Theater has enjoyed a tumultuous history
Dependent on the economic health of their neighborhoods, lavish theaters were built, which flourished before ultimately deteriorating. A lucky few have also been rehabilitated in recent history. At one time, live theater, now respected as an art form, was even perceived to be a low form of entertainment by respectable Brooklynites.
On April 20, about two dozen people braved inclement weather to walk up and down the streets of Downtown Brooklyn searching for the sites and former sites of the borough’s legendary theaters with historian Cezar Del Valle.
The occasion was the Brooklyn Public Library Foundation Brooklyn Collection walking tour, "Revisiting Brooklyn’s Great Theatres." And the two dozen people included Ron Schweiger, whom Borough President Marty Markowitz has appointed the official borough historian, and Bob Daniels, a representative of the International Al Jolson Society.
Although there were people on the tour who could recall the declining years of theaters like the Fox and the Paramount, there were none who had experienced the great Brooklyn theaters during their heyday in the ’20s and ’30s. It was these theaters that Del Valle spoke about.
He reminisced about theaters that have long since fallen into obscurity, like the Subway Theater, once located on Flatbush Avenue Extension and politely known as a "Negro house" until it shut its doors when the subway it had been named after closed down.
He talked about famous theaters like the Paramount, also on Flatbush Avenue Extension, now part of Long Island University.
And he took the tour to the one intact, continuously functioning theater, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Lafayette Avenue.
Ironically, BAM is also the oldest theatrical institution in Brooklyn. It originally opened on Montague and Clinton streets on Jan. 15, 1861. Del Valle explained that the Brooklyn Academy of Music was intended for music and not theater.
"Theater had trouble getting started in Brooklyn," he said. "The main reason was religion They worried about the general behavior of theater people."
But from the very beginning, some of the academy’s board members wanted theater, and by the end of 1861, the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper joined the fray, pointing out that the only live theater in Brooklyn was in concert saloons (a precursor of vaudeville) where one might "see the elephant." (Del Valle delicately explained that "the elephant" was a euphemism for another euphemism, "women whose cheeks have not been blushed by maiden modesty.")
In the next few years several theaters did open in Brooklyn, and in 1908, five years after the Montague Street building had been destroyed by fire, BAM opened its present theater with famed tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) in "Faust."
The building was designed by the firm of Herts and Tallant, architects whom Del Valle called "relatively inexperienced" because they had previously only designed three other theaters - the New Amsterdam, Lyceum and Liberty theaters, all in Times Square. According to Del Valle, this cream-colored brick building in neo-Italianate style is "not bad for inexperienced architects."
Anyone sitting in BAM’s 2,000-plus-seat opera house would certainly agree, and probably be surprised to learn that the original theater was even more ornate, as much of the ceiling and wall decorations have been removed over time, according to Del Valle. (BAM’s facade is currently being restored and, according to a BAM spokesman, a parapet removed 30 years ago will be replaced.)
In the 1950s, BAM was affected by the general decline of the downtown area, but under the leadership of its former president and executive producer Harvey Lichtenstein, between 1969 and 1999, the academy expanded and revitalized its programs, making BAM an important focus for much of the downtown area’s redevelopment.
By 1909, there were 24 theaters in Brooklyn, including vaudeville and burlesque (which was outlawed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1939). Across from BAM was the Casino, where Bud Abbot (later to achieve fame with Lou Costello), was treasurer. The building was torn down in 1930, before it could fall victim to LaGuardia’s wrath.
The corner of Rockwell and Fulton was a particular haven for theatergoers. In 1900, Percy Williams opened a variety house, the Orpheum. In 1909, the Majestic opened with a version of "The Wizard of Oz." The Majestic, which, according to Del Valle, "has gone out of business more times than any other Brooklyn theater," currently houses BAM’s Harvey Theater at 651 Fulton St.
At the same corner, around the same time, Val Schmidt opened a restaurant with opera and a Thursday amateur night. (Del Valle shuddered at the thought.) When the restaurant went out of business, in 1927, it was replaced by the Montmartre, a movie theater that promised to show first-run movies but ended up settling for considerably less.
In 1919, the Strand (now the home of Brooklyn Information & Culture) opened, featuring live stage shows.
The intersection of Flatbush and Fulton was another theater hotspot. Here, in 1910, the Raub Plaza opened with stage shows. In 1928, William Fox opened his 4,000-seat Fox theater with its nautical interior featuring seashells and sea goddesses. Presiding over the event were Georgie Jessell performing and the mayor welcoming the audience from the screen of the new "talkies."
As television put many theaters out of business, the Fox managed to survive with the help of Murray the K’s rock ’n’ roll concerts, but was finally torn down in 1970.
In 1907, Flatbush Avenue was extended to meet the Manhattan Bridge. The Montauk (built in 1894), which was right in the path of destruction, was moved by Percy Williams to Livingston Street, where it became the Crescent and later Minsky’s burlesque.
But the most famous theater of Flatbush Avenue Extension was the Paramount. Built in 1928, this 4,000-plus-seat rococo theater had its name in 20-foot-high letters at the top of the building and indoor fountains near the ceiling where dry ice produced atmospheric mist. It was here that Ginger Rogers danced before she met Fred Astaire, and George Gershwin first met Ethel Merman.
Now part of Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, the theater space is what Del Valle called "the most ornate college gym in America." It is still home to the 26-ranks of pipes, four keyboard Wurlitzer organ, which was originally built to accompany silent movies and now accompanies noisy Blackhawks basketball games.
[The New York Theatre Organ Society will host a live concert on this Wurlitzer by organist Ralph Bacha on May 4 at 3 pm. Tickets are $10. Call (718) 596-6305 for more information.]
With so many other theaters in downtown Brooklyn, Del Valle wonders, "What in the world were they thinking of?" in 1928. Most probably, they were thinking the great age of theaters would go on forever. They certainly didn’t foresee urban flight to the suburbs, the decline of the downtown area and the rise of television as the new medium of mass entertainment.
But next time you sit down on the couch and turn on the TV, remember that 60 years ago you could walk into the Paramount and for $1 see a movie, watch a stage show and still have plenty of money left over for a snack.
The next Brooklyn Public Library walk is "Cobble Hill
to Boerum Hill" on May 4. For more information about the
library’s walks and tours call (718) 230-2200 or visit www.brookl