Ask a historian: What’s the story behind the ‘new’ Kings Theatre?

May 17, 2019 John B. Manbeck
The Kings Theatre. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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Darryl from Flatbush asked: I just love the new Kings Theatre. Can you tell me some of its history?

Glad to. First, it’s not new.

Brooklyn was always a Mecca for movie production, starring Vitagraph Studios, which later merged into Warner Brothers. By the 1920s, the borough also became a center for movie palaces.

Flatbush Avenue featured a movie theater on almost every block from Fulton Street to Avenue U, from the Brooklyn Paramount and William Fox’s theater to the independent Traymore Theater at Flatlands Avenue.

Loew’s theaters, owned by MGM, was one of the most elaborate chains. Marcus Loew had opened his first theater, The Royal, in Brooklyn at Willoughby and Pearl streets.

In 1929, Loew’s management eyed a deserted car barn on Flatbush Avenue formerly used for horse-drawn trolley cars. That garage was destined to be a new movie palace. Five “wonder theaters” were planned for the New York vicinity. Brooklyn would have its Kings Theatre.

Designed to resemble a faux palace at Versailles, the Kings debuted as Brooklyn’s third-largest movie house with 3,676 seats.

When it opened initially, the 68,000-square-foot interior featured vaudeville acts, an orchestra pit for the theater’s grand orchestra and music from its pipe organ.

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's Sunday, Sept. 8, 1929 issue.
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s Sunday, Sept. 8, 1929 issue.

The vaudeville performance was Wesley Eddy and his Kings of Syncopation. The film on the screen was silent: Evangeline starring Dolores Del Rio who appeared in person on stage to say a few words, according to Brooklyn theater historian, Cezar Del Valle.

The Kings had competition with Century’s Rialto two blocks south at Cortelyou, and another palace, the RKO Kenmore at Church Avenue. Even an “art film” theater, the miniscule Astor next to Erasmus High School, opened for the Brooklyn intellectuals, and a vaudeville theater, the Flatbush, on the other side of Flatbush next to Garfield’s Cafeteria.

But the end of World War II introduced television and video players into homes, forcing smaller theaters to close or transform into porno houses. The bigger theaters broke into multi-plexes. But not the Kings, which closed in 1977 with a film about Bruce Lee and continued to deteriorate behind boarded-up exteriors.

Neglected for over 30 years, it had been damaged by weather, birds and vandals. In an attempt to revive interest in restoring the glory of the Kings, Blackwood Productions released a 45-minute color documentary in 1980 called “Memoirs of a Movie Palace.” Nobody bit.

Then a miracle happened. In February 2010, The New York Times announced that the Kings received a reprieve and would reopen as a performing arts center.

Owned by the city for back taxes since 1979, it would be rehabilitated to its original glory engineered by ACE Theatrical Group of Houston and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The original lobby had been preserved and a new marquee glittered at the entrance.

In spite of pessimistic predictions, the theater was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012 and reopened on Jan. 23, 2015, at a cost of $95 million. The reopening performance on Feb. 3 starred Diana Ross. In place of the original pipe organ, which had been sold to a private family, an electronic organ played through the theater’s original console works.

The performance center continues to attract star acts to rave reviews. Once again, the Kings stars as a Wonder Theater!

Long live the Kings!

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 

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