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What It Takes to Restore a 1929 Brooklyn 'Wonder Theater'

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Photos of the Loew's Kings by <a href="">Max Touhey</a>.
Photos of the Loew's Kings by Max Touhey.

One of the first things an architect must decide when restoring a historic building is to when, exactly, he is restoring. "We like to pick opening day," said Adam Field, a project architect at Martinez+Johnson Architecture, which worked on the restoration of Brooklyn's Kings Theatre.

The Kings' opening day—the first one, that is—was September 7, 1929, when the theater, designed in the style of the Palace of Versailles and the Paris Opera House, opened its doors. It was, at the time, painted with muted colors and meant to look aged, as if years of royalty had already held court in its 3,676 seats.

On a recent morning, in preparation for the Kings' 21st-century opening day, elected officials and other stakeholders—Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams and deputy mayor for housing and economic development Alicia Glen among them—had wielded oversize scissors and snipped the large gold ribbon that signaled the end of the $95-million project. In a series of speeches, they'd lauded the ingredients and results of the once-doomed theater's revival: public-private partnerships, community involvement, economic revitalization, historic preservation.

The marquee of the newly-restored Loew's Kings.

But Field, sitting in the lavish auditorium after the ribbon cutting, wanted to discuss a less-lofty staple of the modern-day concert: cup holders. Between each of the seats, with their original wooden parts, extended a black plastic circle.

He grimaced. "From a purely architectural standpoint, I'm not crazy about them, but the industry demands it," he said. Pragmatism is essential in his field. "It's better than having drinks spilled all over your nicely renewed theater," he said with a toothy grin.

Tonight, when the singer Diana Ross takes the stage, the Kings Theatre will officially open for its second act. The theater has been meticulously restored, with those involved—ACE Theatrical Group, Martinez+Johnson, EverGreene Architectural Arts—so attuned to detail that they scraped through layers of paint and did forensic analysis of samples in order to recreate original styles and colors.

The Kings is the most recent example of the revitalization of what was once a flourishing breed: huge, opulent movie theaters. In the 1920s, dozens of similar theaters sprung up around the country, seating thousands of people each.

"It was like a flash in the pan: 10 years of this weird architecture that was built and then taken away," said Matt Lambros, who has photographed about 70 old movie theaters and is the author of an upcoming book about the Kings Theatre. These buildings weren't just called theaters, but movie palaces: over-the-top creations where every surface was decorated with ornate Baroque, Rococo, or Art Deco designs. They were like cakes, where the frosting was the main attraction. Marcus Loew, the founder of the Loews chain and MGM, supposedly said, "We sell tickets to theaters, not movies."

The auditorium of the Loew's Kings.

"These are some of the most beautiful interior spaces in America," said John Leith-Tetrault, president of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, which works with theater operators around historic tax credits.

Defining a movie palace as a theater with at least 2,800 seats and highly ornamented and oftentimes exotic architectural style, the advocacy group Theatre Historical Society of America counts 139 movie palaces that were built between 1914 and 1932.

"The height of movie theaters was in the Depression," said Rolf Achilles, an art historian and author of American Movie Palaces. "It was the great venue for escapism."

Of those 139 theaters, at least 66 have been demolished, 42 have been converted or restored to halls or performing arts centers, and 12 maintain elements of their original architecture or design, but are used as churches, stores, or other kinds of spaces. One of these is the 1925 Michigan Theatre in Detroit, now a parking garage underneath an ornate movie palace ceiling. (The theater's other claim to fame is its cameo in Eminem's movie 8 Mile.)

A hallway of the Loew's Kings.

Other theaters' fates are unclear: the Loew's Palace Theatre, in Bridgeport, Ct., sits unused, and the RKO-Keith's, in Flushing, has been the subject of various battles and is now owned by a developer who has announced plans to demolish the auditorium but keep the lobby. (The developer, JK Equities, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Movie palaces are an anachronism. A throwback to a time when thousands of us watched a single movie together, they are, in the oft-cited words credited to Kings' architects Rapp & Rapp, "where the rich rubbed elbows with the poor." They are a remnant of the days when going to the movies was a social occasion, before televisions existed, before we could binge-watch Netflix on our iPads, and before, certainly, there were books with titles like Bowling Alone. Movie palaces, in all their ostentatious, air-conditioned glory, were the Palaces of Versailles for regular folks.

And reviving an anachronism is complicated. Today, depending on one's perspective, movie palaces are garish, over-the-top, asbestos-laden eyesores, begging to be torn down, or chapters of cultural and architectural history we can't afford to lose. With their restoration—if a theater is lucky enough to make it to that point—comes decisions about how to balance the preservation of our cultural heritage with the compromises needed for survival.

Inside the Loew's Kings on the day of the ribbon-cutting.

The other day, Brooklyn borough historian Ron Schweiger stood in front of the Kings on a busy stretch of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The skeleton of a hotel rose across the street, next to a GAP Factory store. Schweiger gestured to a narrow board that lay over still-drying cement in front of the theater. "We're going to have to walk the plank," he said.

He opened the door. "It's a miracle," Schweiger said, for the first time of nearly a dozen during the next hour and a half. The level of detail in the theater led to sensory overload, the kind you might experience if you opened a trapdoor into a Jazz Age version of today's Times Square.

Against the hum of construction, Schweiger pointed out the original chandeliers in the lobby and the popcorn stand behind which a roll of original carpeting was found. In the basement there was once a full basketball court, he said, where ushers would compete against their counterparts from other theaters. (The court wasn't restored.)

We walked up a grand staircase, where a worker in front of the former men's lounge—and it was called a lounge, not a bathroom, as befitting any palace—touched up figures on the wall with a small paintbrush. Knights jousted with dragons and horses rushed into battle, all on the way to the urinals.

Sitting in the balcony, on seats that, notably, have been widened for the 21st-century behind, Schweiger launched into the story of the Kings, a history intertwined with his own.

In 1929, when the theater opened its doors, it was an affair, complete with full orchestra before the movie. "When you came into a theater like this, you felt like royalty, even if you were wearing jeans," he said. The Kings was just one of five theaters in the immediate vicinity, but it was the most grand.

When, less than two months later, Black Tuesday officially ushered in the Great Depression, the theater remained open, showing movies along with newsreels and cartoons. The Kings was a community institution, hosting high school graduations and other events. Schweiger's wife graduated from high school there in 1965, he said, and played the flute in the orchestra pit. Four years later, after the couple had married, they attended their first movie at the Kings.

As the markers of progress—televisions, automobiles, highways, cable TV—marched on, the Kings slowly declined. Attendance dwindled, population demographics changed, and theaters like the Kings were no longer opulent palaces but neighborhood eyesores.

In 1977, the Kings shuttered, and in 1983, the city seized the building for its failure to pay back taxes. The theater sat empty, a prime target for nesting pigeons and vandals, who stole every chandelier within reach. Each time it rained, waterfalls cascaded over the original plaster.

Various parties expressed interest: Magic Johnson considered a multiplex and the Board of Education considered turning the building into a vocational school, Schweiger said. All the while, locals, including former borough president Marty Markowitz, who says he had his first date in the balcony, and groups including "Save the Kings" and the Flatbush Development Corporation, campaigned for the theater's restoration. "My attitude was, I'm going to make it a center for the performing arts," said Bruce Friedman, who gave tours of the building and brought Anderson, of ACE Theatrical Group, inside it for the first time. The reaction of people on his tours, he said, was often, "You're out of your mind."

Then, in 2010, ACE Theatrical signed on as the developer. In addition to $52.55 million from the city, $3 million for the project came from New York state, $21.6 million came from the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, and $18.39 came from other private investment.

In January of 2013, the construction began.

Mention the Kings to those at other theaters, and they respond with reverence. "For every Kings, there are five theaters that got knocked down," said Lambros, the photographer. While some of these have a group campaigning (ultimately unsuccessfully) for their survival, others are quietly demolished or abandoned.

But there are success stories. This past weekend, an event in Los Angeles allowed attendees to tour seven historic movie theaters, as part of a neighborhood revitalization effort. The rest of the Loew's Wonder Theaters, the Kings' so-called sister theaters, still exist: in Jersey City, on 175th Street in Manhattan, in Queens, and in the Bronx. Some former movie palaces, such as Pittsburg's Heinz Hall, have become performing arts centers. ACE Theatrical Group, which now operates the Kings, has worked on quite a few movie palaces, and currently operates the 1929 Majestic, in San Antonio, and the 1927 Saenger, in New Orleans. Both host a variety of acts, particularly touring Broadway productions. Theaters operated by nonprofits, including the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, the Tampa Theatre in Florida, and the Paramount in Austin, are home to various combinations of community events, films, and touring acts. "Usually an historic theater is still alive because one person fell in love, and tried to transfer that love to an entire community," said Ken Stein, executive director of the League of Historic American Theatres, an advocacy group that provides resources and education to theater operators.

Some palaces remain in limbo. Rapp & Rapp, which worked on the Kings, also designed the 4,300-seat Uptown in Chicago in 1925. "For all us mortals, it's one of the best theaters you can't see," said Andy Pierce, a volunteer with Friends of the Uptown, a group that advocates for the theater. Although relatively well preserved since its closing in 1981, the theater has not yet been restored. The current owner, an LLC of Chicago-based entertainment producer Jam Productions, has made only emergency repairs, such as turning on the heat when an icicle formed in the basement. (Jerry Mickelson, of JAM Productions, did not respond to requests for comment.)

The Boyd, in Philadelphia, is another matter. The 1928 theater has a unique Art Deco design, a contrast from the more common neoclassical style of theaters like the Kings.

Clear Channel purchased the theater in 2005 and began preliminary renovations, but, after the company's theaters were spun off into Live Nation, Live Nation no longer had interest in pursuing a restoration. Today, local developer Pearl Properties owns the theater and adjacent lots and advocates say that Pearl would like to use some of the theater's land for a proposed apartment tower. Pearl Properties did not respond to requests for comment.

Perhaps the most disturbing event in the Boyd's saga began in March 2014, several days after the Philadelphia Historical Commission approved an economic hardship application to Live Nation, which allowed for the demolition of all but the first 20 feet of the Boyd Theater. The company promptly went to work.

"The only reason they began to gut the auditorium was that we had vowed we were going to appeal the Historical Commission," said Howard Haas, a Philadelphia attorney who is president of Friends of the Boyd, a volunteer group. "To discourage us from appealing it, they began to destroy the interior."

"Normally movie palaces are destroyed with wrecking balls" in scheduled demolitions, he added. "This was a scorched earth tactic."

Live Nation did not respond to a request for comment.

"It's the most over-the-top Art Deco interior," said Ben Leech, director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "For a city that prides itself on being an architectural showpiece, this is a huge chapter that we're pretending is disposable. Philadelphia is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to historic sites, but we don't have anything else like this."

The auditorium ceiling of the Loew's Kings.

Saving movie palaces does not mean restoring them to their exact former uses and states, but making changes to fit modern sensibilities. Seats are widened. Sightlines to the stage are improved. Restrooms are added. (The Kings, for example, had 28 toilets, only 12 of which were for women. Today there are 93.) The Kings, which originally had just a concession stand, now has five permanent and five portable bars.

For Anderson, of ACE Theatrical Group, the goal is to create a façade that imitates the original, but to modernize everything behind it.

In the same vein, Adam Field, the architect, said that his firm tries to stay true to original building methods and materials, but will make sacrifices, particularly behind the scenes. "A lot of plaster was held on originally by horsehair, tied on to black iron," he said. "We might do something different, like using a board instead. The exterior plaster that you see is the same method, but we use a different substrate behind it to hold it up."

Even among those who advocate for old movie palaces, there is some debate about the need to preserve both intent and architecture. Some preservationists—mostly folks who recall their own days sitting in the original theaters—prioritize historically exact restorations, but most acknowledge that theaters can't be museums, said Richard Fosbrink, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America.

And besides, there is a certain degree of the unknowable: in the Kings, for example, all photos of opening day were black and white, so matching the seat color to the original meant inferring from newspaper articles and other found fabrics. But even if colors were precisely replicated, we'd be viewing them with modern eyes.

"Some of that decoration is so over the top because the lights were never really on in the building," said Fosbrink. "It was never designed to be photographed with lights, and you were meant to see these elements in a dimly lit interior."

In addition to restoration, advocates debate the merits of for-profit versus non-profit operations. Anderson is largely respected in the theater preservation world, but openly admits he runs a for-profit business. "You have to find a way to activate [theaters] and bring them into the current entertainment community. We're not building a piece of art for people to come in and look at and walk away. If you don't figure out how it's going to work post-restoration, we find ourselves in the same place in 15 or 20 years: a derelict theater, and nobody coming to see it."

The Loew's Jersey auditorium before its restoration. Photo courtesy Friends of the Loew's.

Every Saturday afternoon, a group of volunteers who call themselves Friends of the Loew's gather at the Loew's Jersey, another one of the so-called "Wonder theaters." On a recent Saturday, several homeless people had set up camp in front of the building, which is across from the Journal Square PATH stop, sandwiched between C.H. Martin, a discount store, and an empty office building with a pub on the ground floor. The interior of the theater is much like the Kings—they were designed by the same architect, at the same time, with similar materials—and, said volunteer George Riddle, being inside it feels like being in the interior of a Fabergé egg. (This is a Fabergé egg, by the way, that included a goldfish pond with real fish.)

Over the past several decades, Friends of the Loew's has nearly singlehandedly renovated the theater, including tearing down walls that divided it into a triplex, patching the roof and cleaning dust, debris, and the accumulated orange glop that years of nicotine left behind. On that recent Saturday, cardboard boxes of plush cushions were scattered across the balcony, part of a project to replace balcony seats. While the Friends have done the manual labor themselves, the Princeton, N.J. architecture firm HMR Architects has been involved in details like matching paint colors, restoring the clock and preparing a Historic Structures Report, a kind of master plan of the current condition and future of the Loew's.

The volunteer crew leases the theater from Jersey City for $1 a year and is the sole operator of the theater, which hosted about 90 events last year. They sell tickets, run the stage, sound system, and lights, and coordinate rentals, and Pattie Giordan makes popcorn, which, at $1 a box on movie nights, must be one of the best deals in the state. (When asked her secret, she replied, "Real ingredients.")

The Loew's Jersey auditorium after its restoration. Photo courtesy Friends of the Loew's.

While volunteers prepared for the evening's show, the group's executive director and one of its two paid staff members, Colin Egan, walked through the theater for which he's fought for decades. "You can see the scar," he said, pointing at a white mark in the elaborate ceiling. The scar comes from a wall that the Loews Corporation erected to turn the theater into a triplex—so it could show three movies, instead of just one—in 1974. Egan and his crew tore down the walls in 1995, as part of their restoration work.

The Loew's Jersey opened on Sept. 28, 1929, just a few weeks after the Kings. It went through a similar period of success and decline, and in 1986, Hartz Mountain Industries bought it with the sole intention of tearing it down, Egan said. In 1987, Egan, now 51, showed up at a city planning board meeting, and, he said, "began making noise." In 1993, Hartz sold the theater to the city for $325,000.

Egan's crew began putting on events in the theater in 1991, using the lobby and putting porta-potties in the alley, since the building had no water. Since gradually renovating the place, they host community events and concerts and rent the building to weddings and touring shows.

Today, the Loew's Jersey is at the center of a battle between the Friends and Jersey City over the future management of the theater. Last year, entertainment company AEG Live won a bid to rent the theater from the city for 30 years, at a cost of $350,000 annually, in addition to contributing $3.5 million to the renovation. (ACE Theatrical, which will manage the Kings, lost the bid to manage the theater, but will do the renovations.)

The Loew's Jersey auditorium center doorway before restoration. Photo courtesy Friends of the Loew's.

But before the $40 million renovation can begin, the city and the Friends must resolve a lawsuit over whether the Friends' $1-a-year deal is still valid. While a Hudson County judge initially ruled the Friends did not hold the lease, the judge later overthrew that ruling, and the case is scheduled to return to court in March.

Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop said the city is not trying to push the Friends out—the contract with AEG allows the Friends to program 20 events a year—but that, in order to be part of the revitalization of Journal Square, the theater needs an experienced operator. In addition to the Friends' 20 events, the agreement with AEG includes at least additional 30 community events, programmed by New Jersey City University, and at least 60 events by "nationally-recognized artists."

Egan said that the 20 events is not enough. And while Friends of the Loew's believes in booking big-name artists, Egan believes the only way the theater can serve the community is if there is also a strong nonprofit component to the theater's operation. "The commercial operation has to support the nonprofit aspects," said Egan.

AEG is not involved in the discussions between the Friends and the City. "We have great respect for everything they have done to keep the property from being demolished, and keeping the venue capable of holding productions, even in its limited capability at this point," said Mark Shulman, AEG's vice president and general manager.

The Loew's Jersey auditorium center doorway after restoration. Photo courtesy Friends of the Loew's.

On that Saturday, Egan walked to the front of the theater and onto the motorized lift in the orchestra pit. "Let's go for a ride!" he said, as the lift inched to stage level. The lift, he notes, is original—unlike the lift in that theater across the river. He walks backstage and points to a console full of levers, the original stage light control board. "It would be a sin to destroy this," he said. "What did they do in the Kings? They took a chop saw to it, and that's just wrong." (Gilbane Building Company, which worked on the theater, said that the Kings' original switchboard was not salvageable, and all metal had been stripped by vandals prior to the team's arrival on site.)

Fundamentally, Egan and his crew share the same values as Anderson and his: a desire for a mix of community use and tours from bold-face names, a belief in preservation, and the expectation that a theater can bring life back into its neighborhood.

But Egan believes that for a theater like the Jersey to truly succeed as a place for its community, a for-profit operator could never be sustainable. And, for him, a limited budget means making compromises when it comes to preservation.

"As wonderful and glorious as the architecture is, our first goal is to make the place functional," said Egan.

About 15 years ago, for example, Friends of the Loew's bought several hundred new seats from a Jehovah's Witnesses Hall in Monroe, N.Y. While the color doesn't match exactly, at about $20 a seat, the price couldn't be beat. The group has purchased modern theater equipment, including two theatrical dimmers at auction, for about $200 a piece, stamped with "Beauty and the Beast" on the side.

The end of Egan's tour was the roof's mechanical copper dragon, which rears up to expose the red light bulb in its mouth. "As in the myth, the dragon threatens Saint George, and Saint George slays him, every 15 minutes," said Egan. Then Egan sat in the dusty projection room, waxing poetic about why he's poured two and a half decades of his life into this structure.

"These buildings represent the best aspects of American history and culture," he said. Sure, they weren't perfect—some movie palaces, especially in the South, were segregated—but they represent a time when luxury wasn't synonymous with exclusivity. Several years ago, Egan went to Newport, R.I., and toured an old robber baron's mansion. "I felt like a tourist," he said, "and like I wasn't meant to see that."

But palaces like the Loew's Jersey? "From the moment they rolled the paper on the drawing board, they were intended for everyone."

· Behold, Brooklyn's Magnificently Restored Kings Theatre [Curbed]
· Curbed Features coverage [Curbed]