Inside the Loew’s 46th St. Theater


A fire escape like this one on a windowless structure is a sure sign that a building was once a movie theater.

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.

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Many of NYC’s movie palaces have found second lives as houses of worship.

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Wrought iron banisters in the balcony.

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.

Found in the aisles of an abandoned movie theater in Borough Park.

Found objects from the aisles of the upper balcony.

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.)

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This classical fountain was the most striking feature of the theater’s design.

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In the flickering light of the silver screen, the plaster detailing could easily be mistaken for solid gold.

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All that ornamentation wasn’t built for the ages. Large chunks have broken off over the years.

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Mold and bird droppings mark the upholstered backrests of the balcony seating.

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The upper balcony’s decor is subtle by comparison, but the carpet featured an extravagant pattern that’s still visible today.

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Empty seats in the balcony.

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A view of the orchestra level, filled with a variety of tan upholstered dining chairs.

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!


Pick up a copy here.


23 thoughts on “Inside the Loew’s 46th St. Theater

  1. Just purchased! Can’t wait for the book. I have photos from Letchworth is love to share with you securely if you have an interest in seeing them.

    Cheers, Ron J



    Posted by Ron Johnson Photography | 1-14-15., 10:22 am
  2. Hi Will, Fascinating story about this theater. Can’t wait for the book. Hope you’re well.


    Posted by LouAnne Brickhouse | 1-14-15., 10:47 am
  3. Hey Will, Great post as always..love those old great theatres. Looking forward to receiving your book. Any chance you will be speaking in Boston?


    Posted by Frank Brennan | 1-14-15., 6:24 pm
  4. Thank you for this post. For many years growing up, I’ve wanted to see the inside of that theatre and never thought the current owners would have been nice enough to give me a shot at seeing it. This is one of the greatest posts I’ve seen in some time. Thank you so very much.


    Posted by Joey Binky Sabella | 1-14-15., 9:58 pm
  5. it is sad place’s like this ca not find a place oday


    Posted by david hulkower | 1-17-15., 7:31 pm
  6. Any info or pictures of Lowes 83rd?


    Posted by Anonymous | 2-10-15., 8:19 am
  7. Great look at this old theater. Will buy your book at tonight’s lecture at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Bless you for you vision and interest.


    Posted by Tom Klem | 2-18-15., 9:58 am
  8. I went to the 46th. When I was a kid.Thanks for the memories


    Posted by j r | 3-25-15., 8:36 am
  9. Any idea how he got in?


    Posted by Natsume | 3-28-15., 1:38 pm
    • Hope I know to, would def like to go in myself.


      Posted by BTB | 4-10-15., 5:19 pm
    • >Any idea how he got in?

      He talks a little about this in the description above: “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 probably can’t say much more than this, because the people involved don’t want to be bombarded with requests for visits.


      Posted by Moose | 4-19-15., 8:03 pm
  10. Oh, wow….I’m so amazed by these pictures. Your words that describe these places, the pictures that fit those words so beautifully. I’ve just spent the last couple of hours enjoying your pictures of urban exploration. WHY, though, has this building not been restored to its’ majesty? Savannah, GA, has restored one of its’ early 1900 theaters, and also has been said to have the oldest operating theater on one site (the original burned. Only the back brick wall and parts of the stage stand…but, it has always been the site of a theater where even Charlie Chaplin performed)….I’d really like to know why this building is either a) still standing (register of historic places), b) being hoarded by someone who wants someone to come in with the right price, or c) are they making too much money off the furniture store?

    Thank you for sharing your pictures. I have always been intrigued by urban exploration.


    Posted by wdharvey11 | 5-19-15., 8:47 pm
    • Thank you! Several of New York’s “movie palaces” have been restored, either as houses of worship or performance spaces–check out the newly restored Kings Theater in Flatbush as an example. Since this one is privately owned and technically still in use, it probably won’t be renovated any time soon. It’s also located in a neighborhood that isn’t likely to attract that kind of investment.


      Posted by Will Ellis | 5-20-15., 9:07 pm
  11. Wow! This place must’ve been really awesome back in the day. I am a big rock fan (of any kind), but since I was born in 1999 (Currently 16 years old, will turn 17 in March of 2016), I envy the people that got to go see classic rock icons perform live in this space. And look at those vintage wrappers! 45 years ago, those wrappers are still there-1970? Wow. I still think this would be an awesome place to shoot a music video or hold a play performance here (or yet, be used as a rock concert venue again). The Interior reminds me a bit of those early-to-mid 80’s PBS costume drama miniseries a bit- and I really think this would be a great place to do a production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. I mean, it already looks like a European-style palace. And about that opening night- I bet a similar thing happened when The Grateful Dead performed here. Or any classic rock concert held here to a point- Though this screams Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” a bit, don’t you think so?


    Posted by Flannery Monaghan-Morris | 12-23-15., 7:34 pm
  12. thanks so much for these pictures of the Loew’s 46th. I grew up going to this theatre and It would be no exaggeration that I must have seen at least 100 films here from when I was a babe to my late teens. Wish you snapped some pictures of the lobby and the original mosaic floor and the mezzanine outside the balcony that I thought was a palace when a kid. I did go back there maybe 15 years ago no camera with me and got in and told the owners that I was interested in buying some furniture so I did manage to look around a bit. I never realized how grand the theatre was, to me it was just my local movie theatre.


    Posted by ira joel haber | 1-25-16., 1:57 pm
  13. Bought your book, great ! I went inside the old fillmore east before it was torn down. It was a littered shell of the saint disco, with only the artwork that outlined the long gone stage the only reminder of the old theater. I had inadequate flash because of no interior lighting, but did get pics of the never seen far side of the exterior i accessed because of an open gate. All the doors on the far side were open. Did you by any chance photograph that building? Pete houskeeper


    Posted by Pete houskeeper | 2-3-16., 10:14 am


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