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Loew’s Paradise Theater (former)

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Sumptuous former movie palace turned theater

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By Deenah Vollmer

The grand movie palace is a dinosaur, some might say. In an age of shoe-box multiplexes–with ticket prices skyrocketing to over $10 a pop–a 4,000-seat theatre with velvet curtains, crystal chandeliers, and smoke machines has lost its stronghold in the diversifying entertainment industry. But in the Bronx, an effort to renovate and revive a historic landmark of architectural brilliance, a gathering place of community significance, and a multi-faceted entertainment center has successfully restored the Loews’ Paradise Theatre in the Bronx borough of New York City.

Located on the west side of the Grand Concourse, the Theatre opened September 7, 1929 as one of five “Wonder Theatres” built by the Loews’ cinema chain between 1929-30. “Wonder Theatres” are named for being equipped with identical Robert Morton pipe organs known as “Wonder Mortons.”

“When the Grand Concourse was developed in the Bronx in the 1920s, people thought this would be an ultimate destination address, that people would want to come and live there like Park Avenue,” said Sam Goodman, Urban Planner for the Bronx Borough President’s Office.

In the same period, with a bit more leisure time and money in their pockets, Americans turned movie theaters into gathering places and neighborhood centers. The Paradise Theatre displayed the grand eclectic design of the Roaring ‘20s when American movie theatres emerged as movie palaces. Movies were not meant to be viewed; they were meant to be experienced. The Paradise Theatre led a starry-eyed viewer into a private dream world set in a quintessentially public space.

The 52,000 square-foot Paradise Theatre is the second largest auditorium in New York. Only Radio City Music Hall is bigger. Designed by John Eberson, who was one of the most prominent theater designers in the United States and inventor of the Atmospheric style, the theatre sought to transport visitors to an outdoor Baroque Italian garden of marble pillars, cypress trees, plaster replications of Michelangelo sculptures, vines, stuffed birds, and even a goldfish pond. With a painted ceiling of stars bearing the constellation of Marcus Loews’ birth sign and a smoke machine producing simulated clouds, viewers felt they were sitting under an evening sky. The result was a multi-sensory movie experience, an escape. According to Eberson himself, the auditorium was “a magnificent amphitheatre under a glorious moonlit sky where friendly stars twinkled and wisps of cloud drifted.”

In the grand lobby, a wood-paneled room with mirrored walls and decorative ironwork, nine murals painted by Andrew Karoly and Lajjos Szanto decorate the vaulted coffered ceiling. The murals depict male and female figures floating in the clouds and a massive tiered chandelier is hung from the elaborate ceiling.

On the outside, a five-story cream-colored exterior façade made from terra cotta and marble announces the site in neon lettering, “Loews’ Paradise Theatre.” Topping the centered mechanical clock on the façade used to be St. George who would slay a fire-breathing dragon every time the clock stuck an hour. The clock stopped working in 1970, however, and St. George disappeared from his perch.

The Paradise Theatre opened to a sold out audience in 1929 with the screening of The Mysterious Dr. Fu-Manchu starring Warner Oland. The Theatre ran a full program of weekly changing entertainment such as Vaudeville acts, performances by famous actors, and black and white films featuring the new cinema technology: sound! The Paradise’s last movie and stage combination program featured Paramount’s Every Night At Eight (Alice Faye-George Raft), vaudeville with singers Bob Murphy and Thelma Leeds, the dancing Gaylene Sisters, Vox & Walters, and several others.

The timing of the venue’s opening was a bit of bad luck. The stock market crashed six weeks after opening night and the Grand Concourse never emerged as an alternative to Broadway alternative. When the Paradise was built it held the world’s largest organ, but in the 1940s the theater management covered the orchestra pit and stopped booking live acts to concentrate on movies alone, such as The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur , and King of Kings.

When manufacturing and other jobs left the Bronx in the 1950s and ’60s and economic decline ensued, the Paradise felt the blow. Those who visited the theatre in the ’60s have fond memories of first dates and first kisses under the painted stars, but those who went in the ’80s just remember the theatre being dirty. Movie theatres in general were profitable until the 1960s, when television became an evening entertainment alternative and all over the country movie theatres began to lose money. The Paradise Theatre attempted to sustain itself by diversifying uses of its space. New York University’s uptown campus at the time was located only a few blocks away, so the theater experimented with holding high school and college graduations in the ’60s and ’70s. But it wasn’t enough to keep the venue going.

In 1973, the Theatre converted to a multiplex, while maintaining the original architecture of the auditorium, but because crime in the Bronx was so severe and people were afraid to leave their homes, ticket sales dropped. The Theatre closed in 1994. Since then, many efforts were mounted to revive the neglected and decaying theatre that was once considered the “Radio City Music Hall of the Bronx” and save it from conversion to a shopping mall, the eventual fate for many original movie palaces. After years of legal battles and lost investments, the theatre was eventually restored with private funds.

In 2005, after multi-million dollar renovations, the theatre reopened as a community venue appealing to the large Latino population of the neighborhood and showcasing Latin, pop, and urban music concerts as well as special events such as boxing, comedy, and children’s variety shows. In addition, the lobby and mezzanine is rented for weddings and bar-mitzvahs with Kosher catering available.

“This is a very important place to the Bronx, the emblematic cultural place,” said Sam Goodman. “At first it was a grand destination for everyone, but during the Depression, it became the ultimate destination for Bronx people. It’s never been an easy road, but somehow or another it survived.”

The only original surviving Atmospheric movie palace, the Paradise in the Bronx is back in action. As of this fall 2006 writing, the popular R&B group Boyz II Men are scheduled to appear and the space is available for hosted events. The building’s exterior was designated a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1997 and the interior was designated in 2006. No longer will the beautiful Paradise be threatened with arbitrary or thoughtless destruction, but it’s up to the new management and to all of us to keep the Paradise running by using its spaces and making the place a success.

The Loews Paradise Theatre is up and running, with regular concerts and events. (July 2010)

Nominations

Pat De Angelis

Right now (September 2004), the facade of the theater has a certain shabby grandeur, barely hinting at the wealth of memories it holds for at least several generations of Bronxites. The Paradise was indeed the most magnificent movie house in the Bronx, and even if you went and saw a bad movie, it didn’t matter because of the splendor of the interior that you could always enjoy. There was gilding everywhere, statues galore, live goldfish pools, a heavenly ceiling with clouds–it was a touch of paradise! For many of the folks who went there in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, times were hard, but the Paradise was still a bit of the American dream that you could enjoy. It was a special treat to go there for a movie (and back then, there were usually two at each show) and then across the Concourse to Krum’s to get a soda or a sundae. It was a comfort zone of simple pleasures. (September 2004)

Glendaliz De La Rosa

The Bronx has a lot to offer. By reopening this theater, people can relive a time when the Bronx excelled in the arts and not in crime. I thin kit’s time that peole see the many wonders of the Bronx.

I never had the chance to see the interior of this building, but I have read that it is filled with beautiful designs, and I think everyone should have the opportunity to see such things in their lifetime. (ca. 2003)

Sam Goodman

This is the only John Eberson atmospheric theater surviving in New York City as originally designed by Eberson. Constructed in 1929, this grand movie house has recently been fully restored pursuant to Eberson’s vision and declared a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. It is also the second largest auditorium in New York City, accommodating approximately 4,000 seats.

Critical to our history are buildings that are both magnificent to look at and functional. The main auditorium has a wonderful stage, a vaulted ceiling rising approximately 70 feet high, and numerous statues, plaster carvings, and brass details that envelop you. The Loews Paradise Theater harkens back to a time that when pursuing entertainment, where people visited was just as important as what they were there to enjoy. Inside the Paradise you are transported to a place of elegance and peace–something that today’s theaters lack. In short, what one finds in the Paradise cannot be affordably duplicated in a community where most residents live on modest incomes.

Following nearly twenty years of being empty and minimumly maintained, the theater was recently restored entirely by private monies, approximating a $15 million investment. To date, therefore, the future appears secure. However, given the enormous size of the building and the investment required for its preservation, my concern is that ultimately fate may force it to once again be “put to sleep.” (July 2006)

For more information, see the Landmarks Preservation Commission of the City of New York: http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc

Deirdre Mahoney

I discovered the Paradise in the ’80s, when it was already transformed into a 4-plex, but its splendor could still be savored! It was a glorious space. Of all the movie theatres that once existed in the neighborhood of Fordham Road & the Grand Concourse, this was the most splendid–in every way. Now those other theatres [including the Capri and the Valentine] have been destroyed or disfigured beyond recognition.

The physical details are CRUCIAL, otherwise the Paradise could no longer be recognized as such. The 1920’s “moorish”-style architecture and interior are signatures of the first great wave of movie theatres, dating back to the silent era. This theatre, as well as the very few that remain, are a link to those bygone days–the films, the people who attended them, as well as the staff who worked there, including the pianists and singers who performed during the silent films, and the vaudeville performers who entertained between screenings. (February 2005)

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