Classic New York: Webster Hall

Webster Hall has long been lauded as the top destination for live music and endless dance parties in New York, continuously serving the nightlife community since the early 90s. But long before the techno dance parties and 19 and over concerts, the venue acted as a high society wedding venue,  a place for protestors to gather, an early venue for the LGBTQ community, a speak easy, a Latin music club, and a leading rock stage. Opened as a rental hall in 1892 by Charles Goldstein, Webster Hall has seen the likes of Anarchists and flappers, gangsters and drag queens, and even American legends like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner and the Beastie Boys, rounding out a century old reputation for being a classic New York venue.

Built way back in 1886, the original Webster Hall was designed in the Renaissance Revival style by Charles Rentz. The beautiful hall was a rental venue for important social functions, performances, weddings and dances, but also was used for community events and political functions, like labor union rallies and protests. Being in the center an immigrant community in the East Village, it attracted a socialist, anarchist and leftist set, that congregated at the hall on the regular.  The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union uses it as their strike headquarters in 1916, birth control rights pioneer Emma Goldman held rallies there in 1912, and the defense committee in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial met there in 1920. With an added addition in 1892, the stately building featured a mansard roof and terracotta tiling, but carried somewhat of a curse, catching fire five times (in 1902, 1911, 1930, 1938 and 1949).

Think the weekly Girls & Boys event is the wildest dance party to hit the Webster? Think again. The venue morphed alongside the Golden Age, becoming a hedonistic center for fancy masquerade balls in the 1910s and 20s, attracting artists and writers like Francis Picabia, Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and their booze-fueled Bohemian friends in search of wild parties, even far into the depths of Prohibition. Marcel Duchamp even swung from one of the halls’ chandeliers during a particularly wild night. Yet somehow, New York’s finest policeman allowed Webster Hall to retain its nickname as the “Devil’s Playhouse,” looking the other way when the champagne was uncorked- as well as allowing the secretive LGBTQ community to flourish under its roof.

The sexy masquerade parties ended, and Webster Hall became a center for recording artists of the 1950s, the Grand Ballroom bringing in some of the greats of that era- Julie Andrews, Ray Charles, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra.  Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” here, Bob Dylan made his first recording in 1962, and Carol Channing recording Broadway’s “Hello, Dolly,” before the club became a more private headquarters for Casa Galicia during the 1970s.

The 80s brought the nightlife epicenter back (then known as The Ritz), with big name rock music acts, with New York’s first video component for live shows, letting even the far reaches of the balcony see the stage. Prince, U2, Tina Turner, KISS, Eric Clapton and countless other bands paved the way to Webster Hall’s current reputation as the number one venue in New York.

With such an incredible storied past, and happening nightlife present, Webster Hall was finally honored, and became an official New York City Landmark in 2008, securing its place in nightlife legend to reign over the next 100 years.

Words by Lori Zimmer.

Image – Keith Richards, Tina Turner and David Bowie at The Ritz, 1983