Return of a Palace

The Loews crumbling façade. Photo by Rich in Kensington, flickr.com

A shuttered discount store and an empty lot in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn frame one of New York’s greatest treasures—a majestic theater that has been both adored and forgotten. Churches a few blocks away now advertise on the marquees of the old Abermarle and Rialto theaters. The old Kenmore Theater has been gutted, and it’s now a Modell’s sporting goods store. Often for the worse, these old movie houses are still in use, while the grandest of them all, the Loew’s Kings Theater on Flatbush Avenue, has been left empty for almost 30 years. But in January of this year, ACE Theatrical Group of Houston announced its intention to undertake a $70 million restoration of the theater. It is the most recent attempt to bring the Kings back into the spotlight.

Along this section of Flatbush Avenue, the Kings is a transplant from another era. There are shops where people can buy wigs made of real and artificial hair in blonde, purple, and green. There are discount furniture stores, toy stores filled with bright packaging, and a Payless Shoe source. A façade of ornately laid terra cotta tile and carved stone rises high above it all. A glass booth that once used to hold the Kings’s ticket taker is now protected by metal bars. Inside, the grandeur of the theater is still intact, though water damage has seeped through the roof, destroying the large stage curtains and over 3,600 red velvet seats. Marble bathrooms sit untouched and the Kings’s large basement basketball court no longer holds games between the ushers of various theaters.

If it were operational, the Kings would be the third-largest theater in New York. The venue, which opened just before the Great Depression, continued to serve its patrons until just after the violence of the 1977 blackout. September 7, 1929, marked opening night for the Kings, where patrons paid less than 50 cents to see live performances as well as a screening of the movie Evangeline, complete with an appearance by its star, Dolores del Rio. A month later, the stock market crash rippled out from Manhattan through the rest of the country, devastating nearly everything but people’s desire to escape into movies. The Kings managed to stay open for almost 50 years as the neighborhood shifted around it. Victorian houses gave way to apartment buildings, while easy access to cable television caused the eventual closure of five theaters within five blocks on Flatbush Avenue, where the Kings still stands.

The neighborhood was starting to fall apart, erupting into violence in July 1977 when the New York City blackout started a craze of looting and violence that put many businesses into bankruptcy. The Kings was not directly affected by the blackout, but its last showing—Islands in the Stream, based on Hemingway’s posthumous novel—played in August of the same year. The neighborhood had simply gotten too rough to sustain a theater more grand than the movie-going experience itself.

“It wasn’t a movie theater, it was a movie palace,” said Ron Schweiger, Brooklyn borough historian. Most people who frequented the Kings speak of it in ways that border on hyperbole. But the remnants of Loew’s Kings Theater and other movie palaces are the urban castles of the United States. The firm Rapp and Rapp, designers of many of Loew’s wonder theaters, including the Kings, were responsible for the architecture of movie palaces stretching from Denver to Chicago. Most mimic architecture common to royal estates—sweeping staircases, high ornate ceilings, and intricate craftsmanship inside and out. Even Barbara Streisand, a young usherette at Loew’s Kings, wanted to see her name in the lights of the Flatbush Avenue marquee—and did, in 1968, with the release of Funny Girl. Henry Winkler and Sylvester Stallone also wore the purple and gray bellhop-like uniforms of the Kings’s ushers. The outfits had stripes running down the pant legs and gold buttons gleaming from gray jackets.

 There was something about the grand theater that captured people. A few decades of Brooklyn’s public high school students held their graduation ceremonies at the Kings. The school’s bands were led through the orchestra pit into lines of chairs in the dark. On cue, student musicians would start playing as the stage rose beneath them—the hydraulic system was still functional from the Kings’s opening in 1929. Ron Schweiger’s wife was one of these students, a flautist who actually lost track of her music as soon as that stage began to move.

After 50 years, former Ditmas Park resident Perry Newman can still recall sitting through four consecutive viewings of West Side Story at the Kings. “Today people are going crazy over 3D and high definition sound; just imagine watching a movie on six of those theaters’ screens put together,” said Newman. More than just a big venue, the Loew’s had a community flavor. For Newman, “It was a piece of Brooklyn history.”

Nicholas Archer, now a Broadway conductor and musician, also grew up near the Kings. He remembers being awed as a child by the cavernous openness of the main room: “It was so big that you could run up and down the aisles and any movie you saw there was even better because of that screen.” The second floor balcony is shallow and barely covers the orchestra seating, leaving room to look straight up. Ron Schweiger recalls, “You almost felt like royalty because of the height of the ceiling. It wasn’t your typical theater; it was built as the flagship theater for the whole Loew’s chain.” The grandeur demanded something more from its guests. Archer recalls the Kings being the “dress up” place to take a date, whereas the other Flatbush Avenue theaters were just for fun.

After the Kings’s last showing, the theater was abandoned. Large murals that once appeared above the balcony’s box seats were stolen, peeled carefully enough to keep them intact. No one knows where the murals reside today, only that the job would have taken hours and required the use of a ladder to reach the top corners. In the midst of vandalism, nature took its own toll on the Kings. The roof began to collapse and water poured in, damaging the padded velvet seats and streaking dirt on the walls.

Bruce Friedman was just one of many people who couldn’t let the Kings be forgotten. In 1987, he met a 74-year-old woman named Dorothy who had managed the Loew’s in the early 1960s. The stories she told Friedman about the theater were passed on to potential investors and the project Save the Kings was born. Over the past two decades, Friedman regularly brought people to the theater, hoping to hook them into giving the money necessary for its restoration. He could count on the support of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who also had fond memories of the theater’s past glory. A few big-name figures like Magic Johnson almost took the bait, but the Kings stayed closed. Meanwhile, water continued to corrode the theater.

This past winter, Friedman and Markowitz finally succeeded, and news of the Kings’s restoration was met with great fanfare. It will be at least three more years until the public sees the theater brought back to life—this time as a live entertainment venue. Though ACE Theatrical group will be spearheading the restoration, the New York City Economic Development Corporation has committed $50 million to the project; ACE can also count on $15 million in tax credits. With the developer only responsible for a $5 million down payment and expenses that go over budget, the restoration truly belongs to Brooklyn.

Over the summer, new black-and-white graffiti has finally touched the tiled façade outside. First one and now multiple groupings of large bubble letters scrawl the tag of a resident whose parents may not have even been alive on opening night of the Kings Theater. Marcus Loew used to say that people came to his theaters to see the theater itself, but today a visit to his flagship movie palace is nothing more than a ghost hunt. Until the theater opens again, people can only peer through the grated doors, hoping to catch a glimpse inside.

Contributor

T. K. Danovich

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