In the wake of one of the more unpleasant landlord-tenant disputes, the Westbeth Theatre Center Inc., a producing organization, is being forced to leave its home (151 Bank Street) after a quarter of a century and many ground-breaking productions. Eddie Izzard, Sandra Bernhard, and Margaret Cho were among the performers who expanded their audience-base at the theatre. Cy Coleman's Broadway hit, "The Life" was launched at Westbeth.
"We've been trying to re-negotiate our lease for the last five or six years," says Arnold Engelman, the company's producing director. "We were told we'd be given consideration, which is pretty outrageous after 25 years and, especially, in light of the millions of dollars we've spent in rent and renovations of the property. But we went along with it--responding to the request for a formal proposal--knowing that there would be many high bidders for the property."
As Engelman tells it, his efforts to reach, let alone negotiate, with the landlord, The Westbeth Artists' Housing Development Corporation, was a waste of time, despite the fact that Westbeth is a publicly underwritten housing complex for artists.
"Our proposal was dismissed without explanation and our calls were unanswered," Engelman asserts, adding that in his view the Corporation never had any intention of allowing the theatre to remain. "There was just too much money to be made elsewhere. But I don't understand why it didn't give us the chance, at least, to match the highest bid."
Says Eugene Hegy, a well-known real estate consultant and appraiser, who attempted to negotiate on behalf of Engelman's group: "Look, you can't fault a landlord for not offering a tenant first refusal. It makes negotiating with others too difficult. But you can fault a landlord for never being up front in what he [in this instance, it] wants. Of course, there has been a history there of strained relations."
According to Engelman, that's precisely the point. He says Westbeth's Housing Development Corporation has been trying to get rid of his company for 15 years. "The corporation took us to court 10 or 15 years ago in an attempt to evict us, claiming that we were violating our certificate of occupancy in not making certain renovations on the property. We agreed to do them. But when we asked the corporation for signed permission, allowing us to make the improvements, it refused. The point is the corporation never expected us to agree. Its demand that we make renovations was just a ploy to get rid of us. We were back in court, and the corporation was forced to let us make the improvements and then renew our lease.
"But," says Engelman, "ultimately you are not going to win with a landlord who is determined to evict you."
What makes the scenario all the more painful for Engelman is his belief that the next tenant in the space will be the Actors Studio, now a part of the New School University. "James Lipton [dean of the Actors Studio] once told me he'd never take our space. I don't know why he changed his mind," recalls Engelman. "I'm aware that the Actors Studio has deeper pockets than we do."
Lipton was not available for comment. However, Back Stage did receive a call from Gloria Gottschalk, media relations manager for the New School University. "We are in the process of negotiating with Westbeth for the space," she said. "And that's all we will say at this time."
Back Stage also attempted to reach Carl Stein, president of the board of directors at Westbeth's Housing Development Corporation. As of press time the call was not returned.
Engelman is not surprised by the lack of response; and, as frustrated as he is by all of the developments, he says he is ready to move on and is looking forward to the future.
"We are not ceasing to exist. We will continue as a producing organization, with the same name and mission--to produce cutting-edge material around the country that's ahead of its time."
He cites Westbeth's final production at the theatre on March 31 as a case in point: Bill Bailey's "Bewilderness," a wild and wacky solo-show from a hot British performer, who will take America by storm.
Engelman is convinced of it.