NEW YORK — Sarah Saltzberg knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actor and a writer, too, because she loved concocting improvisations.
But never during her childhood did Saltzberg fantasize about a life in real estate.
This is not one of those stories with a surprise ending, so the cards are going on the table right now: Saltzberg, 42, who made good and continues to make good in the theater, is also a founder, with Jon Goodell, of Bohemia Realty Group, a 6-year-old niche company that specializes in rentals and sales, river to river from 96th Street to the top of Inwood, plus a bit of the Bronx.
Saltzberg’s staff shares her creative inclinations. The majority of Bohemia’s 120 agents have degrees in the performing arts. The roster includes actors, dancers, burlesque performers, an opera singer and a professional clown. The head of training at the company is a folk/rock singer and songwriter. The uncertainty that is part and parcel of a real estate agent’s life (where, oh where, is that next commission coming from?) is familiar to actors who routinely deal with similar anxiety (where, oh where, is the next role coming from?).
“Real estate is constantly shifting. You have to hustle to be successful, which is the same as being an artist,” said Emily Ackerman, a Bohemia sales agent who is also an actor and playwright. “We’re comfortable with instability. In fact, a lot of us thrive on it.”
Prospective sales agents will undoubtedly be relieved to learn that no audition is required and that the culture of the agency’s two offices — in West Harlem and Washington Heights — is decidedly un-corporate. Employees bring dogs and babies to work, and have been known to break into song — with perfect pitch, of course.
“I’ve worked at traditional real estate companies, and agents didn’t speak to each other,” Ackerman said. “But the vibe here is very different.”
She added: “So many of us have collaborative experiences working in the arts, and we’ve translated that directly to our real estate business. We work together on deals.”
Some Bohemia staff members will work on a Broadway show for several months, then come back to Bohemia. “The door is always open,” said Brian Letendre, a sales agent for high-end properties and an actor whose credits include featured and principal roles in the musicals “Urban Cowboy,” “Movin’ Out” and “Mary Poppins.”
“Working in real estate has allowed me choice,” he continued. “I can be more selective about what I want to audition for and the roles I want to take.”
And, Letendre insisted, he is relentless on both fronts. “I go after the property a client wants just the way I go after an acting job,” he said.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, a number of Bohemia clients are also in the arts. Among them are Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Benj Pasek, who helped write the Tony Award-winning score for “Dear Evan Hansen,” Laura Benanti, a Tony Award-winning actor who has a standing gig as Melania Trump on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” and Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout in the forthcoming Broadway adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as well as stage managers and ensemble members of musicals.
And who would know better than Saltzberg and her Bohemia colleagues how tough it is for a theater person to get approved by a bank or a co-op board?
“I’ll say to landlords, ‘Hey, I know that on paper this person looks like a risk, but let me explain what this means: This guy just got a job in ‘Hamilton.’ That show is not closing. He’s going to be in that show for a while,'” Saltzberg said. She is also able to tell potential clients which buildings have flexible management companies and board presidents.
“This is a relationship business the same as other businesses,” she said. “And when you specialize in a geographic area the way we do, and you really have an understanding of the people in the neighborhood and the people who are running things, you can get things done in a way that maybe you couldn’t do otherwise.”
Saltzberg got into the business in 2002 while helping to develop and raise money for a fledgling show that would grow up to become the Broadway musical comedy hit “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
She had a featured role in the show as the lisping, pigtailed Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, “the daughter of two gay dads,” a character that she created (and that continues to provide her a few thousand dollars in royalty payments every year).
“A friend was like, ‘You should do real estate. Just do it for a little bit. It takes 40 hours to get your license. Make a bunch of money. Put it in your show, and then you can stop doing it,'” Saltzberg recalled. “And I was like, ‘That sounds pretty good.'”
Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright for whom Saltzberg was then working as a weekend nanny, urged her on as well.
Three weeks after becoming a sales agent, Saltzberg, who was living on Central Park West and 108th Street at the time, took note of the vacancies in her building. She phoned the landlord about showing them. He hung up. She dialed again. He hung up again.
“I kept calling until he finally listened to me,” Saltzberg said. “I was like, ‘I’m what you want: I’m young, I’m energetic, I’m an artist. Artists are OK with living in these parts of the city that are not fully developed yet, and I have tons of friends who would want to move into the vacant apartments.'”
It was a Thursday. The landlord gave Saltzberg the weekend to make good. By Monday, she had applications on all the available units.
Something clicked. “I found that it was all a lot like being an actor,” she said. “It was persistence and using improvisation to solve problems.”
Since then, she has seen the neighborhood evolve. “When I first started doing this, I walked through drug deals with clients all the time,” she recalled. “We’d get to the apartment, and I’d have to think fast, so I’d say things like, ‘Well, at least you know you don’t have to go very far.'”
Within months, she said, the formerly skeptical landlord opened his expansive portfolio of buildings in Upper Manhattan to her.
All the while, “Spelling Bee” was moving on a fast track to Broadway. “Once we opened, I was thinking, ‘I don’t need to do real estate anymore because I’m making a living wage with the show,'” said Saltzberg, who worked at several other agencies before starting Bohemia. “But I realized I loved it. I loved that what you put into it was what you got out of it. I loved the art of the deal, and I loved the neighborhoods I was working in. It was very exciting to be part of them.”
Between performances on matinee days, she showed properties, frequently to other actors, frequently in the company of “Spelling Bee” castmate Jose Llana, a future star of the David Byrne operetta “Here Lies Love,” who had gotten his real estate license, too.
“We were in Upper Manhattan, where a lot of Broadway people would be looking,” Saltzberg said. “And sometimes they would be like, ‘You look so familiar.’ And we’d say, ‘Well, have you seen “Spelling Bee”?’ There was so much trust because clients knew us from this other thing.”
Ferguson took due note as Saltzberg sized up the agents on the other side of the deal when he was looking for a pied-à-terre in Chelsea. “I watched Sarah figure out how to work with them based on what they brought into the room. She has this great ‘Yes and —’ skill.”
“As an actor, Sarah puts herself into other people’s shoes, and I think that makes her more attuned to her clients’ needs,” said Benanti, who turned to Saltzberg for assistance in finding a two-bedroom, two-bathroom co-op in Upper Manhattan.
If Saltzberg’s theater training has been a help in her real estate career, her real estate training has proved equally useful in the theater.
“I have learned things about business that I had never learned as an actor,” she said. “I could do a great Irish accent, but I couldn’t look at a contract and think, ‘This doesn’t make sense. I have to negotiate on this and this point’ and fight for what I want. And that’s a huge pitch we make to agents with an arts background who come into the firm.”
As both an actor/writer and a real estate broker, Saltzberg knows the importance of setting a scene. Shrewdly, she has made Bohemia’s offices a celebration of the neighborhoods they serve. Vintage photos of subway cars hang in the Bohemia outpost on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 113th Street. The centerpiece of the reception area is a map of legendary Harlem nightspots. In the agency’s Washington Heights office, work by local artists is displayed.
By way of strengthening its community ties, Bohemia contributes money and time to the Harlem Children’s Zone and Morningside Park, and does adoption events for Bideawee.
“Sarah lives in Harlem and loves Harlem, and it comes across,” said Avi Feldman, a partner in Omek Capital, which develops rental buildings, mostly in the 125th Street corridor, and retains Bohemia as its exclusive rental broker. “She involves herself in neighborhood activities and is an integral part of the community.”
Saltzberg can be forgiven if she seems a little distracted at the moment. She is working on marketing for the Ammann, a condominium that has just opened in Hudson Heights; Bohemia is the exclusive agent for the development.
And come Monday, there will be another opening, this one on Broadway, for the musical “Gettin’ the Band Back Together.” Saltzberg is credited with providing “additional material” (and is pleased to report that two former Bohemia sales agents, Ryan Duncan and Tad Wilson, are members of the show’s ensemble).
“We’re offering discounts on tickets to friends and business associates in Harlem,” she said. “And to my son’s preschool.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.