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Volume 73, Number 29 | November 19 - 25, 2003

Where sisters’ musical was set, PATH’s now threat


Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

David Ryan with an LP of the original cast album of “Wonderful Town,” the 1953 Broadway musical set in his apartment.

David Ryan, who paid $40 a month when he moved into the basement apartment of 14 Gay St. 28 years ago, and is not going to move out soon unless he’s blasted out, leads the way into the beautiful little triangular garden-with-fountain in the rear area between the Gay St. row and the Christopher St. row of sturdy old brick buildings.

“Look at this!” he exclaims. “Does this look like a train station to you?”

At any minute he is prepared for the heads of Moe, Larry and Curly to pop up, jackhammers in hand, from beneath his pad’s floorboards. “We’re puttin’ in the PATH station!” they are going to bellow before Ryan furiously stamps them back down into Hades.

The Three Stooges as demolition workers breaking up through Ruth and Eileen’s floorboards provided the gag ending of the 1942 Rosalind Russell film made from the 1940 Broadway play made from Ruth McKenney’s “My Sister Eileen” stories in the New Yorker magazine about two sisters, one beautiful (Eileen), one bright (Ruth), come from small-town Ohio to wild wicked Greenwich Village in New York City.

Where David Ryan lives now, the basement of 14 Gay St., was where the McKenney sisters lived then. Then as now, the very existence of their apartment — of the whole building, the two rows of fine old buildings — was threatened. Then, it was dynamiting for the new Sixth Ave. subway. Now it’s probing by the Department of Transportation for the Port Authority’s post-9/11 proposed new PATH entrance at Christopher and Waverly.

“Wait,” says David Ryan as he scrabbles around the mare’s nest of the tiny apartment that his own sizable body all but fills. “Wait, I have it somewhere. Ahhhh — ” and he comes up with the LP of the original cast album of “Wonderful Town,” the 1953 Broadway musical starring Roz Russell (again) as Ruth McKenney, Edith Adam as Eileen. Right now in previews toward a Nov. 23 opening at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre is a reborn “Wonderful Town” with Donna Murphy as Ruth, Jennifer Westfeldt as Eileen.

“Here, I also have this,” says Ryan, as he puts his hand on a battered paperbound copy of “My Sister Eileen,” that 1940 play by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, the same team that 13 years later would provide the book of “Wonderful Town” to music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

“I’ve never seen ‘Wonderful Town’ but I saw the ‘My Sister Eileen’ movie [the 1955 remake starring Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Bety Garrett, Bob Fosse] and loved it,” says Celeste Martin, owner of Nos. 14, 16, 18 and 17 Gay St. and of 16, 18 and 19 Christopher St. “I never knew Ruth and Eileen McKenney, but my parents did.”

On the crooked elbow that is Gay St., the freshly whitewashed brick frontage of No. 14 glistens in the dusk. “My mother carried me in one of those apartments,” says Martin, meaning carried before giving birth to.

It is from her parents that Celeste Martin — David Ryan’s landlady — inherited these seven lovely old three-story buildings, and it was her grandfather who lent her father the money to buy them.

“This row is nearly 200 years old,” she says, “though they didn’t keep too many records in those days. I love these buildings deeply, and adored my parents.

“My grandfather was Louis Martin, who came over from France at age 12 or so, and had all his money stolen, and was penniless, but made it here all the same. He had a sail loft on South Street for merchant ships, the biggest sail loft in the East.

“My father, Edmond Martin, was in real estate, and a businessman, and a professional photographer, and a professional painter, and a furniture maker, and a carpenter — most extraordinary. My mother, Ramee Carter Martin, was a painter and singer.

“The character of the landlord, Mr. Appopolous, in ‘My Sister Eileen’ is a takeoff on my father.”

[The Mr. Appopolous of the 1940 Broadway play was Morris Carnovsky. Subsequent Appopoli were George Tobias (1942 “My Sister Eileen” film), Henry Lascoe (1953 “Wonderful Town”), Kurt Kasznar (1955 Hollywood “Sister Eileen” remake) — and, now, David Margulies of the 2003 “Wonderful Town.”]

Retired insurance executive David Ryan stands in the middle of his and the McKenney sisters’ apartment, his head all but scraping the beams of the 6 1/2-ft. ceiling. “Those beams weren’t visible when the sisters lived here,” he says. “They were covered with sheetrock. I uncovered them.”

He points to the grated sidewalk-level window. “That’s the window through which they saw the cops going by, and the conga dancers. And that’s the door through which they heard the explosions while the Sixth Avenue subway was being built. Now the Port Authority wants to turn this apartment into a PATH station.”

“It will demolish Nos. 16, 18, 20 Christopher,” says Celeste Martin, “including all the trees.”

“The only boiler for all these buildings is at No. 18 Christopher. Think of that,” says Ryan.

Think also of this: Ruth McKenney, the bright sister, lived well beyond the day that those two girls from Ohio moved into 14 Gay St., but Eileen McKenney, the beautiful sister, was killed as a newlywed in the crash of a car driven by her husband, the brilliant novelist Nathanael West, who died with her, in California, on Dec. 22, 1940, four days before the Broadway opening of the play that was made from Ruth’s stories about some cops, sailors, subway workers, call girls, publishers and others, in and around the Greenwich Village domicile of two sisters named McKenney at 14 Gay St., basement entrance.


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