Curtain Call: A Forgotten Queens Movie Palace

Advocates fight to preserve the once glorious theater, which is up for sale.

The RKO Keith's theater in Flushing, Queens in Feb. 2016. (Caroline Spivack)

“The theater represents more than just a theater. It represents a rich part of Flushing’s history that should be preserved.”

Rick Gallo
A founding member of Save the RKO Keith’s Theater

The RKO Keith’s theater sits at the head of Flushing’s Main Street caked in grime and graffiti; its perimeter lined with crumpled receipts and decaying pizza boxes. Residents walk past unaware of its history. Only the curved metal frame of its marquee hints at its former glory.

In its heyday during the early twentieth century, the RKO Keith’s was a vaudeville and movie palace. Not only did it attract Hollywood greats like Judy Garland and Bob Hope, but it was also the focal point of the neighborhood, hosting high school graduation ceremonies, dance recitals, and even a wedding.

Yet despite being placed on the National Register of Historic Places and having its ticket lobby and foyer landmarked by the city, the theater was closed in 1986 and sunk into disrepair. Now that the property is back up for sale the debate over its future has reignited.

“The theater represents more than just a theater. It represents a rich part of Flushing’s history that should be preserved,” said Rick Gallo, a founding member of the Save the RKO Keith’s Theater, a 5-year-old group dedicated to restoring the property. “This is a fight not only for the RKO but downtown Flushing as well.”

Built in 1928 the 2,974-seat theater opened on Christmas day of the same year with the film, “Three Week Ends” starring Clara Bow and a lineup of glitzy vaudeville performances. The grand foyer wowed with its sweeping marble stair cases and gushing fountain. But the auditorium took the experience to the next level. Gilded plaster work lined the walls, chandeliers dangled over the audience, and the ceiling was a twilight blue glittering with bulbs that simulated stars.

As a kid, life-long Flushing resident Vinny Butler, 64, remembers struggling to open the heavy bronze doors that led into the foyer. He’d crane his neck up to gawk at the high-ceilings and balconies. Butler recalled a particularly memorable experience when he went to see the black and white thriller “Two on a Guillotine.”

“The whole movie played and then the stars came out and waved to the audience,” he said. The pace of his gravelly voice quickened with excitement as he spoke. “It was different from other theaters because it brought the stars to you, you know, and that was powerful.”

Long-time Flushing resident Jerry Rotondi, 74, a lead member of the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s Theatre of Flushing, another community group that has advocated for the theater’s landmark status since 1981, recognized the RKO Keith’s role as part of the uniquely American tradition of movie palaces.

“Movie palaces were like palaces of democracy,” said Rotondi. “They were grand spaces that the public could go to.”

Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Queens Community Board 7, reflects on the RKO Keith's.

Julia Harrison, former councilwoman who advocated for the theater, laments the loss of an architectural gem.

In 1981, the RKO Keith’s interior was the subject of a public hearing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under consideration were most of the publicly accessible interior spaces, which were landmarked in 1984.

But according to Anthony Robins, the senior preservation specialist who prepared the theater’s landmark designation report, at the behest of Donald Manes, then Queens Borough President, enough support was gained to modify the designation just to include the ticket lobby and foyer. It was generally believed Manes did so to accommodate his colleague who was involved in a proposed shopping mall on the site.

But the plan never came to fruition. Instead, developer Thomas Huang purchased the site and on Labor Day in 1986, the final curtain fell. Before preservationists could intervene, Huang tore down part of the auditorium and later during a trial admitted to leaking 200 gallons of oil from the theater’s furnace into its basement.

Today the RKO Keith’s is owned by JK Equities, a real estate developer that gained approval for plans to build a 16-story, 269-unit apartment building in 2015, but now that the theater is back on the market its future is once again up in the air.

The developer retained commercial real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield to sell the site, which claimed the new owner will continue with the high-rise, but the plan is not binding.

“You know what, we’ve been down this road so many times,” said Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of Queens Community Board 7, referring to the property being flipped without any improvement. “It’s not fair to the community and it deserves a development.”

Inside, only the theater’s bones remain. According to Jonathan Karlik of JK Equities, what was left was dismantled and gathered into more than 100 crates of crumbling detail. What isn’t salvaged to restore the ticket lobby and foyer, if it ever happens, will likely be donated to a museum.

Save the RKO Keith’s Theater is working to acquire the property with the goal of building upon its legacy.

“Our hope is to have the entire structure restored to its old glory,” said Gallo of Save the RKO Keith’s Theater. “Have it become a concert venue or performing arts center along with a place to show movies, perhaps to watch Met games when CITI Field is sold out.”

“It was different from other theaters because it brought the stars to you, you know, and that was powerful.”

Vinny Butler
Life-long Flushing resident

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