A Burlesque Bastion Is BackCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | After 14 months of darkness, The Slipper Room in the LES turns the lights back on.Published: May 11, 2021
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Happy Tuesday! Depending on who you listen to, New York City is reopening on May 19th (Cuomo) or July 1st (de Blasio). Either way, it’s reopening. COVID is still ravaging many parts of the world (donate to help the crisis in India here, here, or here), and the global vaccine rollout has been far from smooth, but it’s okay — in fact, I think it’s crucial — to celebrate the hyperlocal wins. Something like hope, however tentative, is flitting through this city. I can feel it. And I hope that wherever you are, you can, too.
This week’s conversation was a particularly special one: it was my first in-person interview in over a year. Phone and video calls work, but god damn, it feels good to get a break. I’ve been wanting to interview someone in person since my vaccine immunity kicked in last month, and when I heard that The Slipper Room, the iconic Lower East Side burlesque club, was reopening, I immediately emailed the owner, James Habacker, to see if he was up for it. He was, so I went to the club to catch up on all that’s transpired since we last spoke in early September. We spoke a couple days after the club’s soft reopening for friends and family, and just a few days before the official public reopening; keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s very exciting not to be doing this over the phone.
This is my first in-person interview in, well, over a year. It’s nice.
Me too. We last spoke in early September 2020; at that point, you'd been closed for six months. What were the fall and winter like?
I feel like this whole year flew by, it was so strange. I'm one of those people who has to be constantly busy. I did a bunch of writing. I'm writing another screenplay — this is my third — and I'm finishing up a novel [editorial note: you can watch James’s first film on Vimeo]. The Slipper Room was mostly dark. I rented it out for a few shoots … The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was the big one, they had shot here before and they came back. Thank God for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, because we were broke at that point; completely tapped out. It's been 14 months. We spent everything that was in the bank account. I could have gone out and borrowed money, but The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came along at just the right moment. And luckily, I have a landlord who was very willing to work with us. I spoke to him on the phone yesterday and I told him he's my best friend [laughs]. I mean, he did more for me this year than anybody has done for me. He could have been one of those landlords who said pay or get out, but he was thinking long term and realized that we're a good tenant and was very generous.
Did he pause your rent entirely?
He did. When we first shut down, I agreed I would pay him half rent for a period of time and then we would take another look at it. By the late summer, when there was still no income coming in, he did pause the rent. And it made all the difference.
When we last spoke, you had gotten one PPP loan. Did you get any more funding?
We got a PPP, and now we've applied for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant [a COVID relief program for arts and event spaces set up by the Small Business Administration]. We did not apply for a second PPP because we were originally told that if you did that, you couldn't apply for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. They since changed the rules so that if you get a PPP, you can still apply for the grant, but they're going to reduce the grant by the amount of the PPP [you get]. It was such an arduous process and it seemed like we would be better off taking our chances and going with the grant. I'm not a big one for paperwork if I can avoid it.
How much money do you stand to get from the grant?
I don't know. It could be in the neighborhood of six figures. I'm not counting on that money. The idea that the government is going to give us a big chunk of money seems ridiculous to me, so I'll believe it when I see it. But that would certainly make this year easier, because we rely on tourists and the weekends being packed, but we're not able to do any of that. We're open at a limited capacity now, and even if by next month they lift all restrictions, it's still going to be a slow year for us. It's going to take people some time to come back. So that's why I'm really hoping we get the grant, then it's going to be easy. We'll just do what we do and if the room is half empty, that's fine. If we don't get the grant, we'll still survive, but it's going to be a struggle.
In late March, the state announced that small- and medium-sized indoor arts venues could reopen on April 2, but you didn’t reopen until a month after that. How come?
God bless our politicians. They're all in the pocket of big corporate America and they don't have a clue how small business works. You can't tell a small theater, "Okay, now you can open in a week." First of all, we were closed for a year and everything fell apart, that's just the way it is. We came in [after the announcement] and one of the ice machines was broken, the beer cooler didn't work ... I had to prepare a bunch of stuff that had been sitting for a year. I had to get the soda system back online, I had to get the insurance back online, I had to get the garbage back online. I had to book shows, book performers, and promote the shows. We were creating a new website. It was just a massive amount of things. The idea that you can suddenly turn it back on was ridiculous.
Tell me about your opening weekend for friends and family: what did it take to pull it off?
The last three weeks have been crazy. The hardest thing was that I spent the last three weeks running around like a chicken with my head cut off getting everything set up and booked, and I didn't spend any time at all preparing my own act — what I was going to do as the host of the show. I was expected to do an hour's worth of comedy. The last couple of weeks I kept having these anxiety dreams where it's time to go on and you're not ready and you haven’t prepared at all. I had a bunch of those and then it was five o'clock on Friday and Camille [James’s wife] and I were in a cab coming down here and I said to her, "This is exactly my dream. I'm completely unprepared. I'm supposed to go on stage in a couple of hours and I have nothing." So I had to wing it.
How’d it go?
I've been performing for almost 30 years, and it just comes back to you. I guess I’ve had a lot on my mind over the last year so I was able to make it happen. So it went very well. All the performers were so happy to be back at it and see each other again. It was very joyous, there was a lot of laughter, a lot of cheering. Were we in our top form last weekend? No, probably not, we might be slightly rusty. But it's the best show you've seen in a year. And we had a lot of fun. It made me feel really positive about [reopening], although it was all just friends and family in the audience, so what it's going to be like this coming weekend with a bunch of strangers, I don't know. If anybody shows up and they're uncomfortable for whatever reason, we'll happily give them a refund and say, Come back when you're ready.
Did you have a hard time finding talent? Last time we talked, you expressed concern about the mass exodus of performers leaving the city.
We did lose a few people, but now I've gotten some emails from new acts. That's New York. The state has made it more difficult for freelance performers, for sure … In their infinite wisdom, the Department of Labor has decided that I can't hire individuals. Everybody has to have an LLC or be under some corporate entity. They're doing away with freelance in New York, that's their plan. I had a hearing with the Department of Labor where I was trying to fight that and at one point I said to the administrative law judge that I know for a fact that all these performers want the right to freelance and to perform for themselves and his response was, "It's not for them to decide. We know what's best." The Department of Labor has their own agenda and it has to do with big corporate interests. It's like Rahm Emanuel said: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” And that's what they did with COVID: they used it to help wipe out small business. What you're going to see in New York more and more is these fake small businesses: there'll be some pizza place or theater or bar that will open up and will look like a small business, but it will be one of 25 that are owned by some hedge fund guys in Connecticut. The bar across the street, Hair of the Dog, is a fake small business. So is the pizza place [Zazzy’s Pizza] that took over from Rosario's, which was around since 1964. Fake small businesses are all over the place.
Wow. I actually noticed that pizza joint on my way in today and thought it looked fishy, but I had no idea about Hair of the Dog.
Yeah, those guys own Off the Wagon and The 13th Step ... They are the bane of the neighborhood. I don't mind saying that they're the worst thing that's ever happened to the Lower East Side. All it is is cheap booze — because they own so many places, they're able to get their booze at the same price that they sell to Madison Square Garden ... I see more and more of these fake small businesses; that's the future. Wiping out small businesses has been [the state government’s] plan for years and they took advantage of this. It shows with the huge bailouts that they handed out to big corporations and the miserly, very difficult to obtain and use PPP loans that they offered. And then most of the PPP money got stolen by the fake small businesses. The big scandal was that all these hedge funds that own 35 different small businesses, but are really all one big chain, applied as individual small businesses and sucked up all the money. I know I sound like an old curmudgeon ...
Well, you're on the front lines of it.
You know, I have two children and what I always say to them is, “We're fine.” We’ve been at this for almost 30 years. They're not going to ruin us. I worry about being some young kid and trying to do something like this. My dad was a homicide detective in Williamsburg; I don't come from money. We were just middle-class Irish people from Queens, and I was able to do this through hard work and some loans from friends and a lot of sweat equity. When we started out, most of the performers lived in the neighborhood — now rents are so high, they mostly all live out in Bushwick. That's not such a bad commute, but it's getting harder and harder. If you're an artist, why would you choose to live in New York? It's so expensive to live here. When I first got out of college and moved into a little apartment on East Sixth Street, back in 1985, it was doable. You could live cheap. I picked up odd jobs and I played in a band and I performed and I painted and was able to just be an artist. And I think that's very hard for the kids now.
What does your staff look like right now?
We lost a few people due to COVID — they moved away — but a lot of the people came back. I try really hard to hang on to staff as long as possible. We've got one or two people who have been here from day one, and a few other people who've been here a long time. We just hired my daughter, who's finally old enough. She's 18 and strangely enough in New York State, you're allowed to serve alcohol when you’re 18. And I hired a new barback this week and we're working on training a new sound guy, so there are some new people. It's a wonderful group and everybody seems really excited to be here. The staff is so important in terms of the vibe of the place. We had James Kenny at the front door, he was really the heart and soul of this place, and tragically, he passed away about a year ago and that was tough. But we have a guy who's been hanging out here forever and who's been in the bar business forever who reached out to me a couple weeks ago to say, "Hey, if you need any help..." And I was like, "Perfect." Things just tend to work out for some reason. Luck of the Irish.
At the end of April, de Blasio said that New York city will fully reopen on July 1st; how do you feel about that?
I don't think any of this stuff has ever had anything to do with science. It's been politics from day one. Right now, de Blasio and Cuomo are fighting with each other and at the same time, Cuomo got caught with his pants down. They're tripping over each other to be the one to open up quicker. That said, I'm pleased that we're reopening. Most people who I talk to are vaccinated, so I'm hoping that we won't have another explosion of COVID cases. I'd like to believe that at this point, COVID is going to be like the new flu. I mean, it's not going away.
How has your relationship with the community evolved over the past year?
When I think of community, there are so many levels to it: there's the neighborhood, then there's New York, and then there's the worldwide community for variety performers. We get people from all over the world. As far as the neighborhood goes, I still have great Lower East Side pride. There's no place I'd rather be. When we first opened The Slipper Room in 1999, the community board was against us and the neighborhood was really up in arms. But since then, the community board has said that they consider us a cultural institution. We've become a part of the Lower East Side and to survive for over 20 years in New York, that's an accomplishment. So, I feel blessed that we've been able to do it and the community has been good to us.
We still get a fair amount of locals coming in, but a lot of the kids are living in Brooklyn now and we are talking about opening a second location [there]. We've talked about it off and on for a long time, but I think now is a good time to do that, so we've started looking.
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Until next time,