Volume 18, Number 3 | JUNE10 -16, 2005

Struggling to put on a show near ground zero

Downtown Express photo by Corky Lee
Sheldon Zimet, accompanied by Yas Takeda, left, and Steve Blum performed for a light crowd recently at Coast.

By Lauren Dzura

When Eric Brown went into the Lower Manhattan restaurant, Coast, for a job interview he left with much more than just a position as a waiter or bartender. He ended up as the head of entertainment with hopes of helping revitalize Lower Manhattan. While he obviously cannot resurrect the Twin Towers or do anything to cover the gaping hole that still serves as a hollow reminder of 9/11, he is simply trying to breathe life back into the area around the World Trade Center by putting on the Lower Manhattan Arts Festival and Variety Show.

“The revitalization of Lower Manhattan should be close to every New Yorker’s heart,” Brown said.

The variety show has a number of different acts lined up to perform. Art exhibits and live jazz music have been put on since the first show in April. Brown has been in touch with comedians, burlesque dancers and a sword-swallower, but the restaurant space is not conducive for those acts, he said.

“Coast is a great space, but it doesn’t lend itself to other acts. I want a more loungey atmosphere,” he said.

Crowd size fluctuated over the total of five shows Brown has presented. Weather seemed to be the main factor influencing audience numbers. In the beginning, Brown did not think he could afford to keep the show running after the first couple of performances because he kept losing money.

“The turnout has been up and down,” he said. “It’s been more up when there is nice weather.”

Brown has $250 a week to book and pay the acts, a paltry sum when put up against his venerable aspiration of bringing nightlife to the W.T.C. This amount also prevents him from moving his other acts, such as the burlesque show, to different venues. He is in the process of trying to secure loans to help, however he has not received a definite answer from the local business organizations he has contacted, such as the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the River to River Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival.

“Doing this alone is hard,” he said. “No one’s gotten back to me, maybe I’m not making enough noise.”

All of his performers were either found on Craigslist.org, an online bulletin board, or through word of mouth. Besides bringing art and entertainment back to the heart of Downtown, Brown also wants to give unknown artists a space to perform and network.

“I want this to be a place where artists of any genre can come showcase their talent,” he said.

A former promoter, Brown is also an actor but works as a waiter to pay the bills. He also co-hosts a radio show for Brooklyn College.

“I’m trying to get people more qualified than me,” said Brown of his search for a staff of volunteers and friends sharing his vision. Even though the festival is entirely his own creation, he is not below making requests for help or criticism.

Brown formed strong ties with Lower Manhattan during his younger years, making frequent trips to the area and taking advantage of its offerings. Now he feels he needs to give something back to the neighborhood that played such an important part in his life, he said.

He hopes the show will grow and be appreciated by New Yorkers so that every year it can culminate into one big outdoor spring concert, possibly on the steps of the Brooks Brothers store Liberty Plaza. For now, though, Brown is still working on getting the performance space at Coast up and running. His goal is to possibly have fashion shows and one-act plays as well in the restaurant. Brown said he wants to include numerous events because people need a specific reason to visit Downtown and he wants to turn the arts festival and variety show into a destination spot.

However, the response has not been as strong as expected and getting people to the Downtown area has been a challenge. The unstable audience size is proving to be a costly investment for the restaurant.

“It’s been basically a mediocre response to say the least,” said Carl Bester, general manager of Coast. “So far we haven’t found the right market and people do not want to come down here.”

A recent show on May 28 brought in about 30-40 people, which is not enough to keep it alive. Bester says he will give the show a few more weeks to see if it will be able to sustain itself, but it is becoming too expensive.

Although budgetary constraints and the lack of activities going on around the W.T.C. work against him, Brown is remaining optimistic and grateful.

“Its just getting off the ground, it will gain steam and speed and hopefully everyone will be happy,” he said.

The Lower Manhattan Arts Festival and Variety Show is performed at the Coast restaurant at 110 Liberty St. on Saturdays at 7 p.m. The evening includes an optional $35 prefixe dinner with one free drink and two choices of appetizers with soup or a salad. Patrons should call the restaurant for information on the art exhibits and bands scheduled to play.

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