BY JAMES FARRELL
Jerry Karlik spent his childhood in Flushing, and he remembers spending time at the RKO Keith’s Theatre, the historic and ornate theatre at 135-35 Northern Blvd. In fact, he used to go on dates there with the woman who would become his wife.
“The grandeur of the theatre was just amazing,” he said, adding that it was a part of the Downtown Flushing area where locals spent most of their time. “It was just the center of our social life.”
His sentimental attachment to the theatre informed his decision to purchase it in 2013, with his private real estate company, JK Equities. At that point, the historic theatre, which opened in 1928, had been vacant for 30 years after changing hands multiple times and falling into disrepair. Its ornate lobby, which is landmarked by the city, has not hosted a crowd since 1986. Last year, Karlik received approval to redevelop the building into luxury condos while preserving its ornate lobby. But when he began receiving unsolicited offers to purchase the property and looked into how its value appreciated, he made the decision to part ways with the project, an experience that was also caked in sentiment.
“It’s a lot of mixed feelings,” he said. “I would have certainly loved to have built it. It’s bittersweet.”
On Monday, Xinyuan Real Estate, a Beijing-based development firm announced that it purchased the property from JK Equities for $66 million. The development plans put forth by Karlik and architect Pei Cobb Freed, which will create 269 condos as well as a 305-space parking garage, have already been approved, making the site “shovel-ready,” according to Karlik.
With the announcement, the stage is set for the next phase of the RKO Keith’s Theatre’s long saga of fluctuating ownership, stalled developments, illegal construction on landmarked grounds and a strong community effort to preserve the dilapidated piece of Queens history. Today, the theatre is coated in graffiti and hidden by green plywood, an inconspicuous remnant of the social center it once was. The expected development is just one of several major projects going on in Flushing.
RKO Keith’s is best remembered for its ornate and grandiose architecture. Designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, RKO Keith’s is an “atmospheric” theatre—spacious, with high walls that create the illusion of an outdoor space, according to the Landmarks Preservations Commissions’ 1984 report designating the theatre as a landmark. It was designed in the Spanish Baroque style known as Churrigueresque style, which dates back to the 18th century.
The theater was part of a long history of “movie palaces”—large, decorative theatres that housed both motion pictures and vaudevillian productions. Its auditorium sat around 3,000, and over the course of its history, RKO Keith’s saw performances from a slew of stars, including Bob Hope, Judy Garland and the Marx Brothers. More recent Queens residents remember it for its movies showings.
John Watts, 60, former chief of staff to former Flushing councilwoman Julia Harrison, grew up in Flushing. He describes the theatre as a social hub for the neighborhood’s youth.
“In high school and growing up, you went to the Keith’s,” he recalled. “That’s what you did. You didn’t go to the mall.”
He remembers the grand sensation of being seated in a 3,000 seat auditorium to watch a movie. He remembers leaving a showing of “The Odd Couple,” a classic 1968 film, and hearing everybody buzzing happily in the ornate lobby about a famous comedy scene in which actor Jack Lemmon fights off a sinus attack in a coffee shop.
“We came out of the theatre, and everyone was talking about it,” he said. “It was grandeur, it was a grand place to go.”
The Theater closed in 1986—a common fate for movie palaces as televisions became more popular.
Developer Tommy Huang acquired it that year for $3.4 million. But his ownership was marred in controversy. Huang planned to build a movie complex, shopping mall, and hotel, but faced blowback from preservationists after destroying part of the landmarked grand staircase and part of the auditorium. In 1997, Huang was charged with five years’ probation and slapped a $5,000 fine after allowing 10,000 gallons of heating oil to leak into the building, according to a New York Daily News article.
Watts, who was a member of the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s Theatre of Flushing, a group started in the ‘80s to fight for the restoration the theatre, was also working for Councilmember Harrison’s campaign at the time, and was familiar with Huang.
“He tried everything in his power to destroy that building,” Watts said. “I was happy when it changed hands away from him.”
Huang would hold onto the building until 2002, when Shaya Boymelgreen purchased it for $15 million. Boymelgreen planned to turn it into condos, but the plan never came to fruition, and after Boymelgreen defaulted on his mortgage, developer Patrick Thompson picked up the theater in 2010. Under Thompson, the current development plan’s first stages took shape. The initial proposal included plans for 357 rental units and 17,000 square feet of retail space.
When Karlik received the property in 2013, he got a revised version of the plan approved by Community Board 7 in 2015—the current proposal, which is being carried into Xinyuan’s ownership. This proposal would demolish the surrounding structure while preserving the landmarked lobby and foyer. This project will be Xinyuan’s third major New York project. They are also overseeing a major development project on Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, called the Oosten, which will also result in luxury condos. Xinyuan could not be reached for comment, but Karlik said that the company was planning on honoring the history of the theater by following the current development plans, which will preserve the theater’s landmarked lobby.
“The plan that we had is going to be very much adhered to by the buyer,” Karlik said. “They’re very conscious of it [the landmark status].
They did quite a bit of due diligence.”
But over the years, groups like the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s Theatre of Flushing have advocated heavily for the preservation of the theatre, and many community members still hope to fight off development in order to restore the theater as a performance arts center.
For instance, Christian Kellberg, 63, started a Facebook page called “Save the Flushing RKO Keith’s Theatre.” He does not want to see the theatre turned into condos and believes that it should be restored as a theatre to continue existing beyond its landmarked lobby.
“The downside of demolishing something like that is that it can never be brought back again,” said Kellberg, citing the unique architectural style. “The skill needed to build something like that is forever lost.”
He also cited two recent major development projects in the works in Flushing: Flushing Commons luxury condos and Skyview shopping center, and argued that the already crowded Flushing area is not in need of any further residential or commercial development.
“The community is definitely underserved as far as infrastructure goes,” he said. “There’s a lot of problems with it and I don’t see how it benefits the community as a group.”
Comments on the Facebook page seem to agree. “Just what Flushing needs more congestion,” one comment wrote, in response to the news that Xinyuan had bought the property. “As usual, the only people to lose are the ones who love Flushing,” another wrote.
Alan Gross, a member of the Facebook Group and a lifetime Mitchell Gardens resident summed up the anti-development feelings.
“I think people that have been living here and have been witnessing the overdevelopment of Downtown Flushing feel that this is going to be the nail in the coffin,” he said.
Still, others are ready to see the theater evolve into something new. Watts, for instance, doesn’t think the theatre is in good enough shape to be restored into a performance arts center
“It’s sad. I guess this is progress,” Watts said of the new purchase. “The days of the 3,000 seat theater are gone.”
With so many fond memories, however, it’s hard not to hold onto hope for a renewed past.
“You went through those brass doors and it was like you were in another world, away from the day-to-day Flushing,” Kellberg said.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.