A curtain call for old theaters Essay

ACURTAIN CALL FOR OLD THEATERS The once grand Loew’s Kings theater in Brooklyn, a 3,200-seatmovie palace that opened in 1929, may not be around much longer. Thefate of the theater, abandoned and in a sad state of neglect, hinges onone last effort by the city of New York to attract interest in itsredevelopment –the building of a nearby parking lot. After repeatedattempts by a community group to develop alternative uses for theLoew’s Kings, the city recently took over the theater for backtaxes. The new parking lot, designed to serve three adjacent departmentstores, will also, it is hoped, drum up interest in the Kings.

If not,the repository of so many romantic memories may become just anotherpatch of asphalt. In other cities around the country, however, old movie palaces thatonce played movies featuring Valentino and Pickford, Cooper and Davis,are being renovated after years of neglect. The results: spanking-newarts centers that offer a variety of musical programs and act as beaconsto attract new businesses into once decaying areas. A prime example of this type of artistic urban reclamation is theCircle Theatre in Indianapolis. The Circle Theatre was designed inneoclassicalrevival style in the early 1900s. Geoffrey S. Lapin, amember of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra cello section, picks upthe story of the early days of the theater: “Called “TheShrine of the Silent Art,’ it was the first motion-picture theaterwest of New York built especially for the purpose of showingfeature-length photoplays.

It was a “presentation’ house ofthe grandest order, rivaled only by New York’s StrandTheatre.’ The first floor of the theater contained a small lobby, a promenadeand an auditorium. An architectural screen with glass panels separatedthe auditorium from the lobby promenade. The mezzanine provided accessto the loges, designed to resemble the famous Diamond Horseshoe of theformer Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Three pairs of staircaseswith mahogany rails and gilt posts joined the three levels. Grecianfigures in relief and classical moldings painted in ivory adorned thewalls and ceilings. “From 1916 to 19818′ Lapin adds, “its repertoireranged from world-premiere features, classical concerts and live stageshows to grade-B and-C motion pictures.

‘ Martha Karatz, the director of public relations for theIndianapolis Symphony Orchestra, says that the theater was in terribledisrepair by the time the original Circle Theatre shuttered its doors in1981. “Five years ago, to an outsider, Indianapolis might havelooked like one, big war memorial,’ soys karatz referring to thecity’s predilection for huge monuments. “But in 19828 thingsreally started to change for the Circle Theater.’ The Indianapolis Power and Light Company purchased the property.

The utility leased it to the community-based Commission for Downtown,which in turn subleased it to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, whichfound it the perfect place for a permanent home. Dalton, van Dijk, Johnson & Partners, an architectural firm from Cleveland, began the renovation in the summer of 1983. “Therewere four major structural changes that had to be made,’ says Petervan Dijk, the architect for the project. “The most critical was toenlarge the stage for use by the symphony. Since it was originallybuilt for film and vaudeville use, it was rather small. Luckily, therewas an alley in back of the theater that we could build over.

In sodoing, we gained over 14 feet of stage area.’ Van Dijk mounted additional public seating on stepped risers abovethe stage. Then he “splayed’ the side wall around thisseating area to aid acoustical distribution throughout the house as wellas among the orchestral members.

Van Dijk found that the inner portal of the proscenium arch wouldhave hidden 20 percent of the orchestra. “The proscenium arch madethe stage too low and narrow,’ van Dijk continues. “We had toremove the arch and widen the opening.’ Afterward, van Dijk andhis architects duplicated the neo-Adam Grecian reliefs of the originalportals upon the inner surfaces of the new opening. The theater’s lobby was reconstructed because, as van Dijkpoints out, “There really was no lobby on the orchestra level, justa curved corridor that was certainly not big enough to accommodate thepatrons of a symphonic hall.

‘ In addition, the mezzanine lobby,not separated from the house, permitted unwanted sound infiltration tothe seating areas. “And the cinema-style overhanging balconyplaced a large portion of the audience members in areas lacking presenceand brightness,’ adds Christopher Jaffe, the project’sacoustical expert. So van Dijk eliminated several rows of seats at therear of the theater, reconfigured the slope of the orchestra level andredid the seating to ensure better sight lines and comfort.

Then,orchestra-level boxes, including boxes for the handicapped, wereintegrated into this new plan. Another major structural problem for van Dijk and crew was thebalcony. “The balcony was on steps that dictated narrow spacing ofthe seats.

We needed wider steps so we could have more comfortable andwider spaces for seating. So what we did was build a new balcony overthe old balcony. Because the old balcony was built to hold even moreweight than it originally did, our reconstruction worked,’ says vanDijk.

The reconstructed and renovated Circle Theatre opened to aresounding critical and popular success on October 12, 1984, as the newhome of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. It has reenforced therevitalization of the city of Indianapolis. “We are a positive andmajor attraction for visitors to the downtown area,’ says MarthaKaratz. “New restaurants and businesses are moving into thedowntown area to accommodate the increased activity.’ Another of van Dijk’s renovation projects, Playhouse Square,has had a similar effect in his home city, Cleveland.

“As oftoday, 90 million dollars and 1,000 new jobs have been pumped into thecity of Cleveland as a result of the development of PlayhouseSquare,’ says Lawrence J. Wilker, the president of Playhouse SquareFoundation, organized in 1972. That year, four adjacent movie theaters,unused for years and located in Cleveland’s former downtownentertainment section, were threatened with demolition to make way for aparking lot. Concerned citizens formed the association to save thehalls and to try to bring new life to the neighborhood. Van Dijk, the designer of the Blossom Music Center in Cleveland,was selected to restore the Cleveland movie theaters and to prepare amaster plan for the redevelopment of the entire area–“A vehiclefor urban renewal, as well as an arts and entertainment project,’Wilker emphasizes. The sketch van Dijk came up with, which he completed in 1973, was acomprehensive revitalization of the 60-acre area near the theaters. Heenvisioned a performing-arts center composed of the four theaters andadjacent buildings.

To date, it looks as if van Dijk’s plan isbecoming a reality. The Ohio Theatre, reopened in July 1982, marks the first tangiblephase of the foundation’s redevelopment program. Completelyrefurbished with all-new lighting, rigging and sound equipment, the Ohiois now home to the Great Lakes Shake-speare Festival and a variety ofother performing-arts organizations. The 3,000-seat State Theatre opened in spring 1984 with a new,95-foot-deep stage house and support structure. Restoration includedthe auditorium, the side boxes and the loge section of the balcony. TheState now houses the Cleveland Ballet and the Cleveland Opera andprovides stages for world-class touring acts and Broadway musicals. “Playhouse Square is just now coming on line,’ confirmsvan Dijk. “We’re also about to start renovations of the PalaceTheatre.

‘ The Playhouse Square Association estimates that thePalace could attract one million patrons annually. “When I was hired to be the architect of PlayhouseSquare,’ says van Dijk, “I kept saying it was more thanrenovating old theaters. It could be a catalyst for redevelopment of theentire area.’ The new shops, restaurants and other businesses moving intoPlayhouse Square make it look as though van Dijk was right. And Cleveland and Indianapolis are just two of the “RustBelt’ cities creating urban renewal by renovating old theaters inrun-down neighborhoods. Until recently, the Grand Avenue section of midtown Saint Louis,once known as “the Great White Way,’ was a decayingneighborhood. Things began to change in September 1982, when the FoxTheatre reopened after extensive renovations. Originally a moviepalace, built in 1929 by William Fox, the theater had become, over theyears, a shell of its former self.

In 1981, a limited partnership ofinvestors, called the Fox Associates, began to restore the theater toits former splendor. “For Associates produces a variety series, with entertainerslike Wayne Newton, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Bob Hope,’ says SusanMoore, assistant special-projects coordinator for the Fox Theatre.”Also, the Municipal Opera Company of Saint Louis leases thetheater for 15 weeks a year. We’ve also seen touring companies ofBroadway shows, including Amadeus and Zorba, play the Fox.’ And what has been the effect of the Fox’ resurrection on thesurrounding neighborhood? “It’s a slow process of coming up,but things look as if they’re on the upswing,’ Moore answers.”Since the opening, there’s less hesitancy by Saint Louisansto come to our area.

There’s an apartment complex being builtacross from the theater, a public park being developed nearby, the GrandCafe has opened adjacent to the Fox and we’ve opened a gift shopnext to the Fox as well.’ Despite all the positive effects renovations of old movie theatershave had, there’s been no interest in renovating the Loew’sKings in Brooklyn. “You must remember that the Kings is in theborough of Brooklyn.

It’s competing with Lincoln Center and allthe other theaters in Manhattan, as well as the Gershwin Theatre inBrooklyn College and the Brooklyn Academy of Music,’ Michael A.Weiss, president of the Flatbush Development Corporation, points out. Weiss says many performing-arts facilities do not operate at aprofit: “They all require subsidies to survive, and the prospect ofgetting that kind of subsidy from the city of New York, or anyone else,for that matter, isn’t a viable option.’ Weiss says that suchcities as Indianapolis, Cleveland and Saint Louis do not have theextensive number of theaters–and the corresponding competition fortheir renovated facilities–that the Loew’s Kings would have.

“I don’t want to give the impression the city of New York hasbeen uncooperative,’ Weiss cautions. “The parking lot behindthe Kings will cost $3 million. It might make the Kings marketable. Weneed an operation to pay a good part of the freight for thetheater’s renovation.’ Will the Loew’s Kings be renovated or fall by the wayside?Only time will tell, but I have my own bias.

I saw my first James Bond film in the Loew’s Kings, and I alsohad my graduation ceremonies at the grand facility. It would be a shameif it became just another parking lot. Photo: A relic of 1920s movle mania, the Fox Theater of Saint Louishad fallen on hard times until a local association came to its rescue in1981 and restored it to its former gaudy glory. Its renaissance hasbeen a catalyst for further development in downtown Saint Louis. (Above,the Fox in 1929; top and left, as it looks today.) Photo: A total face-lift of Cleveland’s State Theatre hasproduced a sparkling new home for the city’s ballet and operacompanies. The 3,000-seat auditorium was stripped (center) andcarefully restored (top and bottom).

Photo: The 1916-vintage Circle Theatre of Indianapolis receives newpaint and plaster (above). The elegant neoclassical-revival auditoriumwas reopened in 1984 as the permanent home of the city’s symphonyorchestra.

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