Variety Theatre

110 3rd Avenue,
New York, NY 10003

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artpf on January 6, 2019 at 7:20 pm

It’s not completely accurate to say this theatre went from first run movies to adult to off Broadway. Here’s the scoop that I can personally attest to. I was going to school and/or living in the West Village during the 70’s, 80s and early 90s. I’ve always been fascinated by these old theatres and the East and West Village was full of them during this time.

So here’s my experience with the Variety Photoplays. During the middle 80’s-early 90’s the theatre alternated weekly between porn and weird, never heard of, horror films, or judo flicks. I used to go to see the horror movies and in someways, a bit of the horror was gotten by just stepping into this theatre!

First of all you paid at a stand alone booth outside of the theatre manned by a guy with so much grease in his hair that if he moved quickly, the grease would splat on the window of his booth!

Then you walked inside, which was very very dark. Just inside the door, to the right, was a small counter area with candy and such, and a woman who took your ticket. I swear this is true — standing outside of the counter as you entered was a big bruiser with a thick and long long motor cycle chain around his neck! I still don’t know why he was needed. Were there lots of fights?

Then you enter the theatre. It was very ornate. I don’t know if the balcony was still in use. I never went up there because the orchestra section was never even remotely full. The audience was made up of mostly over weight bald men smoking cigars (yep—they still allowed smoking!!!) The place reeked of cigar, in fact.

Now check out this part — and again I swear this is true — right before the first feature started, two scantily clad women would walk done either aisle saying “Last chance! Last chance before the film!” These were clearly “working” girls and I would always try to avoid eye contact with them, for fear they’d try to solicit me.

In all the many times I went to the theatre for a double dose of some weird horror films, only once did I see a guy go with one of these girls. They walked toward the screen and left through an emergency exit next to the screen! The guy never came back out! I still wonder what happened to him!

I assume that the girls got more business during the weeks they showed porn, but can’t attest to that.

I loved going there because it was pure grind house. In fact it was more grind house than 42nd street because these films were completely unknown — and I know my movies. I remember one film was about some mother and daughter running thru the forest away from some killer and the daughter had a doll. About 45 minutes into this movie there was a jump and a badly made splice in the film. Then suddenly, it was a completely different movie!! The only common element was there was also a doll in this other film! Just nuts!!!

I’m convinced that during this period the theatre must have had some sort of mob connection. It was just too shady and full of very unsavory characters like the motorcycle chain guy and the working women.

So then around 1989/1990, the movie theatre closed and later reopened as a legit live performance space. I so looked forward to seeing the restoration of the beautiful ornate structure. I was so excited about it that I got tickets to the very first performance of the re-opened theatre! What a let down! They completely gutted the place down to the brick walls. Everything was gone! I was so saddened. That movie theatre should have been declared a landmark and preserved. Last time I looked, it was demolished and turned into condo.


PS If you want to get a sense how seedy this joint was, get your hands on a copy of the 1983 movie, Variety by Bette Gordon. The film is set in Times Square, but the theatre they used for the movie is actually the Variety Photoplays. It’s not a great movie, but you’ll get to see quite a lot of the theatre in all it’s seedy grandeur.

mfabiano on June 30, 2016 at 3:29 am

I lived in NY for a short time in 1995. I lived on 22nd St between 1st and 2nd Ave. On the weekends I would walk through the East Village, via 3rd Ave. I remember the 1st time I saw the Variety Theater. It was modest and practical. It was a theater that looked just that, a theater, nothing ornate or remarkable about it. I had never even stepped inside, yet each time I passed it on my weekend walks, I felt a sense of wonder about this place. Can’t explain why. I would imagine all the history that was made there in years gone by. One day while walking with a friends, I spotted Valerie Harper standing in front of the theater, she had been doing a play. Being huge Rhoda fans, we got her autograph. One of the fondest memories I have from living in NY is walking past the Variety. I miss the its shabby splendor,its name in lights and reading the marquee.

DavidZornig on June 13, 2016 at 4:04 am

1986 photo added, photo credit Matt Weber.

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on May 30, 2013 at 3:04 am

Here’s a direct link to Uwe’s most excellent series of images. Thank you, sir, for documenting this historic building just before it would have been too late!

robboehm on May 28, 2013 at 12:19 am

Can you get the photos on this site. Flickr accounts tend to be unavailable in time.

Uwe_Friedrich on May 27, 2013 at 4:50 pm

He guys, found your wonderfull web site. Stayed in NYC from 1989 until 1991. One day on my way to work I have got the chance to take a couple of picturs from the inside of »Variety Photo Play« at 110 Third Avenue – before they reopend. You can see the pictures (album) on my »Flickr account«, look for »friedrich_berlin«. Best wishes from Berlin town, Uwe.

cblog on November 5, 2012 at 10:53 am

I never went to this theater, but remember looking in the open door of the old man’s bar next door, complete with old men’s old dogs asleep next to their bar stools. Probably could get a short beer for fifteen cents.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on September 18, 2012 at 4:27 pm

The Variety stopped showing films in the fall of 1989.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on March 26, 2011 at 2:14 am

I think that was the Bleecker Street in DSS.

celaniasdawn on March 26, 2011 at 12:49 am

In the Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan, there are several shots of the theater, including a interior scene of the auditorium. I don’t know if the interior was the actual theater, but from what you could see, it looked very old, with very plain walls.

artpf on December 14, 2009 at 12:28 am

In the early 80s this theatre would alternate between XXX and bizarre regular movies (mostly horror or westerns that you never ever heard of).

I remember watching one horror flic and 45 minutes in, it suddenly turned into another movie! The producers just edited a different film onto the ending!

The place stunk of cigars and the guy who took your tickets had a giant motorcycle chain across his chest!

The oddest thing I remember was just before the movie started women would walk down the aisles saying “last chance” and old codgers would get up and go out with them through one of two exit doors on either side of the screen!

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on November 12, 2009 at 3:31 pm

There was a STAR THEATRE at 136 Third Avenue in the mid thirties, early forties. Does anyone have any info on that one?

robboehm on June 6, 2009 at 2:06 am

Warren, I can’t open this photo, is the problem at my end? I used to work in the Gramercy Park area and often took a lunchtime stroll past the Variety. It was certainly vintage. The only time I was actually inside was for an off-Broadway performance of, I think, Annie Warbucks. No real memory of the interior – not as impressive as the exterior.

theatrelvr on September 29, 2008 at 7:45 am

I remember seeing the first off-broadway play that came to Variety in late 80s/90s. Also saw another play and saw Mike Nichols/Diane Sawyer sitting in front of me. This was a theater with charm and personality. Charm and personality are foreign concepts in today’s NYC.

esheinart on May 16, 2008 at 4:24 am

Louis Sheinart, the architect of the Variety, was my great, great (maybe one more great?) uncle. I used to pass by the Variety many times when I attended the OLD Stuyvesant High School at 16th Street and 1st Avenue in the mid 1980s. Little did I know until many years later, that there was a family connection! Louis also designed several other theaters listed on this site. Unfortunately my family knows little about him, such as where he studied architecture, etc. If anyone has more information, it would be greatly appreciated! Thank you for the nice photographs and comments. I know Louis would have been proud! esheinart

Profjoe on November 28, 2007 at 10:50 pm

NYU is NOT a University. It is a real estate investment firm, of some sort. This has been true since the sixties.

As a former student then adjunct lecturer I can tell you for a fact that there is no amount of money on the planet that would let me permit any child of mine to attend it.

Furthermore, since the real estate industry is in bed with the press there is little hope of even hearing about such atrocities as the tearing down of the old Academy, Luchow’s, or the Variety.

Unless you are all willing to “take it to the streets” and fight what’s happening, it will get worse. Although I don’t know what’s left for them to destroy.

JenniferN79 on October 26, 2007 at 4:09 am

I was looking through the collection of “New York” periodicals from 1979 in my college library. At that time their was a column called “Page of Lists” and in one issue it was devoted to the longest running movie theaters. This theater was 1st on the list!

Bloop on July 3, 2007 at 6:57 am

I agree 100% with the above poster “Irv"
NYC now feels like Aaron Spelling had just dumped off thousands of his kids that just came into their trust funds…and the money is burning a hole in their pockets…. totally creepy!

br91975 on November 16, 2006 at 4:44 pm

After a long delay, construction on the ghastly apartment tower (ghastly for those who consider what happened to the Variety Theatre, in the name of creating space for yet another ‘whatever’ luxury living monolith) resumed about 2-3 weeks ago.

AlexNYC on October 6, 2006 at 11:47 pm

Just an update, they are building a huge monstrosity on the old Variety Theatre site, 20 stories high, probably another NYU dorm building. Last week there was a huge crane accident, they closed off the surrounding streets around 13 Street & 3rd Avenue, took a couple of days until they removed the all the dangers. I don’t believe anybody was seriously hurt though. What a drastic change to the neighborhood, so sad.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on May 3, 2006 at 9:45 pm

Hardbop, the Universal is listed here as MUSIC PALACE.

hardbop on May 3, 2006 at 8:54 pm

You know I had the same reaction yesterday as I was walking to Loew’s Village East to catch a film in the Tribeca Film Festival and noticed a hole in the ground where the Variety Arts Theatre used to be. I said to myself “was the VAT here or was it on Second Avenue?” Right next door is a Mission and there is a “Jesus Saves” sign on the facade. I guess he couldn’t save the VAT.

Now, here is a question for our mavens. Right before I went to the LVE I caught a documentary that the Tribeca FF screened at the Jewish Heritage Museum in Tribeca called ON THE BOWERY that has recently been restored in Italy. The doc was riveting and there was all this on-location photography of the bars, flop houses and general seediness under the old Third Avenue El. It is beyond belief to watch this and compare it to what the area looks like today with luxury condos built on site of flophouses.

The date of the doc was 1957, but it had to have been shot well before that because I thought the Third Avenue El came down earlier than 1957 but there is a shot of what looked like a theatre on the Bowery, under the El. The front, what looked like a marquee, said “Universal Photoplay.” I didn’t see it listed here under that name so it is possible it is listed, but under another name. It looked like the Variety Arts Theatre, but I didn’t know skid row went all the way up to 14th St. The El must have gone right by Variety Arts so who knows? But there was a theatre or something that looked like a theatre on the Bowery under the El called “Universal Photoplay.”

markane on April 25, 2006 at 1:54 pm

To finalize this, the building next door (home to John Belushi, when he first arrived in NYC)was torn down as well.

A 21 story condominium is in the process of being built on the site. One bedroom condos start at $850,000.00.

The neighborhood is not changing, it’s over.

Nadjariley on April 6, 2006 at 5:00 am

Hi—I’m doing research on Rat Subterranean News for an article I’m writing on underground press. I noticed that a couple of you mentioned it in your comments (Chelydra and Skank Dude)—I was wondering if you’d be willing to answer a few questions about the paper. Please contact me if so. Thank you.