Since last summer, the Mercer Arts Center, a theater complex at 240 Mercer Street, between Third and Bleecker, had become the New York Dolls' live-performance home. It was started in 1970 by the theatrical producer and off-Broadway pioneer Gene Frankel, who set up shop on two floors of the crumbling Broadway Central Hotel building with his partner Seymour C. Kaback – an engineering consultant who was the silent partner in another multiroom venue around the corner on Bleecker Street, Art D'Lugoff's Village Gate (where Bob Dylan wrote "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," in an apartment in the club's basement). The Mercer was primarily a theater space. It made its mark in '71 with a revival of the '65 Broadway production of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a play whose theme of inmates taking over the asylum seemed fitting for the place. Another early hit was Tubstrip, which was advertised as a "new play with all male cast . . . better than a trip to the baths."
The site itself had a storied past in the city's arts world. In the fall of 1850, the opera singer Jenny Lind – "the Swedish Nightingale" – had a historic fifteen-show run, arranged by her manager, P. T. Barnum, at Tripler Hall in the Lafarge House Hotel, which occupied the same foot-print as the Mercer. In the 1860s it was the Winter Garden theater, hosting a legendary hundred-performance run of Hamlet with the renowned thespian Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth (whose assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 made Edwin's life very difficult; he subsequently required a police escort to get through the hotel lobby to his dressing room so that he wouldn't be assaulted).
The Winter Garden burned down in 1869, and the hotel expanded, eventually renaming itself the Broadway Central. It saw lots of action. The Wall Street shyster and playboy James Fisk was shot dead on the grand stairway in 1872 by a jealous suitor over the affections of a show-girl. In the Gay '90s, Diamond Jim Brady partied hard in the hotel's restaurants. A bit later, one of the hotel's eateries – Trotsky's Kosher Restaurant – was allegedly a fave of a Russian visitor of the same name, the gentleman known, pre-Revolution, as Lev Bronstein.
For their venue, Frankel and Kaback divided two floors in the Broadway Central (then functioning more or less as a welfare residence called the University Hotel) into seven small theaters. The Dolls usually played on the second floor in either the Oscar Wilde cabaret or – as they had for the New Year's Eve gig – the slightly larger O'Casey, which had tiered seating for three hundred or so people. They'd grown a good-sized following, and word was out; at one show, as legend has it, the seventy-one-year-old actress Marlene Dietrich – a fan of drag balls back in Weimar-era Berlin – turned up with some friends one night to check them out.
But it had been a nightmarish few months for the Dolls. In November, their drummer, Billy Murcia, died during their debut British tour after mixing champagne and Mandrax (the British brand name for methaqualone, the popular sedative/aphrodisiac/date-rape drug sold in the United States as Quaalude). The "friends" who attempted to revive the unconscious Murcia – killing time between gigs without his band-mates – heaved him into a filled bathtub and poured black coffee down his throat, quite possibly drowning him, and proving once again that serious drug users should study basic EMS.
Murcia's replacement, Jerry Nolan, joined the band just weeks before the New Year's gig. He was a fairly seasoned musician – he played with Queen Elizabeth, among other local acts. But his debut with the Dolls, the early show at the Mercer on December 19th, was a debacle of missed cues. Doubly unfortunate, it was in front of a room full of bizzers looking to sign the band. "That night we blew it fucking big," said Syl Sylvain. "Every major record company passed on us."
At the late show, however, after Ahmet Ertegun and the other industry folks left, the band played an awesome set. "Dolls are the new Rolling Stones," Patrick Carr typed breathlessly for his column in the Voice. "Dolls are the best New York City band in a decade."
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