As is the case with so many of New York’s favorite restaurants and venues, the West Bank Cafe and Laurie Beechman Theatre are in danger of closing permanently due to losses suffered during the continuing COVID-19 shutdown. But the resilient theater community has stepped up, with an initiative to “Save West Bank Cafe” through a GoFundMe campaign (organized by multi-award-winning producer Tom D’Angora on behalf of Janet Momjian) and a virtual telethon that will be livestreamed at noon on Christmas Day. Both are designed to raise enough funds to pay off the 2020 debt (incurred solely from the pandemic) and to cover West Bank’s rent and monthly bills for 2021, so that it can survive the coronavirus crisis until it is deemed safe for restaurants and theaters to re-open.
Located at 407 West 42nd Street, the beloved hotspot – popular with performing artists and theater-goers, Midtown locals and and tourists alike – has been a mainstay of the Hell’s Kitchen and Theater District dining, bar, and cabaret scene for 42 years, since its founding by Steve Olsen in 1978, and his subsequent opening of the 100-seat downstairs room and stage. From pre-show dinners and post-show drinks, to plays, stand-up acts, and concerts, special events and celebrations, the West Bank and the Beechman have been a go-to home-away-from-home for stars, emerging talents, and fans, where everyone feels welcome, comfortable, and a part of the family.
Originally known as the West Bank Cafe Downstairs Theater Bar, the name of the lower-level space was changed to the Laurie Beechman Theatre to honor the eponymous actress and singer (whose Broadway credits include her debut in the original cast of Annie, her Tony-nominated role as the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and her four-year run as Grizabella in Cats), after losing her battle with ovarian cancer in 1998, at the age of 44. Beechman was the daughter of Dolly Beechman Schnall, who was an important part of Philadelphia regional theater as an actress, playwright, director, teacher, and major philanthropist for decades, up until her recent passing on October 29, at 96. In addition to saving the West Bank, the funds raised will help to preserve the Beechman name and the legacy of these two highly respected women.
Among the unforgettable nights at the Beechman were Howard Stern’s third-annual live birthday broadcast, four live concerts by The Who during the Broadway run of their musical Tommy, the final show by comedian Joan Rivers, and appearances by the contestants and finalists from RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s also the place where rising stars make their NYC debut at Broadway Sessions and where the original cast of the Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George rehearsed.
Joe Iconis (Be More Chill), who has enjoyed many happy times at West Bank, including the reception for his and Lauren Marcus’s wedding in 2015, joined the fundraising effort as a producer for the telethon. Lauren told me how much the restaurant and cabaret have meant to them over the years, and shared their most cherished memory. “Besides it being home to an incredible amount of concerts and shows for Joe and me in our first several years starting out in the biz (and still home to us almost every night for dinner!),” she said, “I’m gonna go ahead and say that one of our absolute favorite memories was celebrating our wedding at the West Bank and Beechman.”
Lauren went on to explain that, “We had a small, intimate ceremony for our friends downtown, and the next night packed the place with about 200 of our loved ones. There was a giant concert downstairs – which we called the Marconis Wedding Jamboree – thrown for us by good friends Jennifer Ashley Tepper and John Simpkins. It was basically two hours of non-stop love-and-wedding-themed tunes. Joe and I did our ‘first dance’ (which was the Thurman/Travolta dance from Pulp Fiction), I surprised Joe with a tune I wrote about getting married, and then the piece that really got us ugly crying was a mashup our friend Rob Rokicki arranged of two of our original tunes. I have never laughed or cried so hard.”
For Joe, in addition to the unbeatable celebration of their wedding, “The Beechman is the place I did my first ever Iconis and Family show. It’s where I discovered my love of being a performer, where I gained a sensibility, skill set, and confidence as a performer. At the Beechman I’ve been a headliner, I’ve played in the bands of my closest friends, I’ve shared the stage with artists I (passionately) love and artists I (secretly) loathe and the only thing it’s never been was dull. On the other side of things, I’ve had so many unforgettable evenings as an audience member, it’s a little overwhelming. The room is a perfect cabaret room in that it feels simultaneously like an elegant supper club and a down ‘n’ dirty rock venue. It’s my favorite place on earth and I simply refuse to live in a New York City where the West Bank Cafe and the Laurie Beechman Theatre do not exist.”
To that end, the Christmas fundraising event will feature a full day of holiday music, stories, greetings, and more personal memories of the West Bank from a growing roster of more than 140 stage, screen, and recording stars who responded to the call. They include Nick Adams (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), Iain Armitage (Young Sheldon), Lewis Black (Comedy Central), Betty Buckley (Cats), Kerry Butler (Beetlejuice), Kevin Chamberlain (The Prom), Jackie Cox (RuPaul’s Drag Race), Megan Hilty (Wicked), Leslie Kritzer (Beetlejuice), Telly Leung (Aladdin), Debra Messing (Will & Grace), Cheri Oteri (Saturday Night Live), Martha Plimpton (Pal Joey), Ryann Redmond (Frozen), and Alice Ripley (Next to Normal), along with Iconis and Marcus, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, columnist and blogger Perez Hilton, and more.
The Save West Bank Cafe Virtual Telethon will stream on the show’s website beginning at noon on Friday, December 25 (Christmas Day). Viewing is free of charge, but voluntary donations are encouraged. To make a donation now through GoFundMe, go online.