If you’ve ever walked across East 4th Street, you’ve probably noticed the half-dozen theaters and entertainment venues between Bowery and 2nd Avenue like La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, the Duo Multicultural Arts Center, and the Kraine Theater. You probably walked right past this innocuous building near 2nd Avenue.
The discreet door, gated during the day, reveals only a hand-painted “82” at night. You’d never think there were any secrets lurking around here. But you’d be wrong.
82 East 4th Street has been offering clandestine entertainment since the cops raided a “dripping-wet” speakeasy called the Rainbow Inn in 1930. The Inn offered revues until 1953, when club impressario Stephen Franse moved into the space to create Club 82. Franse previously operated a gay-friendly cabaret called Club 181 beneath the Yiddish Arts Theatre at 2nd and 12th until he lost his liquor license.
For over a decade, Franse operated the biggest drag show in America, though it was still pretty hush-hush. 35 female impersonators strutted their stuff three times a night at 10:30, 12:30, and 2:30 under the direction of Kitt Russell, “America’s top femme mimic” according to Walter Winchell. Lesbians in mens’ clothing bounced and waited tables. While most of the performers were gay, the customers were largely adventurous heterosexual elites looking for a little ribald good fun; Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, and Judy Garland to name just a few. Some even got in on the act – Errol Flynn once walked up to a piano and started tickling the ivories with his penis. Adult magazines like Man to Man and Wink raved, “To some it may be confusin’ – but it’s always amusin’!”
Well, not always amusing. Stephen Franse had a dangerous business partner – mob boss Vito Genovese. Like many mobsters, Genovese financed Village gay bars, which were prevented from obtaining legitimate funding due to homophobic laws and social stigmas. Genovese took full advantage of that fact, using Club 82 to launder money, blackmail clients, and stash heroin in the basement. He also installed his second wife Anna as the manager and co-owner. Anna was a known lesbian (or bisexual, stories differ), which didn’t bother Vito in the least. He even bumped off her first husband when she couldn’t obtain a divorce, which is…kind of sweet?
But in 1953, Anna asked for a divorce. Unsurprisingly, Vito refused. It was a big mistake. Anna went to the feds and disclosed Vito’s drug smuggling operation running beneath Club 82. Vito was furious. Not with Anna, but with Franse, who he’d left in charge of keeping Anna quiet during the divorce proceedings. On June 20th, 1953, Franse left his club at 4:30 a.m. Five hours later, police found his corpse stuffed in the back seat of his car, beaten to a pulp.
Club 82 lost much of its cache in the 1960s as Village homosexuals grew more focused on fighting for their rights than in titillating straight customers. By the early 1970s, a pair of lesbians the size of linebackers ran the bar, Tommy and Butchie, who spoke through a hole in her throat. It was around this time that Club 82 took on new life as a nexus for glam rockers. The New York Dolls, the Stilettos, and a pre-Blondie Debbie Harry all performed here. Lou Reed met his transgender lover Rachel there, and David Bowie probably hooked up too. Here’s a performance by the New York Dolls in 1974.
Club 82 closed for good in 1978. For a while, 82 East 4th was considered for the new home of Gerdes Folk City, the West Village club where Bob Dylan played his first New York gig, but the deal folded in 1987. Ron Wood opened a club called Woody’s in 1990, but that didn’t last more than a year.
Since then, the basement has been an on-again-off-again unmarked gay porn theater called the Bijou. It’s not technically a porn theater, since the main theater shows artsy features or second-run Hollywood films. But like Times Square porn theaters of the 60s and 70s, the real draw is the row of private booths used as cruising spots. (Here’s a great article about it on Bedford + Bowery.) Historic forces have all but wiped porn theaters off the face of Manhattan (AIDS, Giuliani, the internet, and the Disneyfication of Times Square to name just a few), which makes the Bijou all the more miraculous. In a city quick to forget it’s gritty history, the Bijou lurks in the shadows, a throwback to a seedier, sexier New York.
TODAY: The Bijou Theatre