While most New Yorkers today may immediately point to Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, or the Bowery Ballroom as New York City’s historic music venues, one that may not come to mind is Fillmore East, a rock venue on Second Avenue near East 6th Street in the East Village. The site has changed ownership many times, starting as a Yiddish theater and movie theater, then a number of music venues, then a gay club. But for the three years that it was Fillmore East, rock and roll (as well as other genres) flourished in the city. Tickets would never cost more than $5.50, and some of the greatest music legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa performed to enthusiastic audiences. Here are the top 10 secrets of Fillmore East, inspired by the release of Frank Mastropolo’s new book Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.
1. The site used to be a Yiddish theater
The theater at 105 Second Avenue that would later become Fillmore East was originally built as a Yiddish theater. Constructed in 1925-26, it was designed in the Medieval Revival style by Harrison Wiseman, and independently operated as the Commodore Theater. The Commodore was one of the more popular theaters in what was known as the Yiddish Theatre District, or the Jewish Rialto, where dozens of theaters would host performances of Yiddish plays by great Yiddish authors as well as Shakespeare and classic plays in translation.
The Yiddish Theatre District was centered around Second Avenue, but extended all the way to Avenue B. The district peaked around World War One, when many journalists considered it the best place to see theater in the city. The first Yiddish theater productions started in the late 1880s in New York’s lost Little Germany neighborhood around the present-day East Village. It wasn’t until 1903 that the Grand Theatre opened, putting on translated versions of classic plays, musicals, and vaudeville. George and Ira Gershwin, as well as Irving Berlin, grew up in the center of the district. In addition to theaters, which put on around 20 to 30 shows per night, the area had everything from photography studios to music stores to restaurants.