Movie Theaters of Union Square Development

It is funny how much of a 180 this project has taken since my first visit to the library.

Upon this project’s inception I was wary of the information that would be available for Union Square area movie theaters.  All the books and theaters I discovered through loose searches sent me to the Times Square area and Broadway theaters that dominated the market through the 1930’s.  I tried finding links between theater chains and architects but the information on the Union Square area was minimal.  How could a city rich with history and full of preservation not have more information on the development of the Union Square area and its movie theaters?

Although I shouldn’t say it was a complete waste, I did learn about some of the famous theater chains and architects of the twentieth century which helped shed light on the whole movie theater obsession.  This also brought to my attention the abandoned Lowes Canal Street Theater designed by one of the great movie theater architects Thomas Lamb in 1927 which I talked about briefly in my previous blog.  But all of this aside I was grabbing onto the historical side of movie theaters in the Union Square area and coming up very short.  However, with all research projects a little digging can go a long way.

After my failed book research attempt and working from the past to the present I decided to reverse my focus in preparation for the Pecha Kucha presentations on November 2.  Starting with existing movie theaters in the Union Square area and focusing on internet searches to unearth information on their past I began with the Regal Union Square 14 theater at 850 Broadway.  Through the comments section on Cinematreasures.org I obtained the original films screened on the day it opened and a few back articles from magazines and newspapers talking about what a theater of this size will do to/for the area.  There was also a very brief article from New York Magazine from  September 7, 2008 by Justin Davidson about the changing of the New York skyline in the last decade and how it has affected the city.

(http://nymag.com/arts/architecture/features/49959/index16.html)

Davidson refers to the Regal Union Square Theater as one of these advancements that changed the city and refers to the now demolished Union Square Theater that resided in this large plot.  This confused me because there is a Union Square Theater currently at 17th and Broadway so I began looking for clues as to why this theater moved and how the names got confused.

It was the jackpot I was waiting for and a perfect ending for the Pecha Kucha presentation.  Originally the Union Square Theater at 50 East 14th Street opened in 1870 as a variety theater with 1200 seats that was designed to accompany the Union Square hotel next door.  Ownership changed hands in 1872 after this venture failed and Albert M. Palmer changed the theater for dramatic works to much success.  In 1883 the firm Keith and Albee purchased the theater for vaudeville and in 1908 changed the theater to a full-time movie house.  In 1908 the theater name was changed to the Bijou Dream (Bijou is French for Jewel) in an effort to glamorize the building.  In 1911the theater reverted back to the Union Square name and changed its shows to vaudeville and burlesque acts.  By 1921 the theater was in dire need of repairs and it closed in the fall so renovations could take place along with converting it to a full-time movie theater with a Robert-Morgan organ to accompany the silent films of the time.  The upper balcony was removed and only 600 seats remained when it reopened as the Acme Theater in May 1922 with its first run film being Mary Pickford’s version of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (Alfred E. Green, Jack Pickford, 1921).  In 1932 the theater became New York City’s only American Soviet-Kino, showing Russian films exclusively.  It received its reputation from sidewalk barkers who would shout to pedestrians on the street about the films in a positive light.  These sidewalk barkers also urged the people outside to join the Communist party interchangeably. By 1936 the Acme Theater was closed and the orchestra was demolished for new store fronts, yet the stage and balcony remained.  This portion of the theater was left untouched for over 50 years and was nearly forgotten until the entire block was bought out by Philips International Realty with the intention of demolishing every building on site so they could be redeveloped in the modern sense.  Christopher Gray wrote an article about this site, the theater remains, and many other establishments that were going to disappear on January 29,1989 before the demolition took place.

(http://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/29/realestate/streetscapes-the-union-square-theater-the-ghost-behind-a-huge-sign.html)

All of this started with a search on the Regal Union Square 14 Theater and it grew to be way more than I could have imagined.  I spent so much time looking up information on the Acme Theater I nearly forgot I originally started with the Regal Theater.  Now I have a great example to work off of and I know that there is as much history to the Union Square area movie theater scene as I felt there should be to justify this project.  And after all this research I realized while most of the current movie theaters got their start as movie theaters most of the movie palaces that I was really interested in learning more about started as performing arts theaters.  I was looking in the right places but in a lot of instances I was searching in the wrong areas.  Now I have a lot of historical information on the no longer existing movie theaters thanks to their ties to theater and hopefully the map I included with the Pecha Kucha presentation will continue to grow from the Union Square area.

One comment

  1. This is fantastic, Matt! What an amazing find! I’m so glad to see that you’re so *excited* about what you’ve discovered and where it could lead you next!

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