Inside the Loew’s 46th St. Theater

In the early 20th century, the cinema palaces of New York City gave rise to some of the grandest and goofiest heights of American architecture. A small number of them have escaped detection while the bulk have been transformed into McDonald’s restaurants, gyms, and large box stores. You’ll discover relics from the heyday of moviegoing behind those empty, graffiti-covered walls—a world of moulded plaster decoration oozing with sculptural embellishments.

There is no denying the prior existence of the historic Loew’s 46th St. Theatre in Borough Park. There is still the recognisable fire escape, enormous height, elaborate façade, and even the original marquee. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said that the “Universal Theater”‘s opening night on October 9, 1927, was “one of the most disorderly first nights ever witnessed in Brooklyn.” Over 25,000 people waited up that evening to get inside the 3,000-seat theatre. Many resorted to scaling the fire escape to marvel at what was within. Many of the movie theatres in New York City have second careers as places of worship.

Will Ellis, Brooklyn’s abandoned movie theatre
Balcony bannisters made of wrought iron.

The Universal was the first “atmospheric theatre” in New York City, and it was designed by renowned theatre architect John Eberson. His plan was intended to resemble a lavish Italian garden at night. The encircling façade, which was painted a magnificent gold and contrasted brilliantly with the blue dome that hung over everything, stretched plastic trees and bushes that gave the theatre the appearance of being outside. Previously, the ceiling was decorated with shining stars and had “atmospheric effects” (clouds) that were continually moving above.

After enchanting a generation of Brooklyn residents with its whimsical architecture, the movie theatre struggled to compete with the multiplex. The 46th St. Theatre evolved into a performance and music venue by the 1960s. The Grateful Dead performed four almost legendary nights there in November 1970 among acts like Jefferson Aeroplane and the Byrds, earning the venue a short nickname of ‘Brooklyn Rock Palace’.

The venue closed in 1973 as a result of the neighbours’ rapid growing fatigue with the noise and disruptive concertgoers. A furniture shop moved into the building and walled off the nicest parts of the theater’s ground floor and lobby to use as a showroom. The orchestra level seating was eliminated, and the chamber was converted into a stock room. The theatre continues to serve the same purpose even if ownership of the building was transferred to a new furniture retailer in the meantime. Ornate upholstered seats are scattered across the orchestra level, producing an uncanny visual resonance with the arabesques in the architecture above. To make matters crazier, they are all facing away from the screen.

For the record, trying to get into the Loew’s 46th Street Theatre is not something you should do. When I made an appointment while investigating a place last spring, I had a very good purpose for being there. I was able to schedule a visit after making many phone calls to the secretary, and when I arrived, a kind Hasidic guy welcomed me inside and led me to the rear of his shop. He told me the building would be dark and the industrial-grade lights would take a while to warm up. The embellishments gradually became visible, including shining entablatures, parapets, modillions, and balustrades appropriate for a Greco-Roman amphitheatre.

Discovered in the corridors of a vacant theatre in Borough Park.
Items that were abandoned on the top balcony’s aisles.

I was given full rein to explore and take images for the about following half-hour. I went to the balcony, which had a wonderful view and was still mostly in tact. Popcorn bags, candy wrappers, and ticket stubs are still all across the aisles, so it seems that no one tried to clean up after the last crowd left the theatre 45 years ago. An creative mind could almost be able to hear Jerry Garcia’s melancholy refrain, “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” over the annoying buzz of the mercury vapour lights.

On November 11, 1970, when the Grateful Dead performed at the theatre, one ardent Deadhead was able to record the band’s whole set list, as they are prone to do. This song, “Truckin’,” provides a great musical complement to the pictures below. The gentleman’s “woohoo” at 1:10, when the lyrics refer to his hometown of New York City, is particularly enjoyable to me; it’s such a classic concert moment.

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