Webster Hall

Art & Culture | History

Built in 1886 this Club and Concert Venue is Recognized as the First Modern Nightclub

Webster Hall balcony view east village

About Webster Hall

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • Built in 1886, Webster Hall is one of the oldest and most famous concert venues in New York.
  • Recently renovated, it has a dark Renaissance vibe with a grand ballroom, an upstairs wrap-around balcony and elegant gold stenciling in the woodwork.  Check out the fluted glass around the bar, an homage to previous windows in the building.
  • You’ll hear music of all genres here, from Hip-Hop to Alternative to Country. It holds around 1,400 people and most concerts are standing-room-only.  Bring your ID even if your music is from the ‘80s.  They card everyone.
  • Considered one of the first-ever modern nightclubs, here is a bit of its storied history:
    • From its opening through the early 1900s, it was a “hall for rent” that hosted many society parties and balls.
    • In the 1910s and 1920s, anarchist Emma Goldman held union rallies and women’s rights conferences at Webster Hall. More about this below!
    • Also in the 1920s, the club became an integral part of the early LGBT scene. Gay men hosted balls where guests and performers were free to show up in full drag.
    • Between the anarchists, the drag parties and risqué masquerade balls for high-society folk, Webster Hall earned the nickname “The Devil’s Playhouse.”  More on that below.
    • During the 1950s, the building became a recording studio for RCA Victor Records, welcoming Julie Andrews, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Ray Charles, Perry Como, Sergio Franchi, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra.
    • In 1962 a budding singer-songwriter whose name later became ubiquitous with the Village made his recording debut at the studio.  Yes, I am sure you have guessed by now, it was Bob Dylan.  He played harmonica on Harry Belafonte’s album titled Midnight Special.
    • In 1980, Webster Hall was renamed The Ritz and hosted concerts by Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, The Pretenders, Prince, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Sting, Mick Jagger, Aerosmith, and KISS.
    • U2, Sting, and Depeche Mode all played their first American shows here.
    • Landmarked in 2008 and closed for renovations in 2017, the iconic venue reopened to much acclaim in 2019 with Jay-Z as the headliner.
Poster for a Webster Hall Costume Ball
Poster for a Webster Hall Costume Ball

Carpe City Trivia

Anarchy in Webster Hall!

As a “hall for rent,” the space held vast intersections of society, sometimes serving as a high-end nightclub for uptown elites, and other times a rally, lecture, and fundraising venue for the radicals, anarchists, immigrant organizers, and socialists, particularly Emma Goldman and Crystal Eastman. These women stood for free love, birth control, and ”the right to beautiful, radiant things” (this was anarchy in the 1910s). Also held here in 1920 were meetings of the Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Defense Committee. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian anarchists charged with armed robbery. The pair’s trial became world-famous as a flashpoint in the justice system, as many jurors brought their anti-immigrant and anti-Italian biases into the courtroom, and sentenced the pair to death, despite a claimed lack of evidence.

Garment Workers Meeting at Webster Hall
Garment Workers Meeting at Webster Hall

"The Devil's Playhouse"

Webster Hall acquired the nickname the “Devil’s Playhouse” from a socialist magazine, called The Masses, in the 1920s. During this time, Webster Hall was known for its elaborate masquerade parties that often brought out risqué behavior. People were able to dress however they pleased, allowing them to explore their sexuality and styles. It wasn’t just Webster Hall’s LGBTQ cultural legacy that earned the nickname. Indeed, regardless of the event or patrons at the “Devil’s Playhouse,” alcohol flowed freely, even (especially?) during Prohibition. Webster Hall was one of many famous speakeasies in the area. The Hall, like other speakeasies, functioned by bribing police to avoid raids. The masquerade parties continued and the drinks flowed, attracting famous artists like Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Stella, Man Ray, and Francis Picabia, as well as writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Bob Brown, and other luminaries from all walks of life. Speaking of the devil, it was rumored that the infamous mob boss Al Capone owned Webster Hall during Prohibition – alas, this is not true.

When Prohibition finally did end, the Devil’s Playhouse threw one of its wildest celebrations: The Return of John Barleycorn. This party was held on New Year’s Eve, counting down the hours until booze was legal again.

Costume Ball at Webster Hall
Costume Ball at Webster Hall

NYC Records it all!

During its time as the RCA recording studio, Webster Hall was highly lauded for its acoustics and considered one of the best recording studios in the city, which is no easy task considering its company. New York has always been a haven for the creative types, and so many studios in the city have made indelible marks on the musical world. Some of the most notable places where famous musicians brought their talent on a consistent basis are:

  • The Hit Factory – now the headquarters for the Music Theatre International, this former studio hosted Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Barry Manilow, and Patti Smith
  • Cutting Room Studios – still in use, Cutting Room is known to handle audio post-production for TV shows and film as well as music. Recently, it’s been a hotspot for famous rappers like Future, Post Malone, Wale and Cardi B.
  • CBS 30th Street – this studio is home to two sound rooms, Studios C & D, and is considered by some as the greatest recording studio in history. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Miles Davis, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, and Pink Floyd recorded material here
  • Power Station at BerkleeNYC – formerly Avatar Studios, this award-winning space has hosted Iggy Pop, the Clash, Madonna and Eric Clapton
  • Electric Lady Studios – arguably the most famous, Electric Lady was founded by Jimi Hendrix just before his death in 1970. Famous customers include John Lennon, Santana, David Bowie, Foreigner, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones, and more recently Lady Gaga, Adele, Kanye West, Residente, Taylor Swift, Lorde, and dozens of others.
By: Kelly McDermott, Ariel Kates & Owen Norris

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