Located at Astor Place, it’s hard to miss the red-bricked building of The Public Theater. A theater “of, by, and for the people,” it is “artist-driven, radically inclusive, and fundamentally democratic,” opened in founded by Joe Papp over 60 years ago, conceived as the country’s first nonprofit theater.
Joe’s Pub at The Public is one of the most influential venues in New York City, serving as a crucial launching pad for young artists. Opened in 1998 as the launching pad for some of the world’s most famous musicians and actors, and intimate performing space for established artists, the Pub maintains its position as an important cultural mainstay in New York.
This past September, The Public Theater celebrated their 50th Anniversary Downtown in their Astor Place location. To mark the occasion, we took a little field trip to bring you some of their most interesting secrets.
10. The Public Theater is Located in the Astor Library Building
The Public Theater is located in the Astor Library, which was one of the first important public libraries in New York City. The library opened in 1845, making the Public Theater both one of New York’s oldest public buildings and a benchmark 1960’s preservation project. John Jacob Astor pledged $400,000 to create a reference library using the books from the great book collector and librarian Joseph Green Cogswell.
In 1898, the Astor Library relocated to become a part of the new public library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. An organization called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society bought the building at 425 Lafayette and ripped out and altered much of the original interior.
In 1965, the building was sold to a developer set to demolish the building, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission stepped in and won its first victory, arranging for the producer Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival to buy the building for $560,000. The space would become Joseph Papp’s indoor complex to supplement the festival’s outdoor performances of Shakespeare in Central Park.
9. 55 of the Public Theater’s Productions Have Moved to Broadway
Today, the Public maintains a wide breadth of programming from public forums and discussions on today’s most salient social and political issues to Shakespeare, it’s almost easy to forget the Downtown location’s ‘humble’ beginnings. The world premier production musical of the Astor Place location was in 1967 and was Hair, the Tony Award-winning and Grammy nominated musical which a few years ago celebrated a revival on Broadway.
Not only that, but one of Broadway’s longest running shows, A Chorus Line, opened at the Public in April 1975 before moving to New York’s Great White Way a few months later. In total, as the 50th anniversary at the Public Theater’s downtown location, 55 productions have moved to Broadway.
Listen to rare audio of a 1975 performance of A Chorus Line.
8. The Public Theater has an Important ‘Presidential’ Connection
Photo courtesy Disney+
While this may not be the ‘presidential’ connection you were thinking, it may be one of the most important, explosive, and excited thing related to the government in New York’s current events to have happened: Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning masterpiece, now one of the most hard-to-get tickets on Broadway, began at the Public Theater, continuing the Public’s oldest and noblest tradition of bringing to the forefront theater that “is an essential cultural force and that art and culture belong to everyone.”
Not only did Alexander Hamilton get a premier here, but so did Andrew Jackson in Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which had its New York premier at the Public in May 2008.
7. Joe’s Pub is Part of The Public Theater’s Programming Downtown
Pre-show lighting at the Justin Sayre show at the Pub
Joe’s Pub opened in 1970 and was designed by Giorgio Cavaglieri, an Italian American architectural preservationist, best known for his restoration of the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village in the 1960s.
It’s location downtown inside the Public Theater has furthered the programming at the Public, providing a vital stage for talent coming from all over the world. The Pub has hosted almost 800 shows to over 100,000 audience members annually. The Pub’s cabaret-style seating is welcoming, making audience members comfortable at tables, at times communal, allowing them to relax into vibrant performances in a culturally historic space.
6. Joe’s Pub Was the First Place Adele and Amy Winehouse Performed in the US
While the Public Theater may have been the starting point for many famous theater productions, Joe’s Pub has been the crucial launching pad of many performers. British singers Adele and Amy Winehouse both had their debut U.S. performances at the Pub, in 2008 and 2007, respectively.
The intimate space of the venue truly lends itself to a wonderful and unique artists-audience experience, which makes seeing someone like Adele and Amy Winehouse for the first time in the U.S. pretty spectacular, considering how famous they’ve become.
Adele returned to the Pub in 2015 after the release of her album 25. The venue also remains a favorite of many artists, our sources at the Pub tell us, including Alicia Keys.
Watch below Amy Winehouse’s debut U.S. performance at the Pub in 2007.
5. Joe’s Pub Wall of Fame
If by chance you went into Joe’s Pub without any prior knowledge of the legends that have graced its stage, then the Pub’s Wall of Fame will definitely tell you. Featuring images of singers like Janelle Monae, Amy Winehouse, and Leonard Cohen.
The wall serves as hopeful reminder of the success that this venue can bless upon its performers, amplifying to the Pub’s mission to support young artists by giving them a platform from which to move forward from.
The artists that have stepped on this stage are many, ranging from Lady Gaga, Prince, Hugh Jackman, Taylor Mac, Dolly Parton, Audra McDonald, Gloria Steinem, Amy Schumer, and many more. Seeing a show at Joe’s Pub means not only experiencing a wonderful and intimate performance, but it could mean seeing your favorite artist in a more low-key and less intimidating setting, or seeing the next Adele belt it out on their path to superstardom.
4. There’s an Accordion Above the Bar in Joe’s Pub
Joe’s Pub was originally designed to mimic an accordion shape. Originally located in the center of the space, the bar was moved to the back of the room during the redesign. As an ode to that accordion shape, an actual accordion sits above the bar in Joe’s Pub.
3. The Library: New York’s Downtown Best Kept Secret
Image via The Public Theater
The Library at the Public Theater is a restaurants that sits above Joe’s Pub on the mezzanine level. What used to be the Pub’s casting office now houses an elegant bar and restaurant names after the Astor Library. A backstage lounge for actors to relax in after their shows, the Library in it’s stunning interior provides a comforting and relaxing atmosphere for a nice cocktail or meal created by Chefs Andrew Carmellini and John Ramirez.
It’s one of the city’s best kept secrets for a post-show meal. The room is filled with all kinds of ephemera from the theater’s history and even offers themed midnight showings. Just a few weeks ago a midnight showing was themed an Ethiopian night.
Photo by Shannon Sturgis, courtesy of Joe’s Pub
2. Joe’s Pub Used to be an Experimental Movie Theater
Wall of photos of actors and musicians who have performed at the Public Theater and Joe’s Pub since its founding.
Before Joe’s Pub reopened in 1998 after a massive renovation, the bathroom behind the Pub and Library above it was formerly occupied by The Little Theater, an experimental movie theater that seated 89 and operated in conjunction with the Anthology Film Archive. Designed in a way so that audience members couldn’t see each other while the showing was happening, the Public Theater ultimately nixed the idea, demolished it and brought to life the Joe’s Pub we know today.
1. The Public Theater Operates the Delacorte Theater Presenting Shakespeare in the Park
Perhaps one of the most recognizable summer activities in New York City is attending the annual Free Shakespeare in the Park. Organized by the Public Theater, this program stems back from the Public’s original roots set down by Joe Papp, making it one of the city’s most beloved traditions.
In Central Park every year, two Shakespeare plays are put on (this past year A Mid Summer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar), often featuring a notable celebrity actor among the talented cast, which have included Anne Hathaway, James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart, Meryl Streep, and Al Pacino, to name a few.
More than five million people have attended the free summer series. If you haven’t gone to the Delacorte, we highly suggest adding this to your list of summer activities.
Next, check out 17 Historical Theaters in NYC’s Times Square and go Inside the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater: A History of the Chelsea Improv Theater and Comedy School.