like to go out again today. There’s a meeting of the players tonight
at Connie’s, you know, and I’d love to be able to report that we found
something today. Let’s give it a try.”

“All right, Peggy,” Amy agreed, “if you’re game, so am I. And it would
be nice to have some good news for the gang tonight. I’m just afraid
that we’ll put a damper on the evening when we show up all tired out
with some more of our usual bad news.”

Peggy half agreed, but knew that if she gave in and let down her pace,
she might never again get up the kind of drive she had been working on
for the last week. With a deep breath and a determined expression, she
swept Amy off with her.

“The section we’re looking in today,” she explained as they walked to
the subway, “is a little west and south of Greenwich Village. It’s
mostly warehouses now, but there were once several theaters there, and
since there’s been almost no new construction in the area in the last
fifty years, there’s a chance that some of the theaters have been left
alone. I’m particularly interested in two of them that I think have a
better chance of being there than the others we’ve looked for.”

“Why should these two have a better chance?” Amy asked.

“The licenses show that there were several theaters built in the city at
one time in a way that got around the fire laws. The law said that you
couldn’t build a theater with any other kind of space over it, and with
land so expensive, it kept a lot of people from building theaters. So a
few smart builders put theaters on the top floors of office buildings,
and got more rentable space on their ground that way. I’ve found permits
for over a dozen of these top-floor theaters.”

“But why should they still be there,” Amy asked, “any more than any of
the other old theaters?”

“Two reasons,” Peggy answered. “In the first place, nobody would want to
convert a top-floor theater to a restaurant or a garage or anything like
that. And in the second place, the district we’re going to has
practically no apartment buildings in it, and that means that there
aren’t residents in the neighborhood to want to use a theater for a
social club or a church or a funeral parlor. I have a feeling that we’re
going to find our theater here, if we find it anywhere.”

Amy agreed with Peggy’s logic and further noted that, if they did find a
theater in this district, it would be a good location. There were two
subway lines that had stops on either side of the area, and several bus
lines as well.

These observations gave them a somewhat more cheerful outlook, and it
was with a renewed sense of anticipation that they came up from the
subway and started their search in this promising new district.

The streets in this part of town were narrow, and crowded with trucks
that were backed up at all angles to loading platforms that ran like
boardwalks along the fronts of the buildings. Most of the buildings were
produce markets where wholesale food merchants received the meats,
vegetables, fruits, and packaged goods that fed the city. Wide
protective canopies that overhung their fronts gave the loading
platforms the appearance of old-fashioned porches. Other buildings were
warehouses, obviously designed for storage. Their blank windowless walls
and heavy steel doors made them look like ancient fortresses. Here and
there, between these and the produce markets, stood the most familiar
kind of New York business building, the so-called “loft,” used for light
industry or, occasionally, offices. It was in front of one of these that
Peggy stopped.

“Here’s our first address,” she said. “According to my list, a theater
was licensed here by the original construction permit in 1892.”

Amy looked at the worn, red brick front, unconvinced. “A theater here? I
can’t imagine it! Maybe this place was built later, after the original
building with the theater was torn down.”

Peggy shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I’ve gotten pretty good at
architecture in the last few days, and I think I can guess the date of a
New York building within a couple of years. This wasn’t built much later
than 1892. It must be the original building with the theater. Let’s see
if we can get any clue to it.”

The girls walked across the street in order to get a better view of the
building and, as soon as they turned to look, Peggy’s eyes lighted.
“Look up!” she said. “There’s a theater up there, all right!”

“How do you know?” Amy asked wonderingly.

“Look at the windows! The first five floors have windows all the same
height—a normal ceiling height. But the top floor has windows that must
be twenty feet high! That means that the ceiling height is over twenty
feet up there. What else could it be but the theater?”

“You must be right!” Amy agreed with excitement. “What do we do now?”

“Let’s see if there’s a janitor or anyone who can tell us about it; if
it’s being used, and what for. Even if someone’s using it, we might be
able to rent it from him if we can pay him more than he’s paying now.
Let’s go and look!”

They ran across the street and into the vestibule of the building, but
when Peggy tried the door, she found it locked. A small sign on the door
read O & O TRUCKING Co. And the same name was written over the bank of
mailboxes. Apparently there were no other tenants in the building, and
nobody seemed to be in the O & O offices.

“We can always write to them,” Amy suggested, “or we can try them on the
phone until we find someone in.”

“I guess we’ll have to,” Peggy agreed. But then she noticed the
doorbell, almost invisible under many layers of thick green paint. “Wait
a minute! Let’s see if the bell works. Maybe there’s a watchman, or
somebody else.”

[Illustration: The door swung open]

A push at the button produced a loud ringing from deep within the
building. Its sound seemed to echo for seconds after Peggy released the
button.

“If there’s anybody in there, that’s going to bring him,” she said.
After a few minutes’ wait, she decided to try again. This time, at the
same instant that she touched the doorbell, the door swung open,
revealing a man in dirty overalls who stood blinking at the light and
regarding them with a scowl.

“Whatta ya want?” he grated.

“Are you the superintendent?” Peggy asked politely.

“I’m the janitor. Whatta ya wanta know for?”

“Well, we’re just wondering about the theater upstairs—”

“Theater? Ain’t no theater here, kid,” the man growled, and started to
shut the door.

“Wait!” Peggy said, holding the door open. “There is a theater upstairs!
We know there is! All I want to know is what it’s used for.”

“It ain’t used for nothin’,” the janitor started angrily. Then he
stopped himself, remembering his first statement. “Besides, you got the
wrong place. Like I said, no theater here. Now beat it!” With an extra
push, he slammed the door shut, and Peggy and Amy once more were faced
with nothing more enlightening than the O & O sign.

“Why, I’ve never in my life seen such awful manners!” Amy said, almost
with a stamp of her foot. “I’m going to write to that company as soon as
we get home and tell them about—”

“Amy,” Peggy interrupted, “I think you’re getting excited about the
wrong thing. Let’s get away from here and talk this over.”

But before leaving the district, she crossed the street once more to be
sure that she was not mistaken about the building. Her second look
convinced her that she had been right. Those windows could only mean a
high-ceilinged room of some sort, and the license clearly stated that it
had been a theater.

“Amy, there’s just one thing to do now. We’ve got to check the city
records again, this time to see the plans of this building. Then, once
we’re sure it’s a theater, we’ve got some thinking to do before we act.”

“But why would that janitor say there was no theater there if there is
one?” Amy said.

“That’s the question,” Peggy agreed darkly. “I want to know why he said
that, and I want to know what the place is being used for.”

“But, Peggy,” Amy protested, “why should we go poking into other
people’s business? We already know that they’re not going to rent us
this theater, and that they’re downright unpleasant people. Why don’t we
just cross this one off, and go look at the others on your list?”

“Amy, you’re not thinking clearly,” Peggy said patiently. “It seems to
me that the only reason anyone would have for acting the way that
janitor did is that there’s something wrong going on in there—something
that makes it important for them to keep people out.”

“If that’s the case,” Amy said reasonably, “why did the janitor act so
suspiciously? If he had just said that the theater’s been converted to
some other use and isn’t for rent, we would have gone away and not
thought a thing about it.”

“That’s true,” Peggy agreed, “but I think we caught him off guard. After
all, it’s undoubtedly the first time anyone’s come around to ask him
about the theater, and he just didn’t know what to say. Besides, I don’t
think he’s very smart. He’s certainly not the man in charge of whatever
crooked business is going on in there.”

“If you’re sure it’s something crooked, why don’t we just report it to
the police?” Amy asked.

“We can’t go to the police with just our suspicions,” Peggy replied.
“They want some kind of indication that there’s something illegal before
they can investigate. In fact, I know they can’t even get a search
warrant without evidence. No, I’m afraid we’ll have to look into this on
our own.”

“But, Peggy,” Amy protested, “we’re supposed to be looking for a
theater, not playing cops and robbers!”

“This _is_ looking for a theater,” Peggy said intently. “If we uncover
something crooked going on in there, and if we can convince the police
of it, that building’s going to be vacant pretty soon. Come on! Let’s
dig up the plans for this place before the Bureau closes for the night!
I want to see what kind of stage the group is going to have to play on!”