The Kings Theatre

Forty-six days before the infamous stock market crash of 1929, the Loew’s Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue first opened its doors.  An architectural triumph, the building was vast and palatial, extending diagonally over a series of lots.  A grand carpeted staircase led to the curiously designed mezzanine, which overlooked the extended rows of seating on the orchestra level. No expense was spared on the interior, which was showy and meticulously detailed: red velvet curtains draped in front of the screen, matching the plush red seats; chandeliers of etched glass hung over a mahogany-paneled lobby; richly embroidered draperies set off the elaborate wallpaper; even the ceilings were decorated with ornate molding. In the decades that followed, young unknown performers like Sylvester Stallone and Barbra Streisand would work in Kings Theatre as ushers.  The theater enjoyed almost forty good years of films and live revues, but eventually attendance began to decline and, in 1977, they shut their doors for good.

When Jon Kane stepped into the theater lobby on a grey spring morning in 2011, it was damp and black and desolate, colder indoors than it was out.  Folding tables of packaged snack foods and industrial facemasks sat forlornly against one wall.  An angry watchman approached him and said “Hey! Hey, you can’t come in here.”

Jon said, “I’m the director of the movie that’s shooting here and I’m late.” The watchman considered this before allowing him to pass.  “I met you yesterday! I can’t believe you don’t remember me,” said Jon, writing his name on a clipboard.

“Hey man,” went the watchman, “I’m not ambidextrous.”

Who is, these days?

The interior of the theater is crumbling by now, of course.  When they closed the building thirty-two years ago they locked it up just as it was.  Today the velvet curtains hang in shreds over the blank grey screen, and the damp carpets are peeling off the floors, leaving man-sized patches of bare concrete throughout the building.  In the mezzanine an empty filing cabinet rests, upside down, across the middle of three rows of seats.  One member of the opticnerve™ staff found yellowed workers’ permits from 1976 scattered across a backroom. In some places, the ceiling is falling down. The dusty concrete water fountain has been dry for over thirty years, but DRINK AND BE REFRESHED is still etched into its empty basin. The refreshment stand in the inner lobby still advertises TASTY POPCORN.

Think, and be impressed.

“My mother grew up in this neighborhood,” Jon said, standing in the middle of the theater.

"She used to go to movies here when she was a girl."

Cold, he sent his assistant for a space heater and some warmer clothing.  She returned with a plastic package of boys’ XL thermal underwear and a plaid hat from the dollar store. “I think these should fit,” she said,  “Twenty-eight waist, right?”  There was a picture of a small boy giving a thumbs-up on the package. They fit.

Jon liked the hat.  He put it on and was ready to start.

He doesnt like this picture because he says his face looks like a lamb chop.

A hundred extras filed in, wearing their coats and protective masks.

A scene which might seem familiar to you.

By some accounts, the theater seats 3,676.  The extras sat close together in the intact chairs in the front right corner, the little crowd dwarfed by the ruined splendor of the building. Still, on camera it looked like a packed house. They faced a green screen on which nothing played and pretended to watch a movie.

The crew turned on the fog machines.

And waited for them to warm up.

Then the fog rolled in.

“Masks off, coats off!” shouted the producer,

and Jon called "Action!"

(He faced a captive audience indeed.)

Spills worked on his laptop, editing footage as it came in

(He sat in the cubicle of the future)

while Jon’s photography teacher from college took stills on the mezzanine.

(Can you spot him?)

Members of the opticnerve™ post-production staff stopped by to check on the shoot’s progress.



while friends of opticnerve™ watched the shoot from a distance.

Interns sent text messages in the hallway and

more than one person swears they saw a ghost.

Eventually, after eight hours of shooting

it was time to wind down and go home.

The nail on Jon’s left thumb was painted blue, the other was painted pink. He hitched his bags over his shoulder with a flourish and got into his car, a Checker Marathon built the year before the Kings Theatre closed.

A light rain fell as the crew stood outside with their facemasks around their necks. Passing them on the sidewalk, an elderly woman covered in burn scars stopped and asked if they were renovating the old theater.  They responded, “Sorry, just shooting a movie.”

“Oh,” she said wistfully, “That’s too bad.  It was such a beautiful theater.” She asked if it was still beautiful and they told her it was.


About ez

My predilection for striped leotards may be genetic. View all posts by ez

5 responses to “The Kings Theatre

  • Roni

    I’m ambidextrous.

  • danskane

    Hmmm. Makes me think of Janice. I cannot wait to see her again. And another thing too.

    I can’t get over how much this place looks like the Nutec theatre the day I first saw it in 1981. It was my first really large project as an architectural designer. My job was to restore the place to a new use planned by the then Philadelphia mayoral hopeful, The honorable John Street. All 55,000 square feet were done up in a manner strangely similar to this place.

    The big difference was that I was a crew of one on a federally funded grant to try and build something of meaning to the millions of north philly blacks who loom large as Philadelphia’s largest (90%?) potential voting block. Yeah, and I only got the job of designing it because the architect my boss, Noel Mayo, had hired totally fucked up all of the construction documents – making the contract impossible to let out, let alone negotiate in any serious way.

    So, working in Noel’s creative direction, I finished the design to rebuild the place as a 5 level entertainment complex. Bar, restaurant, dance club, movie theatre, and performing arts theatre. It took me about 3 months. At $25 an hour…for every hour, I felt like I was the best paid industrial design grad in the world. I might have been. I was worth it twice over. Only because I had been a building contractor and knew what I was drawing was to be.

    It did get built years after I completed the construction documents and assisted John Street in securing contractually viable bids / awards.

    And then, through ways and means I really do not know, the place became run down and finally closed again. A failed attempt to “do something” for Philly’s urban poorest. I never saw it completed. Too busy surviving.

  • meg

    Wish the theatre could be restored. Cost too much I imagine, especially now, in this economic environment, but if it was… can you imagine seeing a show there? The ghosts of all the shows past lingering in the wings.

  • Barbara Fitzgerald

    – Am I the only one in love with this space as is and would be sad to see it restored?. It makes the imagination and emotions stir in new ways. It’s haunting, wistful, full of things forever gone. I want to be there. Alone. At night. A cold night when you can see your breath. Lots of noises far in the distance – maybe upstairs, maybe from the past.

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