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A curtain call for old theaters.


The once grand Loew's Kings theater in Brooklyn, a 3,200-seat movie palace that opened in 1929, may not be around much longer. The fate of the theater, abandoned and in a sad state of neglect, hinges on one last effort by the city of New York to attract interest in its redevelopment --the building of a nearby parking lot. After repeated attempts by a community group to develop alternative uses for the Loew's Kings, the city recently took over the theater for back taxes. The new parking lot, designed to serve three adjacent department stores, will also, it is hoped, drum up interest in the Kings. If not, the repository of so many romantic memories may become just another patch of asphalt.

In other cities around the country, however, old movie palaces that once played movies featuring Valentino and Pickford, Cooper and Davis, are being renovated after years of neglect. The results: spanking-new arts centers that offer a variety of musical programs and act as beacons to attract new businesses into once decaying areas.

A prime example of this type of artistic urban reclamation is the Circle Theatre in Indianapolis. The Circle Theatre was designed in neoclassicalrevival style in the early 1900s. Geoffrey S. Lapin, a member of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra cello section, picks up the story of the early days of the theater: "Called "The Shrine of the Silent Art,' it was the first motion-picture theater west of New York built especially for the purpose of showing feature-length photoplays. It was a "presentation' house of the grandest order, rivaled only by New York's Strand Theatre.'

The first floor of the theater contained a small lobby, a promenade and an auditorium. An architectural screen with glass panels separated the auditorium from the lobby promenade. The mezzanine provided access to the loges, designed to resemble the famous Diamond Horseshoe of the former Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Three pairs of staircases with mahogany rails and gilt posts joined the three levels. Grecian figures in relief and classical moldings painted in ivory adorned the walls and ceilings.

"From 1916 to 19818' Lapin adds, "its repertoire ranged from world-premiere features, classical concerts and live stage shows to grade-B and-C motion pictures.'

Martha Karatz, the director of public relations for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, says that the theater was in terrible disrepair by the time the original Circle Theatre shuttered its doors in 1981. "Five years ago, to an outsider, Indianapolis might have looked like one, big war memorial,' soys karatz referring to the city's predilection for huge monuments. "But in 19828 things really started to change for the Circle Theater.'

The Indianapolis Power and Light Company purchased the property. The utility leased it to the community-based Commission for Downtown, which in turn subleased it to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which found it the perfect place for a permanent home.

Dalton, van Dijk, Johnson & Partners, an architectural firm from Cleveland, began the renovation in the summer of 1983. "There were four major structural changes that had to be made,' says Peter van Dijk, the architect for the project. "The most critical was to enlarge the stage for use by the symphony. Since it was originally built for film and vaudeville use, it was rather small. Luckily, there was an alley in back of the theater that we could build over. In so doing, we gained over 14 feet of stage area.'

Van Dijk mounted additional public seating on stepped risers above the stage. Then he "splayed' the side wall around this seating area to aid acoustical distribution throughout the house as well as among the orchestral members.

Van Dijk found that the inner portal of the proscenium arch would have hidden 20 percent of the orchestra. "The proscenium arch made the stage too low and narrow,' van Dijk continues. "We had to remove the arch and widen the opening.' Afterward, van Dijk and his architects duplicated the neo-Adam Grecian reliefs of the original portals upon the inner surfaces of the new opening.

The theater's lobby was reconstructed because, as van Dijk points out, "There really was no lobby on the orchestra level, just a curved corridor that was certainly not big enough to accommodate the patrons of a symphonic hall.' In addition, the mezzanine lobby, not separated from the house, permitted unwanted sound infiltration to the seating areas. "And the cinema-style overhanging balcony placed a large portion of the audience members in areas lacking presence and brightness,' adds Christopher Jaffe, the project's acoustical expert. So van Dijk eliminated several rows of seats at the rear of the theater, reconfigured the slope of the orchestra level and redid the seating to ensure better sight lines and comfort. Then, orchestra-level boxes, including boxes for the handicapped, were integrated into this new plan.

Another major structural problem for van Dijk and crew was the balcony. "The balcony was on steps that dictated narrow spacing of the seats. We needed wider steps so we could have more comfortable and wider spaces for seating. So what we did was build a new balcony over the old balcony. Because the old balcony was built to hold even more weight than it originally did, our reconstruction worked,' says van Dijk.

The reconstructed and renovated Circle Theatre opened to a resounding critical and popular success on October 12, 1984, as the new home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. It has reenforced the revitalization of the city of Indianapolis. "We are a positive and major attraction for visitors to the downtown area,' says Martha Karatz. "New restaurants and businesses are moving into the downtown area to accommodate the increased activity.'

Another of van Dijk's renovation projects, Playhouse Square, has had a similar effect in his home city, Cleveland. "As of today, 90 million dollars and 1,000 new jobs have been pumped into the city of Cleveland as a result of the development of Playhouse Square,' says Lawrence J. Wilker, the president of Playhouse Square Foundation, organized in 1972. That year, four adjacent movie theaters, unused for years and located in Cleveland's former downtown entertainment section, were threatened with demolition to make way for a parking lot. Concerned citizens formed the association to save the halls and to try to bring new life to the neighborhood.

Van Dijk, the designer of the Blossom Music Center in Cleveland, was selected to restore the Cleveland movie theaters and to prepare a master plan for the redevelopment of the entire area--"A vehicle for urban renewal, as well as an arts and entertainment project,' Wilker emphasizes.

The sketch van Dijk came up with, which he completed in 1973, was a comprehensive revitalization of the 60-acre area near the theaters. He envisioned a performing-arts center composed of the four theaters and adjacent buildings. To date, it looks as if van Dijk's plan is becoming a reality.

The Ohio Theatre, reopened in July 1982, marks the first tangible phase of the foundation's redevelopment program. Completely refurbished with all-new lighting, rigging and sound equipment, the Ohio is now home to the Great Lakes Shake-speare Festival and a variety of other performing-arts organizations.

The 3,000-seat State Theatre opened in spring 1984 with a new, 95-foot-deep stage house and support structure. Restoration included the auditorium, the side boxes and the loge section of the balcony. The State now houses the Cleveland Ballet and the Cleveland Opera and provides stages for world-class touring acts and Broadway musicals.

"Playhouse Square is just now coming on line,' confirms van Dijk. "We're also about to start renovations of the Palace Theatre.' The Playhouse Square Association estimates that the Palace could attract one million patrons annually.

"When I was hired to be the architect of Playhouse Square,' says van Dijk, "I kept saying it was more than renovating old theaters. It could be a catalyst for redevelopment of the entire area.'

The new shops, restaurants and other businesses moving into Playhouse Square make it look as though van Dijk was right.

And Cleveland and Indianapolis are just two of the "Rust Belt' cities creating urban renewal by renovating old theaters in run-down neighborhoods.

Until recently, the Grand Avenue section of midtown Saint Louis, once known as "the Great White Way,' was a decaying neighborhood. Things began to change in September 1982, when the Fox Theatre reopened after extensive renovations. Originally a movie palace, built in 1929 by William Fox, the theater had become, over the years, a shell of its former self. In 1981, a limited partnership of investors, called the Fox Associates, began to restore the theater to its former splendor.

"For Associates produces a variety series, with entertainers like Wayne Newton, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Bob Hope,' says Susan Moore, assistant special-projects coordinator for the Fox Theatre. "Also, the Municipal Opera Company of Saint Louis leases the theater for 15 weeks a year. We've also seen touring companies of Broadway shows, including Amadeus and Zorba, play the Fox.'

And what has been the effect of the Fox' resurrection on the surrounding neighborhood? "It's a slow process of coming up, but things look as if they're on the upswing,' Moore answers. "Since the opening, there's less hesitancy by Saint Louisans to come to our area. There's an apartment complex being built across from the theater, a public park being developed nearby, the Grand Cafe has opened adjacent to the Fox and we've opened a gift shop next to the Fox as well.'

Despite all the positive effects renovations of old movie theaters have had, there's been no interest in renovating the Loew's Kings in Brooklyn. "You must remember that the Kings is in the borough of Brooklyn. It's competing with Lincoln Center and all the other theaters in Manhattan, as well as the Gershwin Theatre in Brooklyn College and the Brooklyn Academy of Music,' Michael A. Weiss, president of the Flatbush Development Corporation, points out.

Weiss says many performing-arts facilities do not operate at a profit: "They all require subsidies to survive, and the prospect of getting that kind of subsidy from the city of New York, or anyone else, for that matter, isn't a viable option.' Weiss says that such cities as Indianapolis, Cleveland and Saint Louis do not have the extensive number of theaters--and the corresponding competition for their renovated facilities--that the Loew's Kings would have. "I don't want to give the impression the city of New York has been uncooperative,' Weiss cautions. "The parking lot behind the Kings will cost $3 million. It might make the Kings marketable. We need an operation to pay a good part of the freight for the theater's renovation.'

Will the Loew's Kings be renovated or fall by the wayside? Only time will tell, but I have my own bias.

I saw my first James Bond film in the Loew's Kings, and I also had my graduation ceremonies at the grand facility. It would be a shame if it became just another parking lot.

Photo: A relic of 1920s movle mania, the Fox Theater of Saint Louis had fallen on hard times until a local association came to its rescue in 1981 and restored it to its former gaudy glory. Its renaissance has been a catalyst for further development in downtown Saint Louis. (Above, the Fox in 1929; top and left, as it looks today.)

Photo: A total face-lift of Cleveland's State Theatre has produced a sparkling new home for the city's ballet and opera companies. The 3,000-seat auditorium was stripped (center) and carefully restored (top and bottom).

Photo: The 1916-vintage Circle Theatre of Indianapolis receives new paint and plaster (above). The elegant neoclassical-revival auditorium was reopened in 1984 as the permanent home of the city's symphony orchestra.
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Author:Rosen, Fredric W.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1985
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