Some of the grandest and gaudiest heights of American architecture took form in the movie palaces of New York City in the early 20th century. While the majority of them have been converted to big box retail, gymnasiums, and McDonald’s restaurants, a handful have managed to slip through the cracks. Behind those hollow, graffiti-strewn walls you’ll find vestiges of movie-going’s golden age—a wonderland of molded plaster ornamentation dripping with sculptural details.
In the case of the former Loew’s 46th St. Theater in Borough Park, there’s no mistaking its former life. There is the telltale fire escape, the prodigious height, the ornate facade, even the old marquee remains. When it first opened under the name “Universal Theater” on October 9th, 1927, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported “one of the most disorderly first nights ever witnessed in Brooklyn.” That evening, a crowd of over 25,000 lined up to gain admittance to the 3,000 seat theater. Many resorted to clambering up the fire escape to gawk at the wonders within.
The Universal was New York City’s first “atmospheric theater,” masterminded by famed theater architect John Eberson. His design aimed to replicate an extravagant Italian garden under a night sky. Plastic trees and shrubbery extended from the wrapping facade, which was painted a fine gold, contrasting beautifully with the blue dome that suspended over all, giving the theater the feel of an open-air auditorium. The ceiling was once decked out with twinkling stars and projected with “atmospheric effects” (namely clouds) that constantly drifted by overhead.
After delighting a generation of Brooklynites with its fanciful design, the movie house fell on hard times with the rise of the multiplex. By the 1960s, the 46th St. Theater became a performance space and music venue. In November of 1970, the Grateful Dead played four quasi-legendary nights with the likes of Jefferson Airplane and the Byrds, and the theater was briefly known as the “Brooklyn Rock Palace.”
Neighbors soon tired of the noise and the rowdy concertgoers, and the venue closed down in 1973. A furniture retailer settled into the building, occupying the lobby and part of the ground floor of the theater with a showroom, and walling off the best bits from view. Seating was removed on the orchestra level, and the space was repurposed as a stock room. Though the building changed hands to a new furniture seller in the intervening years, the theater serves the same function to this day. The orchestra level is filled with an array of ornate upholstered chairs, creating an odd visual echo with the architectural arabesques overhead, made stranger by the fact that they’re all facing away from the screen.
For the record, the Loew’s 46th Street Theater is not the sort of place you should try sneaking in to. I had a fairly legitimate reason to be there when I scheduled an appointment last spring while scouting a location. After several phone calls to the secretary I managed to arrange a visit, where I was greeted by a friendly Hasidic man who let me inside and escorted me to the back of his store. He warned me that the place would be dark and it would take several minutes for the industrial-grade lighting to warm up. Little by little, the details emerged–gleaming balustrades, parapets, modillions, and entablatures fit for a Greco-Roman amphitheater.
For the next half hour or so, I had free reign to poke around and snap some pictures. I headed to the balcony, which was still relatively intact and offered better views. By the looks of it, no one bothered to sweep up after the last audience cleared the theater 45 years ago—popcorn bags, candy wrappers, and ticket stubs still litter the aisles. Through the grating buzz of the mercury vapor lamps, an imaginative mind could almost make out the surging strings of a Hollywood score or Jerry Garcia’s haunting refrain: “What a long, strange trip it’s been…”
As devoted Deadheads are wont to do, one fan managed to record the Grateful Dead’s full set list on the night of November 11th 1970, when they played the theater. Here’s “Truckin‘,” which makes for a compelling aural accompaniment to the images below. I especially enjoy the gentlemen’s “woohoo” at 1:10 when the lyrics mention his home town of New York City, such a classic concert moment.
If this location interests you, check out Matt Lambros’ excellent blog After the Final Curtain, which features an exhaustive record of decrepit movie palaces throughout the country (including this one.)
Switching gears now for a book update! If you’ve somehow missed it, the official release date of Abandoned NYC the book is January 28th, but as of yesterday I have them in stock (taking up half of my apartment) to start shipping out your orders a week early. It’s still not too late to get yours first (along with a print and a fancy signature!) by placing an order with me through this link. First shipment will go out next week (week of January 18th.)
I’ll also be giving a few talks next month, starting on February 4th at the Red Room of the KGB Bar, hosted by Untapped Cities. You can register here for a free ticket (there may be a drink minimum involved.) There is a limited capacity so make sure to sign up soon in case it fills up. On Wednesday February 18th, I’ll be doing a similar song and dance at the wonderful Morbid Anatomy Museum, tickets for that go for a low, low $5, you can get yours here or at the door. For any Long Islanders, I’ll be doing another talk/signing at the Manhasset Public Library hosted by the Great Neck Camera Club on the night of February 23rd. That one’s free, open to all, and there’s no need to register. I’m really, really looking forward to meeting some of you over the coming weeks and months! (And hopefully getting rid of these books so I can have my living room back…)
Thanks to everyone who’s already placed an order for all of the kind words and support!