After laying vacant for nearly two decades, one of the oldest movie theaters in Manhattan has a new tenant.
On June 28, 1989, lifelong Upper West Sider Keith Harris saw Michael Keaton’s “Batman” for the very first time at the Metro Theater on Broadway between 99th and 100th streets. More than thirty years later, just days after the reboot of the next Batman franchise was released, Harris explained how significant the Metro Theater was to not just him, but to the whole community.
The Metro Theater is one of the last remaining old movie theaters in Manhattan, Harris explained. Or, at least that is true of its facade. Built in 1933, the theater shut down 17 years ago. But according to a local blog post published on March 17, owner Albert Bialeck has finally found a tenant. Bialeck has not yet publicly released the name of the tenant. On March 3, the new tenant filed an application to begin work, which noted that they plan to “convert existing motion theater building to retail use with general construction, structural upgrade as per plan.”
Many locals, including Harris and Claudia Ford, a fellow member of the Friends of the Metro Theater group, remember seeing films at the theater decades ago. In fact, Harris said he had his first date sitting in the narrow velvet seats of the theater. The theater came to represent Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and was featured in the Woody Allen film “Hannah And Her Sisters,” released in 1986. On July 11, 1989, the Metro Theater was officially granted landmark status by the Landmarks Preservation Committee.
In the 1970s, the Metro showed adult films, according to Denise Pence Brookvor, who lived right next door in 1979 when she was expecting her first child. She said that she took a gamble on the neighborhood, which was much rougher in those decades, and was told that it would change soon.
“We are thrilled that finally, the abandoned, dangerous eyesore in this now beautiful community is being restored to its former elegance,” Pence Brookvor said via email.
Today, all that remains of this place is its tattered exterior with a white plastic banner that reads, “Space Available.” For Harris and the Friend’s of the Metro Theater group, their activism is about more than simply saving the theater, it is about saving the community too. Harris said that if each member of the group is asked, “Why the Metro Theater?,” they would have their own histories and reasons that drive them to protect it.
The theater was nearly revitalized at least once before. Approximately ten years ago, the Alamo Drafthouse announced in a press release that they would open their first New York City location in the Metro Theater. Those plans were never finalized.
Since then, under the leadership of Jennifer Anne Johnson, the Friend’s of the Metro Theater have signed petitions, spoken to local officials like Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, and set up a booth at a neighborhood street fair this past October. All of these events shared a common goal: to reopen the Metro Theater.
“For those who are skeptical after many years of countless failed plans at the Metro,” Levine Tweeted on March 20, “I have spoken directly to the company opening this new venue. This is real. It’s happening.”
Restoration efforts haven’t always been easy, according to Harris and Ford. Ford mentioned that she had to bring complaints to the New York City Landmark Commission against the Metro Theater in December because its bottom panels were painted a silver gray instead of their original pink mauve color. The Commission responded with a formal correction notice to Bialeck, the building’s owner.
According to Harris, the group has been in contact with Bialeck over the years. The last group member to speak to Bialeck was Liza Cooper. Cooper said that she asked Bialeck if the group could have direct dialogue with the tenant before construction begins. Bialeck did not respond to Cooper. Bialeck was also not available for comment on this story.
Johnson, known by colleagues as simply JJ, started a Change.org petition more than one year ago to have then-Mayor Bill DeBlasio save the theater. As of March 31, 2022, 3,406 people have signed it. Johnson wrote that she started her petition after a local resident, Deborah Rosenberg had a successful GoFundMe campaign for the theater in 2018. However, less than one year later, Rosenberg gave the money back to the donors because, according to the GoFundMe page, there was not enough to pay the engineer. Rosenberg also said that Bialeck would not give her access to the theater.
Harris recalls seeing Johnson last May, standing outside the Metro Theater, with its boarded up windows stained with graffiti, asking neighbors to help save it.
“I went up to her and said, ‘Hey, I have a lot of memories here and I want to get involved,’” Harris recounted. “We exchanged emails and phone numbers, and then it was just a snowball effect.”
When Harris joined Johnson, there were only three people in the Friends of the Metro Theater group. Now, he estimates there are more than 20. The group’s Facebook page has almost 400 members. Due to the pandemic, Cooper said the majority of the meetings have been on Zoom, with a couple exceptions that took place across the street from the theater at the Metro Diner.
Gil Tauber has lived on the Upper West Side for over forty years, and remembers when the Metro Theater used to be open. Now, as a member of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group, Tauber has become familiar with the theater’s historical impact on the community. He said that the group has given presentations on local landmarked buildings, including the Metro Theater.
For the Friends of the Metro Theater group, the promise of a new tenant means the revitalization of a part of the community, according to Cooper. As skyrocketing retail rents and COVID-19 have left Upper West Side storefronts, including many along Broadway, vacant, the reopening of Metro Theater would signal a new post-pandemic beginning for the community.
“Communities have power. And communities, if they feel that they’ve been wronged, I think they have the opportunity to right the ship,” she said. “They can do that with their voices, and they can do that with creativity. They can do that by engaging different partners and community members, and I think that’s really important for anyone in the City.”
A previous version of this article stated that Deborah Rosenberg gave the $4,000 back to the donors after realizing the money was not enough to save the theater.