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 shut down this month and the Elmwood is scheduled to become a parking lot. Though the Valencia 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 World’s 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 couldn’t save.
And then there’s the RKO Keith’s – 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 isn’t so far-fetched, according to information obtained by the Tribune through a confidential source.
According to a spokesperson for the city’s Landmark Commission, conversion of the RKO Keith’s 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 Keith’s 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 Keith’s 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 site.
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 Keith’s 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, “that’s 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 said.
“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. It’s 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 “premature.”
McNab said the Landmarks Commission has not yet received an application for approval of the theater’s 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.
“It’s 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. Patrick’s 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 building’s palace-like interior as well as the conversion the theater’s projection room into a 24-hour helpline, and the placement of the ministry’s 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 it’s design form.
“It’s breathtaking,” explained Williams.
The Jamaica Avenue building’s façade was granted City landmark status in May of last year.
CURTAINS FOR THE TRYLON
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 World’s Fair centerpiece obelisk. The theater opened for business on December 26, 1939 with an art deco design and a World’s Fair Trylon motif on the box office.
IN THE 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 year.
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. John’s 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,” Harris said.
“It’s 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 recalled.