Many New Yorkers were left reeling from the closure and demolition of the Landmark Sunshine Theater on East Houston Street in 2018. Just outside of Village Preservation’s catchment area, the Landmarks Sunshine was a beloved institution which had served up independent cinema for two decades, and in a past life was a Yiddish theater. In spite of its name, however, it was not an official landmark, and thus there is nothing to stop its planned replacement with an office tower.
Fortunately, however, we do still have a number of great neighborhood theaters which do still survive, including the Louis N. Jaffee Art Theatre on Second Avenue and 12th Street. Unlike the Landmark Sunshine, this former Yiddish Theater actually is an official New York City landmark, designated on February 9th, 1993, and therefore isn’t going anywhere. It is one of the few interior and exterior landmarks in the entire city. We gave the building a Village Award in 2016 to honor the owners of the property, Reading International, and CTA Architects for undertaking a meticulous restoration. Today it is the home of the Village East Cinemas.
In the first few decades of the Twentieth Century, this stretch of Second Avenue was referred to as the Jewish Rialto because of the many Yiddish language theaters and businesses connected to Jewish entertainment. In 1925 the developer Louis N. Jaffe hired the theater architect Harrison Wiseman to create the stunning theater at 189 Second Avenue to be devoted to the work of Maurice Schwartz, a Yiddish-speaking actor of such renown that he was often referred to simply as “Mr. Second Avenue”.
From the landmark designation report for the Louis N. Jaffe (Yiddish) Art Theater, which you can read here:
Although the Yiddish Art Theater company performed in the Jaffe Art Theater for only four seasons, this theater remained a Yiddish playhouse (most often as the Yiddish Folks Theater) nearly the entire time between its opening in 1926 and 1945, and was also the site of Yiddish theater revival productions in the 1970s and ’80s. The Jaffe Art Theater Building is one of the most tangible reminders of the heyday of Yiddish theater in New York City in the early twentieth century, particularly along the “Yiddish Rialto” of lower Second Avenue, when this form of entertainment was a significant part of the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Moorish Revival design of the cast-stone front portion of the theater building incorporates Alhambraic motifs and Judaic references, but also reflects contemporary architectural trends of the 1920s. These include the search for an appropriate stylistic expression for synagogues and other Jewish institutions, the interest in contrast between areas of blank wall surface and concentrated areas of flat decoration, and the use of “exotic” styles for theaters.
Fortunately, the Jaffe Yiddish Arts Theater is not the only monument to Yiddish theater in the vicinity. The Yiddish Walk of Fame is just down the block at the southeast corner of 10th Street. It survives — barely — but like the Landmark Sunshine Theater it is not landmarked, and thus its continued survival is not guaranteed. But GVSHP is helping to spearhead an effort to ensure that it does not go anywhere, which you can read more about here.
So go see a film in this beautiful theatre and visit the walk just two blocks south to see the names etched in plaques of the Yiddish stars who once performed in the golden age of Second Avenue.