The Brooklyn Theatre Index—One Year On

On August 29, 2010, I gave an illustrated talk at the Coney Island Museum as part of their Ask the Expert series. This was the official launching of the first volume of the Brooklyn Theatre Index.

Being introduced by museum director Aaron Beebe (photo: Betty Sword)

The Index received an excellent review from Brooklyn historian, John Manbeck in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper of September 16, 2010:

“Inside the book are 477 pages of information about Brooklyn’s love affair with theaters, both live action and movie. The sheer numbers are overwhelming. The table of contents runs according to street names but in the index, theaters are cross-referenced alphabetically by theater names, which makes the tome ideal for a future online transfer of production titles and names of individuals.”

“It sounds like a reference for theatre buffs and it is. But it is also fascinating information for the average Joe.”

The second volume followed in October with both receiving an excellent review by theatre historian Ken Roe on the Cinema Treasures website:

“The definite appraisal of all movie theatres to have operated in Brooklyn, a borough known to have had the most theatres operating out of the five NYC boroughs.”

The Brooklyn Theatre Index  chosen 2010 Outstanding Book of the Year by the Theatre Historical Society of America. The society’s president, Karen Colizzi Noonan, stated:

“Comprehensive, accurate and useful, The Brooklyn Theatre Index series is a valuable addition to any series theatre historian’s library.”

Nearing completion, the third volume on Coney Island, awaits funding for formatting and editing.


Theatre Talks LLC

Betty Sword

The Brooklyn Theatre Index copyediting, interior book design and layout by David Bow at Integrative Ink.


Pavilion Theatre with a Few Updates

The old Sanders Theatre was closing for the second time when I moved to the Slope in 1978.  The neighborhood had not yet been gentrified. There were bodegas, greasy fried chicken and soft ice cream on 7th Avenue. The Miami fruit market had been around since the 1940s. The Shirts, a “power pop band” rented a loft for $250 a month.  Harriet Hoffman had a pottery studio on 9th Street at 7th Avenue. She gave free lessons to school classes.

The Park Slope brownstone community begun to change, rents went up, many of the older places couldn’t afford to hold on and closed their doors. The Sanders stood decaying on the corner of Prospect Park West and 15th Street. Plans to multiplex the balcony, while converting the first floor to a hardware store, never came to fruition. One movie house remained in the neighborhood, the worn Plaza Theatre on Flatbush.

In September 1994 Manhattan theatre exhibitor, Norman Addie, purchased the Sanders, renaming it the Pavilion, converting it to a triplex and adding a café to the balcony level. Carl Giangrande served as architect. Addie also acquired the Plaza, the theatre’s ceiling collapsed as the workers were starting renovations.

Additional screens were added with the Pavilion seemingly popular with the local neighborhood. Eventually, however, Addie  failed. American Apparel took over the Plaza and Cinedign the Pavilion as its digital showcase theatre.

Recently the Pavilion has come under adverse criticism. It fell under the bed bug hysteria that  gripped so much of  New York. A woman claimed to have been bitten  while watching a film. However no solid evidence was forthcoming. The same could not be said for the deteriorating condition of the cinema.  The sorry state of the Pavilion became a topic with numerous blogs. The Brooklynian reported “seats with no backs, seats with no…seats,  seats with stains and random food particles and hair.” The article illustrated with five photos.

The beleaguered staff sent an email apology to Park Slope Parents about the state of the Pavilion, blaming ownership for the current state of the theatre. Finally Jill Calcaterra, Chief Marketing Officer for Cinedigm, came forward, stating that there would be “big changes” with the Pavilion undergoing a major renovation (Park Slope Patch).

Many remain cynical about the future of the Pavilion as movie house. A comment on one of the blogs stated that an “upscale neighborhood deserved better.”

The Pavilion had just opened when I gave my first Park Slope theatre tour for the Brooklyn Center of the Urban Environment.  The new multiplex had met with opposition. A person living on 15th Street demanded in the local press that a study be conducted on the impact of opening a  movie house in a residential community. Not realizing there had been cinema on that corner since 1908 (the original Sanders Marathon).

At the start of the walk, I quoted this person and posed the question what was the impact on the neighborhood when the Sanders opened in 1928 with eleven other theatres in the Slope.  What was it like on the streets of Park Slope when these places spilled out on a Saturday night? What was it like at the restaurants and the soda fountains?

Updates March 3, 2011:

The Brooklyn Paper, with a slight dig at the Park Slope Patch blog, states that the “Pavilion will be a movie palace again.” That it was never actually a movie palace doesn’t enter into the equation.

F in the Slope is wondering if  a battle is brewing between Park Slope Patch and the Brooklyn Paper? They also take time to explain why the “Pavilion movie theatre will so not be a palace again.” It seems that just about every movie house built in the 1920s and 30s was a palace. Anyway it is a rather amusing look at “fabric swatches-again.”

According to L Magazine the “”Pavilion’s absentee corporate overlords” are allowing 23-year-old theatre manager, Ross Brunetti, to “pick out  the new upholstery.”

Oh, by the way, there is no word from the Patch about the suppose feud with the Brooklyn Paper.


Coney Island

On Memorial Weekend, Coney Island rallied for another season with an address by its “officially unelected Mayor” and the first new amusement area in almost 50 years.  The pin wheel crescent moon design wasn’t quite complete and not all the rides were in place but still the new  Luna Park was a welcome addition. With only 12 of the 19  new rides by Zamperla  operating , it seemed an improvement over the old Astroland in its final years.

At the Coney Island Museum, unofficial mayor, Dick Zigun, delivered his annual State of Coney Island Address that left a few people confused about where he stands on various issues.  Beachie on the Coney island U.S.A. bulletin board suggested that Zigun was throwing up his hands in surrender. I mostly agreed with Zigun and feel he was being realistic under the current situation.

Despite the large week-end crowds, the  doomsayers were also out and about. The Village Voice calling it the old razzle with the old amusement park still in its death throes. According to the Brooklyn Paper, ” just how amazing Luna Park will be remains in doubt.”

And of course there was Joe Stitt, Thor Equities, stating once again his plans to demolish a handful of historic buildings. This naturally brings out the preservationists and historians screaming in protest.  The Historic District Council talks of Thor’s rush to begin demolition. However he does not seem in a rush. What intrigues me is that Stitt keeps talking about it. If  Stitt was absolutely serious about demolition why doesn’t he go through with it?  I keep getting the feeling that those buildings are being held as  hostages for some future bargaining deal.

As a theatre historian, I served on two Coney Island landmarking panels and was an advisor in trying to rescue Henderson’s.  The recent articles I have read on Henderson’s repeat over and over the same two bits of  information: built-in 1899 and Harpo Marx made his stage debut there. Historically speaking there was a lot more than that.

Henderson’s Music Hall

The New York Real Estate and Building Guide, November 4, 1899 lists a building permit for a “2-sty  brk concert hall” at “2012 Bowery, n.w. corner Henderson’s Walk.”  The architect was J. B. McElfatrick & Son, the leading theatre architects of the period. The building featured one of Coney Island’s top restaurants on the Surf Avenue side and a variety theatre on the Bowery.

Fred Henderson booked through Keith-Albee, the top vaudeville chain in America. Basically this means that most of the big names in variety performed at Henderson’s. Harpo Marx, as part of the Four Nightingales (listed as just “The Nighingales”) , was a supporting act in June 1908. The same for Al Jolson, when he appeared with his brother Harry as the “Hebrew and the Cadet”,  in 1903.

Eventually Fred Henderson became West Coast manager for Keith-Albee and died on the golf links of California. His music hall lost its western facade (and stage) with Stillwell Avenue widened in 1923. Some of the upper floor  windows follow the rake of the old balcony.

I don’t know what to say about landmarking Henderson’s. So little of the original building remains (partly due to a 1903 Bowery fire). Still, I would hate to see the place where the likes of Sophie Tucker trod the boards torn down.

Brooklyn Stages

On Wednesday evening, February 24, I’ll be giving an illustrated talk for the Brooklyn Collection at the Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, NY.

This talk will cover the legitimate theater, vaudeville and other live venues in the borough’s three entertainment districts: Fulton Street, Eastern, and Coney Island . The movie house will have to wait till April.

The Collection tells me that things may get crowded with seating at a premium. So arrive early for the wine and cheese at 6:30pm. The presentation begins at 7pm. For more information call the Brooklyn Collection at 718-230-2762.

Above is the Broadway Theatre at 912 Broadway in Brooklyn. Built for Leo Teller, the architect was J. B. McElfatrick. It opened March 21, 1904 with “Babes in Toyland.” Drama critic Robert Grau, in 1909, referred to the Broadway as “the best suburban theatre in America.” You can catch a glimpse of it, as the Rio Piedras, in “The French Connection.”