A friend mused the other day that saving old palaces might be quixotic, perhaps not cost-efficient. Back in 1976 when we tried to turn the St. George around, this was certainly the case. The St. George closed in 1977, as did Loew’s Kings, a fatally significant year for movie palaces. In Cincinnati, my beloved Albee (see previous blog post) was torn down. In Washington Heights in the same year, one of the Loew’s Kings’ sister theaters, the United Palace, passed safely into the hands of the Reverend Frederick Eikerenkoetter (aka Reverand Ike), who restored it and preserved it as a church. It still is a church — as well, these days, as a working theater.
But I digress.
I’m not a particular fan of Gladys Knight, our tickets were comps. We were going to the Kings to prove Marcus Loew’s observation, that “People buy tickets to theaters, not movies.”
And the Kings did not disappoint. From its massive seventy-foot American walnut foyer up the grand staircase to the mezzanine, it seemed — as Rapp and Rapp apparently intended — a little like Versailles, with something of the Paris Opera House thrown in. Every inch of its pink marble gleamed. The theater was the show.
All the seats are new. Only someone who has tried to refurbish a movie palace can fully appreciate what 3,250 completely new plush theater seats must have cost (at seventy-five dollars apiece in 1976, God knows how much now). As we sat in two of those seats, watching the grand house fill, my husband and former theater partner observed, “I can think of worse ways to spend $95 million dollars!” Spoken like a true impressario. On the subject of seats — or chairs — a magnificent suite of French furniture was rescued from the Kings’ lobby by Dorothy Solomon Panzica, the Kings’ manager from 1961 to 1975, before the theater closed. She kept it at her home in Corning, New York until recently, when, hearing of the theater’s revival, she returned it. Mrs. P is 101 years old.
The post-millennium Loew’s Kings does appear to be paying its own way, to answer my friend who wondered if restored palaces could be economically viable. Ten minutes before showtime about 90% of the seats were filled. The lights dimmed, the curtain (yes, and it is heavy red velvet!) rose. A follow-spot from the booth over our right shoulders cast a football-field-length beam on the sequined seventy-one-year-old Gladys Knight, standing center stage, and the show began.
Who saved the Kings? A lot of people and government entities. That in 1979, the city repossessed it for taxes and then sort-of forgot about it, didn’t hurt. After the millennium, when structural damage threatened, a consortium consisting roughly of the NYCEDC, Goldman Sachs, and several borough, federal and state entities partnered with the Houston-based ACE Theatrical Group. Which is not to discount the efforts of individuals such as the indomitable Matt Lambros, a photographer and old Loew’s Kings partisan, whose book about the Kings, including pre-restoration photographs, is “coming soon,” in theater parlance. Anyone who knows this man’s work will appreciate the role he played.
What was saved? An elegant space, yes. But wait, there’s more! As David Anderson of ACE notes, “This is the community’s theater...” — and the neighborhood’s, too. Before the concert, an enthusiastic parking lot attendant pointed us to his favorite bar, “...some real good food in there!”
We took his tip, and, after a meal of kick-ass jerk chicken and platanos, we cheerfully ran the gauntlet of hopeful entrepreneurs standing under the marquee (souvenir programs, postcards from a local palm-reader and other offerings). Several folks we passed on the street asked, “Goin’ to the Kings? —good show — you won’t be disappointed!” The buzz on the street was hot. I can’t verify that the attendants inside taking tickets or pouring drinks were from the neighborhood, but I suspect most of them were. They were all so friendly, so excited. According to the NYCEDC a hundred full-time jobs —and a lot of part-time ones, were created, while bringing the Kings back to its original opulence. The young woman who showed us to our seats, the guy who directed us up the grand staircase, were proud of their palace, and it showed.
I thought about our staff in 1976, kids from our own neighborhood, St. George, proud and awed by the theater’s faded glory. What would Paulie and Brenda and Diane and Dafan and Tony and LeRoy and Gene and Jim have thought of all this glamor? They would have reveled in it.
The Brooklyn Paramount — a little farther down Flatbush Avenue from the Kings — which has operated for many years as an Athletic Center, will re-open as a functioning theater. The Paramount was a major scene in the early days of both Rock (Alan Freed) and Jazz (think Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ellington).
I can’t help thinking that the Kings restoration may have spurred this revival....
As for the Brooklyn Fox, a downtown Brooklyn gem, in its latter days home to Murray the K, it was, sadly, torn down in 1971. You can’t win ‘em all.