Webster Hall, ‘The Anchor’ Of Manhattan Nightlife, Reopens Its Doors

Courtesy of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment
– Empire State of Mind
Jay-Z will reopen Webster Hall after a closure of nearly two years on Friday.

After a closure of nearly two years, Jay-Z, Patti Smith, Vampire Weekend and more are introducing the revamped Webster Hall to New York audiences this spring.

“The venue has had an incredible history, but at the same time, it needed to go through a renovation where we could address some needs both visible and nonvisible so that the venue could be viable on a long-term basis,” says Brett Yormark, CEO of BSE Global, which jointly operates Webster Hall with AEG Presents regional partner Bowery Presents.

The reopening comes just over two years after BSE and Bowery Presents acquired the venue, situated in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, from Lon Ballinger in April 2017. “He always looked at this as another child, Webster Hall, and it became very dear to him for obvious reasons,” Yormark says. “He wanted to make sure that if and when he did exit, he left it in good hands.”

Courtesy of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment
– Living History
Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment and Bowery Presents went to great lengths to preserve vintage design characteristics that give the historic venue its character.

Ballinger, whose family assumed control of Webster Hall in 1992, came to trust BSE with the space’s legacy. Built in 1886, the venue has long played a prominent cultural role for New Yorkers, from labor rallies and social functions in the early 20th century to greeting artists including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the postwar era to, as The Ritz, hosting U2’s first United States performance in 1980.

“We’ve been able to maintain the history, the grit, the aura of what made Webster Hall so special,” Yormark says, “but at the same time we’ve been able to modernize and contemporize certain parts of it as well.”

Several of the modifications made to the venue were, as Bowery Presents co-owner Jim Glancy puts it, “just to bring it up to 2019 standards.” For one, a new freight elevator will rectify Webster’s “notoriously horrible load-in” for artists while making the venue more accessible for those with disabilities. Attendees will have an easier experience overall, whether walking in through new street entrances, enjoying expanded restrooms or navigating added staircases.

But according to Keith Sheldon, BSE’s executive vice president of programming and development, even those basic changes required careful thought. “While we added some additional staircases and exits, we also wanted to maintain that same mazelike quality that adds an element of discovery that is certainly super unique,” he says.

Other changes were more substantial. Webster Hall’s first-floor performance space, the Marlin Room, is now a thing of the past, replaced by a lounge area so that concertgoers aren’t left chatting on the sidewalk. “People today like communal gathering spaces, ‘hang spaces,’ so to speak,” says Yormark, adding that the redone room gives Webster Hall “greater flexibility” for booking private events going forward.

The more glamorous experience will also extend to artists, who will find expanded dressing rooms and shower facilities. “What can we do for the artist who is making it their home for a night or two nights or three nights?” Glancy says.

Courtesy of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment
– Not Just A Venue
The new lounge area, which replaces performance space The Marlin Room, is among the most substantial changes to Webster Hall.

And, perhaps most important, BSE and Bowery Presents brought in acousticians Arup and Sonic Design to help plot a fresh sound system by high-end audio manufacturer L-Acoustics. Says Sheldon: “We found the right mix to provide an even more enhanced guest experience as it comes to the look, feeling and sound of the room.”

New York hero Jay-Z will debut that sound system, and the new Webster Hall along with it, when he takes the stage tonight for a show billed as “B-Sides 2.” A spiritual successor to two “B-Sides” shows that took place at Terminal 5 in 2015, the show promises to feature career-spanning deep cuts and several special guests.

“Jay did so much for BSE and our organization and helping us to get to Brooklyn and building the foundation of what we’ve become,” says Sheldon, referencing the rapper’s longstanding relationship with Barclays Center. “Given his status as a living legend and New York City icon, it was a natural first call for us to make.”

Announced bookings such as Jay-Z and Vampire Weekend indicate that Webster Hall will continue its tradition of hosting arena-sized artists for intimate club shows. But Yormark and Sheldon emphasize the room will remain focused on artist development and complement BSE venues Barclays Center and Nassau Coliseum.

“How do we connect with artists early and often in their careers – emerging artists – and hopefully create what I would call a ‘progression ladder’ up to Barclays Center,” says Yormark. “In many respects, Webster Hall is that first stop.” Adds Sheldon: “Hopefully there’s some loyalty in this business and they want to stay with us as they grow.”

Courtesy of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment
– East Village Eclecticism
BSE and Bowery Presents have diverse programming plans for Webster Hall going forward. Here, a preserved collage of posters from the ’80s, when Webster Hall was known as The Ritz.

Big and small, Webster Hall will also maintain its eclectic programming going forward. “We want a DJ in there one night, we want an emo band in there the next night, we want a pop act, we want a classic rock artist, we want hip-hop,” says Glancy. “It’s not going to have a personality in the sense of ‘Hey, that’s where you wanna go if you wanna see hardcore.’ We want it to be, ‘That’s where you go to see the best of everything.'”

Bowery Presents brings specific expertise: The promoter booked Webster Hall from 2004 to 2014. “They obviously had a great working knowledge of Webster Hall, so they were an obvious partner for us,” says Yormark. “On a day-to-day basis, they’ll be operating the venue in a consistent manner to how they operate some of their other smaller venues here in the marketplace.” Yormark also notes that Bowery “brought a great sense of knowledge and respect for the venue” to discussions about how to approach the renovations.

As demonstrated by Webster Hall’s elite 2019 bookings and subsequent hires such as Mike Venafro, who will be the general manager after serving as regional general manager for several Bowery Presents venues in New York, the room is poised to resume its place at the forefront of New York’s nightlife.

“It’s the anchor. Not an anchor – the anchor,” Glancy says. “Webster was opened four or five years before Carnegie Hall. That’s mind-blowing! That’s where Webster Hall’s place has been in New York and where it will continue to be in New York.”

A version of this story originally appeared in VenuesNow.