Last week, the lot next to Frankie & Johnnie’s Steakhouse on 45th Street just west of Times Square sat empty, just pebbles and weeds and cigarette butts and maybe things we do not want to know about.
But this week will be different. No, a new condominium or office tower is not rising from the rubble. Not yet anyway.
A circus, of sorts, is coming to town. Not Ringling Brothers, Big Apple or Cirque du Soleil; the surrealist tent and facade that will begin to take shape come courtesy of Spiegelworld, the acrobatic, vaudeville-inflected circus-cum-burlesque troupe that made its first splash at South Street Seaport in 2006 and has since traveled to Las Vegas, Miami and the Australian Open, among other places.
Spiegelworld’s new show, “Empire,” begins previews on May 22 inside the Spiegeltent, which itself will be hidden behind an elaborate facade meant to suggest a crumbling theater.
In New York on a publicity shoot on May 1, the Spiegelworld character Gazillionaire — who according to the show’s conceit is producing “Empire” but is too cheap to spring for an actual theater — gazed upon the empty site and proclaimed, “Putting up something beautiful in the middle of crap will be like New Yorkers finding a diamond in the rough.”
Spiegelworld’s producer, Ross Mollison, said it made sense to pitch the Spiegeltent in the theater district. “It’s like a throwback to the roots of New York theater,” he said, “with the vaudeville and variety shows.”
In fact, unbeknownst to Mr. Mollison, the lot – across the street from the John Golden Theater near the corner of Eighth Avenue — is steeped in Times Square history.
Four buildings once stood there. One housed Sam’s, a restaurant overrun with theater folk where the scenery-chewing maître d’hotel, Craig Dawson, was a Broadway star in his own right. Two doors down was Barrymore’s, the burger joint to which Mr. Dawson and his entourage decamped in the 1990s. In between, said Peter Chimos, the owner of Frankie & Johnnie’s, was a disreputable video shop. In its latter days, Sam’s hosted cabaret acts.
The real estate giant Related Companies knocked the buildings down in 2008. “They were going to put up a big building,” Mr. Chimos recalled. “Then, the crash.”
Mr. Mollison said Related told him, “We’re not building on it now so you can have it.”
Spiegelworld has its roots in the Belgian Spiegeltent, an ornate early-20th-century tent featuring mirrors and stained glass that traveled around Europe with vaudeville and cabaret performers. This Spiegeltent, though, will be hidden behind a hodgepodge facade reflecting what Mr. Mollison called a “distressed found object Brooklyn bar aesthetic.”
“The tent will be like a discovery within a discovery,” he said. “But the facade will be an art installment unto itself, just like those oil derricks” – he gestured in the direction of the Manhattan Oil Project, an installation in a lot around the corner.
Nearby, inside the former Times Square Theater on 42nd Street, Mr. Mollison said, he saw something that set his heart aflutter. “There’s an old peep-show sign that would be perfect for the facade,” he said. “I’d love to get that.”