At 100 Third Avenue, buried within a row of low-level 19th century houses and tenements just southeast of Union Square (between 12th and 13th Streets), sits one of Manhattan’s oldest entertainment relics, the former Sans Souci.
As a site devoted to various forms of popular entertainment, 100 Third Avenue lasted for more than 120 years. From the 1870s to 90s it was known as Blank’s Winter Garden, a smaller version of the popular Atlantic Garden on the lower Bowery (a portion of which also survives today and which I discuss extensively in Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville). Blank’s was a combined saloon and concert hall with vaudeville performers, a popular spot for Tin Pan Alley songwriters and publishers seeking to “plug” their latest compositions. In his fascinating memoir, They All Sang (1934), music publisher Edward B. Marks describes making the rounds at Blank’s:
“It was a quiet spot in the backwash of bright-lighted Fourteenth Street, where a girl could steer a bloke for a serious talk. Blank, the owner, called it a family resort, but they were not the first families. There were always a few acts working here that would otherwise have been laying off, and they were glad to get fifteen dollars a week. Needing something new to help them catch on in the big time, they were always ready to try new material. That, and its proximity to the popular center, made Blank’s a good plug” (p. 9-10).
As Marks suggests, Blank’s was never considered a top-tier entertainment resort. But it was at precisely these kinds of places that our popular music culture was born. In those days (before the advent of radio), songwriters needed easy access to vaudeville performers in order to popularize their work – and they got them at Blank’s.
Marks also intimates that Blank’s, as a recreational establishment, skirted the bounds of respectability. Governmental forces certainly thought so. During the 1891 hearings of the Fassett senatorial committee, established (like the Lexow Committee several years later) to investigate vice and police corruption, a police captain was grilled about Blank’s and what he might have seen there:
“Q: Have you ever heard of Blank’s place, 100 Third Avenue?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: What have you heard about it as to its character?
A: Somewhat mixed.
Q: What do you mean by somewhat mixed?
A: Respectable and women of doubtful character both go there.”
Then, the captain offers a wonderful summation of why places like Blank’s were so popular, and the role they played within the larger social fabric of the city:
“…I will say this, that a place where there is cheap, good music people go there and enjoy it that can’t go to the Metropolitan Opera House, respectable people go there with their families; the doors are open to anybody that comes along, and I have seen women of doubtful character go in and out of there; I have seen respectable people going in and out of there.”
Of course, these were exactly the kinds of places – sites of working-class organization and leisure – that were most threatened by city and governmental authorities. Establishments like the Atlantic Garden and Blank’s, precisely because they were not the Metropolitan Opera (i.e., not “respectable” institutions patronized by the upper classes) had to fight to survive.
Even more fascinating is the way the captain goes on to defend Blank’s against the efforts of anti-vice crusaders, observing that “those women [of doubtful character] will exist, they exist and will continue to exist.” When asked to explain, the captain makes an observation that, apart from quantity, could be just as true in the New York of today:
“There is…in this town, New York, nearly 2,000,000 people, there is a demand and there has got to be a supply…There is 30,000 strangers in this town every night that sleep somewhere else to-morrow night.”
By 1900 Blank’s had become the Sans Souci, referenced in Timothy Gilfoyle’s excellent book, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex. Around 1910 it reopened as the Comet, one of the city’s early movie houses. By 1936, when Berenice Abbott photographed 100 Third Avenue, it was known as the Lyric. Still later, the theater operated as a venue for foreign and gay male erotic films, in which capacity it survived until the early 2000s. Now, with extensive renovation work being performed inside and out, its long run as an entertainment venue appears to have ended.