The Letterman Fan
Tom Acitelli Sept. 28, 2009, 5:49 p.m.
Brian Ezratty had only been a broker for eight short years when he inked one of those once-in-a-lifetime fantasy deals that people tend to read about in the papers and then later wonder what would’ve happened had the sale not been successful.
In this case, it was a deal that not only established Mr. Ezratty as a premier broker at Eastern Consolidated, but may have also been a key ingredient in the revival of Times Square. Oh, and it may have even kept David Letterman from fleeing New York for California.
“That was a fun one,” said Mr. Ezratty, when asked about the 1993 sale of the Ed Sullivan Theater to CBS in a last-minute, over-the-top overture to Mr. Letterman, who had signed a contract with the Tiffany Network after NBC snubbed him by installing Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show.
Until then, Mr. Ezratty, 51, had been trafficking primarily in parking lots and Class B office towers—lucrative, no doubt, but far less sexy than the marquee studio that beckoned. Indeed, since joining Eastern Consolidated, Mr. Ezratty estimates that he has leased just shy of 100 garage deals across the city and $9 billion in sales over the past 24 years.
“Parking garages and parking lots are about 2 percent of my business,” said Mr. Ezratty last week from his Lexington Avenue office in midtown. “It’s just something I’ve always done. I sell a building and I see a garage in the building. I see a lease expiring in a year, and I just say, ‘Let me handle it.’”
But Mr. Ezratty’s focus changed in 1993, when he was hired by Boston-based First Winthrop to broker a deal for the Ed Sullivan Theater and an adjoining 80,000-square-foot office building.
Dilapidated and rotting away from years of neglect, the theater on Broadway had sunk a long way from its previous life as the home of the legendary host Ed Sullivan. When Mr. Ezratty came on board, in fact, it was being used for what he described as a bizarre combination of high-definition television and performance art that tended to draw as few as 50 or 60 spectators a night.
“The place was pretty disgusting,” recalled Mr. Ezratty, who said the tenant at the time owed six months rent and was in arrears for as much as $600,000. “The bathrooms were gross. It was in such dilapidated shape, you couldn’t even sit in the seats.”
Mr. Ezratty, nonetheless, shopped the 82-year-old theater around to people like music promoter Ron Delsner, among other theater proprietors, all of whom showed significant interest. But it was only after the feud between Mr. Letterman and NBC became public—and shortly after the host signed a contract with CBS—that Mr. Ezratty blindly called CBS to pitch the well-worn property.
The real estate people at CBS were cagey at first, telling Mr. Ezratty not to believe everything he read in the papers. But when the negotiations between CBS and Mr. Letterman continued, Mr. Ezratty received a call from those same people, now insisting that the network was very interested in discussing a deal. All was good, in fact, until news broke that Mr. Letterman would be heading to California and hosting his show from L.A.
“We were negotiating a deal to buy the theater, and in the middle of that, the New York Post comes out with a story: ‘Letterman moving to California. CBS buying studio in Los Angeles,’” Mr. Ezratty said. “I called up my guys and said, ‘What the fuck is that? Is there any truth?’ And they said, ‘Brian, don’t believe everything you read.’”
In the end, CBS rushed to ink a deal, closing for $4.5 million that February in a whirlwind bid to renovate the studio in time for the show’s premiere in August of 1993. The renovations would end up costing CBS an additional $15 million as well as nearly $1 million in debt owed by the tenant that the network paid in order to avoid court delays.
The sale marked one of the earliest big projects in Times Square’s early ’90s revival and paved the way for others over the next few years, earning Mr. Ezratty the Real Estate Board of New York’s “Most Ingenious Deal of the Year” award the same year.
“I’m a Letterman fan,” laughed Mr. Ezratty when asked who among the late-night hosts he prefers. “I kind of feel obligated to be a Letterman fan.”
MR. EZRATTY WAS BORN in Long Beach, Long Island, to a pair of longtime garment-district manufacturers. A competitive young man, he played high-school varsity baseball and other sports before taking the reins at his parents’ sportswear manufacturing company in the late 1970s. When the company went global, however, Mr. Ezratty chose to change careers rather than run the business from the Orient.
Armed with a Wharton School of Business degree but almost no real experience to speak of, save for a few deals he made on behalf of the family garment business, Mr. Ezratty set out for a career as a real estate broker.
“I met with 15 different firms and basically got 15 different offers,” said Mr. Ezratty, who added that his goal had always been to own property. “People figured Wharton School education, you own your own business and you’re entrepreneurial—it’s a good match. But, really, I had no real estate experience at all.”
When he was hired at Eastern Consolidated in 1985, Mr. Ezratty was among just four brokers at the four-year-old company, a number that would skyrocket to more than 40 brokers over the next two decades.
Along the way, he was included in Crain’s annual “40 under 40” list in 1996, in part because of the Ed Sullivan deal and those rapidly increasing parking garage leases. Mr. Ezratty has inked approximately 30 deals a year since the early ’90s, including dozens on behalf of big-name developers like Harry Macklowe and Steve Witkoff, among other titans.
But similar to many in Mr. Ezratty’s field, sales have dropped since last year, as fewer development deals are being made in a crushing economy.
“What we look at is sales, and the volume has dropped dramatically,” said Mr. Ezratty, the father of two children, one of whom celebrates her bat mitzvah this week and another who is touring colleges to study filmmaking. He lives with his wife, Debbie Ezratty, in Westchester. “For the last 15 years, I’ve done 25 to 30 deals a year, and this year maybe I’ve done 10 deals; and of those 10 about five of them were parking deals. So clearly the volume is way off.”
“I think there will be a flood of deals,” Mr. Ezratty added. “But it could take another six to 12 months to get to that point.”