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Remembering the Lost Theaters of Times Square's 'Deuce'

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Theaters may fill Times Square today, but they're a far cry from the movie palaces that once populated the neighborhoods. During its heyday in the 1950s and '60s, the block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was know as "the Forty-Deuce" or simply, "the Deuce," and an ongoing film series at Williamsburg's Nitehawk Cinema is paying tribute to the theaters of this long-lost era. Each film honors a specific theater that existed on the Deuce, which Andy McCarthy, a reference librarian at the New York Public Library, calls "cinema's most notorious block in the world." McCarthy shared a few historic photos of the theaters, along with some fun facts and lesser-known stories about their histories.

Each film in The Deuce series coincides with a particular theater from 42nd Street, with the films running the second Thursday of the month. Tomorrow's film is Dr. Butcher, MD (aka Zombie Holocaust), which premiered in 1980 at the Lyric Theater.

Liberty Theater at 234 West 42nd Street
Architect: Herts & Tallent

The Liberty Theater opened on October 5, 1904, with the vaudeville comedy duo the Rogers Brothers in Paris. The theater was decorated with "stonecraft eagles surmounted atop carvings of the Liberty Bell," and could sit 1,000 guests. In its second month, the theater hosted "Broadway bangtailer" George M. Cohan's first full-length musical, Little Johnny Jones, introducing the American songbook to "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." A few years later, in 1915, silent drama The Birth of a Nation premiered at the theater, charging today's equivalent of $40 per ticket. McCarthy notes, "Birth was protested heavily in the black press but proved a box office hit." But in the following decade, the Liberty "segued as a venue for hit black musicals." Blackbirds, featuring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, debuted at the theater in 1928. An AMC movie theater occupies the site today, but McCarthy says you can see a piece of the original inside the Liberty Diner, "where the old audience chambers are still somewhat intact."

Selwyn Theater at 229 West 42nd Street
Architect: George Keister

The now-gone Selwyn opened at the end of World War I in 1918. According to McCarthy, "Footlight mustangs Arch and Edgar Selwyn produced, directed, and starred in scores of bust-out one-acts, tabloid dramatic stock, sagebrush photoplays, waistcoat singsongers, and talkies." In 1922, the Selwyn transitioned into an early movie house, with "a new contraption called 'Teleview,' a 3D apparatus screwed to the seat that raised before the eyes of the viewer while shutters flicked in time with the film projector." By the 1960s, the theater had lost its glamour, and 1964 New York guide book described the interior as "unpleasant" and with a "dank smell." During the Great Times Square Clean-up in the 1990s, the Times Square Business Improvement District headquartered its Visitor and Transit Information Center at the Selwyn, and it 1997, the facade of what once was the theater's entrance collapsed because of serious structural problems. At that time, the theater building was being renovated, and today, it's called the American Airlines Theater and serves as the home of the Roundabout Theater Company.

[Rendering of the Rialto Theater.]

Rialto Theater at 201 West 42nd Street
Architect: Thomas Lamb & Rosario Candela

The Ritalto Theater on Broadway at the corner of 42nd Street has had several iterations. It was first created in 1916 with "the remains of the lavish turn-of-the century Victoria Theatre," which had first anchored the street as "an entertainment zone." McCarthy says "Broadway impresario 'Roxy' Rothapfel slashed the insides of the Victoria and re-opened the venue as a class act movie spectacle house, seating 2,000 for flicks like The Good Bad Man played by Douglas Fairbanks and The White Raven starring Ethel Barrymore." When Paramount leased the theater in the 1930s, it was demolished and rebuilt again, this time with a lobby decorated with "ghoul murals and life-sized mummies," thanks to Arthur Mayer, known as the "Merchant of Menace." Mayer also had "a woman in a white nurse uniform" around just in case patrons "got weak of heart" in the middle of What Price Vengeance or Lady Behave. The 1970s saw adult films, and WOR-TV studios later moved in upstairs, programming daytime talk shows. Today, the site is very Times Square-y, occupied by a Skechers shoe store at the street level and Reuters office tower above.

West 42nd Street. New Amsterdam Theatre.

New Amsterdam at 214 West 42nd Street
Architect: Herts & Tallant

When it opened in 1903, the New Amsterdam was the tallest theater in New York City, and it featured "1,700 seats, cantilevered balconies, and scenery changes controlled by the push of an electronic button." The theater's walls were covered with "vivid mosaics of nature myth narratives and sculptured Art Nouveau detailing," while "the roof was known as 'Aerial Gardens,' where showgirl maven Flo Ziegfeld staged his 'Midnight Frolics' for the 1910s toff-and-buttercup set. Menus included lobster Thermidor, broiled lamb kidneys, and ladyfingers." The theater turned into a movie house in 1935, and premiered with A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring pre-code Deuce jockeys Dick Powell, Verree Teasdale, and James Cagney. McCarthy says "the 1960s and 70s plugged safari grinders, low-budget murder muff jobs, paella westerns, true-story exploitation, and British horror romps that promised ticket-buyers a pack of 'Fright Seeds for Your Own Torture Garden.'" Since 1993, when Walt Disney Theatrical Productions first leased the space, the theater has hosted from of the most popular productions. Today, it's one of the oldest theaters in the neighborhood and it was the first in Manhattan to be granted landmark status.

Theatre, Lyric, 42nd St. & Bet. 7th & 8th Aves.

Lyric Theater at 213 West 42nd Street
Architect: Victor Hugo Koehler

When the Lyric opened in 1903, the wealthy called it a "three thousand dollar house," which was the take of a sold out show. According to McCarthy, "early management banned chewing gum from the premises, and chorus girl Jean Calducci led her sister majorettes in a backstage bumsti-bumsti act for gum rights." The theater hosted an array of high-profile shows, including, the premier of the Three Musketeers in 1928. McCarthy says that "the brothers Brandt Co. took over the lease in 1930 and ran only pictures 'on the grind,' and the 1,100-seat house promised "a hot dog stand in back and deep-freeze air conditioning." In the late 1960s, it fell onto hard times like a lot of Times Square. Manager Leonard Derene was knifed to death while counting the evening's receipts, and "a refrigerator was thrown from the balcony in protest of a bowdlerized R-rated cut of Andy Milligan's Bloodthirsty Butchers." The Lyric, along with its neighbor the Apollo, was condemned in 1989, and it was among the theaters that were repossessed by the City in the 1990s. Today, pieces of both theaters remain as one. From Wikipedia: "Today, patrons visiting the theatre sit under the dome from the Lyric and proscenium arch from the Apollo, and pass through the ornate Lyric Theatre facades on 43rd and 42nd Streets."

Harris Theater at 226 West 42nd Street
Architect: Thomas Lamb

The Harris originally opened in 1914 as the Candler Theater, a state-of-the-art picture palace designed in the Italian Renaissance style and built by Asa Griggs Candler, of Coca-Cola fame. The 1,200-seat Candler premiered with a screening of Antony & Cleopatra, directed by Enrico Guazzoni. "Deuce impresario Sam H. Harris soon took over and re-booked the chambers for ace-draw plays," says McCarthy, and "in 1922, father-of-actors John Barrymore broke a record for playing Hamlet 101 nights in a row." If the theater entertainment wasn't enough, patrons could go next door to Murray's Roman Gardens, "a lobster-and-gin theme park that seated 5,000 diners in the splendor of fallen empires, reproductions from the Louvre and the Vatican, a Chinese Dragon Room, and a relief of The Horses of the Sun." After Murray's closed, another oddity moved in: Hubert's Museum, which the Observer calls "a continuous theater of the grotesque and the uncanny stirring beneath 42nd Street." The Harris Theatre cranked out movies until 1996, and it was demolished in 1997. Its facade was saved, and today, the Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum occupies the site.
— Andy McCarthy is the Reference Librarian at the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, & Genealogy at the New York Public Library, and a former NYC double-decker bus tour guide. He presents THE DEUCE, a monthly signature series at Nitehawk Cinema, along with co-hosts Jeff Cashvan and Joe Berger. Films are carefully curated to capture the essence of old New York and Times Square; each film's release and distribution history is expertly researched through original ads, reviews, listings and press kits, in order to provide factual accuracy and cultural context.
· The Deuce series [Nitehawk]
· Spend an Afternoon on 42nd Street in Times Square in 1978 [Curbed]