Club Cumming shows spark drama at C.B. 3

Singing at Club Cumming before performances there were stopped earlier this year. Photo by Hunter Canning

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Last September, the gay bar formerly known as Eastern Bloc was transformed into Club Cumming. The new bar — whose name comes from Scottish actor Alan Cumming’s notorious post-show dressing-room parties — reinvigorated what had been a longtime favorite East Village nightspot.

Along with Cumming’s new co-ownership came live music and shows. But just months into the location’s rebirth, the State Liquor Authority slapped a violation on the place for not having the proper license to host live performances.

“We were completely unaware of this,” said Benjamin Maisani, one of Club Cummings’s co-owners, who operated the previous bar Eastern Bloc for 14 years. “This is not something that really comes up very often. … It’s a very sort of technical and rather obscure aspect of zoning regulations.”

The seemingly minimal  glitch recently sparked an intense debate at Community Board 3 on whether the bar, at 505 E. Sixth St., should be allowed to modify its liquor license to allow live performances. Atlhough the community board’s recomendation is advisory only and the S.L.A. ultimately has the final say, the board voted against the bar’s application last Tues., April 24.

In an attempt to negotiate a solution, the board set out stipulations to the bar owners, including scrapping the ability to post an online schedule of shows or to have a cover charge. The owners rejected the stipulations.

“It would be a huge burden on the business and how we conduct our business,” Maisani said. The owners are expecting the S.L.A.’s decision on the application for a license alteration in the coming weeks.

The 74-person bar has long been a fixture in the East Village. The new iteration as Club Cumming has made it a unique place. Its “Mondays in the Club With Lance,” a spin-off of the Broadway musical “Sundays in the Park With George,” is drawing in a whole host of Broadway lovers.

Some dinosaur cabaret at Club Cumming when performances were still going on. Photo by Hunter Canning

Lance Horne, an Emmy Award-winning composer, plays the piano each Sunday with his co-host, Hunter Canning, an actor and photographer. It’s a more impromptu-style show, and bargoers never know who might show up to sing. Performers range from “Avenue Q” puppeteer Ben Durocher and Lauren Elder, a 2009 cast member of the Tony-Award winning revival of “Hair,” to Alan Cumming himself.

Elder brings her mother, Ruth Elder, to the bar every time she visits New York.

“It has boosted my confidence in a way that no place else has in years,” she said of the club.

Her mother added that Club Cumming is such a joyful place that she practically plans her trips to New York around going there.

Though the community of the club is still alive, performances have halted for now.

“It’s a very emotional pause,” Horne said. What was once “Mondays in the Club with Lance” have become a party without a piano and around a projector, watching performances of iconic Broadway performers. Horne, originally from Wyoming, said he waited his whole life to move to New York to meet people who love performance the way he does. He found that, and he wants to continue sharing that with them.

Club Cumming has spawned a creative community. Photo by Hunter Canning.

The community board’s S.L.A. Committee meeting was jam-packed in early April, largely by those in support of the club as a live-performance niche in the Village. The committee approved the liquor-license alteration, but only on the condition that the club not have scheduled performances or events with cover fees. But the owners rejected those stipulations.

Last Tuesday, the C.B. 3 full board voted on the matter, recommending denial of Club Cumming’s alteration. Five board members voted in favor of the bar’s altering its license. A handful voiced their support for the business, yet ultimately sided with the board’s resolution against the application.

“We like the place,” David Crane, chairperson of C.B. 3’s Transportation, Public Safety and Environment Committee, told the meeting just before the vote last Tuesday.

“From what we can tell, there’s no problems with it,” he said. “But the Department of Buildings has told us that it is zoned so that they can’t have scheduled performances and cover charges.

“We really can’t judge it here,” he added. “But it is painful for me, but I will vote ‘Yes’ on the motion as written.”

Grant Shaffer, who is married to co-owner Alan Cumming, painting at Club Cumming. Photo by Hunter Canning

Crane was referring to what became the critical justification for voting against the club’s alteration. Susan Stetzer, the district manager of C.B. 3, said at the S.L.A. Committee meeting earlier that month that D.O.B. issued a statement to her explaining that the club was in Use Group 6 — a specific zoning group that does not allow scheduled performances, ticketed sales or events with cover fees, according to Stetzer’s statement in the meeting minutes.

But a D.O.B. spokesperson told The Villager otherwise. Because the building was constructed before 1938, it does not have what is known as a “certificate of occupancy” — which is what sparked the whole debate after a 311 complaint was lodged over the club lacking a valid “C of O.”

The building also has a so-called nonconforming commercial use, specifically, a commercial use in what is technically a residential zone — in this case, a bar on a residential sidestreet. However, because the building is pre-1938, it does not need a certificate of occupancy, according to D.O.B. Additionally, the “nonconforming commercial use” is allowed because of the building’s age, according to a D.O.B. spokesperson. A 311 complaint about “no C of O” led D.O.B. to send an inspector to check out the address on Dec. 22, 2017. The department found no violation that day. A spokesperson added that the department has no jurisdiction over issues related to live-performance ticketing.

However, despite D.O.B.’s finding of nothing amiss, the S.L.A. issued a violation at the end of February. That, in turn, sent Club Cumming to the community board for approval of a liquor-license modifcation.

“I’ve been doing this in the same manner for businesses for 14 years, always in the same manner,” Stetzer said, referring to a statement she received from D.O.B. on the zoning regulations for that particular site. “It’s not a question of sometimes we’ll support the law if we’ll agree with it, and sometimes we won’t.”

She added that if others had differing information from a different lawyer outside D.O.B., she hoped they would share it with the board office. Stetzer acknowledged that sometimes different parties or agencies come to different conclusions.

Enjoying and emoting at Club Cumming, before the State Liquor Authority said performances there were illegal without a proper permit. Photo by Jeffrey H. Campagna

“This is a question of following the zoning,” she said, “and if there are discrepancies in findings, we should be very transparent and try to get to the bottom of it.”

Stetzer, Crane and Alysha Lewis-Coleman, the chairperson of C.B. 3, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

City Councilmember Carlina Rivera is hoping a solution can be reached.

“As Club Cumming moves forward with their application, we are hoping our stakeholders can ultimately agree on process and community benefit regarding this establishment,” she said. “I am a strong supporter of community boards and know they need technical support to make informed decisions, especially on land-use issues that can affect their resolutions. I am hoping that with enough resources, we can work together to bring responsible, cultural institutions into our neighborhoods.”

Club Cumming received overwhelming support at both the C.B. 3 committee and full board meeting, in contrast to the few complaints it has received over the course of several months. Amber Martin, a neighbor and regular of the bar, testified at last Tuesday’s board member, identifying herself as an East Villager who has lived around the corner from it for 11 years.

“We believe that Club Cumming is an asset to our community, on so many levels,” Martin told the meeting. “If anything, I feel safer as a single woman living alone in the East Village with this venue doing what they’re doing.”

Another performer, Amy Ackerman, began singing at the club on Mondays back in February, just weeks before the live performances went on hiatus. She was hesitant at first — but eventually summoned up the nerve to sing “Moments in the Woods” from “Into the Woods.”

“This place has been game-changing for me,” she said.

Amy Ackerman, right, singing with Ben Durocher, said she feels comfortable at Club Cumming and that it’s an accepting space for all. Photo by Jeffrey H. Campagna

Ackerman has long loved theater but realized her body often does not conform to what theater professionals demand. There was no judgment, and an instant community formed at the club, she said. The club, for her, is a place of solace. Most so-called gay bars can often feel like a space for “cisgender gay men,” she added. Club Cumming as a queer space doesn’t feel exclusionary in that way for her — plus, she can sing there.

“In Club Cumming,” she said, “I can take up all the space that I take up — and it’s totally celebrated.”

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