BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated April 10, 12:01 a.m.: Lorcan and Genie Otway left St. Mark’s Theatre 80 on Wednesday. It wasn’t clear if they’ll ever be allowed back inside the place again. Nevertheless, they continue to fight on to try to keep the remarkable building and the unique and authentic cultural, community and activist space that they created there.
They still have two weeks left to raise more funds to pay off their full $12 million debt owed to a lender, Maverick Real Estate Partners. So far, they have commitments to cover more than half of the debt, but still need several more million dollars. An auction of the property is slated for May 5. The Otways — who still own the building — are desperately trying to raise the needed cash by the deadline. They continue to hope for a miracle.
In a major, last-minute boost to their cause, last week, a new nonprofit — Historic 80 St. Mark’s — was approved to accept tax-deductible donations. That hopefully will encourage more deep-pocketed, culture-loving “angels” to help the Otways from losing the place.
A “Save Theatre 80” petition on change.org, started by Kenny Toglia of the Guardians of Loisaida, had so far garnered more than 6,600 signatures as of April 6.
The Guardians are also asking people to write Governor Kathy Hochul and urge her to intervene and help save the building from being sold.
If the Otways manage to retain the building, Lorcan said the plan is for it to become a nonprofit venue that he would program, and that he and Genie would continue to be able to live there.
An eviction from one’s longtime home is always a traumatic experience. It doesn’t get any easier as the years go by and one advances in age. Lorcan is 70 and Genie is 69. He’s lived there since he was 9, helping his father as a young kid to scoop out the basement’s dirt floor to deepen the theater.
Around 1 p.m., a U-Haul truck was parked across the street. It was being loaded with whatever valued possessions the Otways had hurriedly been able to pull together. Genie walked out of the building carrying a stack of ancient-looking paintings. She held them face down. Since they were unframed canvases, they probably weren’t the portraits of some of the Anglo-Irish Otway barons from Templederry in the old country that lined one wall in the theater’s lobby. She said she had been focusing on saving things like family photos, things that hold special meaning for them.
Meanwhile, Lorcan was over at the mini storage at Second Street and Second Avenue, struggling to see what could be crammed into the limited space.
A court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, a woman with white hair and wearing a mid-length black leather coat, was on the scene. Close by her side was a tall, imposing-looking man. It wasn’t clear if he was the federal marshal who had been expected to enforce the Otways’ eviction. Maybe he was just “the muscle,” there to protect the trustee. Their relationship wasn’t clear. He would not identify himself to a reporter.
When the reporter tried to open the door to the theater’s darkened William Barnacle Tavern, the man curtly warned, “You can’t go in there.” The door was locked shut anyway.
A locksmith had been there a bit earlier to install a new lock on the theater’s front door.
Gathered outside on the sidewalk in front were a small group of friends there to offer support. Among them was Eric Rassi, a former East Village squatter activist who ran for state Senate last year.
“It’s just another attack by the political machine, as far as I’m concerned,” he declared of the iconic theater couple’s eviction from their longtime home and business. “They forced people to close for a year [during the pandemic] but they didn’t stop finance companies from collecting money that people were prohibited from earning. This was a political decision to destroy institutions — and there are many, many others.” He blamed “Hochul, de Blasio — every single one of ’em.”
Linda Justice, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1977, noted that she had her first play reading there at the “Naked Angels” free Monday night series just two months ago.
Debbie Lee, who produced the late Michael Shenker’s “The Squatters’ Opera” at Theatre 80 the weekend right before the pandemic officially was declared, was also among the small group.
“I’m going to take the cat, babysit it,” she said, “let her chill out rather than let her be toted around.”
The Otways’ 18-year-old, black feline, Pyewacket — named after a “familiar spirit” of an accused 17th-century English witch — was anxiously meowing inside her carrying case on the sidewalk.
While Pyewacket will have a place to stay, at least for now, where the Otways will go isn’t as clear. Some of the friends outside the theater were offering to put the couple up for a while.
Speaking by cell phone later from an East Village cafe around 6:30 p.m., where he was warming up with some tea after unloading the truck in the raw, rainy weather, Lorcan said they have something of a plan. Friends from Ireland will probably put them up at the St. Mark’s Hotel for at least one night, after which the Otways hope to find a small place near the theater, so that they can “keep the fight up.”
Also among the handful of people outside were a group of young people in their 20s and early 30s. As they started to talk about what the Otways and the social and cultural space they created meant to them, Kathleen Finch, a bartender there for the last four years, became watery-eyed. She’s originally from Texas.
“It’s quite literally my second home,” she said. “Genie and Lorcan are like my second parents. I’m here more days than not.”
“I feel like I’m losing a second home,” echoed Sam Agnew, a member of a grindcore rock band. “I’ve been coming here since 2013, since I was old enough to drink.”
He noted that Food Not Bombs, a volunteer group that provides free vegan and vegetarian meals, met in the building.
For Ena Lee, 27, an organizer who grew up nearby, St. Mark’s Theatre 80 has always been a neighborhood touchstone. At one point, she worked there.
“I used to walk with my dad down this block, past this building and he would tell me how Leon Trotsky lived on the second floor,” she said. “Democratic Socialists used to meet here.
“This was a spot where anything could happen. This was a space where anybody could come by. When we’re talking about gentrification, this was one of the places that young activists like us could draft their dreams.
“I grew up on 14th Street. This is like the epicenter of my life,” she said. “This is like 400 years of history. This is where the creek would run, and the Lenape would fish in the creek. The creek stones are in the basement. There are bullet holes in the wall here. This used to be a speakeasy — there’s an underground tunnel.”
Ena Lee said the group of Millennials will do everything they can to help the Otways. One thing on the immediate agenda is to do a fundraiser to pay for their storage space.
“They don’t have children,” she said. “We are their children — and we will take care of them. We’re not going to give up without a fight. We’re preserving their dignity — that’s the most important point.”
Lorcan Otway said he’s immensely grateful for assistance in their fight by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and, specifically, its commissioner, Laurie Cumbo, and also the Internal Revenue Service, which has a division to help theaters. The I.R.S. waived the 180-day waiting period for Theatre 80’s new nonprofit to be allowed to accept tax-deductible donations. Basically, the request was made to the I.R.S. last Thursday — and was approved Friday.
“The two white knights in this case,” he said, “were the Department of Cultural Affairs and, the surprise white knight, the I.R.S.”
Lorcan noted he always wanted to keep the place commercial and independent, loath to let a nonprofit board of directors influence his choices on programming. But now, there’s no choice.
While Rassi referred to a crippling one-year lockdown during the pandemic, Otway noted that, in the case of theaters, it was actually two years that business was negatively impacted. At major financial expense, during COVID — wanting to comply with social-distancing regulations — he yanked out the theater’s seats to convert it into a cabaret, sporting tables and much less seating.
But before they could really get the cabaret rolling, the bankruptcy trustee forbade them from holding events to raise revenue. During the past year, the Otways were prohibited, for example, from leasing out the place for a film shoot that would have netted them a sorely neeeded $50,000.
And now they literally have no money.
“Our bank accounts have been seized,” Lorcan said.
On top of everything, a former commercial tenant, Foxface sandwich shop, is suing them. The litigation charges, among other things, that Foxface had an exclusive right to serve food in the place, but that the Otways violated this.
Calling it “a frivolous lawsuit,” Lorcan shrugged that Foxface objected that he and Genie served shepherd’s pie during late-night hours. Foxface’s Ori Kushnir declined to comment for this article.
Lorcan said he’s not interested in a proposed settlement offer.
“Genie and I are weighing what our countersuit will be,” he said.
Something is missing.
If he lived there since he was nine — 61 years — shouldn’t any mortgage be paid off by now?
How did it get into $12 million debt? Even closing for two years shouldn’t rack up that kind of debt.
Dear Curious S., the mortgage for the original purchase was paid by our hosting “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” in 1967. We were out of debt until my brother misappropriated my mother’s life savings about thirteen years ago. Mom addressed this by putting me on the deed with her, so one day I would own three-quarters of the building. He sued Mom and me for the next ten years. After hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, he settled for a quarter of the building, so years of fighting for nothing. He died as we were funding the settlement. So we were $6 million in debt, but the work Genie and I had done to promote the building’s history made our branding worth half a million a year, according to Sports Properties Inc. So we were doing well for the future, but three months into the mortgage, the State ordered theaters, museums and taverns closed.
The State gave us no protection against a predator firm buying our debt and doubling it. I hope that helps you to understand the mechanics of it.
A fair question, answered in some of the Sun’s previous pieces. Lorcan took out a $6 million loan to pay his brother’s estate and do some repairs. Because of the Covid lockdown, the theater was not able to open or pay the note, and the mortgage company sold it to Maverick https://www.maverickrep.com/ , which tripled the rate and doubled the payments and debt.
Unbelievable that not a single hugely wealthy person could not be bothered to help here.
Folks in billionaire buildings, wealthy celebrities.
Shack Shack folks have plenty of money.
Many thanks to you, Lincoln and the staff and friends. Our first day of homelessness was not easy in spite of the help of many friends. The weather was a danger to folks of our age, and has already taken a toll on our health. The fight goes on for our theater, our home,.our neighborhood, our industry and now our very lives. As Mom would say, No Passaran Companieros! Is mise le meas, Lorcan
Can you explain how the trustee could forbid fundraisers before, when the Otways were in place? How can that be legal, to ban them for hosting events to raise money? Why would the trustee have control of that?
Is there a link for donations?
If the settlement was for a quarter of the building, how is that $6 million?
Dear Gretlshouse: The largest part of that mortgage was the settlement. However, the lawsuit cost us hundreds of thousands in legal fees. Besides that, Tom not only misappropriated Mom’s life savings, he intentionally sought to drive her into debt to force a sale of the building. My father brought me up to work the building so that Tom could go to school and get his PhD.
As Dad was in his last illness, I worked to restore the theatrical grid, to return the theater to live theater. We were working on a deal with the Irish Rep company to become the tenant, in part subsidized by the tavern becoming licensed by my family, as we eventually were able to do. The night before we signed with the Irish Rep, Tom sailed in with the Pearl Theatre Company, giving them the theater for the subsided rent, plus the bar and a floor-through in the building. So, during the boom years on Saint Mark’s, the building was only making $35,000 a year. Being an Old World family, he was the oldest son, so we went along with it. However, Mom at first thought it was simply that he did not know the theater business. Then, after 15 years of losses, she put me in charge and Genie and I discovered the misappropriation.
Mom took out a loan to get the bar licensed and the theater open again. When she died, she left us the mortgage she had taken out, and death taxes of around $300,000, I don’t have the exact amount in front of me — being homeless at the moment. The only other expenses with the mortgage was to set aside a year of payments, and to pay for the company to assess and lease out our naming rights. All of this would have been years in the successful past, had the State of New York not shut down theaters, museums and taverns.
Thanks for the question
Thank you for the details Lorcan, it’s heart-wrenching to read about family businesses falling apart this way. I don’t know what the future holds for you and for the building but I wish you all the best.
I’m heartbroken for you, Otways, and for the losses our community continues to suffer. Blessings.
Please let me know the address to show up at to provide support for the Otways.