If you watched any of this year’s Tony Awards show you may have noticed that the ceremony didn’t take place at Radio City Music Hall, as it often does. The location was way uptown in Washington Heights at the United Palace, a huge, lavishly decorated movie palace which was built in 1930 as Loew’s 175th Street Theatre. Some friends and I got a tour of the place only last week, as crews were preparing for the Tonys, and it is a knockout.
This won’t come as news to anyone who lives in the area or grew up there. The theater ceased operation in 1969 after showing 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was then purchased by and functioned as a church for the colorful evangelist known as Reverend Ike. New York City designated it as a Landmark in 2016.
Its opening attraction in 1930 was a Norma Shearer film, Their Own Desire, accompanied by a handful of vaudeville acts including the hilarious team of Shaw and Lee. The inaugural program also featured filmed greetings from the head of Loew’s Inc., Nicholas Schenck and “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stars.” The price of admission from 11am to 1pm was just 25 cents. Top price for a seat in the loges on Sundays and holidays was one dollar. What’s more, to quote the souvenir program, “No detail has been overlooked for your comfort. You need not even climb stairways to the balconies. Elevators are provided to whisk you there—where you can see and hear as well as in any other part of the theatre.”
The theater’s primary cheerleader and fundraiser in recent times has been Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has reclaimed his neighborhood bijou and invited such high-profile guests as Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee and Hugh Jackman to appear onstage with him to introduce screenings of their movies. What’s more, admission is free. I don’t know if or how Miranda was involved in moving the Tony Awards to this site, but I’ll bet he had a hand in it. Beauty shots of the cavernous auditorium, staircase, and ceiling dotted the telecast and made me want to go back and spend more time there.
Taking up a full city block, this was one of Loew’s five “Wonder Theaters” and it’s exciting to see it back in action. All five survive, with Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx and Loew’s Valencia in Brooklyn functioning as churches, and Loew’s Jersey City and Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn doing service as a performing arts center. The Theater Organ Society’s local chapter is working on restoring the majestic organ (manufactured by Robert Morton Organ Company of Van Nuys, California—not far from where I live.)
A theater is more than the sum of its parts: it takes a show or a movie and, equally important, an audience to bring it to life. Bravo to everyone who helped revive the United Palace and to the American Theater Wing for staging a world-class event there. To learn more about the former Loew’s 175th Street Theatre, click HERE.