Webster Hall, Reborn: Inside the Renovation of the Iconic New York Venue: Exclusive
With only days away from its high profile grand reopening, the iconic New York venue Webster Hall, which has been closed for renovations since August 2017, is bustling with activity.
“Before we go too far inside, the first thing to point out is a new entrance right off the street,” says Keith Sheldon, executive vp of programming at BSE Global and one of the masterminds behind the rebirth of the space. Milling around the brand new entryway on Manhattan’s 11th St., workers are putting the finishing touches on what was a massive refurbishment of the famed East Village space. Nearby sit stacks of boxes filled with final supplies, and on the wall, newly-installed television screens covered in protective plastic wait to be powered up. Elsewhere, a gaggle of artist representatives tour the space, marveling at the revamp.
“Agents and managers are seeing it for the the first time this week, and the reactions have been outstanding,” says John Moore, Bowery Presents partner and founder. “From the day we started, industry response has been through the roof.”
After BSE Global and The Bowery Presents (and Bowery’s parent company AEG) acquired the operating rights for and assets of Webster Hall in February 2017, New Yorkers reacted to the news with incredulity: Webster, an independent venue, was now destined to be yet another Big Apple landmark swallowed up, unrecognizably altered and irrevocably corporatized.
But luckily for longtime fans of the venue, the project to renovate the space wasn’t done from a faraway corporate office, but under the tutelage of previous longtime Webster fans and clubgoers who fully understood the club’s lore.
That includes Moore, who booked the venue’s artists from 2004 to 2014. (Bowery Presents previously had an exclusive booking deal with the venue’s former private owners, the Ballinger family.) Moore himself has attended countless shows. “It was important to keep the original flavor of the space 100 percent, as much as possible,” he explains. Brett Yormark, CEO of BSE Global, echoes those sentiments, emphasizing the team was deliberate in their approach. “We wanted to ensure that we were true to the spirit and the history of the venue," Yormark says. "There are many traditions and characteristics we maintained, while other aspects have been contemporized to adapt to today’s standards.”
As such, bridging the tricky gap of preserving the vibe of Webster Hall while updating it for future generations influenced nearly every decision. Perhaps one of the biggest changes is a revamped lounge that originally served as the Marlin Room. Aesthetically toeing a line between modern and throwback -- the design on the wall was inspired by original patterns elsewhere in the building -- it now lives as a massive room that greets visitors off the street with a large bar, which itself is accented repurposed fluted glass windows taken from other locations in the building. “If people want to have a drink before the show, this is a great space for that,” says Sheldon, who notes tentative plans to have the bar open before attendees are let into the Grand Ballroom on some nights.
Another notable change is the elimination of the Marlin Room at Webster Hall as a performance space, which sometimes clashed with the overall atmosphere. "There’d be an '80s dance party downstairs and someone like [the tender singer-songwriter] Ray LaMontagne upstairs," says Moore of the switch.
Now, the newly singular focus is on the venue’s Grand Ballroom. Aesthetically similar to the Webster of the past, it’s been outfitted with a state-of-the-art sound and lighting rig. “We wanted to stay true to the sound that people know and love here, but also add some enhancements to make the experience that much better,” says Sheldon, who brought a bevy of expert acousticians in to meet the challenge, working with Arup and Sonic Designs. “We wanted to make sure this is the best-sounding room in the city.” The team also worked with BML-Blackbird on lighting enhancements, which still utilize some of the original rig.
Elsewhere inside, the team used their own experiences at Webster to fix previous fallbacks: a bar was shifted from center to stage right to prevent crowd bottlenecks and improve sightlines on the Grand Ballroom’s balcony; an elevator was installed to make each floor handicap accessible; and existing bathrooms were modernized with additional facilities. Webster’s dressing rooms also boast a complete upgrade inspired by Moore’s run as the venue’s booker. “We originally had only two tiny rooms and it was brutal,” recalls Moore, who made expanding dressing rooms to please even the most extravagant artist rider a priority. “They weren’t intentionally bad before, but we just needed more space.”
For Webster Hall, it was the very first soup-to-nuts renovation in the building’s long history. First opened in 1886, the venue was initially designed to be utilized for everything from weddings to labor union rallies. Meetings of the defense team of the legendary 1920s-era immigrant court case against Sacco and Vanzetti took place at Webster, and anti-fascist configurations were held in the space during World War II. Simultaneously, the venue was also known for its famed masquerade balls which attracted the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes, and garnered such a debaucherous reputation that Webster earned the dubious moniker in the press of Devil’s Playhouse.
After a series of fires plagued the building and the wild bashes came to an end, the venue continued as a performance space -- early acts include Woody Guthrie and Tito Puente -- and, in 1953, RCA Records took it over and turned it into the first-of-its-kind polyphonic recording studio. “Their smaller studios couldn’t fit huge orchestras,” says Sheldon. “So musicians would perform in the Grand Ballroom and it’d be piped down into the basement where it was recorded.” The original cast albums for Hello Dolly! (with Carol Channing) and Fiddler on the Roof were cut at Webster, as were seminal records by the likes of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. In the fall of 1955, Harry Belafonte recorded his classic “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” at the venue, and later enlisted a young troubadour named Bob Dylan to play harmonica for his 1962 album Midnight Special, thus making Webster the site of Dylan’s recording debut.
By the 1980s, the venue went through another change: it dropped its Webster moniker and was subsequently known as The Ritz, making it a pop and rock mecca for the glam decade that hosted stars including Lou Reed, the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Once the Ritz era came to a close, the venue reopened once again under its original name in 1992 when it was purchased by the Ballinger family and hosted memorable events including special sets by Prince and Mick Jagger and a slumber party courtesy of Madonna. In later years, the club made headlines thanks to a non-performance courtesy of Kanye West.
With all that in mind, when Webster Hall greets the public again for the first time tonight (April 26), there will be subtle hints to its history peppered around the space: 80s-era show posters are plastered backstage, while the original Ritz logo adorns the outside of the aforementioned revamped lounge. “We also found one unique piece under the floorboards of the stage,” says Sheldon, referring to massive, wall-sized Italian-language poster for the 1956 Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean classic Giant. While its origins are murky -- perhaps the film’s score was recorded at Webster, or maybe its New York premiere held its after party there -- it’s now on proud display after being hidden in plain sight for a half century. “On one hand it’s not specific to Webster Hall, but it is to us.”
A new era of performers will soon usher in the latest iteration of Webster Hall, with its initial calendar aptly full of New York City luminaries ranging from Patti Smith to a full-day event thanks to Vampire Weekend.
"When we first open up the room, we knew we had to have an iconic artist,” says Sheldon, referring to Jay Z, who will become the venue’s first performer when he delivers a special show consisting of B-Sides tonight. “We thought it was a natural extension to bring him into the fold at Webster Hall and have him reintroduce the venue.”
Jay Marciano, the chairman/CEO of AEG Presents, notes that one of Webster’s goals is to book a dynamic mix of artists. “Beginning on Friday night with Jay-Z and continuing with an eclectic line-up of artists throughout its opening month, it’s now up to our guests to decide if we achieved all that set out to accomplish,” he said. Yormark, meanwhile, is quick to note the gargantuan task to bring Webster Hall into the current age was also a worthy one. “When I was first made aware that there could be an opportunity to acquire Webster Hall, I knew it was something we had to make happen,” he says. “[Especially] given how special the venue is to both this city and the music industry.”