Then it was a (fill in the blank) _______________.
Then it was a theater again.
In cities and towns all over America, the above pattern is playing itself out, where fortune and lack of real estate opportunism have left great theaters still standing through the dark eclipse of movie palaces in the seventies and, in many cases, after sometimes clandestine makeovers. In the case of the St. George Theatre (2,672 seats in Staten Island), which I spent a year of my life (1976) running as a movie palace, there were several transformations (roller-rink, dinner theater, flea market). Fortunately, other than a fire, which left a large hole in the stage and destroyed a gorgeous house curtain, the most disastrous alteration the St. George underwent was the leveling of its “rake,” (the flattening of the orchestra floor). This may have seemed like a brilliant notion to a lost-in-time roller-rink entrepreneur, but when Rosemary Cappozalo turned in her life savings to rescue the old grand dame of a palace, she and her daughters found it difficult to recreate normal seating downstairs. Patrons seated in the back row had to stand to see over the heads of the rest of the audience. A series of platforms beneath the balcony overhang has somewhat ameliorated this problem, but nothing beats walking (literally) down the aisle of a theater. Which brings me to the subject of a reno in progress: the Brooklyn Paramount.
What does it take to repurpose a theater that has spent more than fifty years as a basketball court? Just as the St. George lost its rake, the Brooklyn Paramount did as well. After its floor was leveled, boards of polished maple, nets with backboards left and right, and, beneath the proscenium, a scoreboard, completed the transformation. Long Island University, which had purchased the Paramount, outfitted it in the early nineteen sixties as a home for its basketball team, the Blackbirds. Still, LIU was keeping an eye all along on the possible future of this Rapp and Rapp beauty. The remodelers preserved the theater’s ornate filigreed ceiling — a surreal vision, no doubt, for the occasional fallen basketball player looking skyward! They also saw fit to leave untouched its 4 manual, 26 rank 1928 Wurlitzer. The organ was a unique feature, I’m told, at home games, where it rose suddenly on its platform to blast the Blackbirds home to victory. Thanks to the New York Theatre Organ Society, which came regularly to tune and maintain the instrument and all of its 1838 pipes, this rare organ suffered a better fate than the one we never got to see at the St. George, which, like so many theater organs, had already been sold for parts, some of which, in the St. George's case, we traced to a pizza parlor in Texas. Speaking of the Paramount's organ, get a load of this clip of Mark Herman, a young organist, cutting loose with “Give my Regards to Broadway.”
Everything is cyclical. The Blackbirds have a new home court these days, just down the street, and Brooklyn itself is undergoing a renaissance, not unlike the one that’s overtaken downtown L.A., where the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, the Palace, and the Orpheum, (which boasts one of the 3 remaining pipe organs in Southern Calfornia — can this be right??), have put on new performance gowns.
Returning to Brooklyn, the Paramount’s career as a sports venue is over. A 49-year lease and a 50-million-dollar reno by a corporate and community consortium under the aegis of Paramount Events Center, will make it the second grand old hall on Flatbush Avenue to return to its roots in performance.
What roots? In the 1950’s when Rock was in its cradle, the DJ Alan Freed (who arguably coined the term “Rock & Roll,”) headlined a young Chuck Berry and an equally spry Jerry Lee Lewis at the Brooklyn Paramount and its sister Paramount theater in Manhattan, breaking the color barrier, both for performers and for audiences and taking the rap for “inciting juvenile delinquency.” Rock, in those days, was considered by some, at best lewd and at worst completely immoral. Before its Rock days, this fine old hall held and gave back the voices of Dizzy, Frank, and Ella (are last names necessary?) In those glory days, it sported better than four thousand seats, second only to the roughly six-thousand seat Radio City Music Hall.
So here’s to the old theaters, that have done their time and come back (The United Palace, part church but mostly performance hall these days, one of New York’s five “Wonder Theaters,”), the Kings, (formerly Loew’s Kings) right down the street from the Paramount in Flatbush , and so many others including, yes, our own St. George.
And don't fogey that, for all the revivals, there are plenty of halls that no longer exist (the Albee in Cincinnati, the Roxy in NYC, the Paramount in L.A., and so many more. When Joni Mitchell wrote “They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot,” (“Big Yellow Taxi)” I always thought she was referring to the Paradise Theatre in Chicago (a Balaban and Katz confection), demolished in 1956. But I had my facts wrong; they turned it into a supermarket -- no parking lot, pink hotel or “swinging hot spot.”
* * *
Afterthought: For those of you who followed, with some interest, the previews of the latest Treasures of New York documentary series about our own St. George Theatre, on (local NY) PBS, but haven’t yet viewed the whole half hour, here’s a link. I’m pleased to say Dean and I are part of it, in more than a passing sense!