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‘Cilla Owens: Motown and Beyond’ at the Bedford Library

I want you back! Singer revives Motown shows from classic Brooklyn theaters

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You don’t need to hear it through the grapevine — you can hear it in Brooklyn!

Diana Ross famously re-opened the restored Loew’s Kings Theatre in Flatbush last month, but the revival of both soul music and classic Brooklyn concert halls isn’t over. A Crown Heights jazz singer will recall top Motown performances from the heyday of two other once-prominent Kings county theaters, the Fox and the Paramount, with a show at the Bedford Library in Bedford-Stuyvesant on March 14. The show, “Motown and Beyond,” will celebrate the soulful sounds of yesteryear, evoking a performance style and history that has nearly vanished, the singer said.

“Long before YouTube and shows on the super-sized stages with all the lights, special effects, background dancers, and auto-tuning, there were performers who took to the stage simply with fantastic artistry,” said Cilla Owens, the Katowitz Radin artist-in-residence at Brooklyn Library.

As part of her residency, Ownes has access to the library’s sheet music collection — boasting 102 pieces of music from 1869-1987 — and its collection of around 800 programs and playbills from Brooklyn theaters dating back to the 1880s, which she said have given her a new perspective on the borough’s cultural heritage. This, along with a survey she performed of people’s experiences with Brooklyn’s performance spaces, inspired the upcoming concert, she said.

“Brooklyn has a rich cultural history,” said Owens, who saw her first rock and roll show at Fox Theatre at 12 years old. “The beautiful old theaters of Brooklyn are a part of that vibrant cultural past and should not be ignored.”

Owens certainly hasn’t forgotten — the Fox is where she saw her first Motown revue.

“It was phenomenal, you saw the entire roster of Motown artists — the Miracles, the Supremes, Little Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, everyone,” she said. “There were ‘song battles’ between the Four Tops and the Temptations, and the master of ceremonies was the energetic and well known disc jockey Murray the K.”

The Fox Theatre, which was located on Flatbush Avenue at Nevins Street Downtown, was built in 1928 and demolished in 1971. The Paramount Theatre, a few blocks away at Flatbush and Dekalb avenues, was also built in 1928 and is currently serving as a gymnasium for Long Island University, but is slated to begin hosting music performances again in the near future.

Both theaters were defined by eye-catching, elaborate architecture in their golden years, an expert on historic theaters in the borough said.

“The LIU gym has been called the most ornate college gym in America because of the remains of the Paramount,” said Cezar Del Valle, who leads walking tours of Downtown’s former theater district and has published three books on the history of Brooklyn theaters.

The Fox was especially unique, Del Valle said, featuring an uncategorizable mish-mash of Byzantine, Persian, baroque, East Indian, and art deco styles.

“There was a working fountain in the inner lobby complete with a statue of a dolphin,” he said. “There were even working fountains built into the organ grills on either side of the proscenium.”

These kinds of grand theaters flourished in Brooklyn in the early- to mid-20th century, but sadly, most have been lost to the ages, Del Valle said. Just south of where Owens will perform is another now-demolished theater where an almost-forgotten moment of soul music history took place.

“It was at the near-by Brevoort Theatre, 1274 Bedford, that Dionne Warwick first met Gladys Knight in the early 1960s,” he said. “They shared a stairwell as a dressing room.”

But the great theaters will live again for at least one more night via Owens’ concert. The singer said she wants the audience to feel the energy and joy of the music.

“I want them to clap their hands, stomp their feet, and sing along, as if they were at their favorite house party or family reunion,” she said.

“Motown and Beyond” at the Bedford Library [496 Franklin Ave. at Hancock Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, (718) 623–0012, www.bklynlibrary.org]. March 14 at 2 pm. Free.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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