After nearly 11 years in operation, one of New York City’s most high-profile cabaret venues has decided to transition from a commercial entity to a nonprofit. The owners of 54 Below, a popular forum for both Broadway stars and rising performers and composers, say they intend to raise close to 20 percent of an annual budget approaching $10 million from supporters, with sponsorships, multiyear donations and naming opportunities figuring into the new model.
Richard Frankel, one of the owners, described the move as motivated by both economic challenges and artistic ambitions. “There’s no doubt it’s been a struggle, financially, combining the restaurant and theater businesses,” he said, adding that the club, which occupies the space below the 1970s nightlife fixture-turned-Broadway theater Studio 54, “puts on about 600 shows a year, which is insane. So we have a structure that’s not cheap.”
Those shows have included performances by marquee names such as Patti LuPone, Kelli O’Hara and Brian Stokes Mitchell, as well as series and concerts spotlighting lesser-known artists and works. “Diversity has become very important to us, presenting new musicals and young performers, many of color,” Frankel said. “And we want to be able to pay them more and expand the audience, with artist subsidies and ticket subsidies. That can be very difficult, if not impossible, to do on a self-sustaining commercial basis.”
Frankel noted that two of 54 Below’s competitors, Joe’s Pub and Dizzy’s Club, both enjoy the backing of nonprofit organizations: the Public Theater and Jazz at Lincoln Center. “We’ve been incredibly envious of them,” Frankel said.
As a nonprofit, 54 Below will focus on raising money to offer discounted tickets and subsidize artists’ production costs, as well as continue livestreaming its performances.
A newly formed board for 54 Below includes, in addition to Frankel and his fellow owners, names from the entertainment, business and nonprofit sectors, among them the actress and entrepreneur Brenda Braxton; Robert L. Dilenschneider, president and chief executive of the Dilenschneider Group, Inc; Stanley Richards, deputy chief executive of the Fortune Society; and Lucille Werlinich, chair of the Purchase College Foundation.
54 Below opened in June 2012 and entered a partnership with the veteran performer and American songbook champion Michael Feinstein in 2015; that collaboration ended in July 2022, when Feinstein teamed up with Cafe Carlyle. Last June, 54 Below received an honor at the Tony Awards for excellence in the theater.
“I’m expecting the funding sources to be generous, though I don’t know how many Santa Clauses there can be,” Frankel said. “But we’re committed to this, as a way for us to survive and thrive in the future.”