In the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of going to 54 Below four times.
What is it? It’s a clever name for a dinner/cabaret spot under what is now a legitimate theatre and where Studio 54, the infamous disco, once flourished. Just east of the entrance to the theater is an innocuous door, leading down the stairs to a elegant art deco space, featuring a dining room and a small stage. My friends and I like to sit close, and if we weren’t well-behaved we could reach out and touch the performers and their accompanists. Tony winner Laura Benanti (Gypsy) had a pianist, guitarist, and drummer; Tony winner Alice Ripley (Next to Normal) had only a pianist, and accompanied herself on guitar for her final song.
Intimate is the key word here. There’s not a bad seat in the house. In addition to the long tables perpendicular to the stage, there are half-circle booths in the back. Perhaps it’s my overly dramatic mind, but I can almost see Johnny Rocco and Gaye Dawn, as played by Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor in Key Largo, sitting in one of those booths, him smoking a cigar while she drinks too much.
54 Below has three major things going for it:
1. Performers, up-close and personal: When you leave 54 Below you feel like you know the singer you just watched for an hour. In between songs they talk about themselves, their projects, their lives, and why the next song is important to them. Of course it’s rehearsed, but it feels lovely to be let in on the artist and the artistic process.
2. The food: Yes, there’s a food and drink minimum after the ticket price, but the food is good, the dessert even better, and the waitstaff excellent.
3. Location, Location, Location! The address—easily accessible by car or train. The room—glamorous, and filled with interesting attendees (occasionally famous), with an atmosphere conductive to dining, drinking, chatting, and letting the music in. The history—one performer joked that in the 1970s, over there in that corner, Liza Minnelli gave birth to a baby covered in glitter. What more could you want?
Call it a supper club, call it a cabaret, call it a small concert space. Whatever you call it, it’s a great evening of music, in a place that makes you feel sort of grown-up and special. It’s also a window into how the clubs of the 30s, 40s, and 50s must have been. I hope you get to experience it, too.
Holly Caster has lived in Nyack with her playwright husband, two kids, and two cats for over 10 years. She is by trade a writer and by nature a fan of theater, movies, books, history, & art.