For 131 years, Webster Hall has hosted some of the world’s biggest musical acts. Today it closes its doors– at least until it reopens under new ownership, sold in a deal worth an estimated $35 million.
The space, with a maximum capacity of 2,500 people, served as a nightclub, concert venue, corporate events space, and recording studio.
It will reopen in either 2019 or 2020 as the newly christened Spectrum Hall, its space restricted to concerts and sporting events.
I received the phone call in early May. A friend of mine told me management had served all Webster Hall employees with termination notices.
True, it had been a couple of years since I’d set foot in the venue, but a part of me heaved a pained sigh for yet another victim of the city’s changing landscape, for the many dances I’d shared with fellow miscreants who streamed into the place, their wrists ablaze with the shades of kandi bracelets and multi-colored fluffies.
I remembered the faces of the girls I kissed as vividly as I recalled those of the men I kissed– or shyly didn’t kiss. I recoiled at the memory of the crappy wage I made at the time, of the overpriced drinks, the even more overpriced water bottles, a precious commodity in a space that scorched with summer heat even in midwinter.
The people I met there ran the gamut, from frat bros with cockeyed grins, to scene kids with more gumption than me, roadsters who surveyed groups of three or more, code switching and peddling ketamine all the while.
Mirrored behavior existed on the far more spacious dance floor at Amazura Concert Hall in Queens or the even more cramped Electric Warehouse in Brooklyn, and the East Village had long given way to millennial kink, this host of music, bodies, motion, and silent exchanges in bathroom stalls.
“Webster had that old-time New York grunge that made you feel like you were part of the 19th century, in the sense that "fun" could easily involve trying to locate your stolen purse/phone,” says Michael Yates, formerly of Harlem and now living in Los Angeles.
“I'll miss it. I'm sure the new version of the inside will look fantastic and modern and have a pleasant aroma. Old style Webster Hall was my first immersion into NYC's EDM scene at the time. It was a place that was magical in the dark, probably because it would look awful when illuminated by sunlight.”
The venue, Yates continues, is a “perfect example” of New York City’s infrastructure. “We all know it needs to be made modern and be revamped, by God, but part of its old time awfulness makes it New York,” he says. To put things more bluntly: “What will people talk about when the subway is great?”
And it was awful at times, this heaving monolith, a New York City landmark with rowdy crowds, rickety stairs, and many a tale of wild nights spent in the dark.
But history bloomed all around us, even in our clouded rear-views.
Originally commissioned by Charles Goldstein, who devoted himself to the hall’s operations and lived in the Annex with his family until his death in 1898, the building played host to labor union rallies, weddings, meetings, and lectures.
Although members of New York’s high society congregated at the hall for one reason or another, the space quickly became known as a gathering place for socialist and anarchist groups. In 1916, for example, the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union used the hall as its strike headquarters.
The hall became known for its lively masquerade balls and social events through the following decade, and local authorities were said to turn a blind eye to alcohol sales in the wake of Prohibition. On a tragic note, the hall regularly fell victim to fires, which it did in 1902, 1911, 1930, 1938, and 1949.
Another cultural shift in the 1950s brought the likes of folk artist Woody Guthrie and Latin singer Tito Puente to the hall, and vocal talent also flourished under its roof. Carol Channing recorded Hello, Dolly! in the studio; Julie Andrews’ lent her voice to the studio more than once, as well. Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley: You name it, they were there.
M, another longtime resident of the neighborhood and self-identified “grandmother of four,” recalls seeing Harry Belafonte perform in the 1960s. “He was a firecracker up there,” she says. “Still is, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Then another shift took place.
“I used to frequent so many of Webster’s live music events,” says one wistful longtime resident of the East Village who agreed to speak to spoiled NYC on condition of anonymity. “Modest Mouse and Green Day were my favorites, but when you think of the wide array of genres on display there over the years, from Metallica’s ‘scream-o’ to Madonna, how can you not appreciate that? It’s an institution. I still think about the club nights. So many great memories.”
On a less thrilled note, this individual opines, “I saw Hillary Clinton speak in 2000 when she was first gunning for the Senate. I was so proud. Still am, all things considered.”
We linger over this for a moment, but only for a moment. It dawns on me that the extent of my experience might not qualify me to write a farewell letter to Webster, however I may cherish the memories. When I share this, I’m given a reassuring pat on the back. “You experienced it, didn’t you? We’re not in a contest to see who can be the best steward to the community.”
We mull over this, too, but for considerably longer.
My subject chuckles when I tell him of my last visit to the hall, in June 2015 for a Clean Bandit concert. “They’re okay,” they tell me with a wink, chuckling when I mention that I had tagged along with a friend. “The spontaneity of it, that was the best part, wasn’t it?”
“Of course it was,” they say. “It always was.”[Feature Image Courtesy Panoramio]