When Little Shop of Horrors reopens at Westside Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen this evening, the cast will be treading in the footsteps of a 19th-century pastor who influenced John Lewis and Martin Luther King and the irreligious owners of America’s “first totally uninhibited gay discotheque” (one of whom was brutally murdered).
The Westside Theatre at 407 W43rd Street, just west of 9th Avenue, was originally the Second German Baptist Church. Construction started on the building in 1889 (and it opened in April 1890). The church had been established back in 1855, in a Hell’s Kitchen that was then less urban and semi-rural. The original place of worship was on W45th Street — but when the Reverend Walter Rauschenbusch took over the ministry in 1885, he set to work to improve the life of his 125 parishioners (mostly German immigrants working in factories) and build a new church.
He was helped along the way by a friend of his father, John D. Rockefeller, who donated $8,000 to the building, which was constructed for a total of $25,000. The cornerstone, which is still visible at the theater, says “Christus der Eckstein” translated as Christ is the Cornerstone.
In Hell’s Kitchen, the pastor confronted unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, disease, and crime. “Oh, the children’s funerals! they gripped my heart,” he later wrote. “That was one of the things I always went away thinking about — why did the children have to die?”
We spoke to his great-grandson Paul Raushenbush (the American side of the family “dropped the ‘cs’ in the early 1900s), who is following the family tradition as a Baptist minister in New York. “Walter was always hard of hearing. Then in March 1888, there was one of the worst blizzards in American history. It killed more than 400 people, dumping as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas. He tried to minister to his congregation. It was a real turning point. He got very, very sick and totally lost his hearing,” he said.
Rauschenbusch continued in his Hell’s Kitchen work and was driven to fight for social justice. He wanted to care for the needs of his people — not just their souls. Eventually, through ill health, he took a senior role at Rochester Theological Seminary. There, he wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis — which became a best-seller at the time, with 50,000 copies sold and 10 reprints.
Martin Luther King Jr referenced the work of Rauschenbusch and the book, saying: “His writings left an indelible imprint on my thinking.”
His great-grandson, who has also taken on the job of family historian, says that you have to be careful not to overplay the influence of Rauschenbusch on King. However, he recalls interviewing statesman and civil rights activist John Lewis for a project when he worked as a journalist. “At the end of the interview, Lewis told me: ‘I just want to take this opportunity to say how important your great-grandfather was for me, and for Martin and for all of us in the movement’.”
When Rauschenbusch left the red brick and brownstone church, life continued — but the congregation dwindled. In April 1933, the church still had a mortgage of $16,000 on the property.
At some point in the 1960s, the church was sold to be used as a nightclub. Arnie Lord converted the building into a club called initially named “The Church”, but the New York City Department of Buildings would not grant a permit unless the name was changed, hence the discotheque was opened as “Sanctuary” in 1969.
The concept was created by a Liberian named Francois Massaquoi, who was in the city to study economics at NYU. Massaquoi later went back to his country to become Minister of Youth and Sports and was shot and killed during their civil war in 2001 while delivering aid in a helicopter. His concept was very irreligious. There was a purple, wooden statue of satan at the top of the stairs when you entered the club and the space was covered with a mural of demons making love to angels.
Peter Shapiro, the author of Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco said: “The sex wasn’t confined to the dance floor, nor was it confined to simulation. There were constant orgies in the toilets, and the club would be eventually closed down in 1972 because its patrons regularly used the hallways of neighboring buildings for impromptu ‘bump’ sessions.”
In their book, Last Night a DJ Saved my Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton describe the Sanctuary as “poured full of newly liberated gay men, then shaken (and stirred) by a weighty concoction of dance music and pharmacoia of pills and potions, the result is a festival of carnality.” They also described it as “the first totally uninhibited gay discotheque in America.”
The club was a backdrop for the 1971 movie Klute starring Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels (her apartment in the film was a few doors down at 441 W43rd Street) and Donald Sutherland as Detective John Klute. Celebrities from astronaut Neil Armstrong to Rita Hayworth, Liza Minnelli to Roman Polanski came to Sanctuary.
Many remember DJ Francis Grasso, who pioneered the use of twin decks spinning vinyl at the club. Grasso invented the technique of beatmatching — now called mixing. “I was at Sanctuary every Friday and Saturday night. Five bucks a night to get in was a lot in those days. I didn’t know anything about mixing, all I knew was that Francis was a God and that organ was his pulpit and that the music was always amazing,” recalled Marc Chancer.
From the start, the club caused controversy. The 43rd Street Block Association had lists of complaints. The legal capacity of the club was 346 people, but more than 1,000 per night crammed the space. The DJ booth was on the marble communion altar, backed by the organ pipes. On a good weekend, the Sanctuary would net $4,000 a night — a fortune back then.
By 1972, the club was run by Seymour Seiden and Shelly Bloom (real name Allan Gold). New York Magazine reported that “Sanctuary closed in 1972 by order of the State Supreme Court for being ‘a supermarket in drugs’ — this after 33 drug busts in three nights. Seiden’s partner at the time, Shelly Bloom, was found murdered two weeks before the closing in his Gramercy Park bathroom — one bullet hole in his stomach, one in his chest, his head bashed in.”
The Village Voice reported on the killing of Bloom: “According to police, robbery was not the motive — $14,500 was found in the apartment, plus an assortment of expensive jewelry. Behind the walls of the former church Sanctuary, the department discovered the workings of a stolen car operation. It discovered stolen credit cards and counterfeit money.” Seiden had alleged ties to the Genovese crime family.
From 1973, the church became a Methadone clinic for a short while, before changing use again, this time becoming a theater.
On October 17, 1973, The Contractor by David Storey became the first play produced at the then renamed Chelsea Westside Theatre. From 1981 until 1990, the theater went under the name The Westside Arts Theatre.
The Westside Theatre, as it is known today, was renovated and opened in 1991 under the management of Reno Productions Inc. It’s become a popular off-Broadway theater with two auditoriums. The Vagina Monologues played there for three years from 1996.
When the pandemic hit in March last year, Little Shop of Horrors was playing. It will reopen this evening (Tuesday, September 21) at 7pm.
The Hell’s Kitchen area that Walter Rauschenbusch worked to reform has changed. However, his name and work still carry on at the Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, three blocks away on W40th Street — continuing to “encourage the social, educational, spiritual, and economic growth of the community”.
When Rauschenbusch wrote his most influential book, he thanked the “plain people who were my friends” in Hell’s Kitchen. “I have written this book to discharge a debt. For eleven years I was pastor among the working people on the West Side of New York City. I shared their life as well as I then knew, and used up the early strength of my life in their service. In recent years my work has been turned into other channels, but I have never ceased to feel that I owe help to the plain people who were my friends. If this book in some far-off way helps to ease the pressure that bears them down and increases the forces that bear them up, I shall meet the Master of my life with better confidence,” said the pastor in his foreword.
Thanks to Tom Miller at Daytonian in Manhattan who provided a starting point for our research on the Westside Theatre’s history.
As the first pandemic lockdown loosened in May 2020, Paul Raushenbush wrote a short post about his journey uptown. We reproduce it here:
New York City is waiting to open. You can feel it, like a Night Club, 30 minutes before showtime and there is nobody there, no velvet rope, no fab doorkeeper, no sign of life but a bar back who had just brought out the last of last night’s trash. New York is opening! It’s happening May 15, May 30, June 15, it’s opening, it’s opening. It’s construction, it’s restaurants with tables in the street, it’s curbside service, it’s… we don’t know what it’s going to be, and for now, it’s not yet.
Streets are populated with a few eyes blinking over masks, but blocks and blocks are empty of the human floods that until recently swamped nearby neighborhoods. I fill in the absence with visions from my former self, remembering a city with a glow of recognition and gratitude. I jump on a bike and head down towards the village, see the sign for Christopher Street, and turn down memory lane. The empty street fills with the bodies alive when I arrived in ’89, fabulous with fists in the air, marching down to the piers where a parade stomped up and down.
I turn up towards the meatpacking district and ride past the naughty bar where I first met Brad, now a ghostly clothing store with saint in its name. The bricks of the empty street invite me to remember nights at Cafe Florent, or a daytime Bastille Day celebration and a guillotine that gave us a laugh. Turning the corner to 14th Street and Washington, I pass the empty store where once there was a club where I was a doorman on Friday nights, where I made friendly with the ladies of the night and the boys with Jersey plates who loved them.
On Tuesdays, Jackie 60 took over the space, memorable for those of us who can remember, for being a font of every creative downtown event that mattered, at least for a moment. In the last 10, or so years, the whole area has become a tourist fantasy, with shoppes and restaurants filling what were holes in the city, where invention could thrive well hidden. Now it is empty and dark again, waiting to see what memories will guide its future.
Up I go, called to a different nightclub, on 43rd and 9th, one that was first opened in the 1960s as Church, then in the 70s changed its name to Sanctuary. The place was a bacchanalia for gay men seeking freedom and a sweaty place to dance and other activities. It was so outrageous that the righteous religious persons shut it down, and now it is a theater where a Little Shop of Horrors is dark now, and it’s not sure if the show will ever go on. The nightclub, the theater, all take place in a building that has deeper memories of my great-grandfather’s church, built in 1889, for the 2nd German Baptist Church. Sermons preached, bass booming, audiences applauding and nobody there now knows what the other was or will be. The city is opening, what city, whose music, what show, what God?
Just a few blocks away is a small Baptist church that flies the rainbow flag that signals welcome and serves the needs of the community with clothes, food, and all those things that Jesus believed in. It includes the name of the same great-grandfather, who would undoubtedly be pleased.
I ride back down, and stop along the Hudson, next to the merry-go-round that has stopped whirling, to watch the sun go down. As the light fades, New York is brilliantly lit with pinks and purples, made possible by the disappearance of the glaring sun as the world whirls round. But then even colors fade, before it goes dark and we wait for the new day and what opening it might bring.