The wreckers are set to fall on another piece of Times Square history.
301 West 46th Street is a decayed 19th-century tenement on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue. It has been vacant for years, awaiting development that only now, with the presence of scaffolding, looms as imminent. In the 1920s the building housed a speakeasy that, as evidenced by the few accounts describing it, catered to patrons with a taste for the outré. Journalist Stanley Walker’s marvelous 1933 book, The Night Club Era, contains the following tantalization, part of a list of speakeasies vanished in the wake of Prohibition’s repeal:
The strange place in Forty-Sixth Street, in the basement, called the Cave of the Fallen Angels.
On April 14, 1926 The Cave of the Fallen Angels numbered among some 42 New York State nightlife establishments shuttered by Prohibition agents as part of US Attorney Emory R. Buckner’s much-touted “padlock campaign.”
“The Cave of the Fallen Angels,” explained the New York Times in its coverage of the padlocking, “is a night club said to be patronized chiefly by Russian artists and visited occasionally by Russian nobility.” The interior, according to another Times mention, from 1924, was the brainchild of Soudeikine (aka Serge Sudeikin), esteemed designer for the Ballets Russes and the Metropolitan Opera, who would later, in 1935, create sets for the original production of Porgy and Bess.
Things were quiet for 301 West 46th Street over the next several decades, but they heated up again around 1965, when entrepreneur-wunderkind Steve Paul reopened the basement space as The Scene, soon to become one of the great nightclubs of the 60s rock era.
From a description of The Scene quoted on the excellent rock website, It’s All the Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago, it seems likely that Steve Paul adapted Soudeikine’s layout and design for his new venture. Jim Marron, the Scene’s former maitre d’, describes the space as being “like a Paris disco, in that it was a cave-style. It had three rooms that focused in, like, a cross on the stage…” Others characterize The Scene as “mazelike,” and as a “bizarre network of brick walled cellar rooms and passageways.”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience performed its first NYC gigs at The Scene. Linda Eastman (the future Linda McCartney) started there as a band photographer. Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, and Liza Minnelli were regulars, helping establish The Scene as an “in” place to be long before Studio 54. Always forward-thinking, Steve Paul used the club to promote up-and-coming acts such as The Doors, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, and a ukulele-strumming Tiny Tim. Owner Paul was as snobbish in determining who got in as he was catholic in his musical taste: one week those lucky enough to be granted admission might hear “Born to Be Wild” rockers Steppenwolf, the next Slim Harpo, southern harp player known for his swampy R&B hit, “Baby, Scratch My Back.” In this way, The Scene presaged the musical eclecticism of current spots such as City Winery and Joe’s Pub.
The Scene closed some time around 1969. Steve Paul, who had worked previously as a press representative for the Peppermint Lounge (early 60s home of the Twist), went on to found Blue Sky Records. He died in 2012, three years after his longtime partner, Robert Kitchen.
I’ve often observed how buildings given over to porn-related business “fall off the map” in the eyes of the public. Once the main floor of 301 West 46th became an X-rated DVD parlor, the whole building’s identity – along with whatever of cultural and historical significance might have taken place in the basement – seemed to go with it. Now, it is just another “last vestige” of Times Square blight about to disappear. Since it will no longer be able to offer a window into its own story, those who remember Steve Paul’s The Scene will, I hope, perpetuate memories, as long as they can, of the great art and music that went on inside.
Special thanks to Louis Brown, of L. Brown Recording, Inc., for making me aware of The Scene and its history.