Cinema Classics opened in the East Village in March of 1998 as a video store, cafe and screening room for classic American and international films. The space acquired a liquor license in 2002 and began booking weekly comedy shows and dance parties; the first of which to take root was Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale’s iconic “Invite Them Up” showcase and the Friday night Britpop rager “Trash!”
The space later adopted the name Rififi and became a hub for a plucky creative underclass of comedians seeking refuge from the standards and practices of the club comedy world. A piebald assortment of comedy, burlesque and DJs began filling the bar seven nights a week.
As the venue’s popularity rose and its bathrooms grew more and more nightmarish—a true hallmark of any countercultural performing arts space—the video angle of the business was jettisoned to a separate location so Rififi could accommodate the patrons and drinking habits of a thrilling contemporary scene for comedy on a full-time basis.
“A lot of people worked very hard over the years to build up Rififi’s reputation amongst both comics and audiences that it is a place where comedians are going to try new things,” explains Max Silvestri. “You have a venue where the audiences are ready and excited to see experimentation and are intelligent about comedy and the comics know they can really do something different.”
In early 2007, performers at Rififi were shocked to learn that the place was put up for sale. You can’t unknow something like that. It plants an unmoving fear in the brain cells of every host and producer that a new owner might suddenly breeze in and change all the wallpaper. Or throw your baby out with the bathwater. Whichever one is a scarier metaphor for the termination of you and your baby.
The listing foreshadowed a more worrisome concern. Rififi’s booking manager Antonio explains, “Trash! was certainly the biggest money-maker for Rififi, however, it was also the reason that a certain neighbor besieged the 311 line with complaints every week.”
I can tell you from experience that “Trash!” at Rififi was one of the best places ever to dance to The Human League and then spew a bellyful of vodka tonics on the pavement outside. But the occasional street-pool of barf is all part of the New York experience, right?
Not anymore. An abusive smear campaign perpetrated by douchey nearby tenants seeking to push Rififi out had blighted the venue’s liquor license renewal efforts. The license expired in October of 2007. However, a temporary one has been issued until a hearing can be scheduled. As a result, “Trash!” was sadly forced to end its run at Rififi.
The liquor license woes created a cloudy shitstorm of jitters over many of the producers of recurring comedy shows. “Invite Them Up” as well as shows helmed by Matt Goldich, Max Silvestri, Gabe and Jenny, Jon Friedman and Slightly Known People have all either switched venues, announced a grand finale or shelved their shows indefinitely in Manhattan Mini-Storage.
People talk as if its closure is inevitable and that it’s coming at the end of February. Jon Friedman, host of “Slightly Buzzed,” acknowledges the difficulty in deciding to pull his show out but admits, “I would not be where I am today without my experiences at Rififi. I love it and I will miss it.”
Despite the uncertainties, owner Robert Goldsmith denied that Rififi would be closing soon.
Several people had alleged that Goldsmith isn’t terribly crazy about the comedy that goes on there; it’s said that he prefers to keep to his movie business while leaving the management of Rififi largely in the hands of the bookers, bartenders and producers.
“I don’t think the owner really was against comedy per se, he was just against putting extra money in making it into a comedy and performance space,” says Bobby Tisdale. “For example, I had to beg him to actually build a stage. When Eugene and I started there wasn’t a stage.”
Some producers are proverbially standing by their man, optimistic that everything will be all right. Joe Mande, who plans to keep “Totally J/K” there for the time being says, “A lot of shows have moved to Brooklyn, but we want to stay in lower Manhattan. It’s hard finding a place like Rififi—a performance space that’s separate from the bar with adequate video/audio equipment and bathrooms that most certainly will give you AIDS.”
I told you the loos were bad news. However, Rififi’s cozy dark interiors, clean stage lighting and convivial welcome-wagon atmosphere makes up for them. However, none of it does patrons or performers any good if the place winds up unceremoniously shuttered.
“Whether or not the liquor license will be revoked is up in the air,” explains Antonio. “The owner is making an effort to keep Rififi open, and it seems as though Rififi will remain open for at least another four or five months and could remain open permanently if the license is saved and hopefully will continue to operate as it has been.”
Totally J/K every Monday, Rififi, 332 E. 11th St. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.), 212-677-1027; 8, $5. full schedule at rififinyc.com