What’s in the Box?

Photo: Mike Duva

Simon Hammerstein doesn’t want to—officially—open the Box until his dancers, seven burlesque ballerinas dubbed “The Hammerstein Beauties,” have their routine down cold. “Maybe in June,” he says. But the latest addition to the Freeman’s Alley nightlife nexus has been ready since early December, and like any self-respecting new nightspot it’s hosting a number of private functions, such as the Manhattan D.A.’s holiday party or tonight’s fête for Chanel’s new jewelry collection. Hammerstein, dashing in a black suit and silver, barely iridescent Dolce & Gabbana floral tie, is at a corner table with, among others, his mother, the playwright Dena Hammerstein; the artist Damian Loeb; the actors Julia Stiles and Josh Lucas; and model–filmmaker–former paramour Kate Elson. The dinner is lovely, with gray pearls wrapped around tarnished candlesticks, but it’s just a precursor to Simon’s intentions for the Box. “It’s not 5 percent of what I want this to be,” he says. “I want people standing on the tables.” Drinking, eating, dancing, cabaret!

And what he absolutely doesn’t want is for the Box to be known as a club. “It’s a dinner theater!” Simon interjects sternly whenever you mention the C-word. “It could be the hottest club in New York,” adds Lucas, one of 30-odd investors. “But if that’s all it is, then it is a failure. If he turns it into a club, then I’m going to kick his ass.”

The Hammerstein Beauties will be the centerpiece of the new dinner theater’s dining experience, a night out that has more to do with the fifties Copacabana or the neighborhood’s old vaudeville halls than those drinking holes over on Orchard. Three nightly shows will be put on, and Hammerstein and his team have been scouring circus schools and the like in France and Russia for guest stars. One of his favorites is a twenty-inch-tall woman named Firefly whom he wants to live in a glass house suspended above the bar and read aloud from her diaries.

Some nightlife impresarios dream of re-creating Studio 54; what Hammerstein hopes to induce is a deeper-freeze nostalgia. “Before the invention of disco, you’d go to a space and eat and drink and there would be Ella Fitzgerald.” (Or a midget.) “People say to me, ‘Why don’t you get some celebrities?’ And I’m like, if there are celebrities, they’re going to be performing. If Lindsay is there, she will be doing a dance number.”

The Box is perhaps the most ambitious Lower East Side concoction to set up camp near Freeman’s Alley; there’s also the alley’s namesake restaurant and the silver-Warhol-foiled “dive” 205 Club, which shrugs off the new competition. “They’re going to do highbrow,” says Aaron Bondaroff, 205’s creative director, “and we just wanna bring in junkies, faggots, skaters, and weirdos.” (Of course, in the world of nightlife, the new is always some take on the once new, and as it turns out, Serge Becker, godfather of nightclub-as-performance-art with his eighties legend Area, has been involved with both venues.)

Hammerstein’s dinner theater is a hodgepodge of turn-of-the-century styles. Multiple wallpapers peel off, Chinese fighting fish bleeding into cherubs. Prohibition-era bottles and other found debris have been incorporated into the Miss Havisham décor. “We wanted to keep the history,” he says of the former sign factory built in 1927. “I was an annoying geek stopping the bulldozer. I’d jump in the pit and come out with a bottle.” The result of the sixteen-month renovation looks as if you have broken into a boarded-up twenties theater. “The idea was that we found some old speakeasy that burglars would use to store their gear before fencing it.”

Showbiz is in Simon’s blood: Hammerstein is the heir to one of New York’s most-esteemed theatrical surnames. His great- great-grandfather is the namesake of midtown’s ballroom. Oscar Hammerstein II, his grandfather, was the partner of Rodgers. And Simon, 29, has been following, more or less, in his forebears’ hallowed footsteps since he was 16, directing Off-Off and way–Off Broadway productions such as The Passion of George W. Bush.

He grew up in Soho. At 9, he was shipped off to boarding school in England, only to return a few years later to an academy upstate. “I ran away after about a month,” he says. “I wrote my parents a ‘declaration of independence’ and called a cab and said, ‘Take me to the city.’ They were cool with it.” Soon he was interning at the Soho Rep “and any theater that would take me. And I was big into the rave scene. I’d be out until 6 a.m. tripping my balls off.” He also began promoting his own after-rave parties. Sometimes his father, a Broadway director himself, would “show up and I’d be with the most gnarly crew of kids from Howard Beach.”

The Box, viewed from the mezzanine.Photo: Mike Duva

Then, in 1999, his dad died of heart failure. “If someone came to my house, they’d think, ‘Oh, Simon’s going to be okay because he has this classy gentleman to balance him out.’ And when he died, I needed to assume those characteristics to be happy.” New York’s rave scene had started to collapse by then anyway. “The whole rave thing was getting to be kids smoking crack. I got rescued from that. I told the Youngblood Theater I was a director even though I clearly wasn’t. I got my first ten-minute play.” But even after years of doing theater he still missed a certain audience. “I wasn’t reaching the mass of people I wanted to speak to.”

Two nights after the Chanel party, Hammerstein is up in the Box’s mezzanine. The socialite Fabiola Beracasa is throwing a birthday party for her boyfriend, Jason Beckman, and at 1 a.m. the lights dim and everyone races to the railing to watch Leonid the Magnificent, a Russian-born gymnast. Euro-disco thumps from the speakers, and Leonid emerges with two blonde dancers in corsets. He is six-seven and is wearing turquoise platform boots, a red-sequined G-string with a swinging raccoon tail, and nothing else except makeup.

“We found him in Brighton Beach!” Becker exclaims. After a series of gymnastic gyrations, Leonid whips out three silver hula hoops and whirls in them simultaneously. “Simon, it was amazing. So beautiful,” says Uma Thurman, who came with her boyfriend, the hotelier André Balazs, to check out the space.

By 4 a.m., the crowd has cleared out, and Hammerstein, Elson, and Lucas are huddled in a banquette plotting. Images of revelers, taken at a digital photo booth, were projected onto the wall. “We should do it in sepia tones,” Simon says, sipping his umpteenth glass of red wine, “like a cowboy Western. But then have a dominatrix in it whipping you and everyone is compromised and humiliated. Now that’s fun.”

What’s in the Box?