Village Club May Face Swan Song Over Rent
By JIM DWYER
September 15, 2003
The Bottom Line, the Greenwich Village cabaret where a little-known
New Jersey guitar player named Bruce Springsteen danced across
tabletops at age 25, and where the venerable composer Aaron Copland
played piano at age 79, has fallen into a deep financial hole and is
facing eviction from the West Fourth Street corner it has occupied for
nearly 30 years.
New York University, which owns the building, says that the club owes
$185,000 in rent back to 2000, and that the school needs both the
money and the space. The university has filed papers in New York City
Civil Court seeking to take possession of the club. The case is
scheduled to be heard next week.
After three decades as the city’s premier showcase for a broad sweep
of popular music, from Miles Davis and Dolly Parton to Jerry Garcia
and Norah Jones, the club’s prospects are dire.
“It’s about to be executed,” Mark Alonso, a lawyer for the club’s
owners, said. “There’s basically 10 days or so for a reprieve. There’s
a very real possibility that this may not be salvageable — it depends
on whether the university will be flexible.”
Allan Pepper, who opened the Bottom Line in February 1974 with his
partner, Stanley Snadowsky, says that the club was scraping by in the
late 1990’s, but that business collapsed in the days and months after
the attack on the World Trade Center, two miles away. Insurance and
emergency aid provided about $50,000, which helped him cover his
payroll, taxes and utility bills. The club has paid the monthly rent
of $11,000 since June, Mr. Pepper said, adding that he is determined
to find backers who would satisfy the university and keep it going.
“They’re entitled to their rent,” Mr. Pepper said. “They’re not wrong.
We’re not looking for free lunch.”
Yet to get new backers, Mr. Pepper said, he would need to have at
least the prospect of a new lease, which the university has been
unwilling to offer.
With good reason, says a spokesman for the university, John Beckman.
He said Mr. Pepper and Mr. Snadowsky are being charged only about half
the going rate for space in the area, but even at that, could not keep
up with what they owe. The university is also being financially
squeezed, Mr. Beckman said, with contributions shrinking, wages frozen
and tuition increasing.
“No one was looking to see the Bottom Line closed,” Mr. Beckman said.
“If they had paid their rent, there wouldn’t be an issue.” He said the
university does not plan to use the space for commercial purposes and
will probably convert it to large classrooms.
The Bottom Line, with seating for 400, dwarfed an earlier generation
of Village bars, restaurants and coffeehouses that had served as
incubators for young musicians.
At the time the Bottom Line opened, the Village was fast losing any
lingering charms of its bohemian past and was sliding into a seediness
that could seem downright sinister. The club sits at the corner of
West Fourth and Mercer Streets. Just to the west, Washington Square
Park had become an open market for a rampant drug trade and
prostitution. To the east, Broadway seemed to be pocketed with
On opening night at the Bottom Line, Dr. John was joined on stage by
Stevie Wonder and Edgar Winter. Among those in the audience, Mr.
Pepper recalled, were Mick Jagger, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Charles
Mingus, John Hammond Jr., Rip Torn and Geraldine Paige. Within weeks
of its opening, the club was packed every night. Very quickly, 7,000
or 8,000 people a week were coming to Mercer Street, Mr. Pepper
recalled. Not only did the club survive the neighborhood difficulties,
While bigger than most of the older Village clubs, the Bottom Line
provided a downright cozy and less-expensive alternative to stadiums
and arenas. Even today, its ticket prices are around $20. There is no
cover or minimum. Until Mr. Snadowsky retired to Las Vegas in the
early 1990’s, both owners had been in the club nearly every night
since it opened.
A five-night run of shows by Mr. Springsteen in August 1975 still
inspires awe among those who saw them. Over the bar is a series of
color pictures of performers on the vest-pocket stage: Mr.
Springsteen, the Roche Sisters, Peter Allen, Janice Ian, Gregory
Hines, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and David Johansen. But neither echoes
nor memories can pay the bills. Mr. Pepper said his audiences tend “to
skew older.” His lawyer, Mr. Alonso, said that it might be time for
Mr. Pepper to have “reverse mentoring — young people to remind Allan
and his partner of what the market wants.”
Mr. Beckman said that officials at N.Y.U. recognized that the Bottom
Line had a long history but that it could not ask its students to
subsidize the operations of a for-profit club. “You ask, `Will closing
the Bottom Line mean the next Bruce Springsteen won’t be discovered?’
” Mr. Beckman said. “I ask, `Will keeping it open mean that the next
Albert Einstein might not get educated here?’ ”
On Saturday evening, Wishbone Ash, a British rock band popular in the
1970’s and 80’s, was performing two shows at the club. Mr. Pepper
stood on the sidewalk outside the door, and a friend arrived with a
cake to celebrate his 61st birthday.
A young woman walked up with a camera, asking Mr. Pepper to take her
picture against the club’s billboard. The woman, Yasuko Uto, 22, who
was visiting from Japan, pulled out a New York guidebook that touted
the Bottom Line for its good sight lines and diverse acts. She had
just seen the first show. “I did not know the band, but it was great,
and I really enjoyed the atmosphere,” Ms. Uto said.
Standing in line for the late show were Ken and Marla Levine of
Westchester, alumni of many Bottom Line performances. Mr. Levine, 47,
recalled an evening when Talking Heads opened for Bryan Ferry. “That
may not top Springsteen, but that was as big as it gets in what was
then New Wave and British avant-garde,” Mr. Levine said. “There was a
night when Peter Gabriel played, a freezing February night, and people
were lined up halfway down Mercer Street. Had to be 20, 22 years ago.”
Mr. Levine said that with the passage of years and the arrival of
children, it was harder to get into the city for an evening out. “I
wanted to get to the early show, but we couldn’t work it out,” Mr.
“Now we’re falling asleep,” said Mrs. Levine.
To bring in younger crowds, the club has paired up with WFUV, the
public radio station at Fordham University, to sponsor nights of new
music, Mr. Pepper said. He is proud to have run what he called “a
mom-and-pop” operation without corporate backing for so long, and sees
irony that during the 1980’s, N.Y.U. used the presence of the Bottom
Line on its campus in student recruiting materials.
Mr. Pepper sees the viability of the club as standing for something
larger than the cash flow of one business. His older crowds, he says,
are worried about mortgages, college tuition, their own safety. “We
deal with an audience that has become very much aware of their own
mortality,” Mr. Pepper said. “In the long run and big picture, as
every other small business in this city after Sept. 11th, our future
is directly related to people’s sense of well-being, which at this
moment in time is very tentative.”