Harry M. Bagdasian, freelance writer/director
WE (they) BUY THE BUILDING IN 67 HOURS
Thank You, George!
Was what we did illegal? I have no idea. If it was it wasn’t the first law we broke while pursuing our theatre careers in that funky building on Church Street. But here’s another Bloom story – well, kind of a Bloom story anyway.
Okay, picture this. We’d been in the Church Street building for about four months up to our necks in new plays – readings and productions and busy, busy busy. Then reality descended. You see, we were renting the place from an Australian painter named Robin Hill for $500. a month. Now that was a friggin’ huge building for only $500 a month! How did we pull that off? Luck. As his real estate agent explained it to me, Robin was under the gun of the IRS for back taxes and he had worked out some kind of deal with them that the IRS would immediately receive any income Robin could derive from the sale or rental of the property on Church Street. That being the case, Robin apparently didn’t particularly care how much income the place generated. And he loved the idea of his building being used as a theater. If it generated two bucks or two thousand bucks a month, it made no difference to him as long as the IRS was getting something. Did we have a great deal or what? There was, however, a small hitch. Our rental lease very clearly stated that, should anyone make an offer on the building, New Playwrights’ Theatre would have right of first refusal if we could match the offer.
That shoe dropped around 2:00 on a Friday afternoon in the early Spring of 1976.
The real estate agent called me and in a very friendly manner explained that Robin had an offer from a buyer for the purchase of the property on Church Street. The offer was for $100,000. If we could match the offer by 9:00 am Monday morning, New Playwrights’ Theatre could own the building. And if we couldn’t, we’d have to vacate within 90 days. Oh shit. So I ask, how do we do this? The agent very patiently explained that a contract offer and minimum down payment of 10% would have to be on his desk by 9:00 am Monday morning. I don’t remember much of anything else we said to one another. I probably hang up the phone, chained smoked two or three cigarettes (or maybe something less legal than tobacco) and wondered over and over, and over and over, where were we going to get $10,000 by Monday morning at 9:00 am? I vaguely remember explaining our new challenge to several staff members and hangers on, then realized I had better break this breaking news to the Chairman of our Board of Trustees.
George Palmer at the tiller of his boat
sailing on the Chesapeake Bay 1976
in the striped shirt is Robbie McEwen
Okay. The Chairman at that time was a remarkably optimistic entrepreneur named George Palmer. Long story short … George’s immediate reaction … we put together a partnership … ten shares at $1,200 each, thus raising $12,000 immediately. We would call the partnership “Church Street Associates” … the partnership would buy the building with $10,000 down and have two grand in the back as a cushion … and lease the building to New Playwrights’’ Theatre on a net-net basis (meaning our monthly rental would equal Church Street Associate’s monthly PITI payment on the building.) George said he was good for one share.
Ken Bloom, George Palmer and Robbie McEwen
So, it was agreed that everyone would call everyone they know and find people to buy up the nine remaining shares in the partnership, and get their checks to George by Sunday night. Forget what was playing on stage that weekend. We had a real life drama of our survival in a building we loved and wanted for our own. Okay. Step one … find 9 more investors to join the partnership.
There was a additional complication. In addition to the fact that we knew damn few people who would throw a grand into a real estate venture that may or may not ever pay off, “Church Street Associates” needed a checking account in order for us to get a check onto the real estate agent’s desk at 9:00 am on Monday morning (never mind the fact that there had to be money in the account – a detail that seldom stopped us a in our daily running of the organization because we generally played a money game which we laughingly called “beat he bank” with our theater checking account.)
There was no way we could play “beat the bank” in this instance.
Here’s where it becomes a Ken Bloom story. In my usual drama queen mode, I whimper to Bloom about how not only do we need to find a ridiculously large amount of money in a very short amount of time, but we need a checking account.
“Let’s go for a walk.” Bloom says. “Rhett, go!” and our beloved theater dog, the phenomenal German Shepherd Rhett Butler was out from under Ken’s work table and at the theater door in an instant. (Okay maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way, but it sounds good – and I am pretty sure the dog went with us because Rhett usually accompanied us to the bank when we took deposits. And that’s where Ken aimed to take me – to our Branch of Washington National Bank on Dupont Circle.)
You see, Bloom is a charmer. It’s not bullshit. He’s genuinely charming and friendly with people with whom he chooses to be (for whatever reasons – hey, I’m no anthropologist, okay?) And because of this, Bloom, and with him, I, had become very friendly with the young lady who worked at the bank that handled our meager amounts of cash. Bloom suggested we talk to her.
So we go to the bank, sit with Debby or Cindy (I really wish I could remember her name because she did us two very nice favors in a 12 month period) and I put all our cards on the table.
“So how do we open a checking account today without any money?”
“No problem, she explains, handing me several items. “Take the new account kit – it has several starter checks -- and take these signature cards and be back here at 9:00 Monday morning and I will open the new account for you at the same time your chairman is making the offer on the building.” Maybe she didn’t say it exactly that way but you get the drift … she was giving us a checking account with which to buy a $100,000 piece of real estate without our giving her a cent. Talk about “no money down”!
But if we don’t raise the money? I had to ask. She waved that thought away and wished us luck in finding the investors.
Feeling very happy, as well as slightly stunned, Bloom and I left the bank, went back to the theatre, happily explained to George that we had a checkbook and just needed money to make it good.
Now … how in the world that girl decided to trust Bloom and I with a bunch a starter checks for a yet to be liquid checking account … I will never know. But she did. We didn’t even have to make up a story (which Bloom is a superstar at doing.)
And yes, over the weekend George tapped friends and moved 7 of the remaining 9 shares. The other two shares were picked up by two actresses that worked with us … Jamie McLean and Melanie Graham … yes, the Melanie who later had a couple pounds of chopped herring poured over her head in the lobby of the Biograph Theatre – small world, huh?
So first thing Monday morning, Bloom and I were at the bank to make the deposit of the investors’ checks and George Palmer was at the real estate agent’s office buying the building for the newly formed “Church Street Associates.”
Suddenly our rent jumped from $500. a month to something over $1,000 a month. We probably had enough in the bank for our first month’s rent … but thanks to George and that clever lady in new accounts, we pulled it off.
Three or four years later, at the insistence of our accountant, Dennis Roberts, we actually purchased the building from “Church Street Associates,” and each of the partners made a modest profit on their investment.
A couple notes about that nice bank lady – as sort of a coda to the story. I really wish I could recall her name because, in addition to being helpful, she was one of those friendly people you truly appreciate having in your life -- even though it was only a business thing. I remember the day we went into the bank and she showed us her engagement ring. She was so happy. And it was easy to be happy for her. A while after that, about a year after she helped us with the Church Street Associates caper, Bloom and I were talking to her and complaining about a restaurant that had stiffed us on a $400 payment for the back page ad on our program. Their check bounced on us twice. “Just redeposit the check with a demand for payment,” she explained. Whoa. There was a new concept (new to us at least.) The “demand for payment” enabled us to redeposit the restaurant’s check into our account, and our bank would send the check to the restaurant’s bank where it would sit and immediately suck up the first $400 deposited into the restaurant’s account. We got our money, which was a damn good thing. $400. to us in those days was a fortune – almost a month’s salary for some of us in 1977 – I think we were all earning $125 a week. Unfortunately all these bright memories have a down side. One day we went into the bank and she wasn’t at her desk. Sadly, we learned the smiling, friendly and helpful bank lady and her husband had been killed in an auto accident. Damn.
Nameless bank lady, you are fondly remembered. You helped us secure our theatre home and bring those dishonest restaurant guys to justice. Bless you!