From Silver Screen to Preservationist Scene

By David He

A skeletal marquee juts out from the face of the shuttered building. Underneath, the entrance is covered by an expanse of the blue-colored boards that typically designate a new construction project. Except these boards have been in place for over two decades now and are dirty and graffiti-strewn. The RKO Keith’s Theatre, once a glamorous venue for cinema, has been languishing in limbo since it closed its door to the public and the community in 1986.

The theater, which sits squarely at the intersection between Main Street and Northern Boulevard in Flushing, has weathered time and conflict in the intervening years. The site has drawn both controversy and interest because of the economic opportunity of its land and the personal connections that Flushing residents have to the theater. In 2009 the strength of these connections and memories coalesced into a Facebook group called “Save the RKO Keith’s Flushing,” dedicated to the preservation of the theater.

“My earliest memory was watching The Empire Strikes Back with my father in 1980,” says Rick Gallo, an admin of the Facebook group. “We sat in the main theater, which was the largest of the three theaters. The screen was enormous and would rival the new theaters of today.”

Founded by Flushing native Ed Tracey, the group quickly took off and, within a month, had more than 1,000 members. Many had grown up watching movies at the RKO, or had had their graduation ceremonies there. The Facebook page allows members to share their memories of the theater and brings together people who have otherwise moved away from the area.

RKO Lobby
RKO Keith’s Atmospheric Style lobby, courtesy of Michael R. Miller Collection.

“When I walked into that theater it was like entering another world, as my sisters and I would say, it was like heaven,” says Annette Guarino, who grew up in Flushing and now lives in Long Island. She went on to describe the gold-embossed statues, the sky-painted ceiling and the sweeping stairs with mahogany handrails, calling the beauty of the theater “endless.”

In addition to those who saw movies during the theater’s prime, the group also has members who were too young to remember the theater or who were born after it closed. These younger supporters want to preserve a piece of history they were never a part of, but that nevertheless moves and fascinates them.

Susan Carroll, who was 6 years old when the theater closed, grew up listening to stories about the wonders of the RKO and how her parents saw Star Wars there in 1977.

“I always felt sad I’d missed out on knowing that theater, not to mention that I had to take buses and trains to the movies, while the RKO, in walking distance, stood there vacant and neglected,” says Carroll.

For many subsequent generations, the RKO would remain an abandoned, lifeless, and dilapidated husk of a building. Yet its history stretches back to 1928, when it was first opened as a vaudeville theater. Designed by Thomas Lamb, a preeminent industrial designer of the era, the RKO was built with grandeur in mind.

The fa├žade was lined with lively storefronts, and topped by an ornate, arch-like marquee; a preview of the marvels that awaited inside. The interior was designed in the Spanish Baroque and Atmospheric style, heavily characterized by elegance and opulence. The lobby was a two-story high room with columns and gilded plasterwork on its upper story. The foyer featured a fountain in the center and two broad marble staircases that led up to the gallery. Throughout the rest of the theater, elaborate and intricately worked elements made of wrought iron, terra cotta and plaster contributed to the overall look and feel of a “movie palace”. The auditorium, which seated 2,900, was known for its ceiling, which was painted a deep blue and had projections of stars and clouds moving across its surface to create the illusion of an evening sky.

RKO Exterior
Courtesy of Michael R. Miller Collection.

“I always remember walking in and being awed by the spectacular moon-ish ceiling: it felt as if I was in outer space,” recalls Gallo.

By the 1930s the vaudeville shows were discontinued and only movies were shown. In the 1970s the RKO was renovated and converted into a triplex to house three theaters. The entire interior was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and in 1984 was granted landmark status by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Not long after, Queens Borough President Donald Manes used his position on the city’s Board of Estimate to reduce the landmark designation to include only the lobby and the foyer.

The RKO’s troubles began when Tommy Huang, a businessman and developer purchased it for $3.4 million in 1986. Huang planned to build a mega mall around the landmarked areas. During the years he owned the theater he had half of the auditorium torn down, the lobby stripped and the sweeping staircase bulldozed. Although he was opposed at every turn by preservationists and activists, by the time Huang was arrested in 1996 for letting hundreds of gallons of heating oil spill into the basement, the theater was in ruins. In 1999, Huang pleaded guilty to environmental violations and was sentenced to five years of probation and fined $5,000.

Michael Perlman, the Queens VP of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance and a member of multiple preservation organizations, says that locales like the RKO are culturally important and their value is greater than anything a profit-driven development could achieve.

“A theater owner should preserve and creatively reuse one of our city’s greatest landmarks at heart, and consider its intricate history,” Perlman says. “Developers should not enter and attempt to demolish this gem awaiting TLC.”

Current Exterior
Courtesy of Michael Perlman.

After the Huang debacle, the RKO was once more without an owner and direction until Boymelgreen Developers bought the theater for $15 million in 2002. Boymelgreen had plans to build a 17-story condo tower with a senior center and received approval from Queens Community Board 7 to begin construction. However the developer backed out, citing issues with debt and financial viability, and the RKO was put on sale yet again in 2007.

Save the RKO Keith’s Flushing entered the picture after Gallo discovered the Facebook group online. He and Tracey worked closely together through phone calls and emails before finally meeting in person a year later. They worked to raise awareness for the group and in a short amount of time received press coverage from the Queens Tribune and The Daily News. The group managed to incorporate and attempted to attain a 501(c)(3) status for fundraising purposes when they learned in May 2010 that the RKO had been bought by Manhattan condo developer Patrick Thompson for $20 million.

Gallo and Carroll met with Thompson in June to discuss the developer’s plans for the RKO. Thompson’s plans mostly follow Boymelgreen’s original plan of building a 17-story condo and a senior center. He has also agreed to restore and preserve the landmarked lobby.

“The community board and landmarks committee simply would not landmark the whole building. This is not acceptable but it is better than tearing down the whole building,” says Gallo. “If the lobby can be preserved, at least we can say that a small portion of Flushing history has been saved.”

This of course comes after a large part of that Flushing history has already been destroyed. A video posted on YouTube by preservationist Thomas Stathes in 2009 offers a look at the neglected and ruined interior. The walls that are still standing are cracked and peeling, the ceiling has extensive water damage and a gaping chasm is all that remains of half the auditorium. In some instances a few design elements and ornaments are still intact but for the most part the theater is littered with debris and left in darkness, a gutted remnant of its former glory.

Although construction has yet to begin, The Daily News has reported that Thompson may revise his initial plan to increase the number of apartments and parking spaces that are to be built. It seems that for now the RKO will continue to be surrounded by uncertainty but the resolve of Gallo, Tracey and others in the group to preserve as much of the theater as possible remains unchanged.

“I believe the current residents of Flushing deserve to learn about and to know a restored RKO, at least the landmarked lobby portion, if nothing else,” says Carroll. “As long as the building is still standing, I have hope that the RKO will come alive once more.”

The saga of the RKO is an ongoing one, as preservationists and residents await an ending that will honor the memory of the once storied theater.