“Maybe This Neighborhood’s Changing Forever”: Thoughts on Cafe Edison

Since the news broke last week that Cafe Edison will close this year, I’ve seen my social media streams flood with posts in protest. I’m guilty of it too. Cafe Edison was (she writes, as if for an obituary) the place where my best friend and I went before every single pre-show dinner in high school. I am barely exaggerating. When I think back on the theater we saw in those days, it’s riddled with flashes from the Edison. Memories like the time I convinced her to run to the box office in the middle of dinner so that we first-time TDF users would meet their “30 minutes prior to curtain” requirement. Or memories like the time we sat adjacent to Raul Esparza, my earliest memory of a Broadway celebrity sighting.

Cafe Edison. (Photo: ScoutingNY.com on Flickr // CC2.0.)

Cafe Edison. (Photo: ScoutingNY.com on Flickr // CC2.0.)

Those stories are hardly the stuff of August Wilson writing plays on Edison napkins or anything like that. I’ve loved getting a chance to read about other people’s Edison memories over the last week; it’s amazing to see that this one place means so much to so many people. Watching that outpouring of nostalgia has gotten me thinking about our community and its gathering places.

Most of my posts on this blog have been about the theater community in some way or another, and we’ve had a couple of great posts about communities in theater recently. Nathan Christensen looked at what makes community theater an unexpectedly exciting place to do new work. Philippa Boyes shared the ideology that “all theater is community theater” and considered what it means to produce theater in a specific context. But the thing that all of these posts have in common is that they’re about theater performances. It’s an odd thing to think of the Edison, a diner, in that same category. After all, the theater itself is a gathering place; except for pieces like this one, theater is an event that demands to be experienced collectively. So why do we feel the need to create more gathering places? Why isn’t the actual theater, the building, enough?

I think the answer has to do with another one of theater’s features: its ephemerality. When audiences gather to watch a show, they experience it as it’s happening and then it’s over. They can think about what they saw and reflect on what it meant to them, but they can’t re-experience it; even if they buy another ticket for another day, it can’t be exactly the same. There’s a parallel in the way we build communities. When you work on a show – whether it’s on Broadway or at your high school or anywhere else – you form a mini-community inside the theater community at large. But in much the same way as an audience after the curtain call, when the show’s run ends, that mini-community has to disperse a little bit.

Fortunately, the larger theater community has found ways to combat that transience and remind us that we’re all part of one whole. So when you can’t gather at your theater anymore, you find somewhere else. Over time, those “somewhere else”s become places where you can both connect with other members of the community and feel connected to the community’s history – because after all, they’re the same spaces that community members before you went for a matzo ball soup. And, as they say, the story goes on.

And that goes for people who have never done a show, people looking to find their people for the first time, just as much as it does for theatre veterans. When my friend and I accidentally discovered the Edison, we were high schoolers. We saw ourselves on the fringes of the community and waited impatiently for it to be Our Time. We couldn’t make it arrive any sooner just by going to a place like the Edison, but anyone who wants to can recognize the legacy of a place and consider what it means to be there today. That history belongs to anyone who wants to claim it, whether it’s because you once worked with Neil Simon on a play he wrote there or because you’re a young playwright who wants to be the next Neil Simon.

As a side note, although I’m talking about Cafe Edison here, I imagine it’s the same in any theater community. If you’re in college, for example, you can probably name that one bar where most of the theater kids usually hang out. (I’m really curious to hear about the gathering places of theatrical communities large and small – share their histories in the comments!)

One final Edison memory: once, my friend and I gathered two of our other friends and forced them to act in a movie we decided to write in which we imagined our lives ten years in the future. Incidentally, we only made it through a single scene – the one we filmed at the Edison. By setting the scene there, we took the Edison’s lasting existence to be a given. But we’re still four years away from living the moment we filmed. Are we part of the last generation to have creative and artistic talks (and gossip sessions) about theater in that space? Are we the last to share that particular metaphysical space with Broadway legends past and present? What will happen to their history, to our history, when the Edison is gone?

Through all of this, I keep thinking of a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights. In “Carnaval Del Barrio,” Usnavi admits, “Maybe this neighborhood’s changing forever.” He continues with a call to action: “How do you want to face it?” If you want just a little less change in this neighborhood, there’s a petition to save the cafe; sign it and see your name among the likes of Glenn Close, Marc Shaiman, and more.

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