Three steps in and your jaw will drop. There is no escaping the awe-inducing splendor of the newly renovated Kings Theatre in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.
Ornate gold moldings flood the ceiling as the intricate designs cascade towards rich, wood panels that flank the walls. Deep red fabrics drape lushly from arched doorways and over mirrors as the building’s original art deco chandeliers illuminate a grand staircase. The 3,200-seat theatre waits steps away, revealing a performance venue unlike anything else in Brooklyn.
For nearly forty years it had been left to rot, but a $95 million renovation, spearheaded by the ACE Theatrical Group, has revived a once derelict building into a cultural palace, a smaller-scale Paris Opera House, which inspired its original design.
“It is a miracle what has been done to restore this masterpiece,” Brooklyn Borough historian Ron Schweiger told The Daily Beast. Before the project began in 2013, vandalism and water damage had despoiled most of the venue while much of its interior had been looted.
It was 1929 when the Loew’s Kings Theater opened its doors as the company’s flagship playhouse. It was one of five “wonder theaters” that held no restraints in its opulent design and grand debuts. A program from opening night reveals a cinematic event much like celebrity-studded premiers today.
Evangeline, starring Dolores Del Rio, headlined the bill. Numerous performance acts, including song and dance preceded it, denoting the style of vaudeville entertainment that was popular during the Kings early years.
But the decline of vaudeville throughout of the 1930s and 40s forced many of the area’s one-stage theaters to begin housing former Broadway plays and musicals to stay in business.
The Kings Theatre however adapted to the cinematic revolution when color and sound were introduced to the film industry. It soon became a premier destination for the latest blockbuster films, including Gone With the Wind (1939) and Wuthering Heights (1939).
“The Kings was the epitome of exuberance,” Schweiger said. “It wasn’t a movie theater, it was a movie palace. You walked in and you felt like royalty.”
The community continued to engage in the venue in other ways. Being one of five movie theaters in a five-block radius, the Kings basement held a basketball court where the venue’s many ushers, including Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler, would practice and compete with neighboring staff.
It’s even rumored that a young Barbra Streisand, who grew up in the area, once proclaimed she’d see her own name on the marquee. It did in 1973 for The Way We Were.
So you can’t help but wonder: why would such a lavish venue with a huge connection to its community succumb to decaying abandonment?
Gradually, Schweiger said, cable television created a convenience for movie lovers to see their favorite flicks from the comfort of their own homes. Campaigns to “Fight Cable Television” and contests involving donations began to litter the entryway of movie theaters in an attempt to keep the doors open. This, along with the neighborhood’s growing crime throughout the 1970s, kept fewer people from attending the Kings Theater and forced the owners to seal the doors in 1977.
But over the years, many attempts at restoration have proposed a hopeful future for Kings. After it closed, the building became part of the Flatbush Development Corporation, which was founded in 1975 to preserve the neighborhood. By 1983, the City of New York had claimed the property due to back taxes.
Locals, like Bruce Freeman, rallied together in campaigns to save the building. These groups brought pressure to city officials to allocate funds for repairs to the water damage, which eventually proved successful.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is rumored to have contemplated moving in. The New York City Board of Education proposed turning it into a vocational school, enlisting students to update the electrical units, plumbing and other updates. Even Magic Johnson, who owns a handful of movie theaters, once set his sight on taking claim in the property and converting it into a multiplex theater.
Now, the ACE Theatrical Group is giving the center of Brooklyn the cultural facelift it deserves. With no major performing arts venue in the immediate area and “with all the development in Brooklyn as a borough—the Barclay Center and BAM—it was just the right time to create this theater,” the Kings executive director Matt Wolf told The Daily Beast.
“We spent a lot of time doing research, cultivating relationships, and reaching out to local promoters,” Wolf added, “to make sure we had a programing that was both outstanding and diverse.”
Diana Ross headlined the venue’s re-opening on Tuesday with a sold-out performance. Future events include big-name singers like Sarah McLachlan, Sufjan Stevens, as well as preforming arts like the Russian ballet, the musical “Annie” and many artistic shows from the Caribbean and Latino communities.
“It’s a shot in the arm for the Flatbush community,” Schweiger said. “Not only for the neighborhood, but for the entire Brooklyn borough.”
The Kings Theater, 1027 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, will host an open house for the public from noon-4pm on February 7, 2015.