When Howard Otway bought the Theatre 80 in St. Marks in the 1960s, he had little inkling of what secrets lay within. Once a movie house specializing in showing classic films, and now a lovely, well appointed neighborhood theatre, the building had a storied history he had barely discovered.
Renovating the theatre in 1964 Otway found a bunker-like maze of tunnels in the basement, including two safes. He called in a safe cracker to find $2,000,000 in gold certificates, unfortunately expired. As it turned out his theatre was once a thriving clandestine speakeasy ran by the previous owner and gangster, Walter Sheib.
In its day, entrance to the secret club was gained from the butcher shop around the corner on 1st Avenue. There was once an elevated railroad with a station right at the corner of 1st and St. Marks, and with all the crowds of passengers, those in search of an illegal cocktail could slip into the butchers shop unseen. At the back of the shop was a tunnel which led between the buildings and into the backstage of the dancehall. The butcher shop is now an Afghan restaurant, but the building’s windows still sag from the lack of foundations, caused by the tunnels.
Today the theatre is owned by Otway’s son Lorcan. As well as the theatre, he has converted two rooms upstairs into a lovely little museum dedicated to the gangsters who owned and operated the speakeasy and many others like it across the country. On display are one of the cracked safes, bullets recovered from the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, moonshine stills, and medicinal prohibition whiskey. Entrance to the museum comes with a tour through the theatre and down into the basement tunnels as well.
Down in the basement there are still the original telephones that ran between the speakeasy and the warehouse where the illegal booze was stored. Also on display is a complex series of wires, showing where Walter Scheib had rigged up the building with explosives, so in the event of a raid, he could detonate all the evidence!
The theatre also includes a bar, The William Barnacle Tavern, where intrepid Gangster enthusiasts can begin and end their tour with one of the most complete ranges of absinthe available in the city.
It’s estimated that in the height of prohibition there were over 30,000 speakeasies in the city, and this is one of the authentic ones still left. A charming character, Lorcan Otway has done a brilliant job in preserving this hidden gem tucked away in the East Village.