That very same day, on 175th Street in Washington Heights, twenty-five miles north, in upper upper Manhattan, Reverend Ike’s United Church Science of Living Institute was just wrapping up a service. Already in its seventh year of operation in what had been one of New York City’s five Loews “Wonder” theaters, the newly-televised service filled all 3,400 seats, with standing room at the back. The Rev (as a friend who worked camera for that church used to call him) was, in addition to being deeply charismatic, a very smart businessman. He’d seen the Loews 175th Street as a perfect gleaming home for his growing congregation, originally headquartered in Harlem at a much smaller theater, the Sunset, whose marquee was so narrow, he’d had to shorten his moniker from Reverend Eikerenkoetter to Rev Ike.
How did it all begin? In March, 1969, Loews 175th Street blasted into outer space with its last movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a fitting way to close out operations as a movie house and take on the mantle of Ike’s salvation palace. Ike’s purchase would also be the salvation of the palace itself, which he had more than enough money to repair and restore. Washington Heights, where the theater still stands, was, like so many neighborhoods in those days, in flux: losing delis and gaining Bodegas, as black and hispanic residents replaced Greeks and the grandchildren of Eastern European Jews who’d fled the Holocaust. The movie palace had to go; Loews was pulling out, but, just when it might have kept an appointment with a wrecking crew, the Reverend Ike stepped in, purchasing the near-four-thousand seat Indo/Chinese/Assyrian Thomas Lamb fantasy structure for half a million dollars.
The Loews 175th opened on February 22, 1930, with Norma Shearer in Their Own Desire, and a stage show from the Capitol Theatre in Times Square, it being the mission of Loews’ fifth “Wonder” theater to “bring Times Square entertainment nearer your home.” Original seating was 3,444 seats, making it, even now, at 3,400 the fourth-largest theater in New York City. Meant to resemble an Assyrian fortress on the outside, it’s interior, designed by Harold Rambouch (Waldorf Astoria, Radio City Music Hall) can variously be described as Indo/Chinese. When you take the tour, get a load of the grand (Hindu) staircase, which concludes in a fantasy of the Aurora Borealis. A movie house didn’t get to be a NYC Wonder Theatre if it didn’t sport a Morton Wonder Organ, and it is the honor of the UPCA to have retained its original 4 manual 23 rank instrument in situ. (For the tale of what happened to the other four Wonder Organs, check out the second-to-last post).
I’m a great fan of this theater. It’s one of the few I know of that has served as a church without its occupants altering its grand interior or original pagan raison d’etre, the way a sister Wonder Theatre, the Valencia did. Perhaps it was Reverend Ike himself, dissatisfied as he was with established Christianity’s pious reverence for poverty who gave the thumbs-up to its movie-palaceness; what could be better for worshippers whose core belief is in a successful and positive-thinking self, than a golden temple that gleams every bit as much as it did the day Norma Shearer first flashed on screen?
Critics of Rev. Ike will say, to this day, that he was only in it for his own prosperity, insisting as he did on cash donations, but he raised the self-esteem of many parishioners who promptly took their place as entrepreneurs in the America he sprang out of. Meanwhile, the palace gleams from years of good upkeep, when many movie palaces, like, for example, a sister Wonder Theatre, Loews Kings in Brooklyn, required millions to bring it back to spit-polish condition.
After the Reverend’s death, at 74 the theater continued on for some time, for the most part as a church, until, in recent history, his son Xavier F. Eikerenkoetter, who taught, it is said, drumming to homeless boys on a California beach, decided the church could serve both secular and sacred functions in a changing neighborhood.
These days, in a newly-prosperous Washington Heights, what can’t you do at the UPCA? An Open Heart Conversation on Bhakti Yoga (May 19)? A Shamanic Circle (June 1)?, The Matrix (June 30)?, Chantings (May 8)?, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (May 5)? or Nicky Jam Tour 2019 (May 10)?
You may have noticed that two of the above are movies, one generally featured every month. Which brings the theater full circle to its movie palace roots.
Have you ever watched post-millennial people in an open-and-functioning-as-such movie palace?
When they’re not looking at the screen, they’re looking upward. Just last Sunday, when the United Palace presented 2001: A Space Odyssey on the roughly 40th anniversary of it’s last 1969 showing, we were there. Forty years ago, the Reverend had just purchased the palace for half a million clams, and was looking towards the Easter Sunday opening of what would become his Palace Cathedral.
A lot of things have changed since the movie 2001 first opened. Arthur C. Clarke, its author, and Stanley Kubrick, its iconoclastic producer, are both dead. Kubrick (d. 1998) didn’t even make it to 2001, a good thing, considering what that year has truly come to represent in the minds of those of us alive at this moment. Some of the things the movie predicted have never come to pass (routine travel to the moon, manned missions to places beyond the moon). Successfully predicted are: Skype, the space station itself, and at least the beginning of verbally receptive A.I. HAL is, fortunately, not extant yet, though there are dire predictions. What to make of the apes/people in the opening scenes? I thought they were silly back in 1969, but these days I’m willing to discuss their viciousness, and that hurled bone that becomes a space station, one the most brilliant jump cuts in the history of cinematography.
We couldn’t find parking anywhere near the theater, so took a twelve-block hike up Broadway. About halfway there, we stopped in front of a building with a facade so ornate it had to have been a theater — once. I’m pretty good at spotting decommissioned movie palaces, and I was right. At home later, we determined that this green-trimmed archway, with lyres and the prow of a ship with none other than Neptune himself on the prow, was, as a matter of fact, the old Audubon Theater. Like the UPCA, it was a Thomas Lamb creation — and something more. Above the theater’s auditorium, I learned from Cinema Treasures, is what remains of the Audubon Ballroom. If that locale sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s notorious; there, in February, 1965, Malcolm X was shot. I thought of the ape-men in the movie I’d just seen, and wondered at the drama of human violence on — and off — screen.
In 1969, when 2001 played at the Loews 175th Street, it was already a second-run movie. Perhaps unknown to most of Stanley Kubrick’s (and Arthur C. Clarke’s or Keir Dullea’s) current devoted fans, the film hadn’t done so well on it’s first release in 1968. Who were those apes dancing around a megalith? What was the meaning of the megalith anyhow, and how did the captain, played by Keir Dullea, end up on Jupiter in what seems like a French hotel room? Finally, how was he reborn as a “space baby,” and why? Sci Fi audiences, nerds of a particular order, wanted what Arthur C. Clarke kept arguing for, a narrative. But Kubrick was Kubrick, so the film remained as mystical and obscure as the obelisk that keeps appearing throughout the film. It was re-born after being re-branded as “the ultimate trip,” appealing to the LSD and Cannabis crowds.