Friday, January 14, 2011

Coming Attraction: Nightmare At The RKO Keith's Theatre

RKO Keith's Theatre in its 1920s grandeur, Courtesy of the Michael Perlman Postcard Collection  
SHAME-CAM! RKO Keith's 2010 rendering after rental conversion. Image by Studio V Architecture
History At Stake

This blog feels strongly that one of Thomas Lamb's most outstanding theater designs, despite its current condition of the facade and auditorium, should be rebuilt rather than demolished. Some theaters in a more drastic state have been revived through grants, tax credits, fundraisers, and "out-of-the-box" developers. A landmarked lobby is only a fraction of the theater, and is required by law to be retained, so why is new owner Patrick Thompson being portrayed as heroic according to some recent press and some electeds?

A typical rental high-rise with 357 units, 360 parking spaces, & a glass curtain wall on Main St surrounding the original lobby is a slap in the face to one of Queens' greatest theater landmarks. All of Queens could benefit by a performing arts center within, but not another banal glass high-rise on site of one of the most historic theatrical spots, causing more congestion. Hasn't Queens lost enough for the political view of "progress?" Don't settle for piecemeal! Allocate the development funds towards a restoration and maintain an open ear, Mr. Thompson!!!

If Lady Liberty's torch wasn't officially landmarked, would we chisel it off if it was in disrepair, or would we work collaboratively to acquire grants, tax credits, and organize fundraisers to restore it? 

Preserving a portion of a site symbolizes a plaque. On a greater scale, how many more plaques will Queens have, which memorializes what we once had, but still could have with a creative vision? 

More information on glass rental conversion plans:

      In December 2010, some member preservationists of Rego-Forest Preservation Council and Friends of The RKO Keith's Flushing Theatre shared their sentiment & futuristic vision with journalism student David He of Baruch College. His quintessential-quality feature was posted on his college's blog, "Writing New York: Post From The Boroughs And Beyond" and we were granted permission to feature his piece, to help spread the word on the RKO Keith's Theatre Campaign.....

From Silver Screen To Preservationist Scene

A skeletal marquee juts out from the face of the shuttered building like a morose frown, bare and immovable. Underneath, the entrance is covered by an expanse of the blue-colored boards that typically designate a new construction project. Except these boards have been in place for over two decades now and are dirty and graffiti-strewn. The RKO Keith’s Theatre, once a glamorous venue for cinema, has been languishing in limbo since it closed its door to the public and the community.
The theatre, which sits squarely at the intersection between Main Street and Northern Boulevard in Flushing, has weathered both time and conflict in the years after it closed in 1986. The site has drawn as much controversy as it has interest due to both the economic opportunity of its land and the personal connections that many who grew up in Flushing have to the theatre. In 2009 the strength of these connections and memories coalesced into a Facebook group called “Save the RKO Keith’s Flushing”, dedicated to the preservation of the theater.

“My earliest memory was watching The Empire Strikes Back with my father in 1980,” said Rick Gallo, an admin of the Facebook group. “We sat in the main theater, which was the largest of the three theaters. The screen was enormous and would rival the new theaters of today.”
Founded by Flushing native Ed Tracey, the group quickly took off and had over 1,000 members in a month. Many of the members had grown up watching movies at the RKO, or had had their graduation ceremonies there. The Facebook page allows members to share their memories of and experiences with the theatre and brings together people that have otherwise moved away from the area.

“When I walked into that theatre it was like entering another world, as my sisters and I would say, it was like heaven,” said Annette Guarino, who grew up in Flushing but now lives in Long Island. She went on to describe the gold embossed statues, the sky-painted ceiling, and the sweeping stairs with mahogany handrails, calling the beauty of the theatre “endless”.

RKO Keith’s Atmospheric Style lobby, courtesy of Michael R. Miller Collection
In addition to those who saw movies during the theatre’s prime, the group also has members who were too young to remember the theatre or who were born after it closed. For these supporters the root of their cause is preserving a piece of history that they never had a chance to take part in, but nevertheless moves and fascinates them.

Susan Carroll, who was six years old when the theatre closed, grew up listening to stories about the wonders of the RKO and how her parents saw Star Wars there in 1977.

“I always felt sad I’d missed out on knowing that theatre, not to mention that I had to take buses and trains to the movies, while the RKO, in walking distance stood there vacant and neglected,” said Carroll.

RKO Keith’s Theatre, Aug 17, 2008, courtesy of Preservationist Michael Perlman
For many subsequent generations growing up, the RKO would remain as such –an abandoned, lifeless, and dilapidated husk of a building. Yet its history stretches back to more than half a century ago, and begins in 1928 when it was first opened as a vaudeville theatre. Designed by Thomas Lamb, one of the preeminent industrial designers of the era, the RKO was built with grandeur in mind.
The façade was lined with lively storefronts, and topped by an ornate, arch-like marquee; a preview of the marvels that awaited inside. The interior was designed in the Spanish Baroque and Atmospheric style, heavily characterized by elegance and opulence. The lobby was a two-story high room with columns and gilded plasterwork on its upper story. The foyer featured a fountain in the center and two broad marble staircases that led up to the gallery. Throughout the rest of the theatre elaborate and intricately worked elements variously made of wrought iron, terra cotta, and plaster contributed to the overall look and feel of a “movie palace.” The auditorium, which seated 2,900, was known for its ceiling, which was painted a deep blue and had projections of stars and clouds moving across its surface to create the illusion of an evening sky.

RKO Keith’s street view of facade, courtesy of Michael R. Miller Collection
“I always remember walking in and being awed by the spectacular moon-ish ceiling: it felt as if I was in outer space,” recalled Gallo.

By the 1930s the vaudeville shows were discontinued and only movies were shown. In the 1970s the RKO was renovated and carefully converted into a triplex to house three theatres. The lobby and the foyer were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, and shortly afterwards in 1984 was granted landmark status by the Landmarks Preservation Commission of the city.

The RKO’s troubles began when Tommy Huang, a businessman and developer purchased it for $3.4 million in 1986. Huang planned to build a hotel, a mall, and a movie complex around the landmarked areas. In his time as owner of the theatre he had half of the auditorium torn down, the lobby stripped, and the sweeping staircase bulldozed. Although he was opposed at every turn by preservationists and activists, by the time Huang filed for bankruptcy in 1996, the theatre was in ruins. Huang put the RKO up for sale and the following year was arrested and indicted for having knowingly allowed hundreds of gallons of heating oil to spill into the basement of the theatre, following an investigation by the New York State Attorney General.

Michael Perlman, the Queens VP of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance and a member of multiple preservation organizations, believes that locales like the RKO are culturally important and their value is greater than anything a profit-driven development could achieve.
“A theater owner should preserve and creatively reuse one of our city’s greatest landmarks at heart, and consider its intricate history […] Developers should not enter and attempt to demolish this gem awaiting TLC,” said Perlman.

After the Huang debacle the RKO was once more without an owner and direction until Boymelgreen Developers bought the theatre for $15 million in 2002. Boymelgreen had plans to build a 17-story condo tower with a senior center and received approval from Queens Community Board 7 to begin construction. However the developer backed out, citing issues with debt and financial viability, and the RKO was put on sale yet again in 2007.

RKO Keith’s Theatre facade March 7, 2009, Courtesy of Preservationist Michael Perlman
Gallo met Tracey after he discovered the Facebook group online and the two worked closely together, despite having never met in person, through phone calls and emails. They worked to raise awareness for the group and their mission to save the RKO. In a short amount of time the group received press coverage from local papers such as the Queens Tribune and more distributed papers like The Daily News. The group managed to incorporate and attempted to attain a 501(c)(3) status for fundraising purposes when they learned in May 2010 that the RKO had been bought by Manhattan condo developer Patrick Thompson for $20 million.

Gallo and Carroll met with Thompson in June to discuss the developer’s plans for the RKO. Thompson’s plans mostly follow Boymelgreen’s original plan of building a 17-story condo and a senior center. He has also agreed to restore and preserve the landmarked lobby.
“The community board and landmarks committee simply would not landmark the whole building. This is not acceptable but it is better than tearing down the whole building,” said Gallo. “If the lobby can be preserved, at least we can say that a small portion of Flushing history has been saved.”

This of course comes after a large part of that Flushing history has already been destroyed. A video posted on YouTube by preservationist Thomas Stathes in 2009 offers a look at the neglected and ruined interior. The walls that are still standing are cracked and peeling, the ceiling has extensive water damage, and a gaping chasm is all that remains of half the auditorium. In some instances a few design elements and ornaments are still intact but for the most part the theatre is littered with debris and left in darkness, a gutted remnant of its former glory.

The saga of the RKO is still ongoing. Construction has yet to begin and there has been talk that Thompson may revise his initial plan and increase the amount of apartments and parking spaces that are to be built. It seems that for now the RKO will continue to be surrounded by uncertainty but the resolve of Gallo, Tracey, and others in the group to preserve as much of the theatre as possible remains unchanged.

“I believe the current residents of Flushing deserve to learn about and to know a restored RKO, at least the landmarked lobby portion, if nothing else,” said Carroll. “As long as the building is still standing, I have hope that the RKO will come alive once more.”

Please visit & join:

Save the RKO Keith’s Facebook Group

Thomas Stathes’ YouTube video of the RKO interior


  1. If there is one thing that Flushing needs less of it is more congestion and rental/condos. To convert the RKO into 357 rental units while at the same time developing Flushing Commons' 620 condos with the Macedonia Plaza's 140 "affordable" units, also adding another 652 condos to the existing 448 condos at 'Sky View Parc'(how are they doing these days?), not to mention the 72-unit Prince Plaza, the Victoria Tower, 38-30 Parsons Boulevard and converting the YMCA into more condos (so that they can move into Flushing Commons)all within a three year construction phase is something that Flushing will never recover from.

  2. What a joke! Like if they'd saved a ticket booth from Penn Station and stuck it in the entrance to MSG, I'd feel better about that too.