|Echoes of the Silver Screen:
Curtains For Queens' Theaters
By LIZ GOFF & STEPHEN McGUIRE
They were the palaces of the Gods
of the silver screen.
This was where we plopped down our nickels
and dimes to view the great ones Barrymore, Jolson, W.C. Fields and Gloria Swanson.
Generations of Queensites passed through the lobbies of the boroughs movie houses, many
sadly now fading into memory.
As the era of Queens grand movie houses
comes to a close, the Trylon (left) shut down this month and the Elmwood (below) is
scheduled to become a parking lot. Though the Valencia (bottom) retains the spectacular
interior of its silver screen days, it is now the Tabernacle of Prayer.
The Trylon Theater was built in 1939 with
an interior that bears a likeness to a scene from the 39 Worlds Fair. The Rego
Park theater celebrated its 60th anniversary on Dec. 26, 1999, then lost its lease.
The Quartet and Prospect in Flushing
are mere memories. The Elmwood in Elmhurst is soon to fall to a nearby multi-screen
cineplex, and the Triboro in Astoria was a grand palace that even landmark designation
And then theres the RKO Keiths
the scarred, embattled palace that drew generations of protests by folks who hoped
to preserve a piece of theater-going luxury.
The legendary theater as a school? The idea
isnt so far-fetched, according to information obtained by the Tribune through
a confidential source.
According to a spokesperson for the
citys Landmark Commission, conversion of the RKO Keiths to a city high school
is an idea that has been "floated" by Queens Borough President Claire Shulman
for some time.
This is all that remains of the facade of the
grand Queens movie house that was the RKO Keiths until 1986. It could soon re-open
its doors, this time for a city high school.
And while the Commission
would have no say in the approval-for-use of the theater as a school, the panel must
approve, through application, a request for the transformation, said Commission
spokesperson Kathy McNab. In accordance with Commission requirements approval would be
possible, provided that the city would guarantee that the landmarked lobby of the RKO
Keiths would remain "intact" as it was when the theater was in its heyday.
That would mean that owner Tommy Huang
would have to dip into a $40,000 escrow account to bring the theater lobby back to its
original condition, sources said. Huang, who was convicted of endangering public health,
safety and the environment in 1998, received as a stipulation of his sentencing a
requirement to establish the escrow account to insure funds would be available when, and
if, renovations were ever continued on the theater.
A Board of Education spokesperson said the
theater was being considered for use as a high school, but no discussions are currently
underway to determine a price or the method with which the city would acquire the
Two options are available an
outright sale, or acquisition by "imminent Domain," a process used by the city
to obtain property at rockbottom prices or for free, sources said.
In the case of the Keiths the city
would most likely make an offer to Huang or his real estate company for the property. If
he decided to accept the offer, "thats that," sources said. Huang would
have the absolute right, however, to refuse the offer under Imminent Domain and take the
matter to court to stall the proceedings, seeking a higher price for the property, sources
"It looked like London after the
blitz," said Flushing Councilwoman Julia Harrison.
The Flushing lawmaker said she toured the
inside of one-time vaudeville movie palace about 5 years ago, after community concern had
mounted about structural and environmental hazards in the building.
"The seats were torn up and the foyer
and stairwell were damaged by a tractor-trailer," explained Harrison who said
"basically it looked like a bomb blew up the place. Its not someplace one would
want to spend an afternoon."
According to Harrison, the basement of the
atmospheric styled theater was, at the time, steeped in oil and filled with dangerous
illegally removed asbestos.
Shulman spokesperson Dan Andrews refused to
comment on or acknowledge the theater-as-a-school idea, calling any current discussions
McNab said the Landmarks Commission has not
yet received an application for approval of the theaters use as a school from
Shulman or anyone else.
Meanwhile, the Valencia theater in Jamaica
has met with a different and glorious fate.
The Moorish styled Valencia vaudeville and
movie theater opened its doors on Jamaica Avenue in 1931.
"The Valencia was one of Queens three
great movie palaces," remarked Jeff Gottlieb, a Queens historian and chief of staff
to Councilman Morton Povman.
"Its so wonderful I often ask,
why me? We have been blessed," said Jeffery Williams, minister and administrator of
the The Tabernacle of Prayer church which occupies the former theater building.
"Our pastor Johnny Washington used to
call this place the St. Patricks Cathedral of Jamaica Avenue," said Williams.
The ornately designed Valencia building was
donated to Tabernacle of Prayer in 1977 by the Loews Theater corporation after
sitting vacant for almost two years.
Restoration of the Valencia by the church
group included turning repainting and refinishing of all of the buildings
palace-like interior as well as the conversion the theaters projection room into a
24-hour helpline, and the placement of the ministrys soup kitchen and clothing drive
offices in the former dressing rooms of the one-time vaudeville showplace.
A tour of the interior of the church
reveals minor adjustments made for its conversion into a house of worship pristine
and true to its design form.
The Jamaica Avenue buildings fašade
was granted City landmark status in May of last year.
As the rest of the world was celebrating
the turn of the new century, the Trylon Theater marked the end of its 60 year run on
Queens Boulevard in Rego Park.
"The Trylon was the last of the one
theater theaters," said Gottlieb.
"The lease expired on December 31st
(1999)" said John Bianco, senior Vice president of Sampson Management Company.
According to Gottlieb, the Real Estate firm
of First Home Brokerage which has offices right next door to the former Trylon, will
expand into the theater.
The Trylon was named after the 1939
Worlds Fair centerpiece obelisk. The theater opened for business on December 26,
1939 with an art deco design and a Worlds Fair Trylon motif on the box office.
BALANCE THE FATE OF THE ELMWOOD
The end of a long run for the Elmwood
Theater in Elmhurst is inevitable, according to a plan unveiled by the Mattone Group last
The plan, currently in the City
Planning phase, calls for the construction of an 18 screen Loews movie megaplex to be
built on the city-owned Municipal parking lot # 2 near the Queens Center Mall.
Part of the construction plan calls for the
demolition of the nearby five-screen Elmwood also owned by Loews.
The land where the Elmwood now stands would
then be donated by Loews to St. Johns Hospital for use as its parking lot.
The Elmwood theater opened in 1928 and
featured movies as well as vaudeville acts according to a theater historian.
"Architecturally it was a first for
Queens," Warren Harris of the Theater Historical Society told the Tribune in
an interview last year.
"You were inside but you looked up and
it was like looking at the midnight sky. The stars were embedded in the ceiling,"
"Its one of the oldest theaters in Queens. I am
saddened to think that it will close. It was the first theater that I knew," he