In the early 1900s, the East Village was teeming with theaters and movie houses. Second Avenue was the Yiddish Rialto, or Theater district, lined with venues showcasing theater performed, written, and directed by Jewish New Yorkers, often in Yiddish.
Vaudeville pioneer B.F. Keith (the ‘K’ in RKO theaters, and eventually films) opened his first theater in New York City near Union Square in 1896. As a form of relatively affordable entertainment, theaters and movie houses drew enormous crowds in this diverse neighborhood. To compete with one another, they became increasingly ornate, with the pinnacle in theater design reached around the mid-1920s.
So where are all of these fancy theaters today? Sadly, many of the more opulent buildings have been demolished. Typically built with only one auditorium or screen-room, they shut down in the mid-20th century and were usually replaced by new buildings.
One name from this era still associated with movie theaters today is Loew’s. Started by Marcus Loew, Loew’s Consolidated Enterprises, later Loew’s Inc., became one of the most prestigious theater chains. By 1913 Marcus Loew owned seventeen theaters in the New York City area and several others throughout the northeast. He built what he believed to be his most decadent theater on the corner of Avenue B and East 5th Street – the site of the tenement building in which he grew up.
Designed in 1912 by Thomas W. Lamb, Loew’s Avenue B’s facade was clad in white terra cotta and featured over-sized arches and large windows. It was a gleaming contrast to the brick tenements that surrounded it and an impressive design that was meant to evoke an exotic palace. For the residents of the neighborhood, the building and the entertainment it provided must have been a welcome bit of frivolity.
Lamb, who was a prolific theater architect, designed nine other theaters in 1912 alone. Over the course of his career he would design around fifty theaters in New York City and several hundred around the world. His theaters, like Loew’s Avenue B, were known for their bold designs in light colored terra cotta with bright punches and high-relief work. Some of his more famous works include the Regent Theater at W. 116th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, the Boston Opera House, Capital Theater at 1645 W. Broadway (demolished) and his themed theaters, like the United Palace at W. 175th and Broadway, which still stands today.
Loew’s Avenue B, which had one screen and seating for approximately 1,750 people, slowly became outdated. As early as the mid-1920s it began to suffer and when it closed in 1958 it was showing movies that had already been out for some time. The building was demolished around 1968 and replaced with a nursing home.