By: Brian Schwartzman
The furor over the fate of the RKO Keiths
Theater has raged for more than 10 years as civic groups, preservationists, and
politicians have fought to save the once majestic movie palace from decay and demolition.
The revitalized and exuberant downtown Flushing area, which attracts tourists from as far
away as Korea and Japan, still suffers from one major eyesore: the RKO.
The theater, which in addition to movies has hosted such entertainers as Judy Garland,
Mae West, and the Marx Brothers, has become an example of everything developers should not
do with historic sites. Although some of the withered building still hangs on for life, it
has already become a martyr, a rallying cry for communities borough- and city-wide to
insure what happened to the Keiths does not happen to the other buildings which have
been designated landmarks by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The Possibility of Preservation
The deterioration of a landmark raises some philosophical and pragmatic
questions; why it so important to preserve landmarks, and is this being done at the
expense of economic growth?
Preservation helps maintain continuity and a sense of place, said Jeffrey
Saunders, a board member of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group.
Saunders said preservation should be a greater priority of scholars and history buffs.
Preservation, when its sensibly done, is good for real estate, good for
business, good for everybody, Saunders said, citing Jackson Heights, itself a
designated landmark district.
While Saunders said the Keiths theater is a hot issue across the borough, this is
not a universal opinion.
Queens is a borough of communities. Im not sure somebody in Long Island
City would point to a theater in Flushing when trying to save a building, said Jim
Driscoll of the Queens Historical society.
Driscoll hopes some of the building can be restored, but is not optimistic. He said
while Flushing Town Hall was in a similar condition, it was a much smaller building and
was not owned by the developer Thomas Huang.
Demolition by Neglect
Thomas Huang has often been credited with helping to revitalize downtown Flushing
by developing a series of high rise buildings which are occupied largely by Asian
immigrants. His generous campaign contributions endeared him to powerful politicians such
as the former Queens Borough President Donald Manes. In fact, it was Manes who brokered a
compromise which designated the lobby and staircase of the theater a landmark, leaving the
rest of the building open to development.
However, ever since Huang bought the theater in 1986, and announced his plans to turn
it into a shopping strip, he has been on the defensive. This culminated in March of 1997,
when he turned himself into the police to be arraigned on charges of environmental
endangerment. The indictment charged Huang with lying about emptying oil tanks in the
basement, allowing them to spill over.
Huang is awaiting prosecution by the state Attorney Generals office. His next
court date is scheduled for later this month.
Not In Front of the Press
An array of government agencies and public officials have for many years been
involved with the theater. The RKOs problem raised structural, environmental and
community concerns which are the jurisdiction of several different city agencies.
Following the expressed wishes of the mayors office, officials from several city
agencies did not attend a Task Force meeting about the theater, because the Nov. 5 meeting
was open to the press.
The mayors office asserted that while agencies such as the Department of
Buildings and Environmental Protection would be glad to take part in the meeting, they
would not do so in a forum open to the press.
This administration does not conduct the operations of government in front of the
press, said the mayors press secretary, Colleen Roche.
City Council Member Julia Harrison (D-Flushing) who heads the Task Force at the request
of the Department of Landmarks Preservation, questioned why discussion of the theater
could not be accessible to the public.
Harrison said she was simply looking to find out what each agency was doing, and felt
that like City Council meetings, these should have been open to the press.
What is it exactly they are doing which cannot stand the light of day?
Harrision asked the day after the meeting.
The Department of Landmarks Preservation, the agency which founded the Task Force, was
the only agency to actually decline the invitation to the meeting because the issues being
discussed were not of direct concern. The other two city agencies simply did not attend.
State Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin has also been involved in the fight both to open up
the theater to the public and to ensure the building is not an environmental danger.
The relationship between the mayor and the press is between them. It doesnt
effect the way the Assemblyman sees the theater as being allowed to die a slow
death, said McLaughlins spokesperson, Evan Stavisky.
Dark Basement of Oil And Asbestos
Representatives of the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) did present
a report on the condition of the basement, which is flooded with several hundred gallons
Anthony Sigona, an Environmental Engineer for the DEC, said there is hydraulic oil in
the theaters basement, and no way to tell how long it has been there.
This is a logistical nightmare, he said. The theater is really a
disaster. We were very careful to take precautions, because sections of the ceiling are
And while questions about the structure of the theater would be more suited for the
Department of Buildings, Sigona did say that in the absence of a major natural disaster,
the building was not in immediate danger of collapsing.
However, it seems the state and the developer are locked in a kind of chicken
match, in which the state does not want to pay for the cleanup, and Huang is unable
It was suggested at the meeting the structure may actually implode before
the dilemma of the theater is solved. Some have alleged the developer has intended to
demolish by neglect, in hopes of building a new structure on the prime
The DEC Engineers also said there was evidence of illegal asbestos removal in the
If there is evidence of removal, that probably means there is still asbestos to
be removed, Harrison said.
Jerry Rotondi of the Committee to Save the RKO Keiths of Flushing Inc. said the
asbestos removal company which Huang hired on the eye of the state could not even be
located in the phone book. Under an agreement between the state and Huang, the developer
was to hire an independent monitor to oversee the cleanup of the building. However,
Rotondi questioned the independence of the monitor, since he is paid by the developer.
How can any monitor report violations if they are not at the building?
It is possible that the state may seek an environmental lien on the property or seek to
condemn it. If the state condemns the property, Huang must be compensated for its value.
The law is not designed for people that want to do something against their own
economic interests, Saunders said. If he showed a clear plan for restoring the
lobby and stairs, he could begin developing the rest of the building.
Nine years after the building was first declared unsafe, no real steps have been taken.
Huang has hired a real estate company and placed the building up for sale. There have
been no offers on the property.